General Williams: “There’s something beyond botulinus?”
Dr. Hoffman: “Yes, the second weapon. Also a virus, airborne. But self-perpetuating. Indestructible. Once released it will multiply at a power beyond our calculations. It perhaps will never die. To this virus we have given a highly unscientific name, but one which describes it perfectly. “The Satan Bug.” If I took the flask which contains it and exposed it to the air, everyone here would be dead in three seconds. California would be a tomb in a few hours. In a week all life, and I mean all life, would cease in the United States. In two months, two months at the most, the trapper from Alaska, the peasant from the Yangtze, the Aborigine from Australia are dead. All dead, because I crushed a flask and exposed a green colored liquid to the air. Nothing, nothing can stop the Satan Bug.”
[Dana Andrews to Richard Basehart, “The Satan Bug” (1965)]
I think, Dear Reader, we all know that the past couple of years have not been necessarily so great. This was due to a lot of factors. Besides the current turmoil in our own country, the world has been badly rocked by the number of countries turning away from Democracy and moving instead, towards totalitarianism as an answer. We also have had global environmental problems caused by climate change which threatened our world’s very existence. Oh, and least I forget, there is the continuing global coronavirus pandemic which has affected our lives, whether we have been vaccinated or not. However, at this point you might be thinking right about now, “Well other than depressing the Hell out me, what does any of this have to do with your stupid Blog this month?” Ah, well let us all calm down shall we, and I will explain. You see, since I just mentioned the coronavirus, this month’s Blog Post will discuss various dramatic scenarios involving pandemics and which, surprisingly, are popular subjects in different ways for films and for television.
As an example, let’s look at the MGM film “Yellow Jack” (1938) which was based on the stage play by Pulitzer and Oscar (“Gone with the Wind”) winning playwright and screenwriter Sidney Howard, and famed microbiologist and author Paul de Kruif. The story, partially based on fact, was how U.S. Army Major Walter Reed (Yep, the guy that the medical center in DC is named after) worked with other Army Medical Corp doctors and Cuban epidemiologist Carlos Finlay to diagnose and treat yellow fever victims both before, during, and after the Spanish American War in Cuba. Yellow fever (nicknamed “Yellow Jack”) sickened and killed more soldiers during the Spanish American War than anything else, and the film explored the drama of U.S. Army soldiers who volunteered to be infected by mosquitoes carrying the disease to enable doctors to devise a cure. However, since Reed and Finlay were portrayed by character actors Lewis Stone and Charles Coburn (who looked about as Cuban as a “kumquat”), they had to have the film focus on the solders themselves [Sam Levene, Buddy Ebsen (pre-“Beverly Hillbillies”), etc.] and with Robert Montgomery in the lead role also as one of the volunteers. The movie captured the general science aspects pretty well along with the conflicts waged by Reed against those who dismissed his scientific conclusions and methods for fighting the disease. The human element was also provided by those who caught and perished from the disease throughout the film. Unfortunately, this movie does not hold up well at all. It includes a dippy cringe-inducing love story between Montgomery (with a bad Irish brogue thicker than a bank vault door) and Virginia Bruce as a nurse, bad over-acting pontificating by just about everyone, and clunky direction by film director George B. Seitz.
Fun Fact: Perennial “Hack” Director Seitz directed eleven of the sixteen “Andy Hardy” films which were a sort of far worse “Father Knows Best” version of comedy films made in the nineteen thirties and forties starring Mickey Rooney as Andy and Lewis Stone as his even more annoying know it all daddy. If you have ever actually made the mistake of seeing an Andy Hardy film, you might have wished, like me, that Seitz instead would have made a series of medical films with Rooney as Andy like “Andy Hardy Gets Yellow Jack” or “Andy Hardy Gets Laid” along with it’s sequel, “Andy Hardy Gets V.D.”, etc. At least, it would have been far more informative and far less sickening!
Moving right along, two much better made movies that I want to highlight, and which were made in the same year were “The Killer that Stalked New York” (1950), and “Panic in the Streets” (1950). “Killer…” was based on the real-life story of a smallpox outbreak in New York City in 1947 which was, fortunately, thwarted in time. This low budget noir thriller starred Evelyn Keyes as Sheila, just back in New York City from Cuba with a package of illegal diamonds. Discovering that she is being tailed by U.S. Customs officials, she immediately mails the diamonds to her secretly cheating husband Matt (Charles Korvin) who, unbeknown to her, is planning to double cross her and run away with the diamonds himself. Soon after, she nearly faints, and after being taken to a local health clinic and misdiagnosed as having a common cold, she leaves to go home, but not before infecting a little girl at the clinic. Once, the medical authorities determine that the little girl has smallpox, the race is on to find Sheila and stop the outbreak in time. For a low budget film, “Killer” is really terrific. It alternates from being just a little suspense crime noir into a epidemic thriller as Sheila starts infecting people left and right who she fleetingly comes into contact with. Directed by Earl McEvoy in a semi-documentary style, the film is really highlighted by top-notch black and white cinematography from future Oscar winner Joseph F. Biroc (“It’s a Wonderful Life”, “The Towering Inferno”, etc.) capturing both outdoor realism and dark shadows at night with Keyes, like an Avenging Angel, hunting down her cheating husband while growing weaker and weaker before your very eyes. The film is loaded with veteran character actors like Jim Backus, Whit Bissell, Roy Roberts, Carl Benton Reid, etc. along with future stars like Lola Albright, Richard Egan, and Dorothy Malone, etc. in small or secondary roles. As a thriller, “The Killer that Stalked New York” is a gem!
An even better plague thriller, and with a bigger budget, was “Panic in the Streets.” “Streets” starred Richard Widmark as Lieutenant Commander “Clint” Reed of the U.S. Public Health Service who jumps into action when a murdered illegal immigrant in New Orleans is found to be infected with pneumonic plague (a version of the bubonic plague). Fearing an outbreak and with grudging help by, at first, skeptical police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas), they hunt for the original source of the infection as well as the individuals (Jack Palance, Zero Mostel, etc.) who murdered the immigrant. Directed by the great Elia Kazan on location in semi-documentary style with fine cinematography by Joseph MacDonald, “Streets” is also an edge of your seat thriller of two men racing against the clock to find all of the individuals infected to contain the outbreak before the news is released to the general public. Kazan’s cast included some of his fellow actors from the New York stage, local area actors, and a number of individuals with no acting experience at all in various roles. He also incorporated a Neo-Realist visual approach which was popular in Italy after World War II and it worked very well. He was greatly helped by Edward Anhalt and his then wife, Edna Anhalt’s Oscar winning screenplay which provided solid character development for his talented cast. Kazan was always known for eliciting great performances from his actors, and this movie had many along with fine performances by both Widmark and Douglas. However, maybe the best one of them all was Jack Palance’s scary (both on screen and off) film debut as the murderous killer.
Like all great villains he used his physical size to intimidate and evoke fear. Yet his character, at times, was surprisingly generous and even helpful in a way. You just never knew what to expect, which caused you to always be on edge or wary of his presence. Widmark stated that Palance was the toughest guy he ever met and the only actor he was physically afraid of. He must have been. During one scene where Palance clubs Widmark’s character on the head with a gun, Palance deliberately replaced the rubber gun they were originally using for the scene with a real gun and knocked Widmark out cold. If that wasn’t bad enough, to get into the mood of his character, Palance’s version of “Method” acting was to actually beat on actor, Zero Mostel, who played his flunky underling off-screen which resulted in the now black and blue Mostel after the first week of filming having to go to the hospital. I think if I had a choice, I’d rather catch the plague than piss off Jack Palance.
The next two pandemic films that I want to praise are also thrillers but more towards the SY/FY category rather than film noir. The first one was “The Satan Bug” (1965) directed by John Sturges and with a screenplay by, once again, Edward Anhalt (who must have really liked writing about pandemics). Based on a novel by Pulp thriller writer Alistair MacLean, the movie involves a break-in at a top-secret bioweapon facility in the Southern California desert. Lee Barrett (George Maharis) a former intelligence agent is tasked by the military to find out what happened and soon enough discovers that a man-made Doomsday virus named The Satan Bug has been stolen by a mysterious unidentifiable insane millionaire named Ainsley who is perfectly willing to use it to destroy all living creatures on the planet unless his demands are met. From that point on, it another race against the clock (Is there any other kind!) to find the virus before it is released.
John Sturges, who was another good but never great director, could make some terrific male dominated thriller/action films (“The Magnificent Seven”, “The Great Escape”, etc.) and in MacLean, he found the perfect hokey thriller writer that he could make chicken salad out of. Of course, that didn’t mean that Sturges still didn’t make some big directing mistakes with this film. First, you could figure out who Ainsley was within the first thirty minutes. Second, despite Anhalt’s screenplay, Sturges direction of his actors (Dana Andrews, Anne Francis, Richard Basehart, along with Maharis) was pretty weak with basically none of them showing any depth or complexity beyond the basic cardboard variety. Third, there were some gaping plot holes in the storyline which made you just want to say, “What the F**K!!!” However, despite these flaws, it’s still a pretty good movie. Actors Frank Sutton and a young Ed Asner (when he still had a little hair on his head) play a great pair of stone-cold psychopathic killers (even if they hardly say anything), and the terrific suspenseful film score by Jerry Goldsmith is one of the finest efforts of his entire career. As for Sturges, he could really ratchet up the suspense and tension to have your heart pounding. For example, the best scene in the entire movie is a sequence where Maharis and two agents trapped in a locked garage immediately react when Asner throws a vial of botulinus through their garage window forcing them to break out or die trying. For that sequence alone, you could just about forgive Sturges for almost anything. “The Satan Bug” is not a great movie. However, it is a pretty good movie.
A later and much better, pandemic film was “The Andromeda Strain” (1971) directed by Robert Wise and based on the novel by Michael Crichton. After a U.S. satellite crashes near a small town in rural New Mexico almost all of the town’s residents die except for a 69-year-old alcoholic man and a six-month-old-infant. When a military recovery team fails to retrieve the satellite and rescue the survivors, an elite team of scientists (Arthur Hill, James Olson, Kate Reid, and David Wayne) are tasked to do both while also analyzing the situation at a top-secret underground Nevada facility. Their fear is that a deadly alien organism is present, and if it ever escapes the facility, an automatic nuclear self-destruct mechanism will be activated to destroy the facility and all infectious areas before the organism can infect an even larger surrounding area.
The success of Crichton’s first book made him an international literary celebrity and led him to write numerous bestselling scientific thrillers for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, just like with author Tom Clancy, both authors could write about scientific or military/techno information very well, but their characterizations of individuals in their novels were inclined to be something that you could more readily find in a kindergarten coloring book. Fortunately for Crichton, he had Robert Wise directing. First, Wise cast top actors rather than movie stars for the main roles. Second, Wise worked with his longtime screenplay collaborator Nelson Gidding to ably flesh out fully developed characters for the scientists as well as numerous secondary characters. Third, Wise (who could direct any type of film) was also adept at science fiction, and he made one of the greatest of them all with “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) along with the still underrated “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979). Fourth, Wise, who started off his film career as a sound and film editor (“Citizen Kane”) utilized Stuart Gilmore and John W. Holmes’ great film editing to elicit tension and suspense throughout the film (they were both Oscar nominated). About the only mistake he made in this film was in choosing the awful Gil Melle to do the nearly unlistenable techno SY/FY film score. Despite that mistake, “The Andromeda Strain” was my pick for the best picture of that year (Of course, it didn’t win), and it’s still one of the best and most believable pandemic movies ever made!
From the nineteen nineties on up to the present day, more pandemic movies than ever before have been made with varying degrees of success. For example, you had…
- “12 Monkeys” (1995): With Bruce Willis as a time traveler going back and forth in time like a ping-pond ball while trying to find the virus or cause of the virus that wiped out most of humanity in his own time. More boring than exciting but ladies, at least you got the chance to see Brad Pitt’s bare butt in this one!
- “Outbreak” (1995): With Dustin Hoffman as a U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases virologist trying to find a cure for an Ebola-like virus that has caused an outbreak in a small California town while fighting a military plot to use the virus as a future bioweapon. The first half is pretty good but the second half caves in faster than a sandcastle hit by an ocean wave.
- “The Happening” (2008): Psychological thriller about an epidemic causing individuals to commit mass suicide and the four individuals who are trying to escape the calamity. Is it a pandemic film or maybe more like your typical M. Night Shyamalan (“I’ll pull a surprise twist ending to surprise you) kind of film? Ah, no! It’s neither! However, what it really happens to be is a completely boring waste of your time!
Now of course there were other supposedly good film versions of a pandemic like “Contagion” (2011) for example. I say supposedly, because I didn’t see that particular one so I can’t offer an opinion on it one way or the other. However, I definitely can offer a favorable opinion on another one which was actually a six-episode television miniseries airing on the National Geographic channel in 2019. That one was called, “The Hot Zone”, and it was based on the Richard Preston book of the same title. The series, taking place in 1989, covers the actual story of the potential outbreak of the ebolavirus after it was found in monkeys at a Primate Quarantine Facility in Reston, Va. near Washington, D.C. It starred Julianna Margulies as real-life U.S. Army veterinary pathologist Nancy Jaax and Topper Grace as real-life Peter Jahrling, a virologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases who helped to identify the virus at the Reston facility and then worked with others to both contain, and to determine the deadliness of the virus along with working on ways to develop a cure. The series has been justly criticized for its accuracy and being overly melodramatic. However, it was also gripping, suspenseful, and, at times, scary even if it was not totally accurate. Margulies gives a fine performance as Jaxx and she is ably assisted by Noah Emmerich as her husband and fellow actors’ Liam Cunningham, Robert Sean Leonard, and James D’Arcy. Despite the controversy, the miniseries got good reviews and it returned for a second go-round last November chronicling the 2001 anthrax attacks. I guess you just can’t keep a good potential pandemic under control!
Lastly, you just knew that I had to bring up one last kind of pandemic since it has been such a popular one for decades with the general public. Now which one could I ever be referring to, you may ask? Why what else but the one that causes those infected to turn into…ZOMBIES!!! Now before all of you start groaning, I just want to let all of you know that I am not going to start talking about “Dawn of the Dead”, “World War Z”, the ten thousand iterations of “The Walking Dead” or “most” of the other zombie movies. Heck, I am not even going to talk about Rob Zombie for cripes sake! However, notice I said “most” of the zombie movies. I did not say, all of them. There is one that I did want to mention because it is a dark comedy that is really funny as Hell and, even more surprising, it is a sequel which is even better than the original. That film is “Zombieland: Double Tap” (2019).
“Zombieland…” continues the further adventures of Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) in a post-apocalyptic world populated by, you guessed it…ZOMBIES! The dynamics of our group consist of Harrelson playing a semi-bright Southern “good old boy” (which is the type of character that he usually plays 90% of the time), his nerdy/socially inept partner Eisenberg (which is the type of character that he usually plays 95% of the time), and who lives by a goofy set of survivor rules that are pasted across the movie screen throughout the film, Stone, who Eisenberg continually lusts after and who is stereotypically tough and stand-offish from Eisenberg, and Breslin as Stone’s little sister and who is also stereotypically rebellious. Our little family(?) is now residing in the abandoned and weed and vine covered White House with Columbus about to finally propose to Wichita with his little “Hope Diamond” trinket that he has been lugging around. As for Tallahassee, he has also found his own personal sort of true red neck love with his newly modified Dukes of Hazzard-like presidential limousine which he affectionately calls, “The Beast!” Needless to say, things do not work out as planned, and soon enough, our mismatched group are off on the open road where new adventures await including new and creatively original comic ways to kill Zombies! This Zombie fest was directed by Ruben Fleischer (who did the original “Zombieland”) along with fellow returnees’ screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and new writer David Callaham who provide even more over the top silliness than the original. Also providing able comic support are actors’ Rosario Dawson, Luke Wilson, and especially, Zoey Deutch who plays the dumbest, and maybe the funniest, Dumb Blond since the heyday of Marilyn Monroe. If you can stand the gorefest moments, “Zombieland: Double Tap” is a laugh out loud pandemic riot!
To conclude, I hope that all of you have enjoyed this month’s post! Stay safe, be well, and be sure to always…
“Carry an extra wooden stake in the trunk of your car!”
You never know when you might have to use it!