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3-D Blu-ray Review: “Gog” (1954)

Gog Blu

I’m all agog for Gog!

Film restorations come in all shapes and sizes. The restoration of Gog (1954), an obscure science fiction thriller shot in Natural Vision 3-D might not sound like much, but in its own way it’s as monumental as the restorations/reconstructions of such unimpeachable classics as Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927), George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954), and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

This is, of course, not to say Gog is as on the same artistic plane or as culturally significant as those movies but, when you boil it down, all movies, regardless of merit, deserve to be preserved and made available in a form as close as possible to the filmmakers’ original intentions, what audiences experienced in the best venues when they were new.

Gog is an unusual, nearly unique relic from its era and of its genre. The ‘50s sci-fi boom was still feeling its way when Gog was made. As Bill Warren notes in his essential examination of the genre at this time, Keep Watching the Skies!, the first half of the decade was dominated by mix of relatively adult big studio films produced with “nervous ‘A’” budgets (The Thing, The Day the Earth Stood Still, When Worlds Collide), and smaller but still ambitious, often independent productions (Rocketship X-M, Destination Moon), though there were from the beginning even cheaper exploitation pictures targeting less demanding audiences (Flight to Mars, Cat-Women of the Moon).

Generally though, most of these sci-fi films from the first half of the ’50 were movies made for grownups, and not almost exclusively children and teenagers. Gog, despite all its neat-o gadgetry, was a rare venture into true science fiction, not the science fantasy that makes up nearly all of what today is regarded as sci-fi cinema and TV. Producer George Pal got the ball rolling with Destination Moon (1950), a sincere attempt to realistically, plausibly dramatize what an expedition to the moon might actually be like, based on the science of the time. Though critically and commercially successful, it didn’t spur like-minded films.

Gog, along with the other two, vaguely related Ivan Tors-produced features that preceded it, The Magnetic Monster (1953) and Riders to the Stars (1954), were exceptions. Gog in particular serves as a prototype for the tiny handful of hard-science science fiction thrillers that followed, particularly John Sturges’s The Satan Bug (1965) and Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (1971), movies in which real and theoretical science actually play an important role in their stories.

In color and 1.66:1 widescreen as well as 3-D, Gog had the misfortune of bad timing, released as it was after the vogue for 3-D had ended, and CinemaScope’s wide screen and stereophonic sound had won that decade’s great “format war.” Despite its impressive 3-D cinematography, Gog is understood to have played in 3-D in just a handful of movie theaters in Los Angeles; the rest of the country could see it only “flat,” in two dimensions. Later, it was sold to television but, even worse, these 16mm prints were in black-and-white. The “left eye” camera negative was mislaid and for decades the 3-D Gog was presumed lost forever.

Indefatigable 3-D enthusiast, researcher, and historian Bob Furmanek, founder of the 3-D Film Archive, located a faded Pathé color 35mm release print of the “left eye” in 2001, which was eventually paired with less problematic right eye film elements provided by Gog’s current owners, MGM, and exhibited at a 3-D festival in Los Angeles some years back. This led to a painstaking restoration of Gog culminating with its Kino Lober Blu-ray release, and the results are stupendous. Unless you were living in Southern California 62 years ago, this is your first opportunity to see Gog as originally intended. Though it has been shown flat on television, released as a (again flat) video-on-demand DVD, and even sold in an awful, faux 3-D DVD release from bootleg video dealers, this new Blu-ray not only presents Gog as it was meant to be seen, but the picture’s genuine merits are much more readily apparent.

Like The Magnetic Monster and Riders to the Stars, Gog concerns the OSI, the “Office of Scientific Investigation.” In this case, OSI security agent David Sheppard (Richard Egan) is assigned to look into a series of baffling, gruesome murders and acts of sabotage being committed at an underground, multi-level laboratory beneath the New Mexico desert where a space station is being planned. Joanna Merritt (Constance Dowling, Mrs. Ivan Tors) is another OSI already working undercover at the facility, and she and laboratory supervisor Dr. Van Ness (Herbert Marshall) give Sheppard the grand tour of the gadget-filled place.

Most of the gadgets, activated by unseen operators, are behind the deaths. Dr. Hubertus (Michael Fox), for instance, is frozen to death in his own deep-freeze chamber where he’s been conducting cryo-hibernation experiments, and grimly transformed into a veritable block of ice before tipping over and literally shattering like glass. Another scientist is nearly burned to a crisp by her own heat ray, which through a series of mirrors taps into the sun’s rays.

Eventually, the murders are traced to Gog and Magog, by 1954 standards realistic, non-anthromorphic robots remotely controlled by the lab’s central computer, NOVAC. (Was Magog unhappy with this inequitable billing arrangement, I wonder?)

Hungarian-born Ivan Tors (Iván Törzs) had a long film and television career in which he became particularly associated with fact-based science fiction, marine stories, animal-centric shows, or some combination of two or more of these elements. Among his credits: the TV series Science Fiction Theatre, Sea Hunt, Flipper, and Gentle Ben, and the movies Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion and Around the World Under the Sea. His company also did the underwater second-unit work for the James Bond blockbuster Thunderball.

Tors’s sci-fi projects are usually regarded as sincere but tame, with an overemphasis on technology and verisimilitude at the expense of drama. That’s true to some extent with Gog, which at times resembles an elementary school trip to the Science Center. And yet, despite a sluggish second act, it more than compensates with several particularly gruesome opening murders and an action-packed climax.

The movie is cheap compared to big studio pictures, reportedly costing just $250,000 and shot over just 15 days at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, California. If those figures are accurate then Gog is a remarkable achievement as the money is all up there on the screen, and there’s much obvious effort to make every set and gadget visually interesting, even though the budget was too low to quite pull it off some of the time

What’s remarkable in watching Gog now is to see just how many of these then not-quite fanciful scientific concepts and innovations have since come to pass, and in many cases greatly miniaturized and improved upon far beyond what seem remotely possible at the time. Equally fascinating is how Gog, clunky though it may be, equally accurately anticipates the cinematic future. The laboratory is a ‘50s version of the uncannily similar underground labs featured in The Satan Bug and especially The Andromeda Strain, while Gog and Magog are like the grandparents of Huey, Dewey, and Louie, the robot drones from Silent Running (1972), themselves distant cousins of R2-D2. Today we take automatic sliding doors for granted, but Gog may have been their first onscreen introduction in a science fiction film, more than ten years before they wowed audiences on Star Trek.

Gog 1-sheet

The restoration of Gog is almost miraculous yet exactly the kind of thing that should be commonplace instead of an anomaly. Essentially: MGM owns the films as part of its United Artists catalog but their holdings included only film elements for the “right eye” half of the 3-D version. When they licensed the title to Kino Lorber, the 3-D Film Archive offered their left-eye elements along with a bid to restore the picture to its original state. Various technical experts and companies became involved, with Greg Kintz given the arduous challenge of matching the faded left-eye print with the right-eye elements provided by MGM.

The presentation is basically flawless, with extremely impressive sharpness and bright, primary colors throughout, while the 1.66:1 framing is much more compositionally eye-pleasing.

The 3-D itself is on one hand less aggressive than, say, The Charge at Feather River or, more recently, Comin’ at Ya! (1981), the fun, neo-spaghetti Western in which no 3-D splurge is left unexploited. At the same time, Gog uses 3-D in consistently interesting, sometimes innovative ways, taking advantage of depth modern 3-D movies, strangely, often don’t do at all. In Gog, for instance, many of the sets are deliberately layered closer to and farther away from the camera, rooms and compartments sometimes separated by glass and doorways. Seen flat Gog always looked unusual but not in the good sense. In 3-D, however, the set design is often striking.

Further enhancing the Blu-ray is a superb Restoration Comparison that demonstrates just how challenging it was to bring Gog back to life; archival interviews from 2003 with director Herbert L. Strock and cinematographer Lothrop B. Worth, who sadly didn’t live to see this gorgeous restoration; and, best of all, an information-packed, typically humorous audio commentary by Tom Weaver, the go-to guy for such things. He apologizes up front for having less to say about Gog than his other commentary tracks for lack of existing archive documents but you’d never know that for its wealth of information. He’s joined by Bob Furmanek and David Schecter to discuss the film’s restoration and score, respectively.

As other reviewers have pointed out, rights holders of other classic 3-D titles – Are you listening Wade Williams? – really need to seek out the 3-D Archive and its team of talented and devoted artisans and scholars in providing them access, through sub-licensing or other participation, to preserve these movies before it’s too late. Gog may not be Intolerance, Greed, The Magnificent Ambersons, Vertigo or Spartacus, but it’s an underrated, ambitious little film more than worth the effort to save it, and with this and other 3-D Blu-ray titles in which the 3-D Archive has been associated with, have more than demonstrated the stunning results with which they are capable.

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Atoll K 4

Book Review: “The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy – A Study of the Chaotic Making and Marketing of Atoll K”

Atoll K book

Niche publishers McFarland & Company are well known for their essential and often outré cinema books. A friend and I used to come up with imaginary titles reflecting McFarland’s quirky catalog: The Moon Voyage Films of Ray Harryhausen, The 2,341 Malaysian Films Beginning with the Letter “F”, Smelly Movies: The Creation, Production, and Distribution of Mike Todd Jr. Smell-o-Vision (Wait a minute – that’s a book I’d like to read!).

The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy – A Study of the Chaotic Making and Marketing of Atoll K is one such actual McFarland title. The great comedy team of Stan Laurel (1890-1965) and Oliver Hardy (1892-1957) are positively beloved around the world for the silent and sound comedies they made for producer Hal Roach, but an entire book devoted to their disastrous last feature, a movie even Laurel himself regarded as “an abortion,” one so notoriously bad even many die-hard Laurel & Hardy fans outright refuse to watch it?

But, in fact, The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy is a fascinating read. Though Atoll K is, undeniably, severely flawed for myriad reasons, not the least of which is Laurel’s shocking physical state – he became gravely ill partway into the production, and in much of the picture looks positively cadaverous – author Norbert Aping rightly reappraises the film as not the complete catastrophe most have long assumed, that against all odds the picture has scattered moments of pure Laurel & Hardy comedy in line with their ‘20s and ‘30s films for Roach. More importantly, Aping collates his exhaustive original research into an almost day-by-day account of the film from the development of its multiple screenplays, its problem-plagued production, and labyrinthine release versions.

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The first generation of Laurel & Hardy scholars, notably the late John McCabe, outright dismissed all of the team’s films after 1940, when they left Hal Roach Studios for what they thought would be greener pastures at 20th Century-Fox. However, once ensconced Laurel particularly was horrified to discover that the creative freedom he’d enjoyed at Roach was practically nonexistent at Fox as well as MGM, where they were loaned out for two additional films. The eight features they made during this period, as well as the subsequent Atoll K, were simply dismissed as total rubbish and barely mentioned in any of the early Laurel & Hardy books about their careers.

But DVD releases of the Fox (and, later, MGM) movies beginning in 2006 necessitated at least a perfunctory reexamination and, lo and behold, some of these long-reviled movies weren’t nearly as bad as their reputation suggested. Their first two for Fox, Great Guns (1941) and A-Haunting We Will Go (1942) are pretty terrible, and their two for MGM, Air Raid Wardens (1943) and Nothing But Trouble (1944) arguably are even worse, but in fact their Fox movies gradually improved. Jitterbugs, The Dancing Masters (both 1943), The Big Noise (1944), and The Bullfighters (1945) aren’t exactly masterpieces of screen comedy, but the best of these films are really no worse than the team’s weaker Roach features. Where movies like Bonnie Scotland (1935) and Swiss Miss (1938)  get bogged down with romantic subplots, musical numbers, and Roach’s A-feature ambitions, these later Fox films wisely focus on the team’s unadorned antics.

Nevertheless, the team left Fox after 1945, wrongly assuming their modest but profitable movies assured them employment elsewhere. But the industry was changing rapidly in those early postwar years and Laurel & Hardy, considered “old-fashioned” clowns even during the 1930s, were all but washed up as far as Hollywood was concerned.

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But a comedy-starved Europe had not forgotten them. After the war their older movies were reissued and even their newer films were warmly welcomed. They embarked on a fabulously successful series of British music hall tours where they were mobbed everywhere they went.

Given their huge popularity in Europe, a French-Italian co-production starring Laurel & Hardy must have seemed like a sure thing. Indeed, though Aping’s book doesn’t speculate much on this, had Atoll K been a pleasant and rewarding experience for the team, it’s not unreasonable to suggest Laurel & Hardy might have enjoyed a brief but fruitful second career making one or two features per year there until Hardy’s untimely death.

Unfortunately, and despite a huge budget about equal to the negative cost of all of the team’s Roach features combined, Atoll K was positively cursed from the get-go. As Aping documents with extraordinary detail, the film was plagued with myriad screenwriters working in three languages (English for Laurel & Hardy’s scenes, French and Italian for everything else), each with his own comedy agenda and interests (including political satire), none particularly suited to the team’s style of screen comedy. They were also saddled with a director, Léo Joannon, completely out of synch with their brand of humor, and who infamously strutted about in pith helmet and puttees, armed with megaphones of various sizes and functions.

Meanwhile, the team’s physical health evolved into a major crisis. Hardy was never fatter, though this impacted his comic timing not in the least, and he’s actually less uncomfortably obese than he appeared in his cameo role in Frank Capra’s Riding High (1950), in which he sweats with alarming profusity. Rather, during the course of Atoll K’s absurdly long production, Stan Laurel undergoes a complete transformation brought on by illness. In most of the location footage, shot first, he appears older but reasonably fit, but in all the studio scenes he looks like a man recently liberated from a concentration camp, the 5’8” actor’s weight dropping down to 115 lbs. at one point. He’s so disturbingly thin and weak, even in some of the team’s best scenes Laurel’s appalling physical state becomes an insurmountable, painful distraction.

Aping’s book is movie archeology at its best. With most of the cast and crew dead or not interviewable, he had to rely on surviving archival documents that are surprisingly plentiful. For instance, he details each version of the treatment and screenplay, weighing their pros and cons, and later clearly examines each of the film’s various final edits, including differing French, Italian, German, and two very different English-language cuts of the film.

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In the larger sense, The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy offers detailed accounts of the team’s movements during pre-production and filming, particularly during its many long delays, as they bide their time in Paris and, later, travel to Italy to help promote the film. Other books have satiated those interested in Laurel & Hardy’s music hall career in Britain, and their last days appearing on the American television show This Is Your Life and preparing for a sadly unmade television series. But Aping’s book reveals a significant part of their later lives never before so thoroughly documented.

As someone who always liked and/or was fascinated with at least big swaths of Atoll K, by the end Aping’s book had me genuinely longing for a complete restoration of the best complete version of this now-public domain movie (the most widely available in America, called Utopa, is cut and compromised in several important ways), one that would allow viewers to see Atoll K in the best possible light. Until then, Norbert Aping’s The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy offers a tantalizing examination of this long-reviled but fascinating film.