"There is so much writing in English on Japanese cinema that can't be accepted at face value — not because the writers are careless, but because the differences in culture and language are just too intricate. When I see August Ragone's name on a piece of writing, it gives me permission to place my faith in it completely. Among Japanese fantasy film historians, he's the best working in English." —Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Big G's American Bow 60 Years Ago Today!


The original one-sheet that greeted moviegoers on this date.

"This is Tokyo… a smoldering memorial to the unknown… an unknown which at this very moment still prevails, and could at any time, can lash out with its terrible destruction anywhere else in the world."

The State's huge marquee trumpeting the "King of the Monsters"!

Today marks the sixth decade in which moviegoers at Loew's State Theater in New York City first heard that great opening narration by Raymond Burr and GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! was loosed upon an unsuspecting public... But, how did it happen? How did this Japanese-made kaiju creature feature come to our shores on that 27th day of April in 1956?

Richard Kay and Harold Ross' 1953 cheapie wasn't a jewel at all.

In 1955, producers Richard Kay, Harry Rybnick, and Harold Ross of Jewell Enterprises (Untamed Women), purchased the international rights to GODZILLA from Edmund Goldman of Manson Distributing Corporation (later known as Manson International), who discovered it via Toho's then-US attorney, Paul B. Schreibman (who was also in the distribution business with Topaz Films). Okay, my head is spinning... Anyone need a scorecard?

Producer Joseph E. Levine (1905-1987), Getty/Jack Mitchell photo.

With a potential big hit on their hands, they foresaw a problem in moviegoers accepting an all-Asian cast film. Additional investment from distribution maverick Joseph E. Levine (Walk Into Hell), Terry Turner (Should a Girl Marry?), and Ed Barison (The Golden Mistress), for a cut of the action, they decided to produce new scenes, helmed by veteran film editor Terry O. Morse (Fog Island) and written by Al C. Ward (Perry Mason), featuring an American foreign correspondent, recounting the narrative in flashback.

Morse's 1945 debut with former Universal stars Zucco and Atwill!

Kay and Rybnick brought in actor Raymond Burr, featured as the killer in Alfred Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW (1954), to play the starring role of "Steve Martin" (this was long before public heard of the comedian of the same name), and for just stepping in for insert scenes, Burr turned in a solid and somber performance — reportedly shot in five days. Japanese-American real estate agent and character actor, Frank Iwanaga (The Frogmen), played the part of Burr's interpreter, security officer "Tomo Iwanaga".

The one and only... Raymond William Stacey Burr (1917-1993).

Counter to what some critics have written recently, Morse's footage (shot by Guy Roe) was cleverly inserted into the original — although moviegoers weren't completely fooled. In retrospect, it's obvious that when Burr speaks to Dr. Yamane, it's not actor Takashi Shimura, but a double. In order to accommodate the new footage, the picture was extensively cut, rendering all the characters (save for Dr. Serizawa) less dimensional than in Honda's original.

Turner's 1960 doc-spoiltation symptomatic of his promotional style.  

While much attention was paid to what was going on in a particular scene, not that much attention was given to what was being said in Japanese (several scenes feature characters speaking out of context). Morse was probably thinking, "Who is ever going to notice?", and at the time, he was right. Dubbing only minimal footage seemed wise, since this was one of the early attempts at this technique used to prepare a foreign film for American audiences.

Lurid fare post-GODZILLA from Rybnick, Kay and Barison, 1958.

The voice dubbing talent was led by the loquacious character actor, James Hong (Big Trouble In Little China), Sammee Tong (Bachelor Father), and an as yet-to-be-identified female Asian-American actor, recording all of their dialogue over three long days, and according to Hong, without the actors ever seeing any of the footage.

You really see nothing in this 1958 Kay-Rybnick monsterless movie.

Despite the seemingly rushed schedule for Morse's inserts (and toning down the original's nuclear theme), they still manage to maintain a gritty, moody, near Film Noir feel, lending this adaptation a life all its own. In fact, Toho was compliant and well aware of the steps taken in making this adaptation — from the changes to the original, as well as approving Ward's English-language screenplay (Schreibman was Toho's LA attorney, after all).

Turner and Thompson's ballyhoo was as big as the monster, itself. (From the April 4, 1956 issue of "Variety"; owned by the author.)

Considering the producers' résumés, it was no small feat Morse had created a miracle, unlike the amateurish butcher jobs that would kill films like GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955) and KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962). The work of Honda, Tsuburaya and Ifukube still shines through in GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! (and pretty potent stuff for US audiences in 1956), not diminishing its status as the greatest of the "Monster-on-the-Loose" spectacles of the period.

Newspaper ad for Loew's Poli Palace in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Based on those strengths, the film went on to huge international box-office success — which is why, 60 years after GODZILLA was unleashed in the US — not only has the world never been the same again, we're still talking about both Honda's and the version with that newspaper man who went onto a successful career as a lawyer.

With new films being produced by both Toho and Legendary pictures, Godzilla is still the undisputed King of the Monsters, as he stomps towards his centenary.


Kilowog said...

I always felt the hatchet job King Kong vs Godzilla got was almost charming. This could very well be because it captivated me as a child, but I can see that dub and while I could never call it good, still have fun with it.

Gigantis, though, I fully agree with you on. Even as a child I couldn't stand it. The only time I've ever voluntarily put it on as an adult was simply to see of I could spot George Takei in the dub audio.

chreynest said...

TOPAZ FILMS was mentioned. they once had US distribution rights to Toho's THE THREE TREASURES film