Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The CinemaScope Blogathon - The Alligator People

Cody contributes to the CinemaScope Blogathon with a look at a 1959 cult classic.

For decades, the standard aspect ratio for films to be presented in was the simple square of 1.37:1. But when the age of television began, film studios knew they would have to shake things up to compete with that square box everyone was putting in their house. To draw in viewers, movies needed to give people something bigger and better than they could see on TV. Images on a grander scale... a wider scope.

Throughout the 1950s, studios and filmmakers put to use various techniques to create widescreen motion pictures. In some cases, 1.37:1 images were cropped on the top and bottom. Fred Waller invented Cinerama, which required three cameras to shoot the image and three projectors running simultaneously to beam it onto a curved screen. Waller associate Mike Todd developed the 70mm film format Todd-AO. 35mm film was turned sideways for 1.85:1 VistaVision.

Twentieth Century Fox came up with CinemaScope, using anamorphic lenses to achieve a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. CinemaScope was a hit, and although other processes attempted to compete with it, CinemaScope reigned from 1953 until technological advancements made it obsolete after 1967.

Although Fox had at first decreed that CinemaScope would only be used for A pictures, it wasn't long before they started using the process for B movies as well. Among those is the 1959 film The Alligator People, which is the very definition of a B movie - Fox commissioned it from producer Jack Leewood because they needed something to pair with Return of the Fly in a double feature.

Helmed by veteran director Roy Del Ruth, The Alligator People is a Fly-esque tale that centers on Beverly Garland as a young woman named Joyce, whose husband Paul Webster (Richard Crane) disappears from her life after receiving a disturbing telegram while on their honeymoon.

Searching for answers, Joyce travels to Paul's hometown of Bayou Landing, deep in Louisiana swampland. When the train she rode into the town departs, it has left behind only two things - Joyce, and a crate containing radioactive materials. That crate is picked up by Lon Chaney Jr. as a creepy local named Manon, who is to deliver it to the same place Paul gave as his address when he enrolled in college - the Cypresses Plantation.

Catching a ride further into the swamp with Manon, Joyce is warned that she likely wouldn't last ten minutes if she were to stray off the road by herself. If the quicksand or snakes didn't get her, the dirty, nasty, slimy alligators would. Manon has a fiery hatred for alligators, as they're the reason why he has a hook for a left hand.

Manon and the wildlife aren't the only unnerving things around Bayou Landing. Arriving at the plantation, Joyce finds no help from its owner, Lavinia Hawthorne (Frieda Inescort), who demands that she stay shut away in a bedroom until she can leave on the next train out of town. A maid (Ruby Goodwin) warns Joyce that the plantation is a deeply troubled place. And there's a trenchcoat-wearing prowler who moves about the house at night, leaving behind muddy footprints.

That prowler is a severely deformed Paul, Lavinia's son, whose skin has taken on a scaly appearance, a side effect of an experimental treatment administered to him by Doctor Mark Sinclair (George Macready), who has a clinic on the plantation propery. Sinclair is looking to speed up the human healing process using chemicals extracted from reptiles, and indeed his treatments have been great successes at healing the wounds and disfigurements of volunteers like Paul, who was nearly killed in a plane crash. Unfortunately, in a year all of his subjects start to take on reptilian features... they become alligator people.

The only hope to revert this change in Paul is to give him an intense dose of radiation. A cure which could, of course, also have terrible side effects itself.

The Alligator People is a highly enjoyable creature feature, well made and wonderful to look at with its wide, CinemaScope image and beautiful black and white cinematography by Karl Struss, who won an Oscar for his work on F.W. Murnau's Sunrise thirty years earlier.

The story by Orville H. Hampton, Charles O'Neal, and apparently an uncredited Robert M. Fresco is well told for the most part, with plenty of satisfying instances of set-up and pay-off, particularly the sequence in which Joyce wanders out into the swamp and puts Manon's ten minutes of survival estimation to the test.

The one misstep in the storytelling is the wraparound segments in which Joyce, who is going by a different name and has blocked the events which occurred at the plantation from her memory, is telling the story to two psychiatrists while hooked up to a lie detector and under the influence of sodium pentothal. This is ultimately pointless, and feels like it was just added to bulk up the film's running time, which is a mere 74 minutes as it is. The movie would have been even more interesting without the psychiatrists and Joyce's occasional narration.

Some viewers may be put off by the silly looking "alligator man" effect in the climactic scenes, but for me it just adds to the film's overall charm.

Highly recommended to fans of old school monster movies, The Alligator People is a fun B picture that gets a stylish boost from its CinemaScope image.

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  1. Cody, I have a two-part point to make about The Alligator People in Cinemascope. (1) I can't think of a less likely candidate for Cinemascope" and (2) I just LOVE this movie! I am definitely a creature feature lover (my favorite is Creature from the Black Lagoon), and I also really enjoy totally weird ones like The Alligator People. It's just plain fun, and I think the best part is at the end, when the poor leading man turns into an alligator head who wears polyester pants. Love this article! Thanks so much for contributing it to our blogathon!

    1. Thanks for hosting the blogathon, I'm glad you liked the article. Watching and writing about The Alligator People was a lot of fun.

      - Cody

  2. This sounds terrific! I didn't realize they had started making B movies in CinemaScope. I can see how this kind of film would work in that format.

    Thanks also for the introduction to this film. I know I'll like this. :)

  3. I'm glad you did a black & white CS movie. Given the prevailing attitude about how CS movies "needed" to be in color, it's good to have at least one B&W film represented here. Interesting that an Oscar-winning cinematographer shot a film like this.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon.

  4. This looks like a treat - thank you for the introduction! I'd like to second Becky and say that this is probably the most unlikely candidate for CinemaScope which immediately conjures images of old-school glamour.
    And, just for the record, I WOULD never be put off by an man dressed up as an alligator!

  5. I hadn't realised any CinemaScope films were made in black and white - this sounds fascinatingly different! Great contribution to the blogathon.