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The second feature effort by later TV family-animal specialist Ivan Tors, The Magnetic Monster is also the first of Tors' science fiction stories loosely based on an "Office of Scientific Investigation" theme. MGM recently released the third title GOG. Often cited as a thriller based on scientific ideas rather than rubber-suited monsters, Tors' film can claim that its abstract monster is more than just another 'thing' trying to abduct the leading lady. Perhaps exploiting the common fear of radiation, a force little understood by the general public, The Magnetic Monster invents a whole new secret government bureau dedicated to solving 'dangerous scientific problems' -- the inference being, of course, that there's always something threatening about science. Actually, producer Tors was probably inspired by his partner Curt Siodmak to take advantage of a fantastic special effects opportunity that a small show like Magnetic could normally never afford. More on that later.
The script plays almost as an episode of Dragnet with the substitution of scientific detectives for L.A.P.D. gumshoes. Top-kick nuclear troubleshooter Dr. Jeff Stewart (Richard Carlson) can't afford to buy a tract home for his pregnant wife Connie (beautiful Jean Byron, later of The Patty Duke Show) but is one of just a few OSI operatives standing between us and scientific disaster. When local cops route a weird distress call to the OSI office Jeff and his sidekick/Phd Dr. Dan Forbes (King Donovan) discover that someone has been tampering with an unstable isotope in a room above a housewares store on Lincoln Blvd.: every metallic object in the store has become magnetized. The agents trace the explosive element to Dr. Serny (Michael Fox), whose "lone wolf" experiments have created a new monster element, a Unipolar watchamacallit sometimes referred to as Serranium. If not 'fed' huge amounts of energy this new element will implode, expand, and explode again on a predictable timetable. Local efforts to neutralize the element fail, and an entire lab building is destroyed. Dan and Jeff rush the now-larger isotope to a fantastic Canadian "Deltatron" constructed in a super-scientific complex deep under the ocean off Nova Scotia. The plan is to bombard it with so much energy that it will disintegrate harmlessly. But does the Deltatron have enough juice to do the job? Its Canadian supervisor tries to halt the procedure just as the time limit to the next implosion is coming due!
Sincere, likeable and quaint, The Magnetic Monster is nevertheless a prime candidate for chuckles, thanks to a screenplay clunk factor that invites derision. Big cheese scientist Jeff Stewart interrupts his experimental bombardment of metals in his atom smasher to go out on blind neighborhood calls, dispensing atom know-how like a pizza deliveryman. He takes time out to make fat jokes at the expense of the lab's switchboard operator, the charming Kathleen Freeman. The OSI's super-computer provides instant answers to various mysteries; its name in this show is the acronym M.A.N.I.A.C.. 1
The strange isotope threat is some kind of amalgam of nuclear and magnetic forces that might make sense to small kids that have been shown interesting science lessons about the invisible wonder of magnetism. All the silverware at the store sticks together, a curious event that unaccountably causes the sexy blonde saleswoman to scream and jump as if goosed by Our Friend the Atom. Our agents don't look all that brilliant when a call comes in about a taxi's engine that has become magnetized -- could that be related to our mystery element? When the culprit scientist is finally tracked down on an airliner, he's near death from overexposure to his own creation. We admire Serny, who managed to create a new element on his own, without benefit of a million dollar lab. He also must be a prize dope for not realizing that the resulting radiation will kill him.
The OSI men deliver a stern lesson: In nuclear research there is no place for lone wolves. If you think about it, the agency's function is protect us from crazy science itself, with blame leveled at individual, free-thinking, 'rogue' brainiacs. (Sarcasm alert.) The danger in nuclear research comes not from mad militarists trying to make bigger and more awful bombs; the villains are those guys cooking up end-of-the-world scenarios in their home workshops. Dr. Serny probably didn't even have a security clearance!
The Magnetic Monster has a delightful gaffe in every scene. When a dangerous isotope is said to be 'on the loose', the police radio order goes out to SHOOT TO KILL ... Shoot what exactly, they don't say. This line could very well have been invented at the film's mix, if the producer thought the scene needed an extra jolt. But despite the fact that Curt Siodmak cooked up Donovan's Brain and personally invented a bona fide classic monster mythology, his '50s sci-fi efforts strain credibility in all directions. Not only that, but according to most sources (excepting Siodmak himself), editor Herbert Strock had to do most of the directing, as the noted writer had trouble making decisions on the set.
The truly remarkable aspect of The Magnetic Monster comes in the last reel, when Jeff and Dan are suddenly in an elevator, going way, way down to the subterranean Deltatron atom-smasher. They're suddenly wearing big blocky coats and wide-brimmed hats , a style not worn in the early '50s. The answer comes when they step out into a wild mad-lab construction worthy of the visuals in Metropolis. A giant power station is outfitted with oversized white porcelain insulators -- even a set of stairs looks like an insulator. Atop the control booth is an array of (giant, what else) glass tubes with glowing neon lights inside. Cables and wires go every which-way. A crew of workers in wrinkled shop suits stands about like extras from The Three-Penny Opera. For quite some time, only readers of old issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland knew the secret of this bizarre footage, which is actually from the 1934 German sci-fi thriller Gold, directed by Karl Hartl and starring Hans Albers and Brigitte Helm. Tors and Siodmak do their best to integrate Richard Carlson and King Donovan into this spectacular twenty-year-old stock footage, even though the extravagant production values and the expressionist patina of the UFA visuals are a gross mismatch for The Magnetic Monster's '50s semi-docu look.
Jeff's wide hat and David Byrne coat are there to make him look more like Hans Albers in the 1934 film, which doesn't work because Albers must be six inches taller and forty pounds beefier than Richard Carlson. Jeff enters a control booth and argues with the Canadian scientist/turnkey, while changing into a different costume, with a different cap -- so he can look more like another character for the exciting climax, involving the exploding element and an enormous pair of bulkhead doors that have been sabotaged. It's a truly bizarre scene that doesn't quite come off... we know too well that the movie has leaped into a different filmic universe.
A fuel-rod plunger in the control room is decorated with a German-style cross, reminding us that that the Nazis were in power back in 1934. Close-up views of a blob of metal being bombarded by atomic particles (?) look very impressive. Metallurgy is scary, man.
Bill Warren has seen the original Gold and tells me that it's very intelligent and exciting -- the giant lab is supposed to be made for alchemic purposes, turning lead into gold, or something. We wonder if Curt Siodmak came up with the idea of repurposing the old film. Was it purchased from the Germans, or confiscated by U.S. authorities? We also wonder if Roger Corman saw The Magnetic Monster and got the idea of reshooting new stories to exploit foreign films with lavish special effects. 2
The "Serranium" threat establishes a pattern touched upon by later Sci-fi movies with organic or abstract forces that grow from relative insignificance to world-threatening proportions. The Monolith Monsters proposes giant crystals that grow to the size of skyscrapers, threatening to cover the earth with a giant quartz-pile. The Sam Katzman quickie The Day the World Exploded makes The Magnetic Monster look like an expensive production. It invents a new mineral that explodes when exposed to air.
The supporting cast of The Magnetic Monster gives us some pleasant, familiar faces. Besides the beloved Kathleen Freeman, we have Strother Martin as a concerned airline pilot. Fussy Byron Foulger owns the housewares store and granite-jawed Frank Gerstle (Gristle?) is a gruff general. And the gorgeous Jarma Lewis has a quick bit as a stewardess.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of The Magnetic Monster is a fine transfer of this B&W gem from United Artists. Once hard to see, it shows every so often on TCM. Has it ever been released on VHS? It was part of an expensive MGM laserdisc set fifteen years ago. The disc comes with a socko original trailer that explains why it did reasonably well at the box office. Every exciting moment from the show is edited into a coming attraction that really hypes the jeopardy factor. At that time, just the sight of the heroes in radiations suits promised something unusual. Nowadays, Hazardous Waste workers use suits like that to clean up chemical spills.
The cover art isn't terrific (see the original above) but it beats the terrible non-art used for MGM's disc of GOG. As long as we're on the subject, does anybody out there happen to possess a fantastic-quality 35mm print or (it's possible) 35mm printing elements on the second OSI Sci-Fi movie, Riders to the Stars? You need to contact me.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Magnetic Monster rates:
1. Quick, which '50s Sci-fi gem has a computer named S.U.S.I.E.?
2. This example also makes me think that a perfect idea for a negative-subjunctive "The Germans Won the War" movie would be to take some expensive Hollywood extravaganza from the thirties or forties and shoot new German-language material to revise the picture along pro-Nazi lines. Casablanca could play in a conquered New York in 1950, in a version where the Germans are the good guys. It wouldn't take much editing & dubbing trickery to have Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman have a change of heart, and end the film by gunning down the terrorist Bolshevik Paul Henreid.
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T'was Ever Thus.