The Big and the Small of It: “Dr. Cyclops” (1940)

   With 1940’s “Dr. Cyclops”, director Ernest B. Schoedsack returns to familiar territory, with a story about a group encountering a menacing leviathan, only instead of the simian origins of “King Kong”, and to a lesser extent “Son of Kong”, the deadly behemoth here has ascended one further rung on the evolutionary ladder. That the film interestingly uses radium as a catalyst for scientifically motivated destructive force, makes it a significant antecedent (itself preceded by Lambert Hillyard’s 1936 “The Invisible Ray”) to the similarly inclined films to emerge later in the 1950’s with the emergence of the Atomic Energy and both its possibly malevolent applications and mutative properties reaching into the popular cultural imagination.

   Radiation induced gigantism was a favored trademark of the American SF film, (heavily influencing the Japanese film industry with their own successful creation of 1954’s “Gojira” and its endless Daikaiju progeny) usually manifested in the form of insects or indigenous desert wildlife. There was, however, a smaller cadre of films which dealt with the opposite phenomenon of involuntary miniaturization, though in that case there were innumerable variations as to causative methods of this process as witness the preceding Tod Browning directed “The Devil Doll” and the later Jack Arnold masterwork “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and Bert I. Gordon’s “Attack of the Puppet People”. In “Dr. Cyclops”. the occasion is one of miniaturization, though the people in peril scenario is treated more as another Carl Denham excursion into the land of monstrous jungle perils, with the endangered characters encountering all manner of potentially deadly perils including magnified versions of crocodile and house cat (another foreshadowing of the Arnold film). One must learn that when it comes to being a character in a Schoedsack picture, it is best to avoid exotic jungle locales.

   When an eminent biologist Dr. Alexander Thorkel (Albert Dekker) summons an obnoxiously self-important biologist Dr. Rupert Bulfinch (Charles Halton) to his remote Peruvian research facility, Bulfinch assembles a small band of not particularly capable but dependably colorful B-movie adventure types to accompany him including lazy mineralogist Bill Stockton (Thomas Coley), beautiful fellow biologist Dr. Mary Robinson (Janice Logan) and and snoopy mining engineer Steve Baker (Victor Kilian). After their arduous journey, Bulfinch and company are summarily dismissed by Thorkel minutes after arriving once Bulfinch and Stockton glance into a microscope and notice iron crystals; something Thorkel couldn’t see due to his deteriorated eyesight. Understandably, Bulfinch is outraged at being summoned for a mere moment’s work and blusters that he wants to share in Thorkel’s secrets; not a good idea since the biologist has already demonstrated antisocial tendencies by murdering his benefactor Dr. Mendoza (Paul Fix) in the opening scene when Mendoza suggests that Thorkel’s work is “diabolical”.

   Eventually Thorkel’s impatience with Bulfinch exacts a revenge for his annoyance (hreally is antisocial) on the entire party and his own assistant Pedro (Frank Yaconelli) when he uses his discovery to shrink his guests to the size of dolls; a discovery Thorkel rants on about early in the film with the usual God Complex notions of recombining the building blocks of life, though it’s fairly standard in this kind of film that this type of discovery has no practical application to the real world except to afford the mad scientist an opportunity to engage in an obnoxious amount of cackling braggadocio and hand wringing. “Dr. Cyclops”, in essence, is not science fiction, with science only prefiguring with the radium-based ray, otherwise it’s a straight mad scientist/boogeyman/horror film using the tried and true formula Paramount’s rival studio Universal perfected in the 1930’s, only with the addition of eye popping brilliant Technicolor.

   This last is used to inventively sinister effect by Schoedsack and d.p. Henry Sharp, especially with the crawly greenish waves of light that represent Thorkel’s malevolent discoveries; the death of Mendoza is particularly eerie with heightening translucence in color seemingly cutting through his tissues to the bone. However, if Schoedsack’s visual imagination is well demonstrated in the film’s opening moments, so too is the cringe worthy level of performance which, against all odds, is staggeringly inept by every participant. Seldom has a major studio film been saddled with a total breakdown of acting skills, so complete and irredeemable it consigns the production of the film into the realm of otherworldly fantasy. The usually reliable Fix is so horrendous- speaking his English lines as if he’s learned them phonetically -that Mendoza’s murder might be accurately described as a mercy killing, putting the audience out of its misery. Dekker, never the most subtle of actors, barks his lines as if he were afraid they would otherwise attach to his tongue, though in comparison to the repellent histrionics of Charles Halton, his is a model of gentility. The remainder of the cast would clearly be overly challenged by any dramaturgical demands more taxing than  standing frozen as extras in the background of a Three Stooges short.

   The script by Tom Kilpatrick is a strictly by-the-numbers affair, offering no expansion of genre conventions with one major exception: an atypical depiction of a female lead as a more independent figure than the subservient gender archetype in both horror and later SF films. Despite its tepid portrayal, the role of Dr. Mary Robinson is conceived as a smart, active instigator of action, not the usual decorative in-distress eye candy, but an early genre example of the liberated career woman that unfortunately was not developed in subsequent SF films where the female lab assistant/colleague would be introduced and then demeaningly relegated to such important domestic tasks as brewing coffee and looking well coiffed.  (The exception might be Faith Domergue’s rather no nonsense scientist in “It Came From Beneath the Sea”, who still succumbs to gender softening romantic whims- though they are instigated and reciprocated by stalwart he-man Kenneth Tobey -by the end of the film.) It is, however, a marked step up from the hysterical scream queen model previously honed to screeching perfection  by Fay Wray in Schoedsack’s “King Kong” and “The Most Dangerous Game”, not to mention her embarrassing turns in both “Mystery at the Wax Museum” and “Doctor X”.

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About chandlerswainreviews

I've been a puppet, a pirate, a pauper, a poet, a pawn and a king, not necessarily in that order. My first major movie memory was being at the drive-in at about 1 1/2 yrs. old seeing "Sayonara" so I suppose an interest in film was inevitable. (For those scoring at home- good for you- I wasn't driving that evening, so no need to alert authorities.)Writer, critic and confessed spoiler of women, as I have a tendency to forget to put them back in the refrigerator. My apologies.
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