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Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Giant Claw

Sometimes cited as "the worst film ever," The Giant Claw does typify the "bad" films that 50s sci-fi is famous for. Producer Sam Katzman was trying to produce a serious monster-from-space B movie, but it went wrong. Samuel Newmann's script was safely formulaic. Katzman had veteran actors like Jeff Morrow (This Island Earth ('54) and Morris Ankrum. He had a beautiful leading lady (Mara Corday). The movie wouldn't be ground-breaking art, but it stood to make a few bucks. If it weren't for the incredibly bad monster, The Claw would simply have faded into obscurity among the dozens of other mediocre B films. Instead, The Claw is remembered for its laughably silly looking -- though memorable -- monster. Despite this infamy, the overall movie is clearly a sibling in the 50s sci-fi monster family.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Up north, the military are testing the radar net for gaps. One pilot, Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow) sees a big blurry shape whoosh past him. He calls in a UFO and gets heat for it, until a downed airliner also called in a UFO before it was lost. While flying back to Washington, Mitch's plane is attacked by the thing and downed. Pierre, a French Canadian farmer, takes care of them, but sees something one night that frightens him. (the beast) In Washington, they learn of another plane lost after reporting a UFO. The brass are upset at a lack of radar confirmation. Sally (Mitch's love interest) suggests reviewing research balloon cameras. The film reveals the big ugly bird. The Air Force tries to shoot it down, but it's invulnerable to weapons. Martial law is declared. Everyone is ordered to say indoors. Lacking easy prey, the bird attacks ground targets. World wide panic ensues. People run, buildings fall, trains are snatched up. Even nukes have no effect. It has an anti-matter shield. Analysis of a feather fragment tells them that the bird must have come through space from an anti-matter galaxy. (?!) They worry about why the bird is on earth. Sally thinks it came to lay eggs. Sure enough, they find a nest near Pierre's farm. They shoot and break the egg. The bird is enraged and goes on a destructive rampage. Mitch figures out that a "meson gun" that will shoot subatomic particles at the bird's shield, thereby neutralizing it. Through several failed attempts, Mitch succeeds in building his meson gun. They mount it in the tail of a B-25.
The bird is wrecking New York City skyscrapers. It chases the B-25. They fire the meson gun after suitable dramatic delay. After the white smoke clears, the plane has turned and fires rockets at the bird. It is mortally wounded and goes down into the sea. One claw curls in final agony as it sinks into the water. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
The bird monster is so bad, so obviously a puppet, she's fun to watch. (She, because she lays an egg) Also fun is seeing how seriously the actors play their parts, not knowing during filming how ridiculous the monster would be.

Cold War Angle
In as much as some prior monsters were personifications of atomic power (Godzilla) or metaphors for enemy attack (Deadly Mantis), the Claw could be seen in this light too. The radar, jets and generals are all of that era. Those things aside, however, the tale falters as a metaphor because of the absurdity.

What Were They Thinking? -- How could anyone release such an obvious loser? It's an interesting little study into the tough world of B films. Sam Katzman had produced over 200 movies before The Claw including the passable It Came From Beneath The Sea ('55) and the classic Earth vs. The Flying Saucers ('56). Both of those had Ray Harryhausen to create the special effects. How could an experienced and successful (in the B market) producer come out with such a turkey? (literally). He didn't plan to.
Katzman had been cranking out low budget movies for many years. Newmann's script was formulaic enough for B-market success: Brave hero, beautiful lady love interest, monster attacking people, gizmo weapon. All pretty standard (safe) stuff. Flying monsters were tough to do in the pre-CGI era. (Recall how equally bad Rodan and Mothra look in flight.) Katzman's budget could not afford the only man who could have pulled it off (Harryhausen). So he farmed it out to a studio in Mexico. In the meantime, he had director Fred Sears begin shooting. All the stars played out their roles, as good professionals, having to imagine what the monster would finally look like. Morrow said he imagined a huge streamlined hawk that was incredibly fast. Katzman, a bit worried that he didn't have a monster yet, was assured by the Mexicans that their monster was coming along well, and was really frightening. Reassured, Katzman pressed on. All the live-actor shots were done. When the mexican monster arrived, Katzman was aghast. It was a clumsy looking, googly eyed, snaggle toothed vulture thing. The mexican artists apparently had great fear of vultures. If Katzman was not already financially over-committed to The Claw, he might have just canned the whole thing. But, he was committed. He had to accept the vulture-thing and finish the movie. They did the best they could. The Giant Claw is a stunning example of how little room there was for things to go wrong in a low-budget movie production. There simply wasn't the budget for a do-over.

Plane Crazy -- Amid the usual P-80s stock footage is a less common sighting. We get a takeoff shot of two Avro Canada CF-100 all-weather interceptors. Part of Canada's strategic defense.

Stock Footage & Switcharoo -- Note in the Bird vs. Squadron scene, how P-80s fly up, but F-86s fire, and then become F-106 models when the bird chomps them. Also note when Mitch is flying back to New York, he's in a DC-6, but after the bird hits them, it's a model of a B-29 that's smoking and spinning down. No points awarded for continuity. Sharp eyed film buffs will also note that the panic-in-the-streets scenes were lifted from prior films too. Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, which lifted it from The Day the Earth Stood Still and many others.

Bottom line? Watch The Claw, not because it's so good, but because it is a benchmark in how absurdly bad a B-grade sci-fi could get in the 50s. This is one of those movies which became iconic -- referenced, spoofed and alluded to in later movies. For cultural reasons alone, it's worth seeing at least once.


Blaze said...

As you say, before CGI, flying creature effects were very difficult. Heck, that's why even in 1978, "Superman: the Movie" had the major tagline "You'll believe a man can fly!"

So, Katzman was already delusional if he thought he'd get an acceptable bird for nothing.

What I'm curious about is, if Katzman had a vision of what the bird should look like, why a bundle of sketches weren't sent to Mexico? Even at this bottom end of the budget totem pole, I'd still expect a few production sketches should have been mailed up for approval.

Nightowl said...

Hi Blaze,
Yes, how this bird-monster puppet managed to get through is an interesting mystery. You would think there were a few concept sketches. Maybe there were. Could have been an over-effective salesmen who convinced Katzman, et al, about how "great" the monster puppet would be, and Katzman believed him.

I've worked on several projects, in which a subcontractor has delayed and promised, and made excuses until the last minute, when we had little choice but to accept what they delivered. There was no time to do it over. Maybe that happened to Katzman too. :-)

Litefrozen said...

One of the things I've thought about this movie, is how this could have been a early Rodan.

Randall Landers said...

I've always been suspicious of Katzman's claim. There's a rear screen projection of a parachutist being gobbled up from behind by footage of the space turkey. Someone on the production team had to have seen the thing in order to shoot that footage.

Unknown said...

Howdy Movie Fans,

First off, Mara Corday alone is worth the price of admission>

Yes, the plot line is as thin as an old pair of socks.
The palaver between Morris Ankrum and Jeff Morrow, "you just bought yourself some more of my time Son." is typical 50's vintage.

The line between Jeff Morrow and the air force security at his hotel room, he is wearing his pajama bottoms, "you keep your shirt on while I get my pants on" is a good chuckle.

Also when Morrow asks Corday if she can handle a Weatherby magnum rifle she replies that she was raised on a ranch in Montana - yup, makes sense to me.

When the .340 caliber bullets make huge holes in the eggs, Roy Weatherby must have been tickled with the "free" advertising.

Do you think they made a giant omlette for the film crew?

Add it all up and it is a fun movie, nothing more nor nothing less.

See you at the movies.


Yes, I have seen it several times and plan to watch it again in one of those "get me out of this century for a while" moments.