Escape Velocity: American Science Fiction Film, 1950–1982

Escape Velocity: American Science Fiction Film, 1950–1982

by Bradley Schauer

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<P>Today, movie theaters are packed with audiences of all ages marveling to exciting science fiction blockbusters, many of which are also critically acclaimed. However, when the science fiction film genre first emerged in the 1950s, it was represented largely by exploitation horror films—lurid, culturally disreputable, and appealing to a niche audience of children and sci-fi buffs. How did the genre evolve from B-movie to blockbuster? Escape Velocity charts the historical trajectory of American science fiction cinema, explaining how the genre transitioned from eerie low-budget horror like It Came from Outer Space to art films like Slaughterhouse-Five, and finally to the extraordinary popularity of hits like E.T. Bradley Schauer draws on primary sources such as internal studio documents, promotional materials, and film reviews to explain the process of cultural, aesthetic, and economic legitimation that occurred between the 1950s and 1980s, as pulp science fiction tropes were adapted to suit the tastes of mainstream audiences. Considering the inescapable dominance of today's effects-driven blockbusters, Escape Velocity not only charts the history of science fiction film, but also gives an account of the origins of contemporary Hollywood.</P>

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819576606
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 01/03/2017
Series: Wesleyan Film
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 8 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

<P>BRADLEY SCHAUER is assistant professor in the School of Theatre, Film &amp; Television at the University of Arizona. His articles have appeared in Film History, The Velvet Light Trap, and The Quarterly Review of Film and Video.</P>

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SF in the Postwar American Marketplace

We can trace the history of SF film in America nearly to the origins of the medium. Films about interplanetary travel and speculative futures were exhibited as early as 1903, when bootleg prints of Georges Méliès's Le voyage dans la lune (1902) circulated throughout the country. Other nations, such as Germany (Metropolis, 1927, and Frau im Mond, 1929), the Soviet Union (Aelita, 1924), and Great Britain (Things to Come, 1936), produced extravagant SF epics when the genre was practically nonexistent in the United States. This particular history of SF film begins in 1950, the first year SF was recognized as a distinct, relatively stable genre by the American film industry. Before 1950, films with SF elements tended to be one-off oddities like the futuristic musical Just Imagine (1930), or mad scientist tales like The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), which were produced, marketed, and received as horror films. While a number of SF film serials like Flash Gordon (1936) were released in the classical studio era, the marginal industrial status of the sound serial limited its influence on feature filmmaking until the blockbusters of the late 1970s and '80s.

Three American SF features were released in 1950, part of what Variety identified as "a new interplanetary film cycle." Five years later, approximately 25 SF films premiered in American theaters, and by the end of the '50s over 150 SF films had been released. As Patrick Lucanio argues, "Never in the history of motion pictures has any other genre developed and multiplied so rapidly in so brief a period." This proliferation is particularly noteworthy considering the near absence of SF from American screens in the prior decades. Scholars typically attribute the explosion of SF production in the 1950s to the genre's sociocultural timeliness, its ability to tap into the currents of "Cold War anxiety" that rippled through American culture in the postwar era. For instance, Victoria O'Donnell argues, "The near deluge of 1950s science fiction films was part of a fearful and anxious American cultural climate." We can also look at more directly influential factors, namely the epochal changes occurring in the American film industry in the postwar period. A sharp decline in box office attendance led studios to pursue new production strategies based on novel concepts and spectacular imagery; SF was an obvious topic for producers to pursue, because of its increasing cultural prominence. However, the genre was widely understood as juvenile and trivial, a serious obstacle faced by Eagle-Lion Films as it produced and distributed the first major SF film of the era, Destination Moon (1950). While Eagle-Lion was a relatively shortlived entity, the influence of Destination Moon is apparent in the many of the innumerable SF films to follow, particular its use of realism as a legitimating tactic.

* * *

SF as Topical Exploitation Cinema

The emergence of SF in the 1950s was greatly facilitated by the changes that transformed Hollywood after the end of the Second World War. The 1946 attendance peak of ninety million tickets sold per week, spurred by the hordes of returning servicemen and the postwar surge in disposable income, provided a false sense of security to an industry that was headed for a steep decline. Within a few years, theatrical attendance had plummeted; in 1951 only sixty-four million tickets were sold per week. Studio profits shriveled from $120 million in 1946 to only $30.8 million in 1950. Television is often cited as the primary culprit in this recession, but as Tino Balio notes, the box office slump was under way years before television was popularized in the mid-1950s. With war's end, a galaxy of entertainment opportunities was suddenly available to average Americans, including radio, records, outdoor activities, and vacationing. Furthermore, the middle class began to migrate to the suburbs, where it was no longer convenient to attend the large downtown theaters that generated most of the industry's revenue.

These cultural shifts alone ensured the eventual overhaul of the American film industry. But a momentous United States Supreme Court ruling expedited the transition. The 1948 "Paramount decision" formally dismantled the classical studio system, which was declared an illegal oligopoly. The court recognized that the success of the largest studios in the 1930s and '40s (Paramount, MGM, RKO, Twentieth Century-Fox, and Warner Bros.) was directly tied to their vertically integrated organization. The "Big Five" maximized profits and dominated their independent competitors through the ownership of not only production studios, but also distribution networks and theaters. The studios' prolific production slates were funded by distribution fees and box office receipts from their first-run picture palaces, which charged a premium for admission. The majors' affiliated theaters received priority bookings over independent exhibitors, who were prohibited from showing major releases until they had finished their initial runs. Additionally, while the studios tended to book their best films into one another's theaters, independents were forced to rent in multi-film packages, often containing an entire year's schedule of films. This practice, known as block booking, ensured that all major studio product would be exhibited, regardless of quality.

The studio oligopoly was challenged as early as 1938 by a Department of Justice that, under Thurman Arnold, was aggressively pursuing antitrust suits against a variety of American industries. A series of compromises and consent decrees proved unsatisfactory to all parties, until in 1948 the Supreme Court determined that the majors were operating in restraint of trade, and ordered the divorcement of the exhibition branch from production and distribution, and the divestiture of their affiliated theaters. Unfair practices like block booking and blind bidding (the sale of films to exhibitors sight unseen) were also forbidden. The decision was intended to stimulate competition and level the playing field for independent producers and exhibitors, the victims of the majors' monopolistic tactics. Although the studios hung on to their theaters for several more years (MGM did not sign a consent decree until 1959), Hollywood's business model was drastically altered by the Court's order.

The box office slump of the late 1940s, combined with the elimination of block booking, contributed to important changes in film content. Not only were audiences becoming more discriminating as a result of the increase in entertainment options, but exhibitors also had more control over which films they booked for their theaters. With block booking, studios could package several less appealing features with a single blockbuster, guaranteeing that even the weakest films were exhibited. Under the new government-ordered à la carte distribution system, exhibitors bid for films singly. This placed a new burden on the producer to ensure that each film could stand alone as an attractive entertainment option to audiences, and as a valuable commodity to theater owners.

With no theaters of their own to fill, the major studios focused on fewer, more expensive films meant to draw audiences for prolonged theatrical runs. As I discuss in the next chapter, B films were gradually phased out, replaced by more expensive "programmers" and more provocative, sensational exploitation films. Adapting to the new, more selective market, big-budget A films began to privilege visual splendor and spectacle more than in prior decades. As Peter Lev notes, "Television was limited by a small screen, poor visual definition, black and white (rather than color), and mediocre sound quality. Film could do better in all these areas." Color cinematography, once reserved for only the most expensive films, became almost routine, especially with the popularization of the cheaper one-strip Eastmancolor process in the early 1950s. By 1954, 58 percent of films in production were shot in color. Other strategies intended to enhance visual grandeur included location shooting in exotic locales; wide-screen processes like CinemaScope; 3-D cinematography; and innovative special effects.

Certain genres rose to new prominence. For instance, the historical epic had been a Hollywood hallmark since the teens, but beginning in 1949 with Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah it was emphasized like never before. Biblical epics like Samson and The Robe (1953) offered towering, ornate sets, extravagant costumes, and astonishing set pieces like the Circus Maximus sequences in Quo Vadis (1951). While SF did not attain the historical epic's level of popularity in the '50s, in theory it was well positioned to take advantage of the new demands of the marketplace owing to its striking iconography like flying saucers, rocket ships, and robots. Color and widescreen would only enhance the impact of these spectacular images, and studio special effects departments could be put to work designing elaborate scenes of disaster, or creating the landscapes of distant planets.

SF also offered many colorful and weird story ideas, from space travel to alien invasions to brain transplants, which distributors and theaters could use in promotion. Films with unusual concepts or scenarios were another important point of emphasis in postwar Hollywood. In 1949, Variety noted that the studios were "concentrating upon exploitation pictures to a degree seldom reached in the past ... in a bid for new audiences and to maintain business already at hand." This particular definition of "exploitation film" referred not to the lurid, underground "classical exploitation films," nor the low-budget genre films that would be popularized in the mid-to-late '50s. Rather, Variety referred to mainstream films that had an interesting, timely narrative angle or concept that could facilitate promotion — or "exploitation," to use industry parlance. This broad definition covered films as varied as RKO's giant-ape film Mighty Joe Young (1949), the independent auto-racing drama The Big Wheel (1949), and Fox's gritty World War II picture Halls of Montezuma (1950). The trade press at the time also highlighted "gimmick pictures" or "topical films" as "the dominant category of product that has been scoring at the b.o." Again, the definition — films that "are off the beaten path" — was expansive, but generally referred to political or social-problem films like The Snake Pit (1948) or All the King's Men (1949).

This new emphasis on timely or exploitable concepts represented an important shift in major studio production strategies. The industry recognized that "with a sagging boxoffice, new means must be employed to lure patrons into theatres." Classical Hollywood cinema had generally relied on the star system for its primary appeals, but in the postwar era, novel story lines could be as valuable, or more valuable, than star casting. Social-problem films like Pinky (1949) and lighter fare like Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) were hits on the basis of their concepts (racial "passing" and a family with twelve children, respectively) rather than their actors. Traditionally, stars helped differentiate major studio product from more marginal independent films; beginning in the immediate postwar period the boundaries between these disparate production modes began to blur. As Variety astutely noted in 1946: "In [the] past, films with some timely or currently controversial subject which can be ... capitalized on in publicity and advertising, were the product mostly of the smaller companies. ... It was more propitious for studios with shorter budgets to concentrate on this type of production, letting the majors turn out films with draw names to top them. Recognizing the terrific profits such exploitation pictures made for their studios, major lots decided to cash in." This adoption of independent studio production strategies by the majors was a trend that would continue throughout the decade.

Rather than just a manifestation of national sociopolitical anxieties, the SF production cycle of the 1950s can be understood as part of this new emphasis on topicality in Hollywood. SF concepts were culturally prominent in America for a number of reasons in the postwar period. First, new technologies like rocketry and the atomic bomb were highly visible in American culture, and interest in popular science had reached new levels. According to Paul S. Boyer, initial fears about the dangers of the atomic bomb had been "muted" by the late 1940s, owing in part to aggressive government propaganda efforts that emphasized the many positive benefits of nuclear energy. Carroll Pursell argues that magazines like Popular Mechanics worked to demystify and therefore domesticate an atomic technology that seemed "magical in the sense that though it appeared to work, most people could not explain how." Rocket scientists like Wernher von Braun became media celebrities, promoting the scientific and cultural importance of rocketry and the burgeoning space program. In January 1949 Life magazine published a heavily illustrated article titled "Rocket to the Moon," which argued that "engineers believe that a manned rocket ... may get to the moon within the next 25 years." The article's illustrations appear to be an influence on the rocket design and lunar imagery of early '50s SF films like Destination Moon and Rocketship XM (1950).

New technologies were also closely bound to the tremendous increase in consumer spending that occurred once wartime rationing ceased. Suburban homes came equipped with all the latest appliances, including refrigerators, garbage disposals, and climate control, and do-it-yourself projects equated masculinity with a mastery of technologies like electric drills. Economists and business leaders celebrated the merging of technology with capitalism, arguing that America was rapidly headed toward utopia — perhaps as early as 1980! These attitudes exhibit more than a little Cold War nationalism, but also indicate the extent to which rapid technological innovation had become an expected part of everyday life in America. The speculative technologies and gadgets of SF could tap into and exploit this technophilic euphoria.

SF was also a hot topic in the late 1940s and early '50s because reports of flying saucer sightings had proliferated across the mainstream American press. The UFO craze began in June 1947 when the national media picked up the story of pilot Kenneth Arnold, who reported seeing discshaped objects moving through the air at high speeds while he was flying near Mount Rainier. Hundreds of individual sightings soon followed, and in January 1948 the U.S. Air Force opened an official investigation, originally called Project Sign. In April and May 1949 the popular general-interest magazine the Saturday Evening Post, in cooperation with the government, published a lengthy two-part article that attempted to debunk the UFO phenomenon. These efforts only served to intensify the resolve of those who believed in the flying saucers' existence. In January 1950 ex-Marine aviator and pulp SFwriter Donald E. Keyhoe argued in the men's magazine True that the military had been covering up information proving that flying saucers were indeed extraterrestrial. Keyhoe quickly expanded his sensationalist article into a book that sold over half a million copies.

The UFO phenomenon arguably reached its apex in April 1952 when Life, perhaps the most respected popular magazine in the country, published a lengthy, seemingly well-researched article implying that the "flying saucers" were of extraterrestrial origin. While it is unlikely that a majority of Americans truly believed aliens were visiting Earth, historians Patrick Lucanio and Gary Coville argue that fears of Soviet invasion, combined with rapid innovations in military technology, left the public vulnerable to suggestions of this kind. For Hollywood producers, of course, the mere circulation of the question in the national discourse was sufficient to warrant pursuing the topic. Flying saucers quickly became an indelible part of SF iconography.

Finally, SF topics were exceedingly exploitable in the postwar period because SF literature, in the form of pulp magazines and hardcover anthologies, was more culturally prominent and popular than ever. Before World War II, SF was limited almost exclusively to stories in pulp magazines. So named because of the poor quality of their paper, pulp magazines date back to the late nineteenth century, although titles specifically devoted to SF did not arrive until Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories in 1926. The (literally) cheap thrills of the pulps' adventure and mystery stories appealed largely to the working class, particularly men — readers who were not served by the more reputable "slick" magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, which targeted a more sophisticated, wealthier family audience. Compared to the slicks, some of which sold millions of copies per month, SF pulps were niche publications; even the most popular SF magazines sold fewer than two hundred thousand copies an issue. The wartime rationing of paper and ink led to attrition in the publishing industry, and by the late 1940s only a handful of the best-selling SF pulp titles remained.


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Table of Contents

<P>Acknowledgments<BR>Introduction: SF and the American Film Industry<BR>Realizing the Future: SF in the Postwar American Marketplace<BR>The Pulp Paradox: SF Film of the 1950s<BR>From Parody to Profundity: 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Critical Legitimation of SF Film<BR>Return to Relevance: Art, Exploitation, and Politics in SF Film, 1968–1976<BR>Revenge of the Nerds: The Pulp SF Blockbuster, 1977–1982<BR>Conclusion: SF Film Today<BR>Notes<BR>Bibliography<BR>Index</P>

What People are Saying About This

Dana Polan

“Expertly, Bradley Schauer chronicles science fiction's move from pulpy, nerdy sub-genre to the mainstream, even perhaps the absolute center, of Hollywood cinema today. Through rigorous research, Schauer insightfully revises standard conceptions of genre and productively revises how we do film history.”

Bob Rehak

“More than just another genre study, this history reveals the special effects of an entire media industry, showing how the producers, audiences, and technologies of SF film laid an analog groundwork for our contemporary world of transmedia blockbusters.”

From the Publisher

"Expertly, Bradley Schauer chronicles science fiction's move from pulpy, nerdy sub-genre to the mainstream, even perhaps the absolute center, of Hollywood cinema today. Through rigorous research, Schauer insightfully revises standard conceptions of genre and productively revises how we do film history."—Dana Polan, New York University

"More than just another genre study, this history reveals the special effects of an entire media industry, showing how the producers, audiences, and technologies of SF film laid an analog groundwork for our contemporary world of transmedia blockbusters."—Bob Rehak, Swarthmore College

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