Posted by Moira Finnie on December 14, 2011
My favorite mad scientist may just be Dr. Arthur Carrington, the hopelessly naive (but very dressy) ascot-, turtleneck-, and blazer-wearing trailblazer in The Thing From Another World (1951). Every time I see this movie set in a military and scientific observation station in the frozen North, I always wonder where this man’s parka could be. Did he forget to pack it in a moment of absent-mindedness while in the lower 48? As played by character actor Robert Cornthwaite (seen above, with his head in a script), he is the embodiment of polished intellectual curiosity without a shred of common sense.
As far as I’m concerned, you can keep the other actors in this movie, (even George Fenneman, shortly before he became Groucho Marx’s game show flunky and that big galoot lumbering around in disguise long before Gunsmoke premiered on television)–the star of this film is the rather epicene Doc Carrington, played to a fare-thee-well by the unsung Cornthwaite, a small man with a receding hairline, a sneaky wit, and a cold mien that suits this part perfectly. The authoritative actor, seething with a bookish hauteur, appears to have created a colorful backstory for his character–He is the erudite man of science, disheartened (and maybe bored out of his skull), who is becoming increasingly unable to cope with the psychological demands of his daily grind after months penned up inside the bleak, fetid atmosphere of this frostbitten outpost where he languishes in the company of a passel of Air Force yahoos, a few doddering biologists, and some malleable underlings. The bottled-up, almost terminally frustrated Carrington appears to be a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, as eventually becomes clear throughout the nimbly staged 87 minute movie. He’s also quite a hoot.
This cold war era film, which begins when a massive UFO lands amid this frozen wasteland, was officially directed by former film editor Christian Nyby, though it was rumored to have been shaped by a slumming Howard Hawks, who was the producer. Based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s story “Who Goes There?” with a screenplay credited to sharp veteran writers Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht, Hawks seems to have had a hand in the script as well. That last bit may help to explain the playful sexual tension between the male and female leads, and a clutch of sober-sided academic types, among them Eduard Franz and Paul Frees, (both of whom might have shared an office with “Dr. David Huxley”–before he met “Susan Vance” and began helping her to bring up her slinky “Baby”). There is also a naturalism and snappy bonhomie among the various servicemen and civilians, who include Dewey Martin, Douglas Spencer, and William Self. That good-natured joshing would be needed as the action unfurls and the aloof, misguided if idealistic Carrington character accelerates the danger this band faces from a truly ominous opponent.
Soon, after the crew cart back what appears to be a frozen cadaver from the wreck, a very large, apparently humanoid but distinctly alien presence makes itself known to the military and scientific habitués of the Arctic station, making mincemeat of the humans, sled dogs and illusions of all those it encounters. However, imbued with a touching belief in progress and rational scientific method, the good Dr. Carrington can’t help admiring the creature’s exceptional biological adaptability.
When “The Thing” loses a body part, Carrington soon finds that when nurtured properly (with Grade A plasma and a heat lamp), that piece of alien flesh will reproduce itself like a lima bean seedling zapped with nuclear fertilizer (or like “an intelligent carrot”). Presto, Doc jumps to the conclusion that the visitor must be wiser than we earthlings and–radical thought for the fifties!–might just respond positively to a peaceful and respectful greeting from our lowly species. Jiminy Christmas, what a loopy but persuasive jackass Carrington soon proves to be. Sure, he may be smooth enough to snow Nikki Nicholson (Hawks protégée Margaret Sheridan) into withholding vital info from her honey, Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey, the red-haired hero of many a sci-fi flick from the period)–at least for a time.
Once things really get dicey, (and frosty, after “The Thing” cuts out the heat) Carrington dons what looks suspiciously like a Russian ushanka hat (hey, Comrade Beau Brummel, is that made of black lamb?). The hoity-toity lab rat then cuts electrical power in the name of scientific advancement to “help” prevent the monster’s demise by kilowatt, making the PhD start to look like a saboteur with a heckuva death wish. After the doc’s attempted heart-to-heart with this awfully cranky and exceptionally large creature (played with largely silent but athletic zeal by James Arness) some sense is finally knocked into the misguided highbrow as his sorry broken carcass is carried away to the sick bay by his understandably miffed compatriots. (He lives, by the way, though he goes unseen after this moment on center stage. His fellow humans cover up nicely for him too, bending the truth in a newspaper article being radioed back to civilization to make Carrington sound heroic instead of psychotic. “Print the legend,” eh?).
As Robert Cornthwaite explained to author Tom Weaver in “Double Feature Creature Attack” (McFarland, 2003), in The Thing From Another World, he was appearing in only his third movie, and it was the first time he was assigned a credited role. He was also playing a man of about fifty-five (even though he was only thirty-three at the time), but he soon realized that the part required him to create “a kind of reality in eyes and in movement. My principal concern was with that. Also there are a few references in there to the fact that Carrington’s a Nobel Prize winner,” the actor explained. “Well, that kind of puts you on the spot! If I had any images in mind, I suppose they were maybe a little of [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, who was in the news at that time (not specifically any mannerisms of his); and also Enrico Fermi,* the Italian who was in on the atomic bomb. Such people. That was the image in my mind: A man of some dignity, but not without a sense of humor, but (laughs) with a pasted-on beard, it’s hard to smile without cracking the foliage on your face!”
While The Thing from Another World (1951) remains an evergreen favorite of fans of fifties’ sci-fi, it is, of course, open to interpretation. Couched in terms of a kid’s movie, it is still a cautionary tale for fifties’ audiences grimly dealing with all the anxiety in post-war American. McCarthyism’s anti-intellectual purges sprang from fear as much as real threats and the filmmakers tap into that primeval worry in all of us about what dark shapes we see beyond the campfire at night. On screen the uneasy arguments between the scientist and the military and the citizenry as America tried to learn to be a super-power without giving up freedom and humanity (a trickier proposition than history has yet to truly acknowledge), are implicit in this highly entertaining story told on the most entertaining level of a child’s matinee, but presented in a sophisticated form, thanks to the Hawksian overlapping patter, the cast’s abilities, the brisk pacing, the compelling, unknowable danger posed by this creature and the “soft” scientist’s desire to get to be friends with “The Thing.”
Paul Zollo’s new “Hollywood Remembered: An Oral History of its Golden Age” (Taylor Trade Publications, 2011) features a welcome, in-depth chapter of the veteran character actor’s memories of growing up in Southern California after being born in Oregon, (no, Robert Cornthwaite was not British after all, despite those burnished vowels and consonants and the dulcet tones that marked his speech). His entry into show business came via school plays, professional theater, radio and only eventually movies–after almost being hired by Paramount just as WWII took him away from his hopes of an acting career for several years. Finding himself back in California and only able to find steady work in radio, Cornthwaite tried to appease his home radio station, which wanted his exclusive services while he desperately tried to make ends meet. Needing extra income, he made up names for all the “other” announcers he worked as at other stations, using pseudonyms. His favorite alias: Alexander Van Derzant! “Simply because,” he explained, “it sounded like a bucket falling downstairs…”
Eventually, he began appearing in movies in uncredited roles, encountering a kindly (if often disgruntled) Victor Mature on the set of RKO’s Gambling House (1950), which appears to be a rather good noir in retrospect. Playing on Mature’s strengths (telling a Lucky Luciano type story with just an echo of Hathaway’s brilliant 1947 noir, Kiss of Death in the leading man’s performance) the film really existed, according to Cornthwaite, to feature as many shots as possible of the bosom of Terry Moore, who was RKO chief Howard Hughes’ girlfriend at the time. Fortunately, Mature took a liking to Cornthwaite even though the leading man loathed the film. Then a mere day player, the young actor was asked to share the star’s dressing along with a few pointed remarks about the film’s feeble script–before Mature tossed it through the door onto the set in disgust.
Despite his gallant work in The Thing From Another World (tsk, tsk, why no Oscar buzz for this crowd pleasing performance?) and a kajillion television and movie parts, Robert Cornthwaite (1917-2006) is probably destined to be an unknown name to all but a few madcap cinephiles. Fortunately for those who do care, he can be seen almost day and night in reruns somewhere. One time he’ll pop up as an out of control cavalry Major in New Mexico in an episode of The Rifleman, another time he makes a credible John James Audubon in an episode of The Adventures of Jim Bowie, a Wendell Wilkie-like opponent to FDR in the 1940 election on The Twilight Zone, in many appearances on Perry Mason in the sixties, and he graces movies from The War of the Worlds (1953) to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), as well as a delightful turn as a droll “Dr. Flankon” in Joe Dante’s lovely (and funny) homage to sci-fi flicks, Matinee (1993).
As you can probably tell from his above remarks, Cornthwaite was far from the pompous martinets he played so well. In interviews, he mentions that he never really played himself on screen, but only characters, most of whom were far from his own personality. Based on his own words, he appears to have been a warm, civil, funny and very hard-working guy whose only really nostalgic comment was his wistful remark about his early years in Hollywood “…it was a kinder society then. [film making and show business in general] was a smaller game, and there were fewer people here…”
If you’d like to revisit Robert Cornthwaite‘s delightful performance inThe Thing from Another World (1951), it is available on DVD and appears on the TCM schedule from time to time, including next March 29th, 2012 @ 5:15 AM (ET).
Weaver, Tom, Double Feature Creature Attack, McFarland, 2003.
Zollo, Paul, Hollywood Remembered: An Oral History of Its Golden Age, Taylor Trade Publications, 2011.
*Perhaps Cornthwaite‘s characterization of his scientist was inspired by a colorful if possibly apocryphal story about Enrico Fermi. At Los Alamos–perhaps purely as a scientific jest–Fermi was allegedly bold enough to make a one dollar bet with his fellow physicists regarding the likelihood of the earth’s atmosphere bursting into flame when the first nuclear explosion occurred. Some sources claim he even paid off on the bet prior to the Trinity test. Lucky for us, it didn’t happen, I guess.
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