People Who Need People

Let’s see: we know never to smile at a crocodile, but what must one never do at an alligator?

THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE, directed by poor old Roy Del Ruth, has in many ways the feel of a Corman B-quickie monster farrago, (leading lady Beverly Garland had already made several of these, including the much-admired cheesefests NOT OF THIS EARTH and IT CONQUERED THE WORLD), but it’s actually a 20th Century Fox production with delusions of adequacy.

I had to watch it because it’s part of my See Reptilicus and Die quest to witness every celluloid monstrosity memorialized in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, but curiously enough my strongest association with the film is from another Gifford book, Movie Monsters, a little paperback I owned as a kid. This was a collection of pieces on various celebrated movieland beasts, each illustrated with a snazzy b&w still, into which the alligator people had somehow trespassed — there was a feeling of weary indulgence on Gifford’s part, as if perhaps he had a reptilian quota to fill, or he felt he didn’t have enough US-based fiends, or the 50s were under-represented or something.

The movie starts almost promisingly with some dynamic vehicular second unit and some stylish transitions, lulling you into an illusion that somebody behind the scenes gives a damn. It’s an illusion that disintegrates progressively as the malarkey continues, but it does get us off to a good start. A couple of leaden shrinks jocularly ponder a baffling case, a nurse (la Garland)  who has revealed a peculiar story under the influence of sodium pentathol (Shrink 1 apparently routinely dopes his staff, especially the cute ones).

Enter Beverly, perky. “What’s wrong with her? Is she insane?” asked Fiona, aghast. “No, she’s just Beverly Garland,” I explained, in much the same way I had to account for Victor McLaglan to students (“Who’s he? Why is he grinning like that?”) Beverly has turned her eager-to-please charm up to eleven. She hangs on Shrink 1’s every word, and she’s so pleased to meet Shrink 2 one fears she may blow a gasket, or somehow melt her smiling apparatus. We check the running time: 74 minutes. The exact duration we feel we can bask in the radiance of Beverly Garland without our skins drying out.

SLEEP! Beverly is doped and hynotized in a trice (one look at her and you know she’s going to be a receptive subject) and we’re flashbacking to the sad tale of her disappearing husband and her quest to track him down in the Louisiana bayou.

CAUTION: Radioactive Material. So Bev sits on it.

Here we meet Lon Chaney Jnr, who has a hook for a hand and a grudge against ‘gators. “I’m gonna kill you, alligator man!” He’s exactly like Captain Hook, in other words, only very very drunk. His character name is Manon, but he resists the urge to dance naked among goats. The missing hubby’s mum is Frieda Inescort, an Edinburgh-born actress of great dignity, all things considered. And then there’s gorgeous George MacReady, as a disappointingly non-mad scientist.

Here, we sympathize: the mad scientist stereotype is a pernicious cliche and if you can avoid using it, you probably should. But cliches attain their status by virtue of usefulness, and making THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE’s atomic experimenter a reasonable guy rather wastes MacReady’s talent for hoarse maleficence, and leaves the plot dangling listlessly. Plus, the tragic finale comes not as a “There are some things man was not meant to know” wagging Finger of Doom warning, but as a “shit happens” shrug of the scaly shoulders.

“No, Mr Alligator, I expect you to die!” Seriously DIG how George has set up his atomic laser of healing in what appears to be his living room.

The plum part falls to Richard Crane, Beverly’s absconding spouse, who was repaired after wartime injuries by MacReady’s radiation/alligator based treatment. Unfortunately, the side-effect of said treatment is full-scale mutation into an alligator. Who could possibly have predicted such a thing? Here, we must admit, is some full-blooded Mad Science. Patiently, and for about ten minutes, MacReady explains to Garland that some members of the reptile family have extraordinary powers of healing, and it was his dream to harness this ability for the benefit of mankind. For instance, some lizards, when they lose their tails, can grow new ones.

“Can alligators do that?” asked Fiona.

“No,” I said, thus collapsing the movie’s entire premise into a little white dot, just as if I’d flicked the TV off with the remote.

Baselessly, the film trundles on. Crane gets some decent pathos, and the more seriously regressed patients are as genuinely disturbing as they are ludicrous in their tennis-racket-shaped beekeeper hats. MacReady has a bulging staff of Muscle Marys to keep these “revolting scaly monarchs of the swamps” in line: these male nurses apparently learned healthcare from Joe Louis, and resort to a swift right to the jaw when their patients show excessive crocodilian ebullience.

Crane’s leathery good looks are an early work by makeup supremo Dick Smith (THE EXORCIST), and they’re reasonably effective when he’s in his early stages, despite the fact that there’s practically no way to combine human and lizard characteristics using 1959 makeup effects.

Just when it seems that only a major transfusion of silliness can make this movie worth sitting through, we get it. MacReady figures that a massive does of radiation just might do the trick, but a drunken Chaney attacks the lab for kicks and causes Crane to get the full megaton, transforming him into an upright Wally Gator who brings the film to it’s tragic swampy conclusion amid howls of merriment and rejoicing from the audience of two.

Here’s Wally!

Back to the bookend scenario, where Shrink 1 and Shrink 2 agree that it’s better to leave Beverly as the grinning, amnesiac zomboid we met earlier rather than restore her memory of such horrors. A rather elegant total inversion of normal psychotherapeutic practice.

What happened to Roy Del Ruth? Time, I suppose: that great marching alligator devouring everything in its path. The following year he would helm WHY MUST I DIE? for Howard Hughes, a doomed attempt to prove that Hughes’ girlfriend Terry Moore could pull off a Susan Hayward style death row melodrama. The following year, his career took an upturn when he died of a hear attack.

I am most curious to see 1928’s THE TERROR, a Del Ruth scare flick made when he still had pep. Let me know if you run across a copy.

23 Responses to “People Who Need People”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Didn’t Roy del Ruth direct something quite well-known at some stage? Warner Bros musicals or something of that ilk? His career had clearly hit the skids by the 50s, but I can’t help thinking he was quite major once upon a time.

  2. Bev’s greatest role was as Tuesday Weld’s mother in Pretty Poison

  3. I’ve contended that Del Ruth’s decline came after joining MGM. Watching Broadway Melody of 1936 is like seeing a Warner musical after a vampire had attacked the entire creative staff. The cheerful messiness and eccentricity is gone as is practically all the potential humor. By the ’40s he seemed to turn into just another house director for musicals. He did direct Always Leave Them Laughing at the end of the ’40s back at Warner, but by the ’50s he looks pretty much a spent force, grinding out mostly undistinguished musicals and TV episodes. There may be a surprise in there, but I have my doubts.

  4. Del Ruth’s 30s movies are often absolutely delightful. Although his version of The Maltese Falcon does suggest a certain tone-deafness when it comes to anything not immediately related to the Warners house style, and he doesn’t often achieve the kind of expressionistic visuals that enliven Mervyn LeRoy’s pre-coders, let alone Curtiz’s. But he produced some fantastic entertainment.

    Looking forward to screening Five Guns West, with Beverly in rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ mode. Or possibly Swamp Women.

  5. Del Ruth is one of those directors I called a mightabeen. He mightabeen really good, but any artistic ambitions just checked out after he changed studios. He seemed to like messy, congested settings in a lot of his Warner films, which is one reason why The Maltese Falcon doesn’t work (the script wasn’t any help, either). The Mind Reader does work, though, and it seems he had a good run of films from ’32-’34. He also did He Married His Wife, which may have been an aberration as I dimly remember it being pretty good screwball, and a few of his other later films I like in parts but never all the way through.

  6. David Boxwell Says:

    Bev was an eponymous motelier in LA once she transitioned out of films. I regret never staying at her place when I had the chance in the 1980s . . .

    BLONDE CRAZY (31), LITTLE GIANT (33) EMPLOYEES ENTRANCE (33), TAXI! (32) are all zippy, hard-nosed larks. Back in the era when Zanuck (at Warners) told his writers and directors to speed it up, speed it up!

  7. David Boxwell Says:

    The BG Holiday Inn at Universal Studios has come up in the world with a $2 million dollar upgrade, according to the website! It should be the Shadowplay Family Reunion HQ!

  8. That sounds like a great idea! And maybe I’ll make it out there sometime in the next year, if my financial prospects continue to improve.

  9. Christopher Says:

    ..I kinda like this movie..Chaney is a real devout redneck cajun gator hater!..and theres seems to be Gators all over the swamp like cockroaches! step on ’em you trip over over ’em…The Wally Gator head at the end is just too funny tho..Can imagine trying to keep a straight face while working with that!..The Louisiana flavor is pretty good..but for my money,Robert Siodmak’s Son of Drac is tops for Swamp Goth!

  10. Beverly Garland is *always* worth seeing.

    Let me reiterate, though, my love of the Corman-directed “It Conquered The World,” where she’s mismarried to Lee Van Cleef (in the latter’s salad days). The monster is famously ridiculous, but the film is lively and the George and MArtha of CormanLand get a *lot* of juicy scenes.

  11. This is the one where Bev, unimpressed with her special effect co-star, effortlessly kicked the monster on the forehead and knocked IT flat on IT’s back.

    I somehow didn’t identify her when I saw Pretty Poison last year, but she’s remarkably intense in that.

  12. The MST3K guys, on Beverly Garland in It Conquered the World:

    “Married to an idiot, she realizes it and takes matters into her own hands. She finds the Venusian pickle and delivers a dressing down that had to leave the poor creature more than a little abashed. Unfortunately she’s then eaten, but she goes down shooting, probably praying she’ll get stuck in the bastard’s throat and choke him.

    “In certain respects it’s a ridiculous scene. yet she delivers her lecture with the strongest commitment you could ever hope for. In that moment she *is* a woman enraged at a pickle.”

  13. I actually tweeted this article to one of the MST3K guys, but no response so far.

  14. I hate to say this, but since these are some of the cheesy sci-fi films I didn’t see as a child, all I ever knew Beverly Garland for was a string of motels (no, they don’t bear her name anymore). I might have seen her on TV, but I’ll be hanged if I can remember where.

  15. Christopher Says:

    My introduction was her run on My Three Sons..seems to have more tv credits than anything else

  16. Another show I don’t think we saw in the UK. All I know if it us that Mitchell Leisen needed a job and he wrote to Fred MacMurray asking for one, and MacMurray never replied. His reason being that since there were three young boys on the show, he wouldn’t feel right hiring a gay director.

  17. david wingrove Says:

    Truly shabby, when you consider that Fred MacMurray’s early career was largely due to Leisen in the first place (HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE, EASY LIVING, SWING HIGH, SWING LOW, REMEMBER THE NIGHT). I never trust those wholesome ‘family values’ Republican types.

  18. david wingrove Says:

    Oops, sorry! It wasn’t Fred MacMurray in EASY LIVING; it was Ray Milland. Just goes to show how deeply forgettable MacMurray was.

    OK, sometimes a genius like Leisen or Billy Wilder could trick him into being interesting (often by bringing out his latent and repressed sleaziness). For the most part, he was – to quote Cher in THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK – ‘not even interesting enough to make me sick.’

  19. NOooo! Not My Three Sons! Must. Wrench. Awful. DeVol. Theme. Music. From. Head. Now I’m hearing Family Affair! Damn you!

    MacMurray was one of the actors I referred to disparagingly elsewhere as “insurance salesmen”, which meant they were personable and colorless. IOW, as David says, forgettable. He needed a director good with actors to get anything interesting across, although his bit in True Confession isn’t bad, where his stodginess is used against him. Leisen certainly was good with actors, and as I mentioned to David he brought out something other than wiseass out of Bob Hope, which is an accomplishment. I shudder to think of Leisen directing My Three Sons – it would have been the nadir to his career. I remember watching the show as a child and hating it (I didn’t get to change the channel on my own, you know – I might have got a good clip from my father).

  20. Leisen did a fair bit of TV, of which I’ve seen moments. His Boris Karloff Thrillers aren’t anything much, but he did some good Twilight Zones, including The 16mm Shrine, with Ida Lupino, which plays like his rebuttal to Sunset Boulevard.

    Wilder’s method with MacMurray was to cast him as sleazy, Leisen’s was to cast him against very strong women: Stanwyck, Dietrich, Colbert, Goddard, in roughly descending order. I guess comparing him to Leisen’s other male lead, John Lund, shows that MacMurray had SOMETHING.

  21. […] Oddly, the visual gags of the Sennett era didn’t generally make it into those films, even the comedies, apart from that riotous sequence with monkeys and custard pies in LADY KILLER — for zany imagery, you really have to look to Del Ruth’s later HORROR MOVIES (here and here). […]

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