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A Clever, Resourceful Special Effect Surprise

by Glenn Erickson Jul 28, 2018

A Savant Article

CineSavant shows off an arcane observation: in 1957, scenes from a glossy CinemaScope Fox production directed by Raoul Walsh, were almost immediately re-purposed, with grandiose special effects added, for a landmark science fiction fantasy. It’s an opportunity to admire the resourceful artistry of Jack Rabin, Louis DeWitt and Irving Block, special effects professionals that did fine work but were seldom if ever considered for industry awards.

Back in the 1970s I picked up from Larry Edmunds’ Bookstore a copy of a one-shot special effects fan magazine that I think had been put together by the effects master/researcher Robert Skotak. (I then loaned it to an optical printer operator on CE3K, and never saw it again.) The photo magazine lauded the efforts of a Hollywood effects partnership consisting of Jack Rabin, Irving Block and Louis DeWitt. Their names appeared on dozens of 1950s films, for their creative optical work — whatever enhancements might be needed, from simple title sequences to matte shots and even stop-motion animation when required.

The trio is now most noted for special shots in Charles Laughton’s great The Night of the Hunter — remember the spider’s web superimposed over the model skiff drifting down the river?  Collectively or individually the group’s work appeared in a pack of modest ’50s fantasies, on productions that could not access the fancy special effects department of a big studio: Rocketship X-M, Flight to Mars, Invaders from Mars, Invasion, U.S.A., World Without End, Monster from Green Hell, The Unknown Terror, War of the Satellites, the TV show Men into Space and even The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, a project Roger Corman thought got way out of hand.

Irving Block and Jack Rabin also racked up some writing and producing credits, for producers like Robert Lippert, Roger Corman, Al Zimbalist, Alex Gordon — and MGM’s Dore Schary. Block took a story credit on Forbidden Planet, as well as Kronos, and Block and Rabin collaborated on the stories for War of the Satellites and The Atomic Submarine.

 

After the success of Forbidden Planet all three became credited producers on 1957’s Kronos, an elaborate science fiction thriller about a robotic ‘energy accumulator’ sent across space by an alien civilization. The giant machine marches across the countryside from Mexico to Los Angeles, sapping power stations and even absorbing the energy from a thermonuclear bomb.

A spectacular mile-high robot that shoots out weird rays isn’t the kind of effect normally attempted even on a big budget, let alone the small potatoes afforded Lippert’s Kronos. The effects team used every clever trick they had, starting with conventional matte paintings. In the one seen just below, showing the destructive path of Kronos, the entire shot is a painting. I remember that Robert Skotak’s article also explained that one aerial shot of the desert was accomplished through an Avant-Garde rough & ready technique: they simply threw down a sheet over an irregular surface, and airbrushed mountains onto it. Reflections from the ocean surf were superimposed over shots to represent the Kronos robot’s ‘energy waves.’ Multiple exposures and heated paint created clever destruction effects for the melt-down of Kronos, an effect similar to that used for the melting Krell door in Forbidden Planet.

 

Robert L. Lippert produced Kronos, yet he is not credited on it by name. As confirmed by researcher-interviewer Tom Weaver, just a couple of years previous to Kronos, the film Guilds blackballed Lippert for dodging payment of residuals when he released his film library to television. Lippert soon went Guild-underground. He turned right around and for four or five years stealth-produced movies under the Regal Films banner. Producing credit was officially assigned to an associate or to the director, as with the director of Kronos, Kurt Neumann. All of this was done in close association with 20th Fox, which somehow got away with bankrolling a long list of Lippert pictures. Regal productions were made on the Fox lot with Fox resources, even the music library. Kronos reportedly filmed on Fox sound stages. The Fox-licensed song ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ is heard as source music on a radio. The Guilds had to know what was going on… or did they?

Fox was so keen on Lippert & Neumann’s proposed production of The Fly that they bumped it up to official studio release status, adding color and stereophonic sound. Lippert still couldn’t take a credit. His name didn’t return to the screen until he moved his operation to England, as Associated Producers.

The extensive model and matte work by Rabin, DeWitt and Block also involved future Project Unlimited principals Gene Warren and Wah Chang, who reportedly created the (beautifully designed) Kronos stop motion puppet.

The makers of Kronos scoured stock footage libraries for shots to enhance the scenes of destruction. Fox had its own stock library. Very recognizable are cuts of buildings collapsing from 1955’s The Rains of Ranchipur which had been nominated for an effects award. But one Fox film library raid rates as one of the most clever uses of stock footage in studio history. As part of its cross-country trek the gigantic ‘tinkertoy’ robot marches across the Mexican landscape and smashes through a city. Crowds of Mexicans are seen fleeing in terror. The shots always looked strange to me — even in B&W we can see that the Mexicans wear Hawaiian shirts. At least one woman is wearing a muumuu dress. The residential streets look just like the hillsides of Honolulu, that I remember from 1959-1960.

 

The mystery source for the Hawaiian/Mexican footage is one of those non-issues that frequently seize film fans. I thought about it off and on since at least the 1980s. Then a couple of years ago I happened to catch a TCM showing of the 1956 Jane Russell/Raoul Walsh drama The Revolt of Mamie Stover, which takes place in Hawaii in 1941. At right about the 45-minute mark the effects supervisor Ray Kellogg stages a pretty good Pearl Harbor attack sequence, with miniature ships burning and Japanese planes buzzing overhead. Panicked locals run for their lives in town. Out in the island’s photogenic pineapple fields they are strafed by enemy fighter planes.

The effects men must have immediately seen that Mamie Stover — which happens to be a Fox film — could provide shots for the town attack and panic sequences in Kronos. A bunch of material from the stock library was indeed used, including angles not used in Mamie. Below are three examples of perfect matches, comparing the original CinemaScope & color Mamie Stover scene, with a corresponding B&W shot in the ‘Regalscope’ Kronos.

Note that the scans for the DVD of Kronos are a lot tighter, cropping quite a bit from the left extreme of the frame. This is likely because the anamorphic formats are not exactly the same. Mamie Stover on disc is wider than we would expect for 1956. It is still displaying the early CinemaScope 2.55:1 aspect ratio, whereas Regalscope is calibrated at the compromise 2:35:1 AR, that leaves room for a non-magnetic optical soundtrack. In the color shots, the ‘extra’ real estate at the left extreme of the frame might be where an optical soundtrack would go. I expect that my experts might be writing me about this one.



In this third example of a ‘borrowed’ stock shot we can see that the B&W Kronos uses the original camera shot unchanged, whereas Mamie’s Ray Kellogg created an optical matte to put the beach farther away, and to add airplanes, smoke and explosions in the distance, over Pearl Harbor. The entire top half of the shot has been replaced. Note that the color Mamie shot erases a lot of wires from the sky. The matte chops off trees and telephone poles, leaving the lower parts of poles and tree trunks intact.


One of the best effects illusions in Kronos is just below — a dramatic wide shot in which the alien robot ‘accumulator’ broadcasts energy waves over a vast agricultural valley. The very recognizable location is a huge pineapple field in the Northern central plain of the island of Oahu. If I have the orientation correct, we’re looking Southwest. Pearl Harbor is offscreen to the left, perhaps ten or fifteen miles away.

I’ve previously identified the depression in the mountains as Kolekole Pass, through which the main force of Japanese war planes was said to have flown during the famous attack, ‘sneaking up’ on Pearl Harbor from the inland side, when Navy lookouts might be scanning the skies over the ocean. At least, that’s what we were told many times as kids, fewer than twenty years after the historical event took place. We once drove through Kolekole Pass, and my memory of that trip is that it was narrower. It’s right above the Schofield Barracks, the Army base depicted in From Here to Eternity. In the color shot Schofield is just to the left of screen center, where some white smoke is rising.

 

Kronos’ B&W alteration blows up the original shot rather drastically, so for comparison purposes I’ve cropped the original color version to match — note the matching profile of the mountains. Just below, I’ve repeated the color shot of the wide valley un-cropped and full width as it appears in Mamie. Note that it has a lot of empty sky above, perhaps indicating that Ray Kellogg may have left open the option of adding airplanes or other attack effects, for the Hawaiians in the foreground to be running away from.

In any case please note that my rough images are not precise representations of either disc source — they aren’t accurate frame grabs.


Kronos is quite a workout for the imagination, as well as the resourcefulness of its clever visual effects artists. Some shots are more convincing than others, although even the views of the marching robot achieved through flat cel animation are state-of-the-art for 1957. The ‘pineapple field’ shot just above is definitely one of the best — the robot indeed looks like a skyscraper-sized mystery monster.

Were Kronos’ spectacular optical effects nominated for an Academy Award in 1957?  No way. They go far beyond the standard submarine-movie images seen in that year’s Special Effects Academy Award winner, The Enemy Below. According to one of my professors back at UCLA, whose father had been a Hollywood agent, in the old days Oscars for technical categories were often divvied up between the big studios, and negotiated by agents. At least, that was his opinion. But given the history of the Academy, the work of small studios and independent artists and technicians was only occasionally considered Oscar-worthy, usually when an independent film became so successful that it could not be ignored.

Thanks to Charlie Largent for graphics aid…

CineSavant article written by Glenn Erickson

July 26, 2018
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.