Posted by David Kalat on December 18, 2010
It’s that time of year when families gather around the TV to watch their holiday favorites. It’s a Wonderful Life, The Charlie Brown Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street… comfort viewing. Movies in which people gather together against the cold and dark outside, to seek warmth and companionship and the comfort of tradition. Movies about faith tested, and magic creatures from the snow whose visitations prove so vexatious to the small souls among us.
Movies like… Howard Hawk’s The Thing From Another World!
The story begins in Anchorage , Alaska, where a group of men are huddled against the bitter cold. There’s a small fire, some music is playing. They’re playing a friendly game of cards. It could be a Christmastime family gathering in Anytown, USA.
We meet our central figure, Captain Hendry. He is a by-the-book military man, a stuffed shirt who sublimates his entire being to the will of unseen superiors, a human machine. Throughout the film he will be gruffly trying to shut down everyone else’s fun. Wotta grinch!
But he has redemption in his future–a woman who will melt his heart of ice. Thanks to her, his heart is tied to the North Pole—he is inexorably pulled to the Pole, where some scientists are holding what is repeatedly referred to as a “party,” or a “picnic.” Sounds terrific! So—off to Polar Expedition 6 at the North Pole!
A great many Christmas stories involve travel to the North Pole, of course. I think Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express is possibly the most germane to this situation, but I’ll address the parallels to Polar Express when we come to the film’s climax. For now, let me just direct your attention to “Scotty,” the lanky journalist who tags along in hopes of finding a juicy story at the North Pole. He will find more than he bargained for.
Here are our characters enjoying a nice cup of hot coffee en route to the Pole:
Their journey is complicated by the fact that magnetic interference is tampering with the plane’s navigational controls. The radioman at Polar Expedition 6 offers to sing over the radio to give them a beacon to home in on.
Hendry, ever the grinchy Scrooge of our story, rejects this fine offer. Too bad—I wonder what stirring carol he would have sung?
(Side note: in its final release form, the film contains no musical numbers)
Hendry and the newcomers make their way to the base. What will they find there? Santa’s elves?
No, it turns out this is not Santa’s workshop, just a base full of scientists.
But they’ve made a startling discovery—out in the snow is a crashed vehicle of some kind. Possibly Santa’s sleigh, you might think. Certainly an unusual vessel.
Hendry’s team salvage the occupant from the crashed ship and bring him back to camp.
The scientists are thrilled beyond measure at the find. Several times the dialog describes their reaction as “like kids—9 year olds drooling over a new fire engine.”
So we have the basic metaphor of the story: the scientists are innocent kids, and they’ve found a magic snowman.
The conflict of the story, then, is that while these metaphorical “kids” have received a fantastic gift, something special and unique, the hard-boiled Hendry wants to take it away. It’s a resonant theme because everyone on the audience, at one time or another, has had a parent or other authority figure snatch away a beloved toy. “It’s for your own good,” they say, as they take away the things we want. And sometimes it is–as adults we come to learn that sad lesson–but that never dulls the hurt. The magic snowman of this story isn’t a benevolent Frosty, and Hendry is justified in his meanness, but the story works because we feel some of that childlike wonder of Carrington and his colleagues. Leave our snowman alone!
No wonder Hendry’s girlfriend ties him up and administers a 1950s precursor to waterboarding on the guy. When will this Scrooge develop a heart?
There must have been some magic in that old silk blanket… for when they placed it on his head, the snowman starts to stir and wiggle. Then they heard him holler, “AAAAAUUUUUURRRRRRFGGGGGFF!”
The snowman isn’t a man. Not even an animal. And it cannot die (“not as we understand dying.”) It is likened to a carrot. “An intellectual carrot,” says Scotty, “the mind boggles.” It can be no coincidence that the traditional image of Frosty is a snowman with a carrot for a nose…
And speaking of Frosty, who is that actor playing Dr. Voorhees?
Why, yes, that’s Paul Frees! You might know him for his many cartoon voices (Barney the Bear, Bullwinkle’s Boris Badenov, the narrator of Donald in Mathemagic Land…) but a quick glance at his CV reveals he was a mainstay of Christmas specials: Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Frosty’s Winter Wonderland, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year… the list keeps going, mind you. He’s played Santa Claus more often than Tim Allen.
Meanwhile, his boss, Dr. Carrington, tries to explain why the magic snowman is so important to him. He’s afraid that Grinchy Hendry will kill it, and ruin “our only chance to talk to it—to learn—it’s wiser than we are.” Carrington uses that word “wise” a lot in reference to the snowman. It seems odd, out of place—the thing doesn’t speak, except to growl and grunt, so why does he think it’s wise? Linger on that word: he doesn’t say it’s smart, or clever, or funny, or nice. He doesn’t say it has a good personality. He says it’s “wise.” A mysterious stranger, coming from a star… the evocations of the three wise men and the Christmas Story are palpable. Are there two other snowmen like him, still in the ice? Did they bring gifts?
Carrington has a clever plan to protect his Wise Man from Grinchy Hendry. He’s discovered that the severed hand can sprout and continue growing, if fed human blood, so he plants it and cultivates a number of Thingie spores. That way, even if the full grown Wise Man is killed, his supernatural wisdom and beneficence will survive.
This has me thinking… I’ve always been intrigued by the multiple versions of St. Nicholas in different countries. He goes by different names (St. Nick, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Pere Noel…) each of which looks a little different and comes with a slightly varied set of traditions. David Sedaris has built a comedy empire on musing on these variances. But who’s actually gone and figured out why there are all these differences? Perhaps, just perhaps, some Dr. Carrington-esque figure in the distant past took Santa’s severed hand and grew clones by dousing it in human blood? It’d explain a lot.
Time for another character to describe Carrington as a “kid with a new toy.” Who but a Grinch would try to take a new toy from a kid? This Hendry fella is one hard-hearted miser. He’s worked up an elaborate plot to kill the Wise Man, and has most of the base converted to his smallminded worldview. A soldier asks aloud, “how could it get through corrugated iron walls?” Well, duh, Sherlock—magic, that’s how! He’s a magic snowman!
At least one of the soldiers “gets” it: he wonders if the Thing can read their minds. Whether or not the Thing is telepathic is unclear. In different stories, Santa and Frosty are sometimes depicted as having mind-reading abilities, but it isn’t consistent—and it isn’t clear whether the Thing is more of a Santa figure, or more of a Frosty. Too bad it’s not in color. I’d be curious how the Thing is dressed. Is that a red fur-lined suit he’s wearing? Check out this autographed photo of James Arness as the Thing, and you tell me if he looks suspiciously Santa-like:
There’s been a longstanding debate among pointy headed film nerds about what role Howard Hawks had in making this picture. He’s the credited producer, and the credits say Christian Nyby directed. There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest Hawks actually directed most or all of it, and gave Christian the official credit to help the younger man’s career–but as far as solid documentary evidence one way or the other, there are contradictions in the records enough to fuel both sides of the debate. Any film scholar who wishes to take a firm stand on the question will be able to defend his or her position–
Having said that, here’s how I weigh in:
I want to focus on this one scene, from the build-up to the climax. Hendry, his gal pal Nicky, and newspaperman Scotty are making plans to trap the Thing in an electrical maelstrom and burn it to death. Nicky makes a discovery that the heat has been turned off, and this gives them a clue as to the magic snowman’s comings and goings, and how it’s making it’s own counterplans against them. I’ll rephrase that: the point of the scene is that the growing cold is a clue to the Thing’s whereabouts.
Now, just about any other director in the history of cinema would manage to efficiently whip off this little moment–maybe Nicky would say, “gee, fellas, I’m gettin’ cold,” and the other two would flap their arms against their sides in the Universal Gesture of Being Cold, and you’d be off to the next scene. 10 seconds and you’re done.
Then there are those rarefied few visionary filmmakers with an eye for detail and a perfectionist streak who’d go to the bother of refrigerating the set so the actors’ breath was visible.
But, who other than Howard Hawks would film it like this: Scotty and Hendry are bantering about hairlines and bad breath (!) while Nicky tries to alert their attention to the visible breath.
Try to wrap your head around that one. If you or I walked into a cold room, the way we’d know it was cold is we’d feel that it’s cold. These guys don’t feel cold until they notice their breath is fogging up. This makes no logical sense (what? Do these people also not realize they’re hungry until they notice they’ve gone and fixed a sandwich?)–but it works as a movie moment. These aren’t real people (who might feel cold), they’re 2-dimensional shadows who inhabit of world composed exclusively of lights and sounds. They can’t feel cold, they can only “feel cold.”
This is how Howard Hawks approaches everything: fully realized movie characters inhabiting an artificial but complete movie world, who go around talking and doing things. The plot is ever just a contrivance to provide an excuse for the characters to move around and do things. Only in a Howard Hawks would a scene like this be hi-jacked and turned on its head, so that the scene becomes its own self-justification.
Because we’re in a Hawks movie, the self-justified force of the plot chugs along–and before you know it, Hendry seems to triumph—he kills the Thing.
I know, I know. Christmas stories aren’t supposed to end like this, with the magic snowman melted in front of his screaming, distraught acolytes.
Then again, as a result of his encounter with the magic wise man, Hendry is a transformed man. His robotic military resolve has softened. Now he’s talking about marriage with Nicky—she doesn’t even need to tie him up!
His heart grew three sizes that day!
In addition, remember Scotty, the journalist? He’s been itching to cover this encounter for his paper, but has been censored by Hendry throughout. The fiery climax sees the Thing destroyed utterly—before Scotty has had a chance to photograph it. He will be leaving the Pole without tangible proof of his supernatural experience…
And that’s the plot of The Polar Express! The little boy travels to the North Pole and meets Santa, but due to a distracted mind he loses the silver bell that Santa gave him, and returns home without proof. [Spoiler alert:] Santa mails him the bell, but the kid discovers that people who don’t already believe in Santa can’t hear the bell, so his attempts to persuade them of his experience are frustrating.
Scotty ends up in the same position. His distracted mind kept him from snapping any photos, so he finished up on the radio, calling out to all other believers, “Tell the world! Keep watching the skies!”
That’s right, folks! Just keep believing, and if we all believe hard enough and long enough together, if we keep watching the skies vigilantly, the magic wise man will return!
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