Cheap Tricks And Class Acts by John “J.J.” Johnson (book review).

In these days of CGI effects, unless you’re a certain age, you’re not going to remember when things were all physical in our genre films. More so back in the 1950s, where everything was done on a shoestring…literally. JJ Johnson points out that the material in this book, ‘Cheap Tricks And Class Acts’, is drawn from a lot of rare sources so they can be put under one cover. I should point out from the start that it isn‘t just ‘B’ films that are covered but also ‘A’ grade and also several British made films in its six part 26 chapter headings and some 228 films, as noted from the filmography.


If you’re a trivia fiend, you have more than enough here to keep you happy. Indeed, with the exact outside locations of where many of these films were made, an opportunity for you to see the places for themselves.

Things I learnt. Giant Lock Martin had a stand-in Gort statue for his more immobile standing in ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ (1951) which was nearly two feet taller than himself. In ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956). Robbie The Robot’s design was patterned off a pot-bellied stove. Did I mention that this book is loaded with black and white photos and poster art? Seeing Robbie in three pieces was most illuminating because I’d never seen the inside with its gubbins intact before. ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’ (1954)’s Nautilus was based on a crocodile, at least I hope, by texture more than shape.

The sound effects used in ‘The Man From Planet X’ (1951) were also used in a certain 1979 ‘Alien’ film. Just goes to show what goes around comes goes around and will no doubt have you people paying more attention to old films.

Something I hadn’t known before that Ray Harryhausen wasn’t Wallace O’Brien’s only apprentice as Pete Peterson, who animated ‘The Black Scorpion’ (1957) and ‘The Black Behemoth’ (1959) was another who worked with him as well, although he came into it purely by accident and found himself enjoying the work.

‘One Million Years BC’ (1940) has been the most burglarised film for stock footage. Godzilla was the name of a tough janitor at the Toho Studios before being used for the name of a radioactive fire-breathing dinosaur.

If you thought pointed ears only came into vogue with the original ‘Star Trek’, think again. The 1957 film ‘Blood Of Dracula’ was the earliest I spotted here.

The spacesuits from ‘Destination Moon’ (1950) were also used in ‘Flight To Mars’ (1951). ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956) also had their space uniforms used once more in ‘Queen Of Outer Space’ (1958). Speaking of ‘Forbidden Planet’, there’s a fabulous photo showing the true scale of their spaceship on the ground showing how truly large it was. When it goes to cannibalisation, ‘Abbott And Costello Go To Mars’ (1956) had a lot of its props incorporated into ‘This Island Earth’s Interocetor two years later. Something that came out of various production costs against money made clearly showed that even back then, SF films were profitable or they wouldn’t have been made and explains why ‘B’ movies tended to dominate so much to cash in on that point.

The globe model used in ‘This Island Earth’ is the same one used earlier for the ‘Universal’ logo Earth. Do you think I should go on? This book is a mountain of information and with two columns to a page, you really are getting good value for money here. There are occasional overlaps and repeats of information but when aspects of films are brought into different chapters that’s inevitable and if anything strengthens recollection. If you’re developing a yen for the 1950s SF films or just want to learn more about them, then this book more than fulfils that purpose. I hope someone out there considers doing a similar book for the 1960s, if for no other reason than to show how things developed.

GF Willmetts

February 2014

(pub: McFarland. 404 page illustrated and indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £30.50 (UK), $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-7864-4058-0)

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