During the fifties at Universal, Jack Arnold interpreted the monster folklore of the 1930s for an atomic age. Today, he looks back on it all with great affection.
Although he occupies a fairly lofty tier in the pantheon of fantasy film directors, published discussion of Jack Arnold is surprisingly rare. His films are some of the most famous science fiction and horror thrillers of the 1950s - among them The Incredible Shrinking Man, Tarantula! and The Creature from the Black Lagoon -and still hold up well today, yet critical appraisal of Arnold's contribution to them is widely divergent. His achievements are overestimated in the chapter devoted to them in John Baxter's Science Fiction in the Cinema, while other writers have bypassed him entirely, except to pay an occasional backhanded compliment. (Indeed, Carlos Clarens mentions Arnold only once in his celebrated An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, and even there the reference is lukewarm.)
The reasons for this oversight are understandable, if insufficient. As a contract director for Universal, Arnold worked on a variety of projects ranging from star vehicles like The Lady Takes a Flyer with Lana Turner to modest programmers like the western Red Sundown - not just fantasy thrillers. He directed them all with economy and skill, and it is likely difficult for the casual viewer to discern whether Arnold put any more effort or enthusiasm into the horror and science fiction pictures. Also, Arnold hasn't directed a film with even the vaguest element of fantasy since The Mouse that Roared in 1959, which can lead one to presume that he may have regarded those early classics as nothing more than routine assignments.
However, a few introductory minutes of conversation with Arnold reveal just the opposite to be true. As a youngster, he was strongly impressed by the films of Fritz Lang and James Whale, and maintained a collection of Weird Tales magazine and other pulp periodicals then in their heyday. He consequently jumped at the chance to explore similar themes and concepts when Universal offered him his first science fiction assignments.
Largely due to extensive television exposure during the past ten years, Arnold films like The Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space are familiar today to even the most casual audiences, while Arnold's role in them remains somewhat buried. No one would dare consider Dr. Strangelove without extolling Stanley Kubrick's vision in the same breath, or Rosemary's Baby without praising Roman Polanski for his skill in faithfully transferring a complex book to the screen - and rightfully so - but Arnold, because he was operating within a strictly commercial framework, conveyed a less salient personality, and his point of view is not as readily perceived. Nonetheless, an examination of the complete Arnold filmography to date reveals themes and preoccupations which recur with surprising regularity (despite the disparity of subjects in the various screenplays) and can usually be assessed (especially recently) as the strongest element in the films. Like Siegel, Aldrich and Corman, Arnold has managed to broach challenging ideas and concepts in a subtle fashion despite the restrictions of the low-budget melodrama: unlike them, he has not attained the greater freedom of expression which brings a filmmaker's philosophies closer to the surface and provides a gauge for studying early works.
With the exception of Richard Matheson's adaptation of his own novel in The Incredible Shrinking Man, the scripts handed to Arnold in his Universal period were all relatively simplistic. And it was clearly the director's contributions that made the resultant films work as well as they did. The Creature films (the original and its first sequel, Revenge of the Creature) were, after all, little more than a reworking of the Universal monster folklore of the 1930s: Arnold provided the new 1950s feel of technological recklessness and impatience, and gave the monster's attraction for the heroine a more lustful bent. Indeed, considering the restrictions imposed by producer Albert Zugsmith, even The Incredible Shrinking Man would likely have become a conventional thriller had a director without Arnold's intuitive flair for expressive mise en scène been entrusted to the task.
Clearly, Arnold's chief gift - beyond a command of the principles of editing and an understanding of actors, which are expected of any intelligent director - is his ability to create and sustain mood. More specifically, he imbued his films not merely with atmosphere, but a pervasive undercurrent of psychological and physical danger. This quality, employing frequent allegorical nuances, gave these films a narrative power which was maintained without showing a monster or a mutation every third scene - an attribute few fantasy films of the 1950s could match. Unlike most of these minor potboilers, where actors were set-pieces going through motions contrived for the filmmakers' convenience, Arnold's films were organic entities, wherein the characters' behavior was determined by a carefully established setting - not a series of crude stimuli - and all of the action developed logically from that point. One can find this strain in Arnold's work as recently as 1974, in Black Eye, which would have been simply another black exploitation drama were it not for a cleverly cynical depiction of urban life and morality on its various strata, and the manner in which a bemused detective-hero traverses a posh but inherently seedy milieu.
This contemporary appraisal of Arnold's early films would be no more than a nostalgic recollection were it not for the fact that Arnold, who now heads his own independent production company, Jack's (its first feature, Boss Nigger, a black western starring Fred Williamson, was released earlier this year by Dimension Pictures), is preparing to embark upon a new fantasy film, his first in more than fifteen years. Tentatively titled A Circle of Wheels, it has been scripted by Arthur Ross (who co-authored the screenplay for The Creature from The Black Lagoon) and is described by Arnold as "a science fiction satire" about the corruptive influence which big business works upon the ambitious college graduates who are dehumanized by their climb to the top of the corporative hierarchy. The director hopes to sign Tony Randall and Cloris Leachman for the leading roles of a man and wife who are transformed into robot-like machinery by their assimilation into the business labyrinth.
Much has transpired in the field of cinefantastique since Arnold directed his initial, groundbreaking efforts, and it will be intriguing to see how the director fares against the precedents set in the 1960s. Certainly A Circle of Wheels appears to hold relatively few surprises on paper. But then, most of Arnold's previous excursions into the genre illustrate a history of triumphs over limited material. At least this time Arnold, whose social and political commitments have always guided and strengthened his directorial style, will be dealing with a project in which the ultimate statement is an intrinsic part of the storyline. If this film is successful, perhaps Arnold will be encouraged to return to the fold, and give fantasy filmmaking the shot in the arm many afficionados believe it needs.
Jack Arnold was born in New Haven , Connecticut in 1916. He attended Ohio State University for two years, then transferred to the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts in New York City, where he studied acting. Originally a vaudeville dancer, he became a Broadway actor in 1935 and continued on the stage until 1949, with an interruption for war service as a pilot. While waiting to be called for active duty in 1942, he took a job as an assistant to famed documentarist Robert Flaherty, then shooting a film for the state department at the old Paramount Studios in Ansonia, Queens. "It was quite an education for me," Arnold explains today. "That's where I really learned the film business." Arnold worked with Flaherty for nine months, and the filmmaker was so impressed with his young protege's progress that he tried to have him deferred from service when the Air Training Command called him to duty. The attempt was unsuccessful. In 1948, while acting under Frederic March in the Broadway adaptation of A Bell for Adano, Arnold and an associate formed a documentary film company, a move which soon led to a Hollywood career.
Arnold himself is a friendly, articulate man whose interests cover a broad range of subjects. He lives with his family in Woodland Hills, California, a suburb of Los Angeles which is also the home of Richard Matheson. The interview which follows was conducted in February, 1975, shortly after Arnold had completed work on several segments of the Archer television series. He is currently in Munich, Germany, shooting The Swiss Conspiracy for producer Maurice Silverstein. The interview discusses only Arnold's genre films, actually a small percentage of the director's film work. In addition to the films listed below, one of the segments Arnold directed for It Takes a Thief dealt with devil worship.
1953 - It Came from Outer Space
1954 - The Creature from The Black Lagoon
1955 - Revenge of the Creature / Tarantula! / This Island, Earth (uncredited)
1957 - The Incredible Shrinking Man
1958 - Monster on the Campus
1959 - Space Children / The Mouse that Roared
1969 - Hello Down There
Cinefantastique: How did you get started with Universal?
Jack Arnold: I had made a documentary film in New York in 1949, when I had a documentary film company. The film was called With these Hands, and it starred Sam Levene, Arlene Francis and Joseph Wiseman. It was made for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union as a 50th Anniversary film. In those days, documentary films were a big thing, and it got great critical acclaim, was released commercially and nominated for an Academy Award. This was at the end of 1949, and Universal offered me a contract when I came out here for the Academy Awards. I was with them the duration of one seven year contract, and then I signed another seven year contract with them. Between those contracts I went to England and made a film which I consider my best work. The Mouse that Roared, for Carl Foreman's company and Columbia Pictures. I was very proud of that film. I returned to the States, worked for Fox and MGM, and then I got into television for a while, working for CBS, for whom I did some shows such as Gilligan's Island, which I liked as an amusing juvenile program, and then I finally returned to Universal. For three years I was executive producer and director of It Takes a Thief with Bob Wagner and Fred Astaire. Then i formed my own company, Jack's. Our first film was Boss Nigger, a western with Fred Williamson. Our second will be later this year, a science fiction comedy called A Circle of Wheels, written by Arthur Ross.
CFQ: That will be your first science fiction film in over fifteen years. Why such a long hiatus?
Arnold: It's partially because I was busy with other projects, partially because I didn't encounter anything that appealed to me.
CFQ: How did you feel about the science fiction films when you were making them?
Arnold: Oh, I loved them. Those were the films I had the most fun with.
CFQ: How much creative freedom did Universal give you?
Arnold: I had complete freedom, because the studio knew nothing about the making of science fiction films. They didn't know which end was up. So I exercised total control, final cut, everything, as long as I kept within the budgets.
CFQ: What were the budgets of some of them?
Arnold: They were fairly high for those days, about $800-900.000. In the '50s and '60s, that was a lot of money. And the pictures made a great deal of money, so there was never any reason to reduce the budgets.
CFQ: Richard Carlson has said that with It Came from Outer Space you were attempting to top the Warner Bros hit House of Wax. Is that true?
Arnold: We made It Came from Outer Space in 3-D, I suppose, because Warner's had just made House of Wax and it was a new fad and Universal wanted something to compete with it. They felt a science fiction film would be the best vehicle for a 3-D film.
CFQ: The first two Creature films were also in 3-D. What problems did that present?
Arnold: It was a pain in the neck technically. When we used it for It Came from Outer Space, that started the renaissance at Universal of science fiction films. Since it was one of the first 3-D movies of the fifties, no one was really an expert in the field, so I worked very closely with the special effects and the camera departments on it. We had to find out where the lines of conversion were and where in the frame you would get the three-dimensional effect. So it was a challenge, and fun in that respect, but difficult. I thought it was a very successful film, visually, in 3-D. Wearing the red and green glasses posed no problem if the audiences' eyes were all right, but if you had a stigmatism in one eye, you could come away with a pretty huge headache. But I thought it was very exciting, seeing a landslide falling upon you and all the other various devices. It helped create an atmosphere.
CFQ: Why was it necessary to bring in another writer and redo Ray Bradbury's screenplay for It Came from Outer Space?
Arnold: When I was assigned the script to direct it was already in final draft and I really don't know why they brought in another writer, except that Ray Bradbury at that time I don't think had written any screenplays. He was strictly a novelist and had written many science fiction short stories and they felt that a screenwriter should adapt his material into a scenario, and they assigned Harry Essex to do that. I think he did a fairly good job, a very good job as a matter of fact. I remember at the opening of It Came From Outer Space I met Ray Bradbury for the first time and I asked him what he had thought of the film - he liked it. And I asked him how he felt it came out in regards to his material and he said, "I think you've achieved about 85%." And I thought that was a fairly high percentage, coming from a writer. I know I was pleased, and I believe Ray was pleased.
CFQ: The settings in your films often show as much character as the people who inhabit them - particularly the desert in your It Came from Outer Space.
Arnold: I tried to do that with all of them, to make the locale a part of the atmosphere. That was a deliberate effort. The first thing I did was establish the atmosphere, so the audience would feel something before anything else was shown. And then, of course, I would continue to build on it as the story progressed.
CFQ: The central character, the alien in It Came from Outer Space, you show only for an instant.
Arnold: I debated whether I should show him at all. I had one brief cut, about a foot of film, but I knew there was nothing that supplied what the imagination would think was there. No matter how horrendous, scary or bizarre you wanted something to be, you couldn't duplicate what an audience would imagine the creature to be. Finally, I used the cut in a flash, just once. Which is really a departure from most of the films of the period, which featured the alien and made him the focal point of the story. My focal point was what happened to the people, not what happened to the alien, who landed inadvertently on earth because he ran into trouble. I concentrated on our innate repulsion, hatred and paranoid fear of anything that's different from us. Good or bad, if it's different, we're afraid of it, and we hate it.
CFQ: That's true of The Creature from the Black Lagoon too.
Arnold: Yes. I set out to make the Creature a very sympathetic character. He's violent because he's provoked into violence. Inherent in the character is the statement that all of us have violence within, and if provoked, are capable of any bizarre retaliation. If left alone, and understood, that's when we overcome the primeval urges that we all are cursed with. Man's inhumanity to man means not only man's inhumanity to his own kind but to anything else, especially something that's very different from himself. You can trace the roots down to the primitive tribes, one against the other, in the cities to this block against the next block, or the Jew against the Arab, the Protestant against the Catholic, the black against the white. We have not progressed as human beings to differentiate between what is superficial and what is not. Of course, the sooner we learn the lesson, the better off we'll be, and that's what I tried to point out in my science fiction films, in a manner in which an audience would accept it. I don't think they would accept a polemic. They'd walk out on it, or it would be under investigation by the House of Un-American Activities Committee or some such animal. My objective was primarily to entertain, but I also wanted to say something. If ten per cent of the audience grasped it, then I was very successful.
CFQ: What was it like working in the McCarthy era?
Arnold: Very bad. Everybody was looking for Reds under the beds. Red could mean anything, anybody who had any ideas about social progress.
CFQ: Your films don't reflect any of the anti-communist preachings that a number of the fantasy films of the period do, such as Red Planet Mars, for example.
Arnold: And, I must say, deliberately, on my part. I thought the greatest blight on this country's history was the McCarthy period. Not that I'm a Red; I'm far from it. But McCarthy ruined a lot of lives, a lot of people I knew were affected. It was terrible out here, just unbelievable. People couldn't get jobs and didn't know why, people who were in no way communist. All you had to do was be a liberal. I'm left of center politically, a registered Democrat. I guess I was just lucky.
CFQ: Getting back to the original Creature film, I'm curious about the Creature's apparent sexual lust for Julie Adams. There is a very strong erotic motif, particularly in the deep-focus shot of him swimming under her.
Arnold: I tried to give the Creature all the basic human drives, but down at the most elemental level. I shot that sequence at Silver Springs, Florida. The parallel to sexual intercourse was that strong but was never that specific. It was symbolic, and I was trying to represent it in that manner. It was meant to affect the audience subtly.
CFQ: There is one scene where one of the characters tosses a cigarette off the side of the boat into the water, and the Creature, underneath the surface, stirs. Today, it's easy for someone to perceive that as a statement on ecology, but at the time, what were you thinking?
Arnold: Well, in those days we were not as conscious of environment as we are today, but here is certainly a strong point being made that these people, although they are scientists, are still ignorant of what they are doing to the balance of nature that exists in this lagoon. They wreak all sorts of havoc, destroy and pollute the environment trying to capture the Creature. Occasionally I would insert a scene such as you mentioned to make the point stand out. I loved making science fiction films because they enabled me to say things which could not be stated openly in other films without seeming obvious. I think adding these other levels of meaning gave the films a little something extra. And, as I said, I was completely alone, because Universal did not know how to deal with science fiction. I said that I did, so I was regarded as the expert by them. Not that I was, but I didn't tell them that.
CFQ: Had you seen a lot of fantasy films?
Arnold: I was brought up on them. And as a teenager I bought Weird Tales and the science fiction magazines. The movies that impressed me most were The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis. Some of the German UFA films were done with such a great flair and created such a mood. They were marvelous. And I loved Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and other quality American films.
CFQ: How would you account for this perennial popularity of cinefantastique from Frankenstein to The Creature from the Black Lagoon to The Exorcist?
Arnold: I don't know. I just think that there is a great audience for these films, and I think there will continue to be a great audience for these films. I think more should be made. I hope, one of these days, to start making some myself.
CFQ: The Creature is never conclusively killed off, you just see him drift away into the darkness.
Arnold: That was done for two reasons. The studio wanted to keep him in there for a sequel, and I also loved him - I used to call him "The Beastie", when we were making the films - and I wanted to leave it a little open, not to show him destroyed. I thought he was very sympathetic, due in no small way to the work of Ricou Browning*, who played the Creature in all the underwater sequences. We had gone down to Silver Springs to scout locations, and I was interviewing swimmers for the part. Ricou was a marvelous swimmer and his attitude about the part was right. He was amazing underwater and could stay under for almost five minutes without taking a breath. He had to wear that costume, and the only way he could take a breath was to stop when he needed air, swim over to an air hose and stick it in his mouth until he was OK again, then go back and play the scene.
CFQ: How long did it take to create the costume?
Arnold: It was a good month before we settled on the idea of it. We built a tank that still stands in the studio for testing it. We tested all kinds of things until we finally came up with the suit he liked. I remember one day I was looking at the certificate I received when I was nominated for an Academy Award. There was a picture of the Oscar statuette on it. I said, "If we put a gilled head on it, plus fins and scales, that would look pretty much like the kind of creature we're trying to get." So they made a mold out of rubber, and gradually the costume took shape. They gave him some human characteristics, which helped make him sympathetic. I tried to give that quality to the creatures in all of my films.
CFQ: However, the monster spider in Tarantula! is not sympathetic at all.
Arnold: No, but the scientists are, the scientists who are afflicted with that disease.
CFQ: Were you influenced by Them! in your handling of Tarantula!?
Arnold: No. I like the film, but I can't say there was any connection between Them!and Tarantula!, which I wrote. I tried to use the scientific discoveries the botanists were making in growing larger vegetables, the work of Burbank, just taking it one or two steps further, using it on living animals. But I don't think it was very much influenced by ants.
Because of the success of It Came from Outer Space Universal wanted another science fiction story. I wrote it, and I was assigned to direct it. We put a screenwriter on it and I worked very closely with him, and they left me quite alone. It was assigned to the same producer, Bill Alland, who produced most of the science fiction films I did. His function was more on the technical and business side of it, although we did work on the creative end together. He was very helpful, and he was a very good producer, I thought.
CFQ: Did you try to say anything in Revenge of the Creature that you weren't able to get to in the original?
Arnold: I tried to carry the concept of "civilized" man's misunderstanding of him a bit further. They take him to the marina and make a freak out of him because they don't understand him. Again, it illustrates our own failings as sensitive human beings. We don't know what to do with something that's a bit different than we are. At the end, they manage to communicate with him a little, so at least they've maybe learned something.
CFQ: Why didn't you direct The Creature Walks Among Us?
Arnold: They asked me, and I turned it down. I thought I'd just be repeating myself. There was nothing more I could add to it. John Sherwood had been my assistant director, and I thought it was a good opportunity for him to step up and become a director. I didn't particularly like the film: I thought it was the weakest of the three. It wasn't John's fault, but we had already explored every area of the Creature's personality and his relationship with the humans.
CFQ: I was also surprised that you weren't chosen to direct This Island, Earth, which was financially the most ambitious of the Universal science fiction films of the '50s.
Arnold: I had to go in and re-shoot a great deal of it. I was on what the studio called an "A" picture; it was either The Lady Takes a Flyer with Lana Turner or The Tattered Dress with Jeff Chandler and Jeanne Crain. They'd finished the principal photography of This Island, Earth, cut it together, and it lacked a lot of things. So they asked me if I would help them. I went in and re-shot about half of it, but I didn't take credit for it. Specifically, I re-shot most of the footage once they reached the dying planet.
CFQ: So that classic sequence where they're in the tubes and the mutant attacks them is your work?
Arnold: Yes, and also the escape, through the tunnel and back to the ship. It could have been a hell of a better film right from the start, I thought. They didn't approach it the way I would have approached it. I think the whole atmosphere should have been explored. The whole idea of going back in a primeval time, into the depths of this planet and its ruins. It should have had an eerie, mystic kind of feeling, a whole tempo and atmosphere that contrasts the beginning of the film, when they begin their exploration. All the director was going for were the obvious tricks, and the obvious tricks aren't enough.
CFQ: Actually, they don't spend much time on Metaluna at all.
Arnold: Which was a mistake. They really should have allowed more of an opportunity to get into the atmosphere of that planet and what was happening to it. I still think science fiction films are a marvelous medium for telling a story, creating a mood, and delivering whatever kind of a social message should be delivered. I've been trying to find a story that I like. I did find this A Circle of Wheels which deals with a problem in a comedic way, but I shy away from the genre of the feature monster kind of thing.
CFQ: Did you turn any such films down?
Arnold: There were a couple of films they wanted to do which I rejected. They wanted to make The Incredible Shrinking Woman, which was to be a sequel to The Incredible Shrinking Man, in which his wife shrinks. I said I didn't want to do it, and consequently it was never made. And I avoid the strange planet expedition sort of picture.
CFQ: One hears so many horror stories of director's films being re-cut after the fact that I'm amazed you never had that trouble in all your years at Universal.
Arnold: The only fight I had with them was on The Incredible Shrinking Man, and I won it. They wanted a happy ending. They wanted him to suddenly start to grow again, and I said, "Over my dead body." So they said, "Well, let's test your ending." And at the previews it went over so well, they agreed it was best to keep it. But I had something of a to-do with them at first, and I had to explain that this was not a film suited to a happy ending.
CFQ: In a way, it was a happy ending, because at least he rationalized his predicament.
Arnold: But to a studio executive, a happy ending means he starts growing again, reaches his normal size, its reunited with his wife and everything is fine. I wasn't about to stand for that.
CFQ: How do you feel about the ending now, the impact of which is conveyed not so much in visual terms but by philosophical narration backed by stirring religious music?
Arnold: I felt it had a kind of religious significance. I don't think it was uncinematic. I thought that the impact and the mood created as he climbed through this little grill that he couldn't climb through before was good. The way Grant Williams played the scene and what we did with it I felt was cinematic, but that's my opinion.
CFQ: This ending has been termed "heavy-handed" by some. Would you agree with that assessment?
Arnold: No, I don't agree. As a matter of fact, I think it was visual. If you look at the film again and look at the end, the whole atmosphere is religious and he looks Christ-like, deliberately so. I may be in a minority of one, but I think it was cinematic and effective.
CFQ: Matheson denies responsibility for the ending of the film as it now appears. Who deserves the credit?
Arnold: I will take the credit or discredit. The ending was my idea.
CFQ: Why was it necessary to bring in writer Richard Alan Simmons to rewrite portions of Matheson's script for The Incredible Shrinking Man?
Arnold: I was assigned the film, it was about the third draft of the screenplay that I got, and I worked on it with the producer. I don't know why they out Simmons on.
CFQ: How did you try to compensate for the inability to show the sexual disintegration of his marriage so strongly expressed in Matheson's book?
Arnold: It became part of the character development. As he grew smaller, the stress between the two of them increased, and it became obvious what was wrong. I didn't consciously say, "Now we have to show this", but it was part of the determination of the character. The counterpoint to it is his affair with the midget.
CFQ: The fact that you didn't use a real midget was visually jarring.
Arnold: I couldn't use one. My leading man was six-foot-one.
CFQ: You didn't think of using some form of optical trickery?
Arnold: It was much easier playing them against oversized furniture. I used real midgets in the scene in the barroom. They were projected from behind onto a process screen, while the couple was seated in the booth and the midget walked up to say the girl was wanted at the circus. In the park scene, I had an oversized bench and sprinkler. It was easier doing that than using split screen with a real midget and Grant Williams.
CFQ: To what extent did you direct the special effects and what was your working relationship with the special effects department?
Arnold: I drew a storyboard myself on practically every frame of the film, and I worked very closely with the special effects department and Cliff Stine, who was my cameraman, on all the travelling mattes and process photography that was necessary to make the film.
CFQ: How do you feel about the extensive use of special effects in a film? Do you find it a valuable tool in the creation of mood and atmosphere?
Arnold: Yes, but I think it's only part of the atmosphere. The atmosphere must be created in toto, not specifically by the special effects, but by the sum of it all together.
CFQ: The public in the film is depicted as unthinking and unfeeling. When they come to the house, it's as if they're going to the zoo.
Arnold: Well, isn't that true? People want to look at things as a circus. Look at the kind of curious onlookers who rush to a fire or a disaster. It's entertainment, in a macabre way. That is, unfortunately, part of our personality. There was a strange incident recently here in Los Angeles, of a woman whose car skidded down an embankment, and a man saw her trapped there for six days and wouldn't report it. It's unforgivable. He didn't want to get involved. Well, to live on this earth, you have to be involved. It's like living on a spaceship, and the balance can only be changed so far without having a disaster. I think people are more aware of this today than they were ten to twenty years ago, and in no small measure due to the influence of some of the fine science fiction films that have been made. Not particularly mine, but others, like Kubrick's films. The point of Dr. Strangelove is unmistakable. The Incredible Shrinking Man gave me an opportunity to say some things about society.
Incidentally, we had an amusing incident during the making of that film. There is a sequence in which he's trapped in the cellar. He's now about an inch and a half or two inches tall, and he makes his home in an empty match box. The match box is under a heater, and the heater begins to leak. I was confronted with the problem of getting drops to fall in proportion to the size of the man. We tried everything, but no matter how we spilled the water, it didn't look like an oversized drop. Then I remembered how in my ill-spent youth I found some strange rubber objects in my father's drawer, and not knowing what they were, I filled them up with water, took them to the top of the building where we lived in New York, and dropped them over the side. I recalled that they looked great when they hit, and that they held a tear shape. So I asked the crew, "Has anybody got a condom on him?" With much reluctance, one of the guys finally confessed that he had one. We filled it with water, tied it at the top, and dropped it. It had a tear shape, exactly in the right proportion, and it splattered on impact. So we ordered about 100 gross of them. I put them on a treadmill and let them drop until the water pipe was supposed to burst, and it was very effective. At the end of the picture, I was called to the production office. They were going over all my expenses and they came across this item of 100 gross of condoms, so they asked me, "What the hell is that for?" I simply said, "Well, it was a very tough picture, so I gave a cast party." And that was all I told them.
CFQ: Your next horror film for Universal was Monster on the Campus.
Arnold: Joe Gershenson was head of music at Universal. He was a wonderful man, and he wanted like mad to produce. The only thing they'd let him have was this film, and they asked me to direct it. Because I liked him, I did it. It's not my favorite.
CFQ: David Duncan, who wrote the script for the film, also wrote the charming, imaginative fantasy The Time Machine. Did you work with Duncan at all during the scripting stages of the film?
Arnold: I didn't work with Duncan. The script was assigned to me. I didn't particularly like it. I tried to do the best I could with it, but it was very difficult.
CFQ: Couldn't it have been written or re-written well? Say for example as a personal story from the POV of Arthur Franz, with subjective camera, akin to your handling of The Incredible Shrinking Man?
Arnold: Yes, it could've been, but we were up against a schedule. They decided to go ahead with the film rather quickly, and the "powers-that-be" liked the script although I didn't. They insisted that I go ahead, and since I was a contract director, I could either turn the script down and be put on suspension, or do it, and because of my relationship with Gershenson I decided to do it. You have a point, and if I had it to do it over again I would probably handle it much differently than I did.
CFQ: It's one of your lesser films, but the staging of some of the violence is pretty frightening. Toward the end, instead of just carrying off the girl, the monster grabs her by the hair, drags her back and then brutally carts her away.
Arnold: It was a case of doing as much as I could with a mediocre script. When you have a standard situation like that - the monster carrying the girl away - you put as much power into it as you can to make it work one more time.
CFQ: Except for this film, all the science fiction films you directed at Universal were produced by William Alland. Then, several years later, you did another film for Universal with him, The Lively Set.
Arnold: Right. Alland was still producing at that time. Today he is no longer in the business, and hasn't been for years. I believe he's involved in the stock market now.
CFQ:Space Children is an interesting departure for you, thematically.
Arnold: I tried to use the beaches and the ocean in that of the way I used the desert in It Came from Outer Space.
CFQ: The children are shown as being very pure and guiltless.
Arnold: Well, children are. They haven't grown that shell of callousness and their values haven't been corrupted yet. They see more clearly and are more sensitive. As we grow up, our exposure to civilization causes us to lose the ability to look at something that's different and evaluate it for what it is. I like that film. It was fun working with those kids, because they were into the whole experience. It was make believe for them and they could understand exactly what I wanted. They had no hang-ups in any department.
CFQ: The late fifties brought an end to studio production of horror, fantasy and science fiction films at Universal. What brought this about?
Arnold: That happened because a lot of other companies like American-International started making very inexpensive, cheap, copies of what we were making and the market was glutted with not only their films but the whole Japanese era of science fiction films with these big monsters coming out of the sea and doing all those crazy things, crushing cars and buildings. There was a rash of those films and the market became glutted. When you have a rash of bad films on the same topic, the studio shied away from it and thought it was time to stop making them. That's the reason Universal stopped.
CFQ: At the time you were directing fantasy films, were there any pictures from other studios that you particularly liked?
Arnold: I admired The Day the Earth Stood Still very much, and also The War of the Worlds. That's about it. I hated the Japanese ones, as well as the cheap American-International imitations of the films I made. They tried to capitalize on the success of The Incredible Shrinking Man and all the films we made at Universal. They made them at a very low budget - they looked it - with no imagination. They were just exploitation films, pictures like The Amazing Colossal Man. I resented them, and thought they were just bad. Even when a film is made under the best conditions, there's a fine line between the frightening and the ridiculous. I like to inject wit and humor, and at the same time inject suspense and above all atmosphere. Most important, you must create a mood. If you establish the right mood, you can get the adrenalin going by doing a tight shot of someone as a hand comes in and grabs the shoulder. The audience screams if you do it right; if you don't do it right, it means nothing. You don't create mood by showing the monster all the time, and you also don't create it by not showing him if nothing of interest is going on in the film in the meantime.
CFQ: You call The Mouse that Roared your best work. Why?
Arnold: Because I think it gave me a chance to say something important, to deliver a social message in a form that would be acceptable to an audience without being preachy. Also, it was amusing, and I like comedy. I had a very good producer in Walter Shenson who was responsible, really, for getting the film made. We had a great deal of difficulty getting anyone to buy the film. They thought it was satire, and satire was something that closed on Saturday night. They shied away from it. Carl Foreman's company did it because Carl had just finished The Key and was just in the midst of preparing The Guns of Navarone and he wanted something to charge his office expenses to and he thought this little film would do the trick nicely. That's how Walter Shenson got Columbia through High Road, which was Carl Foreman's company, to produce the film. I'm very happy about it, because for that reason I think they left us alone and we made it the way we wanted to make it.
CFQ: It's clearly a fantasy film, even a science fiction film, but done for laughs instead of fright. Do you see the film as being thematically similar to your earlier work?
Arnold: It's thematically similar, although much more direct. I could say things a little more directly because I handled the theme comedically, rather than in a more serious vein as my other science fiction films. But they all had some kind of message.
CFQ: Ir really pre-dates films like Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove. Are you in favor of the use of more pronounced political and ideological themes in science fiction films?
Arnold: Yes. I'm in favor of it, but the operative word is "pronounced". I think to be effective it must be subtle, and it must not be an overt propaganda film. I think a film should have social significance, and if it has social significance it must have political significance, one goes hand-in-hand with the other. But I think you have to treat it subtly and with taste. A film becomes important because it says something, not only by being entertainment, but by leaving you with something to think about.
CFQ: Both The Mouse that Roared and your future project A Circle of Wheels are comedies. While this approach was fresh and unique in 1959, science fiction as comedy satire is now a popular if not predominate mode of use. Does this concern you?
Arnold: No. I'm only concerned about whether it's a good film or a bad film. I happen to think that the story of A Circle of Wheels is good, and I think the screenplay is very good. I think it says something that is very important about our lives and what can happen to us in our mechanized and computerized society and it says it in a comedic way. Because it says it in a comedic way it has much more power to influence an audience. I think it's a very important kind of a film to make and I'm not dismayed because other films like Dr. Strangelove have been made. All it's got to be is a good film.
CFQ: As you mentioned earlier, "there's a fine line between the frightening and the ridiculous". Is it as effective to play the genre for its absurd, comedic aspects rather than walk the fine line to achieve the frightening and the dramatic aspects? Which is easier?
Arnold: But there's also a fine line between being funny and not funny. Both are difficult. Neither is easier to achieve.
CFQ: In an otherwise glowing report in his book Science Fiction In the Cinema, John Baxter concludes by saying: "He (Jack Arnold) was in the movies for money, and because it was what he did best. Any art is incidental." Is that a fair assessment of your involvement in filmmaking, and is it a fair generalization about contract directors?
Arnold: I must say that I was flattered by the book, but I'm hardly objective. I was taken aback by his quote that you mentioned. I am egotistical enough to say that it's not quite true, but one sees himself differently than others see him. I approach my work to do the best I could artistically, and not because of the money, although that was an important thing - that was what I did. Filmmaking is my job, my hobby, and my life. If it turns out well, so much the better. If it turns out badly, it is my fault. But I didn't do those films because of the money, and I don't think it's a fair generalization about contract directors. There were a number of us at that time, maybe seven directors who were under contract to Universal, and we were assigned films, some of which we liked, some of which we didn't. We did the ones we didn't like to be able to do the ones we did like. Universal was run very businesslike, and they were in the business of making films that would make money. To them, good films were the ones that made money, bad films were the ones that didn't make money. That was their yardstick, I must tell you it wasn't mine. * Ben Chapman played the Creature in the original film, Browning in the follow-up. in CINEFANTASTIQUE, Volume 4, Número 2, 1975