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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Don't run, we are your friends!

I spoke recently with screenwriter Jonathan Gems about his inspiration for the 1996 film Mars Attacks! For those of you unfamiliar with the film, its bizarre story and nutty mise-en-scene contain myriad references to science fiction tales of old, especially the American and Japanese monster films of the 50's and 60's.

To my dismay, Mr. Gems revealed that the only film reference he had knowingly made within the story was a nod to the war room of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. That's right, you heard it here: Tim Burton was NOT inspired directly by Teenagers From Outer Space. Another rumor dispelled. (ETA: 2010 -- the MoMA Burton exhibit backs this up, Teenagers was NOT among Burton's most influential films as a teen, though virtually every other B flick was, even Killer Shrews!)

So where DID that idea come from that Burton was referencing Teenagers? Why, the CARDS, of course!

A little background first:

The Mars Attacks! Cards were released by former card-king Topps, in 1962. The remarkable and gruesome front artwork was "painted by Norman Saunders over pencil roughs by Wally Wood and finished pencil art by Bob Powell." 1

(c) Topps, 1962.

Each card featured on its reverse a brief paragraph describing the actions depicted in the painted scene. When all the cards were collected successfully, the paragraphs would link together in order to tell the story of a planned Martian invasion of Earth.

(c) Topps, 1962.

The full story was written by Len Brown and Woody Gelman, and all five of the card's originators are credited in the Tim Burton film. References to popular films, serials, and novels are prevalent throughout the series, most notably to "the bugs" from Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (published in 1960 and winner of the Hugo that year) and, of course, Teenagers From Outer Space.

The removal of "the bugs" as the main villains from Gem's adaptation of the series makes the secondhand Teenagers references even stronger, as the Martians' "death-ray guns that vaporize all but the skeleton"2 become the biggest threat towards humanity.

(c) Warner Bros. Pictures, 1996.

"all but the solids, the skeletal braces ..."

It is, however, within the cards themselves that the most blatant references appear. A handful of cards, including #40 (shown above), depict scenes that do appear in Teenagers, but which could also reference any number of monster flicks. A few others, however, are far more specific:

#36, Destroying a Dog, not only references Teenagers From Outer Space's death of Sparky, but even the composition of the card mimics that scene in the film.

"Bu-but ... who would want to kill Sparky!"

(c) Topps, 1962.

#19, Burning Flesh, is a nod to the Focusing Disintegrator Ray, and the stylized design of the card references a famous poster used in Warner Brothers' ad campaign for Teenagers:

"Before-- a beautiful girl ... one moment later, a skeleton!"

(c) Topps, 1962.


          • 1,2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Attacks

4 gargon specimens:

Steve said...

Hey, great blog. I love TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE and really think it is underrated as a masterpiece of loony but sincere '50s low-budget Sci-Fi. In fact, I just watched it again last night and it gets better every viewing. That is amazing that you found and talked to Bryan Pearson. Does anyone know what ever happened to "Derek" David Love/Chuck Roberts? Best of luck with your project, I look forward to seeing it evolve...bookmarked!

Charles G said...

I love this blog!

I'm writing a blog post about "Teenagers From Outer Space". I'll let you know when I post it.

Have you ever noticed that Dawn Bender looks a lot like Bettie Page?

Her character's name is Betty too. Is that just coincidence?

I looked on IMDB about Dawn Bender. There's no date of death on her entry. Is she still alive?


by the author said...

Thanks for the comments! It's really nice to hear about other people interested in Teenagers and sci-fi from the fifties.

I have noticed how closely Bettie and Dawn look alike! But I'm unsure whether it's a product of hairstyles of the times, or if they really do resemble each other.

As for Dawn, for a number of years it had been falsely reported that she had died of an alcohol-related malady, but it turns out that it was simply another Dawn Bender who had died. Our Dawn simply retired in the late fifties to become a school teacher in Los Angeles.

I've mostly been focusing on the Tom Graeff/Chuck Roberts angle of the story, but I've been in contact with someone at the school board who can put me in touch with her, and I'm sure I will do so in a short while.

I'll be sure to post anything interesting she says!

Sean said...

Nice research on the cards! It's great to speculate at how influential TFOS has been over the years.

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