Keep Watching The Skies! American Science Fiction Movies Of The Fifties: The 21st Century Edition: 2 Volume set by Bill Warren (book review).

April 23, 2020 | By | Reply More

I think everyone has heard of Bill Warren’s opus ‘Keep Watching The Skies! American Science Fiction Movies Of The Fifties’ over the years. This version, split into two volumes, should make it easier to read than the hardback at 1004 pages. Bear in mind these books are large and double column, then text-wise, you should think more in terms of this being double that number of pages and scattered throughout are a lot of rare black and white photos and a section of colour film posters.

I think the biggest surprise when I flicked through the books was not a lot of small entries but large entries on a lot of films so there is a lot of reading here. These cover the world from the USA, UK, Germany and Japan essentially but all connected by being shown in the USA in this time period from 1950-1962. Although Bill Warren said he would have to leave films from beyond the 1950s era to others to write about, it isn’t though he hasn’t see them and there are lots of references to them putting them in context and showing how well informed he was.

Wow! Once I got into the entries, even the opening three ‘Abbott And Costello’ movies, I was instantly reading and hooked. If you’re worried about the softcover roll, it will slowly flatten so don’t worry about adjusting the book, just respect the pages and it will ease down without pressure as you work your way through the book. I do think there should be a film list at the front of the first book but that was purely to find a film quickly or see if it is there.

However, it is there in the second book. Bill Warren is very clear in his definition of Science Fiction but there is a grey area where it converges with horror films. If there is a problem with having them in alphabetical than year order is not is not seeing them in context beside each other but that’s a minor problem as I doubt if Warren wrote the entries in either order but subject to availability of information. Oh if a lady character never turns around, chances are the back of her dress has split.

Don’t expect Bill Warren to be kind to poor films. Like us, he questions poor logic and done in a humorous way that makes you want to read his analysis. Interestingly, as with ‘Conquest Of Space’ (1955), he even supplies the other three scripts for the film that weren’t used and plain to see. Not that the final one was much better. With ‘Captive Women’ (1952), I would have thought having ugly and pretty mutates would have reminded him of ‘The Time Machine’ than the examples he gave. The reveals of earlier scripts comes up from time to time and reading about how earlier versions of ‘Village Of The Damned’ (1960) could have come out but disregarded is a mine of information.

Although English titles are mentioned in the text, I do think it would have made sense to have them in brackets under the American titles or vice versa, depending on which title the film is better known by. Equally, the same should also be noted for TV series when I saw ‘My Partner, The Ghost’ which we know better over here as ‘Randall and Hopkirk [Deceased]’.

Oddly, ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ has the briefest synopsis but one of the longest assessments. No doubt Bill Warren assumed everyone has seen the film and I suspect he is probably right.

Hardly surprising, the analysis of ‘Forbidden Planet’ also covers all its earlier drafts before it began to resemble ‘The Tempest’. It’s also one of the rare successful SF films that has never been considered for a remake. Reading all of it did make me wonder why Altara never had the mind boost. Maybe Morbius was unconsciously protecting her from his own problem?

Oddly, it is only with information about Robert Lansing in ‘The 4D Man’ (1959), that I noted an omission in the role of Gary Seven in ‘Star Trek’s ‘Assignment: Earth’ which was technically a pilot for a spin-off and his continuing role as Control in ‘The Equilizer’.

Interestingly, Bill Warren regards ‘Frankenstein’s Daughter’ as the worst film and ‘The Giant Claw’ as the most unintentionally funny due to the special effects.

‘The Horrors Of The Black Museum’ was shown on Channel 81 recently and I confirm that that opening sequence with the blinding binoculars was excluded. Saying that, Warren did miss out on a similar technique repeated in 1996 film, ‘The Phantom’. Something rather blinding that only villains like to do and not to be repeated too often.

Something I hadn’t realised that actor Lock Martin was in both ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ as Gort and one of the tall Martians in ‘Invader From Mars’ (1953).

With ‘The Invisible Boy’ (1957), Timmy is asked by his father to work out how many 1/24s are in 1¼. A quick calculation in my head came up with being 30. I do think Bill Warren is under-estimating the intelligence of eggplants when it comes to distinguishing good from bad films.

Even reading pages regularly on a daily basis, it took some 6 weeks to finish reading volume one and bear in mind you can’t buy them separately not should want to because you only get half the alphabet. Bearing in mind the size of these books, I think I might also have miscalculated just how big these books are compared to a standard size hardback. At 1000 pages and twin columns, you really should be thinking in terms of 4000 regular pages and putting the price in context is actually very good value for its money.

Finishing volume one, it does become obvious that some of the most famous 1950s films come in letters F-I and have very large entries on the subject. By spacing the reading out, I’ve also found that my enthusiasm hasn’t waned. From ‘Abbott And Costello Go To Mars (1953) to ‘Kronos’ (1957) and I haven’t drawn my breath before moving onto volume 2, from ‘The Land Unknown’ (1957) to ‘X The Unknown’ (1957). I’ve already noted several films I haven’t seen and will no doubt pop up in review from time to time, more so as they are noted in the book as to their DVD release.

There is a superb analysis of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ which I never thought was supposed to be a satire. Bill Warren also regards ‘The Mole People’ as the worse film in this book.

When you get into the ‘T’s, its more than a happy coincidence that some of the significant films line up one after the other. Bill Warren makes a point of reminding people that ‘Them! (1954) was never promoted with the ants in question so it came as a complete surprise for its viewers, at least until word of mouth got around.

Even as I approach the end of the book, I’m still amazed how entries like ‘Village Of Tha Damned’ (1960) get massive entries. Occasionally, I wish Bill Warren had extended things for a couple years so he could have covered its sequel, ‘Children Of The Damned’ in as much detail.

Warren’s analysis of the film version of ‘Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea’ (1961) is, unfortunately, spot on. A shame he didn’t include the problems of the Seaview smashing through the ice head on and what happened to the water and the shark on-board the submarine.

I should point out that although I haven’t mentioned at many films from the second volume, I was getting increasingly worried about the length of this review but I have read everything in both volumes.

It felt very weird when I finished the main entries of this book after nearly 4 months reading. Part of me didn’t want to stop but another part of me felt it taken a lifetime but in a nice way. Fortunately, Bill Warren then went onto go through films that he had in the first time, later disqualified for not being SF enough or simply hadn’t been shown in the USA at the time which explains why the UK film ‘The Day Of The Triffids’ (1962) didn’t qualify.

I think if he was alive today, I think I would have argued the case for inclusion. Had this been a British book, then we would have included purely by date had the roles been reversed as I doubt if all the American SF films from this time period would have been shown in the UK. I mean, should we really care decades on that they weren’t shown in the USA but were on general release elsewhere at the time?

Obviously, some of you are likely to buy these books and just pick at entries you want to look up but reading straight through is also effective. I do have to wonder if the yearly way is also effective simply because from an effects point of view to show what else was put out that year as the competition.

Undoubtedly, there are bound to be more reprints as ‘Keep Watching The Skies!’ has never been out of print and this is the first significant change in format. I think I would have a year index added as well to help in this and then found there it the first appendix in volume 2. I think I would have that in both volumes and bold text to point out which is in each volume for quick guidance.

Having guided you people through the Tom Weaver books, I have picked up several of the films earlier so there are less to track down this time and so came in actually better prepared. Anything I think I’ve missed will undoubtedly be watched and reviewed. ‘Keep Watching The Skies!’ is a definite buy if you have an interest in early SF films, be they good or bad.

Without them, Science Fiction films had several opportunities where they could simply have died out from lack of apparent interest or at least might not have been revived in the various sub-genres we know today or influenced the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and others and become the mega-blockbusters we take for granted today. Then where would we be today? Keep watching the films!

GF Willmetts

April 2020

(pub: McFarland, 2010. Volume 1: 495 page very large illustrated enlarged paperback. Volume 2: 509 page very large illustrated indexed enlarged paperback Price: £43.50 (UK), $45.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-47666-618-1)

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Category: Movie books, Scifi

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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