Our vintage feature begins with, what else, a copious amount of stock footage and our good friend, the Overly Redundant Narrator, who does his best to explain just what in the holy heck it is we’re supposed to be looking at. And according to him, we’re currently way up north in Canada, eh, somewhere along the D.E.W. Line (-- and if you all don't know what that is, go read my review of The Deadly Mantis (1957), which should explain everything), where civilian engineer Mitchell MacAfee is out hot-rodding around in a military fighter-jet.
Meanwhile his companion on the ground, one Sally Caldwell, busily crunches numbers on a newfangled radar system they're testing. And after some idiotic banter between these two (-- that I think we’re supposed to interpret as implicit sexual innuendo), MacAfee (Morrow) suddenly spots a UFO; a UFO moving so fast it’s basically just a blur as it blows right past him.
After he radios this in, despite the fact that this blur, a blur as big as a battleship, didn't appear on the upgraded radar-scope, an interceptor squadron is launched to investigate the sighting -- just in case it's those pesky Russians wanting to start something. But when he lands, MacAfee still gets a blistering earful from the base commander for wasting precious tax-payer money on such an incredulous false alarm (-- you mean on top of letting civilians muck around in one of your million dollar jets, there, general?). But this rant abruptly ends when word comes that one of those search planes has gone missing after the pilot reported spotting a blur, a blur as big as a battleship, he typed repetitiously -- I mean, he typed ominously.
Thus, as the search for that missing aircraft continues, Mac and Sally (Corday) seem to waste even more tax-payer money as they appear to be the only cargo on a military transport plane headed back to the States. Then, their personal C-47 encounters some rough turbulence; some rough turbulence as rough as a battleship! After rushing to the cockpit, this mystery turbulence hits them again -- and hard enough this time the pilot is knocked unconscious in the violent wash. And just as Mac takes over the controls, the film blindsides us with our first of many hilariously atrocious FX-shots as a barely reasonable balsa wood facsimile of the C-47 goes into a terminal nosedive.
Now, this “plane," which doesn't even remotely resemble the one in the stock footage, also appears to be having some transmission problems while it erratically plummets to the earth, where at first it seems to get stuck in neutral for a second -- that, or Mac hit the brakes in a Looney Tunes sense, and then goes into full reverse(!), before gravity firmly reasserts itself and this plunge of doom resumes!
Luckily, Mac proves his dead-stick piloting skills are truly mighty by pulling this schizoid plane out of this lethal trajectory and belly-lands it into some trees, where he and Sally manage to get themselves and the pilot out before the burning plane explodes (-- and who knew balsa wood was that volatile?).
Finding refuge at the nearby farm of Pierre Broussard and his outrageous French accent, the survivors contact the proper authorities to relay what happened. Here, when Mac tries to convince them the same UFO he saw earlier was responsible for their “emergency landing,” again, since nothing appeared on radar, no one, including Sally, who never saw anything stuck in the hold, will believe him. Listening in on all of this, an alarmed Broussard (Merrill) fears it must be la Carcagne: a giant bird-like creature of Gallic folklore; and according to the legend, if you happen to see this creature in the wild it means your own death is imminent!
Now, once that plot-device is out in the open, something starts to spook the farmer's livestock. And when he heads out to investigate, Mac and Sally soon hear him scream and then quickly move to drag him back inside, where the fraught man raves about seeing la Carcagne for realsies. But Mac, sounding a little hypocritical given the circumstances of what he’s been trying to peddle all day, thinks the poor man's just hallucinating after drinking too much of his 90-proof Apple-Jack cider.
But Broussard is still raving when the local constabulary arrive, who inform Mac and Sally they're to be rushed to the nearest airport for an immediate flight to New York City. And as their car pulls away, the camera pans over to reveal the giant footprint of a bird -- a bird as big as a battleship, embedded in the ground; and if this film has one redeeming FX-shot, that matte painting is probably it.
Anyhoo, once on the commercial plane and well into their journey, Mac takes his best shot at stealing a kiss from Sally. Now, it should be noted that this was his best shot only because the girl was fast asleep. Then, after some more groan-inducing banter, Sally mentions something about a pattern, causing the lone filament in Mac's brain to sputter and spark to life. Asking to see one of Sally's maps, he then plots out all the sightings of that UFO thus far, that UFO as big as a bat -- aw, forget it. (Don’t worry about me dumping the metaphor, because the film sure won’t.) But then that aforementioned filament quickly flames-out when Mac starts drawing a spiral pattern, connecting all those dots -- which can only mean one thing: that UFO is very, very dizzy.
With that, speaking on behalf of the entire audience, a fellow passenger asks these two to quiet down because, really, they aren't making a whole lot of sense.
Meanwhile, the military has dispatched a special investigative team to examine the wreckage of Mac's downed airplane. But before they can even reach the crash site, their plane is buzzed by a familiar looking UFO. Frantically, the pilot radios a mayday, reporting they're under attack by not a flying saucer but a giant bird, a bird as big as a -- oh, yeah, I was going to stop doing that. (If only the movie would, too.) And then the goofiest, most ludicrous monster of all screen history finally reveals itself, and what little credibility this film had left is chucked clean out the window...
Okay, class. Do you all recall in my review of The Beast from 20000 Fathoms (1953), where we talked about how a small independent film production company made a low-budget creature feature and then miraculously cashed-in, big time, when a major studio (Warner Bros.) bought the film and distributed it in glorious SepiaTone? And how what followed in its wake was an avalanche of similar low-budget productions throughout the 1950s looking and hoping for the same payday? Sure, we all do. Well, also hoping to cash in on that success was Fred Sears’ The Giant Claw (1957), which borrowed heavily on that film’s formula but really funk 'n' wangdoodled-up on one vitally important ingredient: it's monster. Oh, Boils and Ghouls, did it ever royally funk 'n' wangdoodle-up on it's monster.
Of course, this wasn’t director Sears’ first rodeo -- or boondoggle. Nor for his executive producer, Sam Katzman. A legend in the business, “Jungle” Sam Katzman left behind an exhaustive body of work with hundreds of films, shorts and serials to his name, and almost all of them made money. However, when you consider his minimal budgets and five-to-nine day wonder shooting schedules, that statement tends to lose some of its luster. I mean, How hard could’ve that really been? Well, probably a lot harder than you’d think.
Katzman's thrifty career in show business began back in the 1920s as a prop-man at Fox before he moved up the ladder to producing in the 1930s with a couple serials and several westerns starring the likes of Bob Steele, Tom Tyler and Tim McCoy for his own Victory Pictures Corporation.
He then graduated over to Poverty Row and Monogram in 1940, flogging a few features out of Bela Lugosi -- Invisible Ghost (1941), Black Dragons (1942), The Ape Man (1943), and bilked The East Side / Dead End Kids / Bowery Boys until they were all long in the tooth -- Ghosts on the Loose (1943), which co-starred Lugosi, Docks of New York (1945), and Mr. Muggs Rides Again (1945).
As a man renowned for never meeting a corner he wouldn’t cut, just how cheap was Katzman really? Well, according to former Dead End Kid, Huntz Hall, he often told a story of how Katzman came onto the set one day when his director wasn't working fast enough to suit him. Asking how many pages had been shot, hoping he had done the slated ten, the director answered only five. Katzman then took his script, ripped five pages out and said they were done for the day. Actor Ken Tobey told a similar story during the shoot for It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), making one wonder if Katzman had pulled this same stunt on all of his productions?
Katzman had made the move to Columbia around 1945, where he worked for the equally miserly-minded Harry Cohn, where the producer cranked out more serials, beginning with Brenda Starr (1945), and one particular flash of brilliance, where he and Kirk Alyn first brought the Man of Steel to life in The Adventures of Superman (1948).
He was also responsible for taking a slightly gone to seed Johnny Weismueller out of his Tarzan duds and turning him into the fully-clothed Jim Bradley for a series of cracking (albeit cheap) safari adventures starting with Jungle Jim (1948), which were based on an old Alex Raymond comic strip that launched around the same time as Flash Gordon.
As the 1950s rolled around, Katzman had solidified his B-unit at Columbia with directors Lew Landers -- Revenue Agent (1950), A Yank in Korea (1951), William Berke -- Mark of the Gorilla (1950), Fury of the Congo (1951), and future gimmick king, William Castle -- Serpent of the Nile (1953), Slaves of Babylon (1953), which were historical epics on a Katzman budget that Castle later lampooned as “Two years in the thinking and five days in the shooting.”
Around this time Katzman was also in the process of tutoring several associate producers as well; most notably Charles Schneer. “Katzman knew everything there was to know about making a movie,” said Schneer in a rare interview with Starlog Magazine in 1990. “He was a very enterprising fellow, and was enormously intuitive. But, he was a very tough taskmaster and a real skinflint. I managed to get along well with Sam, because I knew what he was and respected what he did … I certainly learned the value of a dollar working for Sam."
It was while taking a trip to San Francisco right after the first Hydrogen Bomb was detonated in the Pacific that Schneer had the notion of What would happen if that atomic explosion stirred-up something from the ocean depths? And what if it attacked San Francisco and destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge? That would really be something, the fledgling producer thought. (A similar notion had struck producer Tomoyuki Tanaka back in 1953, which spawned Gojia (1954), destined to be released in the States in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters). Obviously, Schneer (and Tanaka) drew inspiration from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms as well, and to pull off the monster for It Came from Beneath the Sea he sought out stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, who had so skillfully brought that rampaging dinosaur to life.
Getting the green-light from Katzman (-- whose constant penny-pinching Harryhausen always claimed was the reason why the giant octopus only had six tentacles instead of the customary eight), this sparked-off over two-decades of very productive collaborations between Schneer and Harryhausen, who made a lot of hay for their executive producer and Columbia with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).
Katzman always was one to spot trends and cash-in on them. And the only thing hotter than the creature feature boom of the 1950s was the current “fad” of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which resulted in Rock Around the Clock (1956) and Don’t Knock the Rock (1956); and later, not one, but two, films based on Chubby Checker and "The Twist" -- Twist Around the Clock (1961) and Don’t Knock the Twist (1962). Sensing a pattern? Me, too! He was also responsible for two of Elvis Presley's most reviled pictures of the 1960s, Kissin' Cousins (1964) and Harum Scarum (1965), and that's really saying something. Yeah, Katzman was one for recycling and squeezing the last cent out of whatever was popular at the time before moving on to the next big thing -- and not fixing what wasn’t broken.
It was around this time that Sears joined Katzman’s merry band of Four Leaf filmmakers at Columbia. The former actor turned director had helmed Earth vs the Flying Saucers, The Werewolf (1956), both Rock ‘n’ Roll showcases, and Calypso Heatwave (1957) before being saddled with Katzman’s next (and last) sci-fi double-bill, The Giant Claw and The Night the World Exploded (1957). And while this was usually Schneer’s territory, the producer was ready to spread his wings and depart Katzman’s nest -- and he took Harryhausen with him to start work on what was to become The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). Both contributor’s creative touch would be sorely missed.
Yeah, see, the legend of what exactly happened to get those special-defects we eventually got in The Giant Claw has been clouded over by time and replaced with several well-entrenched myths and legends, meaning all we can really do now is just speculate as to what really happened. The most oft told rumor is how Katzman had wanted Harryhausen to realize the monster bird for what at the time was shooting as The Mark of the Claw. And when Harryhausen proved too expensive, he had to look elsewhere. Seems reasonable, but I honestly believe it had nothing to do with cost and more to do with Harryhausen simply not being available at the time because he already had his hands full with the Ymir and finishing up 20,000 Million Miles to Earth and was already committed to Schneer and that Sinbad movie after, which would be released the same year as The Giant Claw.
And so, always one for a cheaper option -- and one with a lot less turnaround time than the painstakingly slow stop-motion animated process, Katzman wound up farming-out the FX to an unknown puppeteer outfit in Mexico City, whose centerpiece wound up being something, well, uhm ... truly unique, as our stuffed prop-monster barrels in for its big reveal, snatching another one of those balsa wood planes right out of the sky without disturbing the wires it was hanging from!
And then, wow. [Ctrl-Alt-Delete] And then those few who managed to bail-out are then quickly set upon by this flying monstrosity -- and insult to our intelligence, as it picks them off, one by one, snatching each helpless victim in its beak with a satisfyingly gruesome crunch.
Can you believe what we just saw? I’ll understand if you can’t quite get your head wrapped around it. Took me a while, too. Honest. Watch it again if you need to. I got time. And then I encourage everyone to pause the film at this point to fully recover from those uncontrollable and incredulous fits of laughter as we collectively ponder just how -- HOW?! -- How in the ever-lovin’ hell did this … thing, ever get committed to film?
In the January, 1951, edition of The New Yorker Magazine, author Samuel Hopkins Adams published his story, Grandfather and a Winter’s Tale, where an elderly patriarch, bedridden with a cold, regales his grandchildren with tales of the supernatural while he recuperates, including a run-in with la Carcagne, which, according to French-Canadian folklore, was a banshee-like creature that had the body of a woman, the head of a wolf, bat-like wings, the talons of a hawk, which also made it a bit of a chimera, which was, indeed, a harbinger of death if spotted by some unlucky mortal. I have no idea if Adams’ story had any real influence on Samuel Newman and Paul Gangelin’s script for The Giant Claw -- but if it was, something was obviously lost in translation from script to screen.
Again, the identity of those FX-engineers from Mexico are, as far as I know, still unknown and unidentified. And no one has ever stepped forward. Over the decades since its first release there has been a general consensus that the monster in The Giant Claw holds at least a passing resemblance to Beaky Buzzard from those old Looney Tunes animated shorts, who made his debut in Bob Clampett’s Bugs Gets the Boid (1942), and then returned in The Bashful Buzzard (1945). There are even some who’ve conjectured the studio, while trying to explain what they wanted, gave those old Clampett cartoons as an example of the kind of bird of prey they wanted for the film, which does indeed resemble a cartoonish giant mutant buzzard.
And once we finally witness Katzman's realized monster in all of its glory, the rest of the plot of The Giant Claw basically becomes irrelevant for the remainder of the picture; it just doesn't matter anymore. All we really want is to see that gangly, great googly-moogly of a thing in action once more!
Eventually, our protagonists finally get to see the creature, too -- only they have to keep a straight face, when they check out some photos taken at altitude for an "Earth curvature calibration" study Sally had been working on. Luckily for them, the buzzard buzzed one of these weather balloons and came in for a close-up. And now that they know what it is, General Buzzkirk (Shayne) and General Considine (Ankrum) are convinced they can bring this foul fowl down with some superior fire power.
But after a stock-footage tour of the globe as the supersonic monster is sighted from one easily identifiable landmark to another, it gets attacked by a squadron of Buzzkirk's fighter-jets; but their missiles prove useless and the buzzard easily destroys them all (-- magically changing the shape of the stock-footage planes again when it eats them. Unbelievable).
And when all other forms of attack prove equally useless, Mac and Sally start thinking outside the box and consult with Dr. Karol Noymann (Barrier) -- no relation to that guy from The Invisible Invaders (1959), who makes a quantum leap in plot-logic when he suggests the giant bird is not only from outer space but most likely came from some antimatter dimension; and therefore, projects an antimatter shield around its body; and that's why all those rockets, bullets, and bombs had no effect; they all harmlessly detonated when they hit this shield. Well actually, in theory (-- if I'm remembering my rudimentary physics right, meaning what I read in the pages of The Fantastic Four), any positive matter that touches antimatter would explode on contact (-- like, say, parachutists and balsa wood airplanes), but they quickly explain away this plot-hole by theorizing the monster can control the shield and shuts it off when it feeds. And let's just roll with that.
Thus and so, as work commences to try and counteract this defensive shield, Sally gets in on the wild postulating next, when she suggests the reason the bird landed on Earth was to nest and lay eggs. One creature is bad enough (-- believe me), Mac thinks, and quickly deduces the nest must be near Pierre Broussard's farm.
After commandeering a helicopter, they round up Broussard and within a very short time come under attack; but Mac manages to land the helicopter safely before getting knocked out of the sky and eaten. Then, they follow the bird on foot and, sure enough, it has built a nest; and nestled in the center is a very large egg! This is too much for the frightened Broussard, who beats a quick retreat. Taking up his abandoned rifle, being from Montana and all, Sally and Mac take aim, hope that shield is down, and scramble the egg. Enraged, the bird takes off and fulfills the prophecy of the la Carcagne for poor Broussard, as well as taking out a gaggle of hot-rodding teenagers, turning them into both an abject lesson on highway safety and buzzard-chow.
Now, with the egg subplot safely tucked out of the way, work continues on the anti-antimatter force-field endeavor as Mac and Noymann hit upon an idea for a "mu-meson" cannon that will, in theory, disrupt the antimatter long enough for Buzzkirk to blow the monster to smithereens -- if they can develop a working model that is. But then, as they set to work via a montage of hands doing sciency things, the film is suddenly interrupted for a truly incredible sequence, where the giant buzzard attacks a moving train, plucks it right off the tracks, and then flaps away with the whole she-bang dangling from its claws!
Meanwhile, the development of the particle-beam cannon moves along slowly until Mac blows up the whole lab. Eureka! Seems he finally realized all they had to do was, duh, reverse the polarity, leading to one of the greatest lines in cinema history, when Mac says, "General, bring me my pants!"
And now that it works, and Mac has his pants, they have to quickly mount the prototype cannon into the rear turret of an old bomber because the giant bird is in the process of leveling an even less reasonable facsimile of New York City!
But with Buzzkirk and Considine flying the plane, Mac manning the gun, and Noymann and Sally along for calculations and moral support, they’re soon airborne and engaging the monster, trying to lure it away from the city before she can peck it death. And when the antimatter buzzard gives chase, Mac blasts away with that particle-beam.
Hoping their contraption worked, Considine unleashes the plane's full contingent of rockets, bombs and missiles. Luckily, the shield has been short-circuited and this barrage blows the buzzard right out of the sky, sending it plummeting into the water, where the smoking carcass slowly sinks beneath the surface and the Earth is saved once more.
When people often talk about laughing themselves to death, they're usually being facetious or exaggerating. But! On two separate occasions I actually and honestly feared for my life while laughing: one was my first screening of O' Brother Where Art Thou (2000), when the three escaped convicts are pulled out of the train by their leg-irons, domino style, which I laughed at so hard I couldn't get any air to go in and damned near passed out, resulting in some kind of seizure. The other was my first screening of The Giant Claw; and by the monster’s third appearance I had pulled several muscles in my side from laughing too hard -- off course, I was about five-sheets to the wind at the time. Sometimes beer and bad monster movies can be detrimental to your health, Boils and Ghouls. Use caution and moderation.
Now, while The Giant Claw was in production, Katzman really sold his director and cast on the fantastic FX that were going to bring the fearsome space bird to life on screen. So, with visions of a sleek and deadly foe, filming commenced. Yeah, everyone involved, except for Katzman and the crew down in Mexico, had no clue as to what the finished product was destined to look like and these visions of grandeur soon became delusional as the resulting efforts were, well, wow. And wow again.
Honestly, the written word does not do this monster justice. One must watch, experience, and endure The Giant Claw to fully appreciate the -- what is the word I'm looking for here ... inept grandeur of it. My god. Just look at that thing and try not to laugh. From it's mangy tail feathers to the Larry Fine haircut on the tip of it's pointy head; and from it's big, googly-eyes, luscious eyelashes, and flaring nostrils, to the loose molars in its crooked beak, one can only watch, stupefied, before erupting.
Doesn’t matter whether it's a stuffed-prop twirling around on visible wires in erratic trajectories for the long shots, or an articulated marionette for the close ups, this monster transcends bad into a whole new realm of incredulity. There have been worse and less animate monsters on the big screen -- for my money, for the worst puppet monster of all time you'll have to cast your eyes on Sid Pink's no less dubiously inept Reptilicus (1961), but this ... This is just insane.
Upon first seeing the FX footage, I can't even fathom what went through the producer's mind during the editing process. But the monster isn't the only instance of failure for the FX crew. We’ve already noted the mismatched balsa wood plane props, but they’re works of art compared to the miniature building the creature gets to destroy in the climax; or the firecracker and sparkler induced pyrotechnics. To save even more money, Katzman cannibalized footage, better FX, and even the soundtrack from his earlier films -- with Earth vs. The Flying Saucers being victimized the most, including one clearly visible saucer crashing through a wall during the antimatter buzzard's rampage in New York. This all looks bad enough, but when you add in the creature’s repeating gobble / cackle "AWWK! AWWK! AWWK!” war-hoop, all hope is surely lost.
Audiences back in 1957 should have been suspicious when all the promotional artwork for the film purposefully omitted showing the monster's head; just it's long neck stretching off the page, while the claws did all the damage. And yet Katzman doubled-down on the trailer, giving the whole game away. Both Jeff Morrow and Mara Corday, both hardened genre vets, would go on to tell of embarrassing trips to the theater to finally see the end results of their work. Morrow left early and headed to the nearest bar, while Corday sunk lower and lower in her seat, hoping not to be recognized. Both of their careers never fully recovered after this picture. Sears dropped dead of a heart attack not long after the film premiered. But without missing a beat, Katzman put this disaster behind him and kept cranking them out until his own death in 1973.
“A picture that makes money is a good picture -- whether it is artistically good or bad,” said Katzman in a 1957 interview for Variety, where he claimed his pictures were the bread and butter of the movie industry. “I’m in the five and dime business and not in the Tiffany business -- I don't get ulcers with the type of pictures I make."
This movie ... What is it about this movie that makes me love it so much in spite of my better judgment? It's just a paint by the numbers, pants on fire plot -- that ripped off George Worthing Yates’ script for THEM (1954) just like every other creature feature of this vintage did, which is eternally stuck on one metaphor for its monster, is laced with a metric-ton of pseudoscience and gobbledygook that doesn't make any sense, at all, and is hampered and hamstrung by the most ludicrous FX ever put to film. And yes, our hero is a blockhead, who is called on to do everything -- and I mean everything, but it does have a very cute and spunky heroine. And so help me, once you get past the initial reaction to the monster, it is quite beautiful -- in an atrocious kind of way.
Somehow this movie, and others like it, transcend all the cards dealt against it -- and we're talking about the whole deck, Boils and Ghouls, including the Jokers -- and reaches a whole new level of enjoyment that is truly baffling and unfathomable for me to explain. I don't know why, but I love every gawdawful minute of The Giant Claw -- lumps and all and unironically. Seek this movie. Find this movie. Watch this movie. And you -- defying all rationality -- will love this movie, too. Trust me.
Well, if you don't know what Hubrisween is by now, Boils and Ghouls, I don't think I can help you. Anyhoo, that's SEVEN films down with 19 yet to go. Up next, A Nudie-Cutie Hootenanny of Hooch, Hottentots, and Monsters?
The Giant Claw (1957) Clover Productions :: Columbia Pictures / P: Sam Katzman / D: Fred F. Sears / W: Samuel Newman, Paul Gangelin / C: Benjamin H. Kline E: Tony DiMarco, Saul Goodkind / M: Mischa Bakaleinikoff / S: Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, Louis Merrill, Robert Shayne, Edgar Barrier