Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Beginning of the End (1957)

Beginning of the End is a 1957 American science fiction film directed by Bert I. Gordon and starring Peter Graves and Peggie Castle. The film is about an agricultural scientist (Graves) who has successfully grown gigantic vegetables using radiation. Unfortunately, the vegetables are then eaten by locusts (the swarming phase of short-horned grasshoppers), which grow to gigantic size and attack the nearby city of Chicago. The film is generally recognized for its "atrocious" special effects and considered to be one of the most poorly written and acted science fiction motion pictures of the 1950s.

The film opens with newspaper photojournalist Audrey Aimes (Castle) accidentally stumbling upon a small town in Illinois which has been inexplicably destroyed. All 150 people in the town are missing, and the evidence indicates they are dead. Incredibly, the local fields are also barren, as if a swarm of locusts had eaten all the crops. Aimes suspects that the military is covering something up, and travels to a nearby United States Department of Agriculture experimental farm to learn what creature might have caused the agricultural destruction. She meets Dr. Ed Wainwright (Graves), who is experimenting with radiation as a means of growing gigantic fruits and vegetables to end world hunger. Dr. Wainwright reports that there have been a number of mysterious incidents nearby, and that locusts have eaten all the radioactive wheat stored in a nearby grain silo. The tension in the film rises as the audience sees gigantic mutant locusts rampaging over the countryside. Dr. Wainwright and Ms. Aimes begin to track down the source of the mysterious occurrences, and quickly discover that the locusts which ate the grain have grown to the size of city bus. The monsters have eaten all the crops in the area, and now are seeking human beings as a means of sustenance. It is also clear that they are headed for the city of Chicago. Wainwright and Aimes meet with General Hanson (Ankrum), Colonel Sturgeon (Henry), and Captain Barton (Seay) to strategize a solution. Machine gun and artillery fire seem ineffective against the creatures, and there are far too many to effectively deal with all at once. The United States Army and Illinois National Guard are called upon to help protect the city. But the monsters quickly invade Chicago, and began to feast on human flesh as well as several buildings. General Hanson concludes that the only way to destroy the beasts en masse is to use a nuclear weapon and destroy Chicago. However, Dr. Wainwright realizes that the locusts are warm-weather creatures. He concludes that he might be able to lure the locusts into Lake Michigan. There, the cold water will incapacitate them, and they will drown. The lure itself will be a tape recording of the locust mating call. The plan is put into effect, and it works at the last possible moment. The monstrous locusts drown, but Dr. Wainwright and Ms. Aimes wonder if other insects or animals might have eaten other radioactive crops. They ponder whether the whole world might be facing an attack of monstrous creatures.

Films with a science fiction theme were an uncommon but well-established genre of motion picture long before the 1950s. By one film historian's count, the "modern" era of science fiction film began in 1951 with the release of The Day the Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide.In 1952, King Kong was re-released theatrically. King Kong proved immensely popular, holding its own against new releases such as Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (which later won the Academy Award for Best Picture). King Kong earned $2 million to $3 million dollars (estimates vary) that year, roughly double the box office gross of its initial release and making the re-release very highly profitable for RKO Pictures. In response to the success of King Kong, many film studios rushed science fiction-themed films into production. The following year saw the release of four highly influential motion pictures: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Outer Space, Invaders from Mars, and The War of the Worlds. The financial success of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (distributed by Warner Bros.) sparked an interest in giant monster films, and in 1954 Warner Bros. released another very profitable monster film, Them! With the success of these two films, giant insect pictures became a distinct sub-genre of science fiction films in the 1950s. Beginning of the End was financed by American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres (AB-PT). The company had been formed in February 1953 when the American Broadcasting Company and United Paramount Theatres merged. In September 1956, AB-PT (sometimes also called "Am-Par") announced the formation of a movie studio, and revealed a slate of six films a year in January 1957.The studio's focus was on low-budget features which it could place in its theatres in the Northeast and South. AB-PT hoped to expand to a yearly slate of 20 pictures, and signed a distribution deal with Republic Pictures to get them into theatres. Beginning of the End went into production in 1956, the first of the "boom years" for science fiction films in the United States. Its production was a direct outcome of the success of Them! AB-PT announced on November 29, 1956, that it had approved production of its first film, Beginning of the End and announced on December 2, 1956, that production would begin immediately. The company said it had hired 34-year-old Bert I. Gordon to direct and produce. Gordon had gotten his start as a supervising producer for televised commercials and network TV shows, had produced his first feature film (Serpent Island) in 1954, and directed his first feature film (King Dinosaur) in 1955.

The story was already set, according to press reports, with Variety claiming that Bert I. Gordon had already completed the script. Press sources noted that the studio was clearly attempting to cash-in on the science fiction movie craze. However, the final screenplay is credited to Fred Frieberger (a veteran writer of B movies) and Lester Gorn. The screen story bears a striking resemblance to the 1904 H. G. Wells novel The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth. (Gordon would adapt this novel twice more, once for Embassy Pictures in 1965's Village of the Giants and again for American International Pictures in 1976's The Food of the Gods.) Casting was complete within two weeks of the start of production. In late November, AB-PT said actress Mala Powers was being considered for the female lead. But on December 2, the studio revealed that Peter Graves and Peggie Castle had been cast as the leads. Three days later, AB-PT announced that Don C. Harvey, Morris Ankrum, Pierre Watkin, Ralph Sanford, and Richard Benedict had also been cast.The studio also said that Pat Dean, its "sexboat" discovery (and a former dancer at the El Rancho Vegas hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Nevada) would also appear in the picture. Larry Blake, Duane Cress, James Douglas, Eileen Jannsen, John Kranston, Ann Loos, and Jeanne Wood were added to the cast a few days later. Ankrum, Henry, and Seay were cast because they usually played military men in B movies, roles they portrayed in Beginning of the End as well.

John A. Marta, a veteran cinematographer, and Aaron Stell, a long-time film editor, also worked on the film. Marta had shot close to 150 B movies for Republic Pictures by this time, which is probably why he was hired (given AB-PT's relationship with that studio and Marta's fast-and-quick shooting style). Albert Glasser composed the musical score. Glasser worked in the same office building where Gordon had his offices, and Gordon admired his score for the 1956 war film Huk! (a B movie from Pan Pacific Productions). Gordon had already used Glasser to score his 1956 monster movie The Cyclops. Glasser wrote the musical score for Beginning of the End as well as five more of Gordon's films.Glasser was paid $4,000 for his work on The Cyclops, which may indicate how much he was paid for the musical score for Beginning of the End.The musical soundtrack included the song "Natural, Natural Baby. The art director was Walter Keller. It is not clear what the budget for the picture was, although descriptions often use the term "low budget" or "ultra-low-budget." According to a statement by AB-PT President Leonard Goldenson in 1957, the average cost of the AB-PT pictures greenlit to date was $300,000.  In comparison, Invaders From Mars was budgeted at $150,000, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms cost $400,000,  It Came From Outer Space cost $532,000,  Them! came in at under $1 million, and 1953's The War of the Worlds cost $2 million.

Filming began December 3, 1956.  Shooting took place on the Republic Pictures backlot at 4024 Radford Avenue in Los Angeles, California (built by Mack Sennett and now home to CBS Studio Center). Actor Peter Graves said Gordon "was okay, he was a good director."  He also had praise for actress Peggie Castle, and said he felt privileged to be working with an actor of Morris Ankrum's stature. Gordon himself provided the special effects for the film. According to composer Glasser, Gordon literally worked out of his home garage. Animated grasshoppers were considered, but the idea rejected as too costly.So Gordon relied heavily on split screen, static mattes, and rear projection effects for the film. But his most important effort was one he had used in King Dinosaur: Placing live creatures on still photographs, and blowing air at them to encourage the creatures to move.Gordon purchased 200 non-hopping, non-flying, live grasshoppers in Texas (which had recently seen an outbreak of a species of exceptionally large locusts) for the film. But when he attempted to bring them into California for filming, state agricultural officials required that every single one of the animals be inspected and sexed. He later described his efforts

I had to get my grasshoppers from Waco, Texas. They had the only species large enough to carry focus. I could only import males because they didn't want the things to start breeding. They even had someone from the agricultural department or some place like that come out to take a head count, or wing count. The grasshoppers turned cannibalistic. Gordon kept the grasshoppers in a box for only a few days, but during that time the grasshoppers devoured one another and only 12 were left when Gordon finally got around to shooting them. Gordon also considered building miniatures for the grasshoppers to climb on, but this, too, was deemed too expensive. Instead, Gordon used still photographs of the Wrigley Building and other noted Chicago landmarks and simply filmed the grasshoppers moving about on top of the photograph. When the monsters are supposed to be wounded or killed by gunfire, Gordon merely tipped the photograph and the grasshoppers slid down it. According to one film historian, "the effect looks (almost) real" until one of the grasshoppers steps off the "building" into what is supposed to be thin air
-From Wikipedia

BERT I. GORDON  (1957)
76 MIN

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