Of birds and battleships: Columbia’s essential monster misfire at 60

Of birds and battleships: Columbia’s essential monster misfire at 60

Spendthrift producer Sam Katzman’s Clover Productions struck gold with It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) and¬†Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), a pair of mid-century science fiction thrillers that punched well above their weight courtesy of ace production from Charles H. Schneer (Hellcats of the Navy) and pioneering special effects from Ray Harryhausen (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms). It’s safe to say that Katzman was banking on a similar performance from his 1957 horror¬†The Giant Claw, particularly with Flying Saucers‘¬†Fred F. Sears, the most capable of Katzman’s directorial stable, at the helm.

On paper the production would seem a natural choice for the partnership of Schneer and Harryhausen, but the two had already parted ways with Clover by the time of¬†Claw‘s production (that same year, under Schneer’s auspices, Harryhausen would produce his most ambitious monster film to date;¬†20,000,000 Miles to Earth). In their absence Katzman opted to oversee¬†Claw‘s production on his own, as he had dozens of films prior (including the recent 1956 genre success¬†The Werewolf, also directed by Sears), assuming that he and his nephew Leonard (a regular assistant director and producer at Clover at the time) would be capable of doing just as well.

Katzman’s demanding production practices, and the virtues of the same, are well documented (see Wheeler Winston Dixon’s excellent Lost in the Fifties: Recovering Phantom Hollywood), but proved a poor fit for¬†The Giant Claw‘s large-scale monster antics. Where Schneer placed an emphasis on scope for¬†the earlier Harryhausen sci-fis, with plenty of location photography to buttress the high-concept action and spare studio drama, Katzman emphasized efficiency at all costs (or rather, at as few costs as possible). The result was a continent-trotting monster-on-the-loose yarn that felt palpably cheap and inescapably small despite the best efforts of its capable cast and crew. Viewed sixty years after the fact¬†The Giant Claw feels every bit the strange historical artifact it is; a film occupying that exact moment when the American majors’ mid-’50s flirtation with giant monster cinema reached its hyperbolic peak, a sort of high water mark of screen unbelievability.

For most of its running time¬†The Giant Claw¬†plays as a more-or-less competent (if run-of-the-mill) fifties sci-fi programmer. The screenplay from Katzman regular Samuel Newman (Jungle Jim in the Forbidden Land) and industry veteran Paul Gangelin (1940’s Cover Girl) certainly has its quirks (the dialog is often quite colorful… and weird. “I don’t care if that bird came from outer space or Upper Saddle River, New Jersey…”), and stretches a single metaphor to breaking point (“…a bird, a bird as big as a battleship…“), but otherwise follows closely in the footsteps of predecessor¬†It Came From Beneath the Sea, hitting all the requisite monster mystery beats on the way to its threat attacking a name-recognized city. Peripheral inspirations are more scattered, with an appearance by the newly operational continent-spanning DEW Line radar array and an odd preoccupation with particle physics snatched directly from contemporary headlines. A bit of in-film monster mythology is lifted whole from the prolific Samuel Hopkins Adams’ short story¬†Munk Birgo and the Carcagne (which had been collected in 1955’s Grandfather Stories), while the first act, in which star Jeff Morrow spots a UFO that does not appear on radar, closely follows the plot of the inaugural episode of¬†Science Fiction Theater (Beyond, originally broadcast in April of 1955 – even the faux-documentary tone of the narration is copied).

Director Fred F. Sears holds his own as well, for the most part, though¬†The Giant Claw shows more evidence of a constrained schedule than do his more accomplished features (in her interview with Tom Weaver, published in It Came From Horrorwood,¬†co-star Mara Corday recalls the shoot lasting around 9 days). Early scenes are well blocked and have good coverage, though later scenes are a mixed bag. One mid-film discussion plays in an unbroken, rudimentarily-framed long-take, with perennial screen general Morris Ankrum delivering most of his lines with his back turned. Sears was rarely so careless, even under Katzman’s notoriously strict scheduling, and one suspects he was working against the clock just to get that day’s pages on-film. The few location shoots, including a handful of cabin exteriors, some exposition on an airstrip, and several romps through ever-dependable Griffith Park, feel likewise rushed and uninvolving, their potential lost in the singular race to get the action on film.

It was Sears’ willingness, eagerness, and indeed ability¬†to do whatever was necessary to see a project finished (not to mention the quality of his work, which suffered less under the stresses of budget production than others’) that made him Katzman’s go-to director at Clover, but it wouldn’t last. Clover’s unrelenting schedule, which had him finishing as many as ten films a year (in addition to his script reading and research duties), caught up to Sears in November of 1957, when he suffered a fatal heart attack in the midst of researching yet another picture. In a solemn testament to his prodigious rate of production, Sears’ final films – all five of them – would be released posthumously throughout 1958.¬†One wishes he hadn’t tried so hard, just this once at least. The Giant Claw¬†was to go down in infamy regardless, courtesy of a monster that ranks among cinema’s most preposterous.

In the half-century career of special effects pioneer Ralph Hammeras¬†The Giant Claw must have felt little more than an odd footnote. Entering the film industry in 1915 as a scenic artist, Hammeras would rise to prominence during his tenure at First National, where he supervised the elaborate miniature settings and trick photography for the 1925 production of¬†The Lost World¬†and eventually patented a new glass matte process for blending live action and scale miniatures. From the ’30s onward he worked primarily for Fox, excepting a loan out here and there, where he contributed to some of the greatest special effects of their time (like the 19th century conflagration of In Old Chicago and¬†the fantastic futurescape of the otherwise rancid Just Imagine, both Oscar-nominated). After numerous nominations Hammeras would ultimately land an Academy Award win for his supervision of the special effects for Disney’s still-fantastic 1954 adaptation of¬†20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The Giant Claw was a loan-out job for Hammeras, who was still hard at work in the Fox effects department in 1957. Though a prestige assignment it certainly wasn’t Hammeras appears to have enjoyed the job (going by his minimal discussion of it in Cinefex #15), which had him working out of a small studio space in Mexico City for several weeks.¬†There Hammeras helped old friend Willis O’Brien to prep his own space in the same studio, where he was soon at work on effects for Warner’s big bug horror¬†The Black Scorpion (a film to which Hammeras contributed some background paintings and miniatures). In the meanwhile he and a small team of game local film techs contrived the gargantuan space-bird “la Carcagne” and its various table-top rampages, cuts of which were to be either straight edited into the film or used as plates for stateside Columbia technician George Teague’s process photography.

Sam Katzman was too hands-on as a producer to not have seen rushes of Hammeras’ monster effects at some point during The Giant Claw‘s¬†production, but what, if anything, he thought of them is currently lost to time. One suspects that age-old B-specialist mantra to have been uttered more than once: “Good enough.” Indeed, the¬†finished film leaves it doubtful that Katzman viewed any of the footage as unusable. Piano wires abound and the various Carcagne maquettes’ most bumbling, ineffectual moments are left on full display. Hammeras and company’s larger scale puppets were, to their credit, surprisingly articulate, with their roving bloodshot eyes and flaring nostrils, but the design, oh, the design. Half an hour into the picture the Carcagne lurches on screen like Beaky Buzzard gone horribly wrong, downs a plane, and devours a few of its unsuspecting parachute-borne passengers with an audible ‘chomp!’ The overall effect doesn’t improve from there, the cast recoiling in terror at the world-ending potential of the terrifying beast while it menaces stock footage cattle or carries freight trains off like so many strings of sausages, all as the same jaw-dropping close-ups of its ghastly, interminably squawking face are repeated again and again. By the time the bird arrives in New York City, picking apart unstable models of the city’s most iconic sights with its monstrous schnoz, the silliness of it all has reached a fever pitch. Cut it. Print it. “Good enough.”

Hammeras would return to work at Fox for the remaining years of his career, a few loan-out jobs (like 1959’s¬†The Giant Gila Monster) excepted. He would contribute to the miniatures and backgrounds of the beloved¬†Journey to the Center of the Earth¬†and paint a matte for the disastrous¬†Cleopatra before retiring from the industry in 1963. Approved (with enthusiasm or otherwise) by Katzman, cut into the film with a sublime editorial indifference, and unleashed upon matinee audiences in June of 1957, his Carcagne remains one of the most ludicrous effects ever to have graced a major studio film.

The Giant Claw was, by most accounts, an embarrassment for its cast, a mix of dependable genre regulars. Dixon lists supporting player Morris Ankrum as having been “particularly unhappy”, while Bill Warren’s Keep Watching the Skies shares an anecdote from star Jeff Morrow’s daughter – the first time Morrow saw the film was at a local cinema, but the actor slipped out of the theater, humiliated, after witnessing the audience’s derisive response to it. In her aforementioned Weaver interview co-star Mara Corday relates how a typically hyperbolic Katzman oversold the film’s potential during her pre-production meeting with him (“I’m spending most of the budget on the special effects!“). The actress was ultimately, unavoidably unimpressed. As stated in the same interview, seeing The Giant Claw¬†was enough to cause her to reconsider her film career.

One can hardly blame the cast for their reactions. B-tier monster films rarely lent prestige to an actor’s r√©sum√© in the best of circumstances, and genre regulars Morrow (This Island Earth,¬†Kronos,¬†The Creature Walks Among Us) and Corday (Tarantula!, The Black Scorpion) certainly saw¬†The Giant Claw as a career barometer, if not a final straw. Morrow would turn to television shortly thereafter, landing the starring role in Robert A. Cinader’s series¬†Union Pacific and regularly appearing in guest spots elsewhere, while Corday, having battled declining film roles and a husband (The¬†Big Valley‘s Richard Long) who actively sabotaged her television ambitions, would retire from acting all together by the 1960s. Even Katzman appears to have seen the writing on the wall. Though contemporary box office reporting, via Rob Craig’s It Came from 1957, suggests The Giant Claw performed well enough on its double bill with¬†Night the World Exploded (a Katzman / Sears sci-fi about exploding rocks) to keep exhibitors happy, returns must have been below Katzman’s expectations. The producer would leave the horror game behind following¬†Claw and, never one to let a profitable genre pass him by, re-brand under the Four Leaf Productions banner to focus on comparatively lavish rock-and-roll pictures.

Though a blight upon its stars and a ready-made target for critics upon release, the decades have seen¬†The Giant Claw grow from a laughable monster programmer into a legitimate (albeit no less uproarious) cult item. After decades in regular rotation as weekend TV fodder The Giant Claw arrived on VHS in the late 1980s (an early offering from Goodtimes), became a staple of television monster movie marathons from there, and has since seen re-issue on DVD (from Sony and Mill Creek) and even Blu-ray (just this Spring from cult label Anolis). The Carcagne itself featured in the goofball sci-fi¬†TerrorVision and the big-name riff epic¬†It Came From Hollywood! and has spawned a host of garage kits and fan-art interpretations. The Giant Claw has even inspired its own art / poetry project – Gronk’s¬†A Giant Claw¬†from 2010. The terrible often has its own sort of irresistible appeal, and even after sixty years,¬†The Giant Claw remains a special kind of terrible indeed.