The Day the Earth Caught Fire,
and six more movies

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Don't let the schlock-sounding title fool you into thinking this is schlock. Maybe that's what fooled me, and kept this movie from my eyeballs or even my awareness in the 61 years since it was made, but believe it or not, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is worth watching.

Edward Judd plays a cocky bitter hard-drinking newspaper reporter who's assigned to write about the recent increase in sunspot activity. "Five hundred words on sunspots," he says glumly, but as the story develops, the sunspots lead to record temperatures, heat mist, windstorms, and most bizarrely, an eclipse that hadn't been predicted.

Janet Munro plays a dame working in the secretarial pool at a government science agency, and thus she's privy to inside information. After meeting the reporter she unknowingly becomes a major source for his big scoop — the US recently tested two new super-nuclear bombs, explosions so powerful they've nudged the earth eleven degrees out of its ordinary orbit.

Maybe that's ever-so-slightly-remotely-cosmically possible or maybe it's just movie mumbo-jumbo, but it's presented as if it's plausible, and the movie sells it. The old-school effects and matte paintings are mostly convincing, the cinematography is mid-century urban black-and-white gorgeous, and the reporters' bickering dialogue is as quick, smart, and short-tempered as any good movie about newspaper work.

"It's never too late for a good story well-written."

Newsroom dramas are one of my favorite genres, right up there with golden era sci-fi, and this is a double whammy — serious science fiction and a great newspaper movie. Plus somehow there's room to squeeze in a romance that seems romantic.

At risk of revealing myself as a dirty old man, it's also surprisingly sexy. It's 1961, so there's no nudity, no sex, and I'm not even sure there was a kiss. In the sweltering heat as the world boils over, though, those bikinis are tiny, and in at least two scenes the leading lady is barely wearing a top. It stirred this reporter's loins.

Mostly, though, I'm recommending The Day the Earth Caught Fire because it plays the drama right, with smarts behind the script and believable characters on the screen, and it sweeps you along and doesn't let go until it's over. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

Also, it's surprising (to me, anyway) when the movie shows sizable anti-nuke protests in 1961, complete with the pie-shaped peace signs that I thought came with the hippies, years later. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Neverending
Film Festival

Little Fugitive (1951)

A boy who looks about 12 is left in charge of his kid brother who looks about 8. The older boy and his friends prank the pipsqueak into thinking he's shot and killed his big brother. Believing himself on the lam from the law, the youngster runs away and faces the world on his own.

That seems like a setup for something dark and serious, but relax. The runaway kid goes to Coney Island, rides the roller coaster and turns in empty bottles for the deposit, so he always has funds to buy cotton candy and more rides.

There's also a harmonica-heavy soundtrack, repeatedly playing variations on "Home, Home on the Range," an odd choice which gets ho-hum in a hurry.

Verdict: MAYBE, but what a waste of a good idea.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

"Running has always been a big thing in our family, especially running away from the police. It's hard to understand. All I know is that you've got to run. Run without knowing why, through fields and woods. And the winning post is no end, even though balmy crowds might be cheering. That's what the loneliness of the long distance runner feels like."

Colin Smith is a new inmate at an all-white juvenile prison, where the warden is pleased that a local school has agreed to an athletic competition against a team of inmates. Smith seems to be a talented cross-country runner, so he's slated to compete against the schoolboys in a mini-marathon.

Smith sees the prison shrink for a bullshit psych session, squabbles and fights with one of the other inmates, and remembers his shitty life with his shitty mother.

As he runs in practice for the big race, he remembers more and more about his short life, stealing cars and stealing kisses from a girl, and the half-ass crime that brought him to prison, and I wondered if the prison itself might be this poor kid's escape.

"Do you know what I'd do if I had the whip hand? I'd get all the coppers, governors, posh whores, army officers and members of Parliament and I'd stick them up against this wall and let them have it, 'cause that's what they'd like to do to blokes like us."

Produced and directed by Tony Richardson, the film has a few slapstick comedic sequences that seem out of place, but overall it's quite good, and deserves its excellent reputation.

My copy was pirated, and had blurry and sometimes tinny sound, but the movie seemed strong enough that I went legit and borrowed the DVD from the library — and it sounded exactly the same. Great movie, but cockney accents with tinny sound gave me a headache. I hope your copy sounds better than mine.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Lord of the Rings (1978)

When I was in grade school in the 1960s, all the geeky kids had Tolkien paperbacks, and the geeks still do. Saw one on the bus a few days ago — fat boy, glasses, bad hair, and Tolkien. A stereotype come to life.

Not sure I've ever heard a discouraging word about anything related to JRR Tolkien's Ring cycle, but I've been discouraged. I've read the first chapters of The Hobbit several times, and the first chapters of the first book in the trilogy, and tried twice to watch the first of the acclaimed movie franchise from the 2000s, all to no avail.

Now I've tried this Ralph Bakshi cartoon from the 1970s, which condenses the three books into just one movie. Things move quickly, some of the imagery is beautiful, colorful, and creative, and Frodo has lovably big eyes. There's nifty music by Leonard Rosenman, who later wrote the best music of all the Star Trek flicks, for Star Trek IV.

I will now take a deep breath and try to summarize the plot, and probably get most everything wrong, but here goes:

The men and elves and dwarfs and hobbits of Middle Earth follow leaders who get their smarts and superpowers from magic rings. There used to be 19 magic rings in circulation, some for humans, some for elves, dwarfs, etc, but then Satan himself forged a super duper ring that endows its wearer with all the powers — "one ring to rule them all." Mathematically, it must be 19 times as powerful as any of the other rings.

Having all of Satan's power flowing into just one person's ring finger makes whoever's wearing the ring into a hell of a bastard, so Gandalf the wizard thinks nobody should wear the ring, not even him.

Oh, and the ring can't be destroyed.

Guess it can't be well-hidden, either, because someone's always trying to hide it and someone else finds it. Frodo Baggins has it now, and wears it on a necklace, but never on his finger unless he needs a momentary jolt of magic for invisibility or something.

I've never ventured so far into Tolkien as I did here, so this movie gets points for that. Without a geek beside me to explain everything, though, I grew confused. Then came this narration, to confuse me further:

"Halfway between Agaras and Eisengard there lies an old strong fortress that men call Helm's Deep. If we can decoy Salaman's awks there, the fortress will stop them longer than the wooden hulls of Agaras."

I hit 'pause' and then listened again and typed it up, but what all that babble meant eluded me. I'd been paying close attention, too, trying to keep up, but I wasn't sure whether Salaman had several awks, or just one ox. Tolkien invents new nouns, lots of them, so it's an honest question.

And an hour and 45 minutes into Bakshi's Lord of the Rings, I realized that, alas, I didn't and do not care about sorta-humans in a very elaborately imagined otherworld chasing a magical ring to make sure no-one gives it the finger.

Verdict: NO. Everyone says Tolkien is marvelous, and I'm not arguing. If you like Tolkien, maybe you'll like this, but it runs rings around my head.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Mars (1997)

Made for obviously minimal bucks, this is science fiction set on Mars, and it's as imaginative as its title.

On Mars, the company owns everything, including the cops. Oliver Gruner plays the hero — C Templar, says his ID — and when someone at a security check asks what the C stands for, he replies, "Caution."

A cryptic wisecrack? No, the character's name is Caution. Any wisecracks or sense of humor in Mars is a misunderstanding.

Like he no doubt learned at Action Movie Academy, Gruner doesn't say much, just glares at people before punching, kicking, or killing them. Caution is a cop who can't be beaten in fistfights, in gunfights, in a four-on-one ambush — always the company baddies keep coming to kill him, and always Caution can't be defeated, so there's really no drama here.

There's Shari Belafonte, though, and she's good, and there's a slight hint of a moral or message at the end.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover (1977)

Probably, there was someone who would've been worse as head of the FBI than J Edgar Hoover from 1924-1972, but he was damned awful.

After the old bastard died, when the truth about his nuttiness started coming out, this well-deserved piss-on-his-grave biopic was made with a Hollywood all-star cast, written and directed by Larry Cohen, and with music by Miklos Rozsa.

There's nothing much here that I didn't already know, but this movie might be an eye-opener for anyone who only knows J Edgar as a name from history.

"This motion picture was filmed on actual locations at the FBI but without the approval or censorship of the Bureau."

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Spill (1996)

The intent here was to morph Brian Bosworth, a then-famous and flamboyant pro athlete, into a movie star. It's been done before and since, sometimes successfully, but usually the jock is paired with an actual actor of some renown. Not here; it's Bosworth and a cast of nobodies in a movie written, directed, and produced by other nobodies.

It might also be helpful if Bosworth could act, but he's not Jim Brown, Dwayne Johnson, or Esther Williams.

The titular spill happens in the first few minutes, and it's startlingly stupid. Several people wearing full-body hazmat suits are carrying a vial of deadly blue stuff, and one of them stumbles, dropping and breaking the glass vial. Uh, science had the technology for shatterproof vials by the 1990s.

Bosworth's character is a former superstar football player, recognized immediately by fans everywhere, who's now head of the President's Secret Service detail. This seems at odds with the 'secret' part of the Secret Service, doesn't it?

He's in charge, despite being surrounded by much more experienced agents, and he plays poker once weekly with big-time newspaper reporters, which also seems like something the Secret Service might rather he didn't.

The movie immediately establishes that Bosworth is a rule-breaker when he cracks an egg on some alleged bad guy's face, and then… Oh, I could go on and on, but enough already. Mop it up.

Verdict: BIG NO.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.  


  1. Holy crap, busy day - Nichelle Nichols and Bill Russell dead.

    1. In addition to his great playing years, Russell coached the Seattle SuperSonics for a few years, and I liked his public persona.

      Hadn't heard about Nichelle Nichols. Hailing frequencies are closed. Who's left now? Shatner and Takei... and Koenig, says Google.

    2. Bill Russell was the greatest winner in sports history.


    3. He couldn't even wear all his championship rings.

  2. I think it's fair to compare Nichelle Nichols to Jackie Robinson.

    >It was 1967, and reviews for the first season of Star Trek were not great. Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Nyota Uhura, had bigger issues with the show. She found it demoralizing to see her lines cut and cut again. She had to deal with racist insults off set, as well as from executives who conspired to keep her from seeing her fan mail.

    At the end of the first season, Nichols recounted in her autobiography, she told the show’s creator she was done.

    But the next day, at an NAACP function, a fan greeted her: Martin Luther King Jr. He told her how important her role was and how he and his family watched Star Trek faithfully and adored her in particular — the only Black character.

    Nichols thanked him, but said she planned to leave. “You cannot and you must not,” she recalls him saying. “Don’t you realize how important your presence, your character is? ... Don’t you see? This is not a Black role, and this is not a female role. You have the first non stereotypical role on television, male or female. You have broken ground.
    “... For the first time,” he continued, “the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people — as we should be.”

    She stayed for the next two seasons of the series, lent her voice to an animated version and appeared in a half-dozen Star Trek movies. She had the first interracial kiss in American television. She recruited for NASA. Through her work, she influenced Mae Jemison — the first Black female astronaut.

    1. A well-written, accurate account of a turbulent time. Thanks for taking time to tell this story exactly as it happened. I can see why you were promoted to Captain.

      Thanks again.


    2. All true, all worth noting. By most reports she also boinked Gene Roddenberry, so maybe she was TV's first interracial boink as well. And she already had the job; second season, I think.

  3. You nailed it on Tolkein in that hilarious review. I never saw that movie, but the books are unreadable for me and my wife dragged me to see the Jackson movies, yawn.

    1. Probably I shouldn't criticize a writer so successful, but dang it, to me, there's just no way into the story. I'm not an elf, don't believe in magic rings. It works better as a Bakshi cartoon, but still...

    2. You struck out swinging this time. Doug. Tolkien's books are brilliant, Bakshi's adaptation was quite good for what it was, and the Peter Jackson movies are even better. You have to WANT to give a damn, that's all.

    3. > You have to WANT to give a damn, that's all.

      That's the catch, I think. I barely want to give a damn about reality, and don't at all want to give a damn about someone else's fantasy world that doesn't even involve scantily-clad women.


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