Sunday 31 January 2021

The Mole People (1956)

Director: Virgil Vogel
Writers: Laszlo Gorog
Stars: John Agar, Cynthia Patrick and Hugh Beaumont

Index: 2021 Centennials.

I have to admit that The Mole People surprised me. Sure, some of that was because I had memories of watching this colour Universal monster movie, memories which turned out to be of something else entirely that I can’t figure out, as this is emphatically black and white. A large part is because of how it unfolds, because, while it’s often the poorly researched B-movie nonsense I expected, with a heck of a lot of ancient Egyptian iconography populating a supposedly Sumerian story, but there’s actually a lot of thought given to science in something I’d classify more as fantasy than science fiction. Most of all, though, it was the introduction that surprised me, because I’m used to the “scientists” gushing forth in them about whatever subject is to come having even fewer credentials for that role than the actors playing the parts they were paid to interpret. Maybe I’ve seen too many pseudo-educational flicks by showmen like Dwain Esper and Kroger Babb and far too much Criswell. But this introduction is by someone who’s really a big deal.

His name is Frank C. Baxter and he’s introduced as the Professor of English at the University of Southern California that he actually was. His spiel is pure Forteana, explaining to us that we know so much about the surface of our world and that we’ve reached out to the stars but we know very little about what might be hiding beneath our feet. “What’s inside this globe?” he asks us, launching into swift explanations of Victorian Hollow Earth theories by people like Cyrus Teed and John Cleves Symmes, Jr. The former suggested that we don’t live on the surface of our planet at all but inside it, with the heavens a giant sphere, the sun a gigantic battery and the stars mere refractions of its light. The latter believed that there are five concentric spheres inside our planet, each habitable and lit by the one above, with light getting in through giant holes at each of the poles, surely entranceways for us to visit our subterranean brethren within our Hollow Earth. These theories are pseudoscientific nonsense, of course, but Baxter is no pseudoscientist.

In fact, while this Englishman hadn’t heard the name before, he’s one of the most famous names in science to ever grace the United States, not least because he was a television personality who pointed the way to such names as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye the Science Guy. He started broadcasting on radio as early as 1926 and television in 1953, racking up seven Emmy awards, one Peabody and the inaugural Golden Gavel from Toastmasters International. From 1956, the year of The Mole People, until 1962, he presented a show called The Bell System Science Series, as Dr. Research. Directed by major Hollywood names like Frank Capra and featuring major Hollywood actors like Lionel Barrymore and major scientists like Richard Feynman, these films reached vast audiences not merely through their initial national broadcasts but by being distributed free to schools afterwards, screened in classrooms to hundreds of millions of students from the 1960s to 1980s. I’d love to read a biography of him. He isn’t at all like the usual introducer of schlock.

As befitting his stature, he gets a long intro here, four and a half minutes of what is only a 77m movie. Then, after a fantastic roll of opening credits which emerge from the smoking depths of the Hollow Earth, we find ourselves in Asia. Where, we haven’t a clue, as the film isn’t going to get any less ridiculously vague than that. Asia, it says, even if we can safely assume we’re watching a string of archaelogists fail utterly to deal with earthquakes in a mountainous desert area of Mesopotamia. We join the team in time for them to discover a stone tablet, stuck in a hillside below the Great Flood level. That means that it must be at least five thousand years old. It’s inscribed in Sumerian which our lead, Dr. Roger Bentley, fortunately speaks. It’s the usual sort of curse, promising the wrath of Ishtar if you remove the stone with malice, with the Mesopotamian goddess of love and sex, as well as war and justice, willing to destroy your seed and your land. But it’s also a puzzle piece, backing up a story in the epic of Gilgamesh, and we’re off and running.

“In archaeology, all things are possible,” says Dr. Bentley, in the ever-reliable form of John Agar, who would have been a hundred years old today. This script, written by László Görög, an Oscar nominee in the category of Best Story a decade earlier for The Affairs of Susan, takes him literally. The inscriptions on an oil lamp, brought into camp after being dislodged by a tremor, suggest that the dynasty of a Sumerian king survived the Biblical flood by sailing onto the top of a nearby mountain, where they were stranded. At once, they decide to climb the twenty thousand feet from the desert floor into the icy wastes of the local peaks to see what they’re able to find. And, after the usual mix of stock footage and set shooting, not to forget a couple of avalanches, they reach the plateau they’re aiming at and discover the ruins of a Sumerian temple, where once the goddess Ishtar held sway. Remnants of her statues still litter the scene. It’s exactly as the oil lamp suggested. So far, so predictable. The Abominable Snowman did this so much better only a year later.

But then, Dr. Paul Stuart tumbles through the ground, surely plummeting to his death thousands of feet below, and his colleagues are duty bound to rappel down to find his body. Here, I started to appreciate the attention to detail, which I never thought I’d ever do about a film like The Mole People. Bentley leads the way, hammering in a piton and stringing a new rope, repeating as he goes, so their way down is well-supported. This is unusually detailed writing for a B-movie doomed to be released as a double feature with Curucu, Beast of the Amazon and, inevitably, later lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000. While we see that one of these pitons is loose, the script avoids the expected death plunge of one of the climbers. Instead, he notices, hammers it in better and, in doing so, creates a rockfall that kills him instead. It’s the little things, I know, but I was impressed. And, with only three men left, trapped in what they believe is a hand-excavated cavern inside a mountain somewhere in Asia, we’re ready for the Mole People.

It’s appropriate, I think, that a story made possible by Victorian theories about the Hollow Earth be populated by two very different peoples that can’t help but remind of the Eloi and the Morlocks in H. G. Wells’s Victorian classic of science fiction, The Time Machine, a story that, at this time, had only been adapted to screen as a live teleplay on the BBC in 1949. The George Pal feature was still four years away, so I wonder how many people watched that on original release and thought they’d ripped off The Mole People! Our three archaelogists quickly encounter the mole people of the title—weird burrowing creatures with large eyes, claws and scaly skin—and the masters they slave for, the Ishtar-worshipping Sumerians they were hoping for. Of course, after five millennia of subterreanean living, their skins have bleached to albino levels and their eyes are hypersensitive to light. That’s proved when Dr. Bentley switches on his battery powered torch and the Sumerians run a-screamin’ into the night to hide from the Divine Fire of Ishtar.

These scenes underground ably highlight just how stupid this film is and how much effort Görög put into the script to counter that. For every unabashed B-movie cliché, Dr. Bentley chimes in with an astute scientific note, like why these Sumerians eat mushrooms, a rare food that can grow without sunlight; or why there’s population control, as how else could a society survive in such isolation; or how Adad is ostracised by her peers for being Marked, when she’s just a rare genetic throwback born with regular pigmentation like you or I. Why it’s always Bentley providing these explanations, I have no idea, but then he’s the only one with enough foresight to have brought a torch along on this expedition, so perhaps the requisite question isn’t about how well prepared and well rounded he is but rather how unimaginative Dr. Jud Bellamin and Prof. Etienne Lafarge are. Certainly we expect the latter’s demise, because he’s clearly claustrophobic. “It’s as if the whole mountain is lying on my chest,” he tells the others, and we know he’s doomed.

However often Bentley elevates this picture, though, it’s inevitably dragged down again by cliché. The king is a reactionary fool, as easily convinced that our archaeologists are gods as they are emissaries of Ishtar sent from the heavens above to check in with the subjects she had exiled so long ago for their sins. The high priest, however, is as sharp as a tack, and it doesn’t take long for him to intuit that Bentley’s torch isn’t really the Divine Fire of Ishtar but a simple tool that would work just as well at his direction. And so the king is quickly forgotten, whatever his name was, but High Priest Elinu is not. Arguably, he’s even more memorable than iconic mole people. It helps, of course, that he’s played by the charismatic Alan Napier, a prolific British actor best known today for being Alfred to Adam West’s Batman. He may play a clichéd religious power behind the throne, bleached to a point he looks mummified, ornately robed and with three wisps of facial hair that remind of yellow peril villains, but he does so with acerbic relish.

Even though the lost civilisation here is Sumerian and so we’re presumably somewhere in Mesopotamia, the production design has little idea of where any of that was, so imagined it as exotic in the way anything east of Greece was exotic in fifties America. Napier channels earlier Universal characters, most obviously Boris Karloff as Imhotep, and does a pretty good job. Maybe that’s why there are Egyptian hieroglyphics all over Elinu’s temple, because there’s no other logical reason. The other overt exotica on display here is a flamboyant dance performed by a supposed Asian in a skimpy gown and a weird hairdo before Elinu sacrifices his trio of willing women to the Fire of Ishtar. Really, it’s an American dancer of Creole heritage who already had a serious reputation in the business in 1956 and has continued on throughout the decades. Her name is Carmen de Lavallade and she’s wearing thick pancake make-up. That’s a weird reversal of the usual Hollywood racial shenanigans. Is this whiteface? Or do Sumerians count as yellowface?

It’s appropriate to bring up race here because it’s the reason why the film’s ending is so abrupt. Most of the stories that play in the Lost Race subgenre of fantasy, pioneered by novels like H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and She, tend to focus on the central characters, usually intrepid western explorers, discovering a lost civilisation in one of the many areas of the globe yet to be detailed on the map, where the leading man and a local girl fall in love. In Victorian literature, that usually didn’t work out because society didn’t look too fondly on more than dalliances with savages, however beautiful their romantic representations were. In Hollywood in 1956, Dr. Bentley was never going to end up with Adad, as Universal were still subject to the Production Code, which prohibited miscegenation, and society remained segregated until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nonetheless, the ending to The Mole People seems to have been a happy and romantic until studio representatives felt it would promote interracial relationships and that was that.

Of course, Cynthia Patrick, who plays Adad, is as clearly an all American girl of white Anglo-Saxon stock as any delightful alien from whom Captain Kirk ever stole a kiss. She was a strawberry blonde who grew up in Europe, the adopted daughter of a U.S. Air Force colonel. She was white enough to appear as herself in an Eddy Arnold short called The Tennessee Plowboy, released in the very same year as The Mole People. I liked her as Adad, even though her role was hardly a deep one, a sort of Sumerian Lost Race equivalent of Marilyn Munster, a beautiful young lady subjugated by her peers for looking different, this time for having eyebrows and pink skin. When the inevitable escape from the inside of the mountain becomes possible, she chooses to go with Bentley, having already been given to him by the king and being able to look at light without any problem at all. Just as she makes it out and her future is literally bright, another earthquake happens and she’s crushed by a pillar of the temple of Ishtar that’s stood there for five thousand years.

Clearly, it wasn’t her night. Clearly it is John Agar’s, because he would have been a hundred years old today. If Cynthia Patrick was the eye candy in this film and Alan Napier the consistent scene stealer, Agar does well as the hero of the piece, even if he’s playing a surprisingly shallow character who speaks fluent Sumerian. I know him from sci-fi movies like this one, which dominate his career, even though he began it as a serious actor in John Ford pictures like Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, albeit mostly because he entered the industry in an unusual way: by marrying a movie star. His sister had gone to school with Shirley Temple and he was doing Air Corps training in Riverside doing the war. Somehow that led to him being invited to escort her to a party in Hollywood in 1944 and they were married a year later. I’d hope David O. Selznick had more reason than that to sign him to a five year contract at a salary of $150 a week, with acting lessons thrown in as part of the deal, but no, that was probably it.

His debut was opposite her in Fort Apache, high enough up the cast list to see his name added to the poster, even if it was a full line under his wife. After all, who could be better to play Shirley Temple’s love interest than Shirley Temple’s husband? It isn’t entirely fair to suggest that his career descended dramatically when the pair divorced in 1950, but it certainly didn’t help. He drank, maybe because he struggled with his wife’s high profile and being called “Mr. Shirley Temple” in the papers. She sued for divorce in 1950, citing mental cruelty, and he had almost no contact with her or their daughter after that. He married a model, Loretta Combs, a year later, even though the ceremony was delayed an hour for him to sober up, but that marriage lasted for 49 years until she died in 2000. He followed two years later, leaving their two sons and his daughter with Temple, along with the early glimpses of an A-list career and an impressive output in B-movies, the most notable among them science fiction.

That began when he signed with Universal in 1954. He led the cast in Clint Eastwood’s debut picture, Revenge of the Creature, a first sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon, and again in Tarantula! in the same year, one of the more intelligent monster movies of the era. Even though he was only 34 years old and playing the young dynamic male lead, he was a professor in the former movie and a doctor in the latter, a trend he continued here a year later as Dr. Roger Bentley. Gradually being the dynamic lead took over from any ongoing attempt to sell him as an academic genius, and the quality of the films he was given decreased. The Mole People isn’t in the same class as Tarantula! but it’s light years above The Brain from Planet Arous, Invisible Invaders and Zontar, the Thing from Venus. I should point out that, for every sci-fi B-movie he made, he made a few in other genres, but they were swiftly forgotten in the wake of enjoyable schlock like Attack of the Puppet People and Women of the Prehistoric Planet.

Even though he had started out in a couple of John Ford movies and notably supported the Duke again in Sands of Iwo Jima, and even though he found a way back to that world much later on, with smaller roles in late John Wayne pictures like The Undefeated, Chisum and Big Jake, he’s still remembered as the king of the sci-fi B’s. It doesn’t matter how many westerns he made with routine titles like Frontier Gun, The Lonesome Trail or The Young and the Brave, let alone how many episodes of Rawhide, Bat Masterson and The Virginian he guested on (it wasn’t many), everyone will remember him as a sci-fi actor, something that he embraced. “I guess they were fun,” he said in a 1986 interview. “My whole feeling about working as an actor is, if I give anybody any enjoyment, I’m doing my job, and that's what counts.” As awful as many of them were, there’s usually fun to be found in them, and the best of them are glorious. As a confirmed classic genre fan, I’m eternally grateful for the lowest rated entries in the John Agar filmography as well as the highest.

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