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BERT I. GORDON

 
 

BERT I. GORDON "Livin' Large with Mr. B.I.G."

Interview by Dr. Abner Mality

When one thinks of the great science fiction films of the 50's, thoughts turn to the army of giant bugs, monster lizards and other oversized aberrations of nature that ran amuck in that decade. The film "THEM" is usually cited as the beginning (and best example) of these giant monster movies, and with good reason, but there was one man who really took the concept of out-of-whack size to the next level. He was Bert I. Gordon, known to film fans far and wide as Mr. B.I.G. Surely fate must have directed a man with those initials to a career chronicling giant freaks of nature.

Born in Kenosha, WI in 1922, Mr. Gordon today enjoys his legendary status as a successful low-budget film-maker. He's recently released his autobiography, "The Amazing Colosal Worlds of Mr. B.I.G.", which you can grab at this website: http://bertigordon.com/. It was also my great pleasure to speak to Bert recently about his career, but before we jump into that chat, let me first hit some of the highlights of that career.

Bert first stuck his toe in the directing pool with 1955's "King Dinosaur". To say this film was as cheap as dirt would be insulting dirt. The tale of space travelers trapped on a planet of dinosaurs, it used real lizards and back projection to create its giant monsters. This would be a trademark of Bert's work over the years, but especially in the 1950's. Gordon's next film "The Cyclops" would be a more assured and typical work, though still costing little more than "King Dinosaur". It featured talented stars such as Gloria Talbot (beautiful star of "I Married A Monster From Outer Space") and Lon Chaney Jr. There were more giant animals in this tale of radiation run wild, but it was the title monster that was striking. A bald 30-foot giant with one of the most bizarre and hideously disfigured faces ever seen in the movies until that time. "The Cyclops" was just a warm-up for Bert, he would really start to pick up steam with his next feeature.

That was "The Amazing Colossal Man". To this day, the film about the American soldier turning rampaging giant by an A-Bomb test is one of the most fondly remembered movies of the 50's. Bert took the Cyclops concept and improved on it, telling the tragic tale of Glenn Manning the Colossal Man, who was played with actual pathos by Glenn Langan. Bert's FX (co-created by wife Dorothy) again were on the cheap side but the film had heart. It proved so popular that a quick sequel, "War of the Colossal Beast", was rushed out. In this one, Manning became a horribly disfigured, grunting brute not too dissimilar from "The Cyclops" of a couple of years before. The FX were a substantial step up and the film's climax was genuinely exciting.

Mr. B.I.G. was now on a roll and the years 1957 to 1962 proved to be his golden years. In addition to the "giant on the rampage" films, he also provided "The Beginning of the End", a tale of monster grasshoppers on the rampage starring Peter Graves. With its authentic Illinois and Chicago locations, this fun cheapie is a favorite of many Illinois residents. "Earth vs The Spider" is one of the most enjoyable "teenagers vs. monster" films ever made...in fact, the Good Doctor puts it second only to the incomparable "The Blob" in that genre.

Proving that he could handle tiny people as well as big ones, Bert did what many consider to be his finest film in 1958, "Attack of the Puppet People". It tells the story of a lonely scientist who shrinks people to keep him company as living puppets. The tiny people fight off normal sized animals like a vicious dog, but really it was the performance of John Hoyt as the "Puppet Master" that put a human face on the story and in later years, the movie has found belated acceptance.

As we entered the decade of the 60's, Bert was determined to show he could do more than the typical 50's monster movies. Almost forgotten today, "Tormented" is a spooky ghost story featuring a man hounded by the ghost of a beautiful girlfriend he killed. This film has the outrageous scene of the ghost's decapitated head yelling "Tom Stewart killed me! Tom Stewart killed me!" but much of its scares are more subtle. Stalwart Richard Carlson played the luckless Stewart. Released the same year as "Tormented" was the children's pirate story "The Boy and the Pirates", something quite different for Bert.

The rest of the Swingin' 60's saw Bert continue to experiment with diffierent kinds of films. "The Magic Sword" was his attempt at the kind of huge epic fantasies that Ray Harryhausen and Charles Schneer were having such success with. It was a romping tale of Arthurian heroism that featured giant ogres, vampire hags, monstrous two-headed dragons, and the sinister sorcery of the wizard Lodac, played by the suave Basil Rathbone. Bert continued to use his back projection method of effects, but the ambition of "The Magic Sword" was beyond fault and the movie remains a fun memory for many fans. 1965 saw Bert do his first adapation of H.G. Wells with "Village of the Giants", but old H.G. wouldn't recognize much of his story in this "updated" tale of juvenile delinquents growing into giants and terrorizing a town. This strange combination of rock n' roll JD fun and science fiction featured two young stars who would later become icons: Beau Bridges and Ron Howard! Bert's last film of the 60's dropped monsters and giants altogether. "Picture Mommy Dead" was a Hitchcockian thriller involving children.

The early 70's saw Bert dabble with sex comedy ("How To Succeed With Sex"), supernatural horror influenced by "Rosemary's Baby" ("Necromancy") and an excellent police thriller ("The Mad Bomber"). But Mr. B.I.G. just couldn't stay away from the oversized and as a result, he created two of his most notorious films ever with "Food of the Gods" and "Empire of the Ants", both again supposedly based on H.G. Wells and both again playing havoc with their source material. The former featured a whole army of different animals turned giants by a secret formula while the latter had Joan Crawford terrorized by giant super-intelligent ants bent on conquering humanity. These were great drive-in flicks and part of the last gasp of drive-in culture before "Star Wars" changed the film landscape forever.

Bert's contributions in the 80's and 90's were few and far between and didn't meet with success in the new atmosphere of corporate mega-blockbusters. His last film was the supernatural sex shocker "Satan's Princess", featuring a lot of shots of gorgeous Lydie Denier in the nude. It was something quite different for Mr. B.I.G. but it seems pretty clear that his films of the 50's and 60's formed the cornerstone of his work.

And that's what we're going to celebrate right now. I was lucky to connect with Bert recently and he was happy to answer a few questions about his exploits. You can hear much more from the Master of Mammoth Mayhem in his recently released autobiography, "The Weird Worlds of Mr. B.I.G.", which he speaks about in the following interview.

Enjoy, monster lovers...

WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: .Thanks for taking the time to talk to us! I understand you have a book coming out soon. Tell us a little more about it. What made you decide to write the book now instead of earlier?

BERT I. GORDON: When I was an invited honor guest at the 2006 Monster Bash event in Philadelphia, I became aware that I had many new fans from my films playing on TV and DVDs that would be interested in learning much of the behind-the-scene information and to see many of the pictures that are in the autobiography from my private collection.

WC: When did you know you would be working in films? What was it that pointed you in that direction?

B.I.G.: I was about nine years old when I decided that filmmaking was what I wanted to do in my future, as I related in great detail how I came to that decision in my autobiography THE AMAZING COLOSSAL WORLDS OF MR. B.I.G. An Autobiographical Journey By Bert I. Gordon An autographed copy or plain can be ordered on my website, www.bertigordon.com.

WC: Were you always interested in doing sci-fi and fantasy films or were you originally interested in other areas?

B.I.G.: Mostly sci-fi fantasy.

WC: One of your earliest films was "The Cyclops", with Lon Chaney Jr. and Gloria Talbot? What was working with these two like?

B.I.G.: They were both terrific to direct.

WC: Was "The Cyclops" kind of a dry run for "The Amazing Colossal Man"? You had two movies about giants back to back.

B.I.G.: No relationship. They were both on their own.

WC: Chicago movie fans really love "Beginning of the End", which features so many Chicago landmarks. There was also a

lot of other Illinois towns like Rantoul in the movie. What led you to using Illinois as a setting and what kind of feedback have gotten back from folks in Illinois over the years? 
 

B.I.G.: As I wrote the BEGINNING of the END story, it seemed to me that Chicago would be great for it all to happen...with the giant grasshoppers climbing up the Wrigly Building and all. As to what the Illinois people thought of my making the film there, The University of Illinois invited me to their annual "Insect Fear" event and the plaque they presented to me read:

UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS 20th ANNUAL INSECT FEAR FILM FESTIVAL SPECIAL GUEST BERT I. GORDON

In recognition of signal contributions to the distinctly American genre of the Big Bug Film February 15, 2003 Urbana, IL

 

WC:That movie featured the late Peter Graves. Any memories of working with him?

B.I.G.: Peter Graves was a pleasure to direct, as were the rest of the excellent cast in the film.

WC: "Attack of the Puppet People" seemed to a bit deeper and more sympathetic than your other films of the period. What was the genesis of this memorable film?

B.I.G.: I wanted to make the puppet maker different than the usual mad monster. John Hoyt, who played the role, said in an interview that of all his film roles his favorite was the puppet maker in

ATTACK of the PUPPET PEOPLE because he was personally able to relate to the loneliness of the character that led him to shrinking the teenagers down to puppet-size to keep them as friends so he wouldn't be alone.

WC: You tried a pure ghost story with "Tormented". Was this a direction you wanted to pursue or was it just a stab at something different?

B.I.G.: Something different.


WC: With "The Magic Sword", you tried a major fantasy movie in the vein of the Sinbad films. Did the movie turn out the way you wanted it to and what were some of the challenges of this kind of movie?

B.I.G.: I was pleased with the film, and as to "the challenges of this kind of movie"...it was enjoyable to make ...letting my imagination run free.


WC: "Village of the Giants" was one of the most off the wall films of the 60's. It mixes up rock n' roll, comedy, sex farce, science fiction and teenage rebellion. How did you come up with the story?

B.I.G. A story H.G. Wells wrote about giant kids was my springboard in developing the story. The movie has become quite a popular cult film. One of the best websites devoted to the film....http://www.angelfire.com/weird2/villageoftheg/

WC: Ronny Howard and Beau Bridges were in that movie. Was there any sign that they would later become the stars they are today?

B.I.G.: Not any more signs than many, many other equally talented actors that don't make it big. I question why it happens to some and not others equally talented in my autobiography and found some possibly mysterious answers.

WC: In the late 60's and early 70's, you seemed to tire of sci-fi and went into films like "The Mad Bomber" and "Picture Mommy Dead". Were you satisfied with how these turned out and what the reaction to them was?

B.I.G: I was more than satisfied with the two films...I liked them very much and they did well at the box office.

WC: You got back into the giant monster movies with "Food of the Gods" and "Empire of the Ants" and they were both huge hits. Did you decide that these kinds of flicks were what you were born to do?

B.I.G: No. I don't think I was born to make any particular genre of "flicks".

WC: Joan Collins wasn't too fond of the "Empire of the Ants" gig. What was your opinion of her?

B.I.G.: Joan is a talented actress who wasn't fond of the rough jungle filming with live alligators, huge  snakes and all.

WC: It seems the movie business was no longer much fun after 1980. No more room for the low-budget or drive-in flicks. Would you agree?

B.I.G.: I made 4 movies after 1980, into the 1990s. I do miss the drive-ins though.

WC: What would you say the high point and low points of your career are?

B.I.G.: All good career points because I'm a filmmaker making movies.

WC: How would you sum up the Bert I. Gordon legacy to the film world?

B.I.G.: That's for my fans to do.

WC: Any other projects besides the book that you are currently involved with?

B.I.G: Yes, a screenplay I'm writing and another book about movies and how to make them.

WC: . Finally, any advice to aspiring film-makers out there?

B.I.G.: Plenty of advice, and it's all in my autobiography.