During one of the duller moments of the Olympics (either a commercial or possibly the curling finals), I began daydreaming about an awards ceremony of my own — honoring three 1951 Hollywood films that were the very first to feature an extraterrestrial on Earth. All three are worth replaying, even though two have already inspired Hollywood remakes, for better or worse.
Earning the Bronze Medal is Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Man from Planet X, which debuted on April 27, making it the earliest to hit the big screen. Filmed in six days with a budget of about $41,000, Planet X transcends its ludicrous plotting and second-tier acting solely due to its director’s skill and artistry. Schooled in the techniques of German Expressionism like other European expatriates fleeing the growing Nazi menace, Ulmer was a superb stylist who spent nearly his whole career stuck in the bargain basement. After scoring big in 1934 with The Black Cat, starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, Ulmer was effectively blackballed by the major studios after an affair with a big shot’s wife. Though the personal relationship evolved into a lifelong happy marriage for the couple, Ulmer spent the rest of his long career (he died in 1972) making do with poverty row budgets.
Using sets left over from Ingrid Bergman’s Joan of Arc (1948), Ulmer created a creepy evocation of the Scottish moors, where a gnome-like alien from the mysterious Planet X parked his space vehicle, harboring muddled but ultimately less than honorable intentions. It sounds silly, and it is silly, but it looks great — a terrific example of form and style substituting for content.
The Silver Medal goes to The Thing from Another World, which opened a week after Planet X. Based on John W. Campbell’s classic 1938 short story, the film substantially changes the alien’s physiology without ameliorating its danger. Discovered in a block of ice in the Arctic, the Thing gets thawed out and proceeds to decimate a plucky band of intrepid humans before meeting its fiery demise. Christian Nyby got on-screen credit as director, but the jury is still out on how much of the film was actually the work of its producer, Howard Hawks.
Regardless, The Thing works on every level. Imaginative, intelligent and scary, the film is more horror than science fiction, but a genuine classic whatever the genre. In 2001, it was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry.
Our Gold Medal winner beat The Thing into the Registry by six years, even though it was the last of the three contenders to open in 1951. Directed by Robert Wise (who would go on to make West Side Story and The Sound of Music), The Day the Earth Stood Still reflects the paranoid fear of the bomb in the early ’50s. A friendly alien (Michael Rennie) and his robot sidekick put the planet on notice that our nuclear shenanigans have been noted and will no longer be tolerated.
Production values, script and acting are all top-notch, and The Day easily outclasses its mediocre 2008 remake, proof that special effects alone do not a great film make.
So there’s our rostrum of extraterrestrial invaders for 1951 — the first of their kind and still winners today.