The Thing (1951)

Year 1951


Kenneth Tobey as  Captain Patrick Hendry  
Robert Cornthwaite   as Dr. Arthur Carrington
Margaret Sheridan as Nikki
Douglas Spencer as Scotty
Paul H. Frees as Dr. Vorhees
James Arness as The Thing
George Fenneman as Dr. Redding
Directors - Christian Nyby
  - Howard Hawks
Screenwriters - Charles Lederer  
  - John W. Campbell Jr.
  - Howard Hawks  
  - Ben Hecht  
Short Story Author - John W. Campbell Jr.
as Don A. Stuart 

Although also known as The Thing From Another World, when I was growing up, it was simply known as The Thing. I never heard this 1951 version of the story referred to as anything but The Thing until John Carpenter released his version in 1982. After that, the name changed.

The plot is the same for both movies. An isolated research group in the polar regions comes across a UFO and its occupant. The UFO is destroyed, but the occupant comes to life and begins wreaking havoc on the lonely outpost.

Purists will tell you that the John Carpenter version is closer to the short story Who Goes There? ( They're correct. It is. From the names of the people to the scenes, the remake is closer to the original story. But, the first movie had the short story author as one of the screenwriters. So, to me, that means that even though there are differences between the 1951 and 1982 versions of the story, one is neither better nor worse from the author's point of view.

Oh, I'm sure that Campbell would've like the newer version very much. But in 1951, what Howard Hawks did with the story did not hurt it. It did not improve it and it left out a lot of details, but it did not stop it from tapping into the invasion paranoia that was the trademark of both.

Also, Campbell believed in individual heroes. Committees never solved anything. It was a single individual rising to the occassion that saved the day. Captain Patrick Hendry (Tobey) fits that shining armor better than R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell). You can probably write a college thesis comparing and contrasting the two heroes. This isn't that paper.

All I've got to say is to tell you to watch this movie at least once.

Even though Howard Hawks is not credited as the director, the film has his prints all over it. (Film? Prints? Nevermind.) The rapid, congested dialog as well as the humor is all Hawks. Another Hawks movie, His Girl Friday, about unscrupulous newpaper reporters and written in part by Ben Hecht, had three times the number of pages of dialog as other movies of the time. That's because Hawks like having more than one person speak at a time. It's natural. Who waits for a speaker to finish their sentence before jumping in with an opinion or rebuttal? Aren't multiple conversations carried on at once in the real world? Hawks uses these facts and makes the scenes believable no matter how outlandish some of the setup is.

And you've go to admit that aliens crash landing in the Arctic is a pretty outlandish setup. That one survived...well.

There are suspenseful scenes. When the alien is thawing out, you're anxious. When the plants are growing, you're uneasy. When The Thing enters the room and is set afire, you're at the edge of your seat. And the final showdown. It's chilling. Even after all these years (over 50 of 'em), this movie still works.

It's black and white, so that may be a knock. The special effects are transparent and that's a major plus. You believe that a real plane is landing or taking off, you believe that the barracks tunnels are barracks tunnels, you believe that The Thing is a real threat. (Maybe you don't believe the snow so much, but most often it looks real.) You believe the tension, the fear, and the humor to blow off steam. (Kind of like the, "Game over, man." meltdown was believable. Arctic? Meltdown? Nevermind.)

There's also some subtle humor. At one point, someone is asked if they can fire a flare pistol. "I saw Seargeant York," was part of the response. Seargeant York was a Howard Hawks directed hit movie.

I also like seeing Paul H. Frees. Too many times you only hear the wonderful voice actor. And seeing George Fenneman before he became Groucho's straight man on "You Bet Your Life" was also fun. (Is that a letterman's sweater, George? And were you varsity for three years? Which high school?)

The movie isn't perfect. The suspense could've been ratcheted up a little bit more. But when I first saw it as a seven or eight year old, it was suspenseful enough, believe me.

The Thing behaved oddly. Not unpredictably, just oddly. He never pressed his advantage in a battle for instance. He was a bit too easily manipulated. His clothes didn't burn. (He was set on fire with kerosene and in the next scene, nothing was singed. Not a fiber of his clothing nor a chitinous nail.)

I'm still trying to figure out how they got the block of ice containing the creature out of the ice. Axes were used to chop around the creature. But how did they chop under the creature? Or lift it out of the hole? By volume, ice may not be heavier than water but it's still pretty heavy.

And vegetables that look like squash and wail "like a newborn" who's "hungry"? (Hungry for blood!) Really? What did they wail with? No mouths, just seed pods. And I can't tell the difference between a wail due to hunger, tiredness, a poopy diaper, or cussedness. To be fair, the aliens probably didn't have diapers in their seed pods so there's a 33% chance that this seed pod wailing sound that required a stethoscope to hear was in fact due to hunger.

The introduction of a love interest is unusual as well. I'm sure it was inserted to appeal to a more diverse audience and it didn't really detract. It was merely out of place. The side story of a guy chasing a girl into the frozen Arctic wastes because she outdrank him one night and he was too drunk to make a pass at her sounded like it was based on the personal experience of one of the writers. Without the Arctic part, probably.

There's no profanity or blasphemy. No nudity. There's Howard Hawks' obvious direction, good acting, and a scary monster with some nice setups. It's worth looking at at least once.

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