King Kong Creators go Small in Visual Effects Marvel.
DIRECTED BY ERNEST B. SCHOEDSACK/1940
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JANUARY 7, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Back in the day, King Kong director Ernest B. Schoedsack was very big stuff. Not just because of his massive success on the aforementioned big ape picture, which was, without hyperbole, the Star Wars of its day. No, Schoedsack also physically large, said to have measured in at 6’6″. That’s just tall enough to challenge any conventional doorway, car ceiling, or theater seating. Being intimidatingly tall has its perks to be sure, but one pays the price in occasional accidental clobberings and general discomfort.
Perhaps then it should be no surprise that once opportunity knocked for Schoedsack (and his producing partner Merian C. Cooper), he took his penchant for helming visual effects-driven spectacle the reverse of Kong. In the half-decade-plus following their triumph with King Kong, Schoedsack and Cooper funneled their creative filmmaking energies into (among a handful of other things) what promised to be an incredible tale of shrinking men and one shrinking woman.
Dr. Cyclops is, in every respect, a mini-marvel (right around seventy-minutes long) of visual effects. The loving attention paid to the gamut of oversized hand-props that the 14-inch characters must brandish (a dismantled scissors becomes a kind of sword; a cocktail fork becomes a gladiatorial pitchfork) to the rear screen exactitude of the many oversized foes they face (A cat! A croc! A dog! The mad doctor himself!) is literally everything with this film. Dr. Cyclops isn’t the first major motion picture to attempt a convincing depiction of miniaturized people (see 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein, for one), but the efforts and effects are truly impressive here, as they dominate the second half of this Technicolor wonder.
And beyond those aspects, Dr. Cyclops utterly breaks down. Plot nor performances nor even action sequences pass muster here. While the film’s lack of major stars is a viable calculation to further the audience’s suspension of disbelief, most of actors we do get are either flailing or charisma vacuums. Albert Dekker in the lead role of the treacherous and obsessive nut job Dr. Thorkel (although he has two eyes, they call him “Cyclops” for literary reasons. You see, this movie is smart.) is well and good, though he too is ultimately overtaken by the singular focus on visual effects and the subsequent anemic adventure for adventure’s sake.
The Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber Studio Classics is an absolutely stunning affair. As film buffs know from decades of watching inferior fuzzy transfers of early technicolor films such as this, the alignment of the beautiful and revolutionary three-strip process is a delicate and precise matter indeed. Only in recent years, with the availability of digital technology, are we able to bask in the revelatory vibrancy and sharpness of these films as they were originally intended to be seen. (For another great example also available on Blu-ray, check out Kino Lorber‘s release of 1935s Becky Sharp). Although the film soundtrack has its own share of built in oddities (the villains cat sounds more like a little kid making car noises than any kind of actual feline), the soundtrack itself sounds pristine. Fans of Dr. Cyclops and movies such as this ought to be very, very happy.
Besides an array of trailers, this film included, there are two bonus features. The first is a segment featuring film historian Jesús Treviño giving his brief synopsis of the movie and its significance over the aforementioned trailer in his “Trailers from Hell” segment, originally posted at that website. The second bonus feature is an audio commentary track over the film itself by a different film historian Richard Harlan Smith. Smith’s track, while info-packed, manages to avoid falling prey to the monotony that sometimes overtakes similarly structured historian commentaries thanks to his cozy ÒfiresideÓ delivery style. Spending time with this commentary is like sitting at Smith’s feet while he regales us in the history this weird movie and its cast of actors we’ve never heard of.
It’s well documented that Schoedsack and Cooper let amazing lives both in out of filmmaking, often riddled with danger. While their adventurous spirit teases the edges of Dr. Cyclops, the film is ultimately nullified by its total lack of soul. The astounding quality of the visual effects at the expense of everything else only goes to show that Schoedsack and Cooper -as well as Paramount Pictures, the studio that made this film- learned all the wrong lessons from King Kong. Thanks to the great stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien, that film had the unlikeliest of spirit at its core. This one turns out to be a farsighted amusement created with one eye shut; a big deal rendered small.