Movies and TV in the 50's

Retro Dee Reviews – Movie Classics: Them!

Hey folks. Welcome to Retro Dee Reviews. This time instead of music, I’ll be reviewing an actual MOVIE from the 50’s. Golly gee, it’s about time!

Okay. So on Halloween night I was looking for a movie to watch, when I came across the 1954 horror classic Them! on TCM. It was great timing, because not only was it Halloween, I’d been wanting to see this film. (I’d only seen excerpts of it before.)

How did I go all this time without seeing Them! ? Well, truth be known, I’m not much of a movie person (except for Disney-Pixar which I’m a sucker for) I strongly prefer to put my time, energy and writing into the music of the 1950’s, with movies and TV taking a back seat to my research. But creature features were a HUGE part of 1950’s pop culture! And Them! is certainly that!

Poster for Them! (1954)

Let’s have a look at my review below:

Warning: Spoiler Alert!

Them! (1954)

Starring: James Whitmore, James Arness and Joan Weldon

I’m assuming that most people who are even remotely into old movies know that Them! is about a bunch of giant, man-eating ants. The premise is simple enough: regular ants became giant killers after being exposed to radio-active materials left over from WWII (which only ended nine years ago!)

The film starts when the police in New Mexico are trying to figure out what’s tearing up houses and killing people. A little girl becomes catatonic after witnessing a brutal attack, only able to scream and utter the word “THEM!” before bursting into hysterical tears.

Sargent Ben Peterson (played by James Whitmore) takes the case along with FBI agent Robert Graham (played by the handsome James Arness of “Gunsmoke” fame) . They’re soon joined by an elderly scientist, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn, famous for playing Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street) and his attractive daughter Dr. Patricia “Pat” Medford (played by the sexy Joan Weldon).

Wait, a woman doctor? In 1954? Yes! Dr. Pat Medford is certainly up for the task too, when she repeatedly shows her strength and courage. At one point she also tells Robert off when he tries to say she needs to stay behind because “this is no place for any woman”. I was actually surprised to see such a strong woman character in a 1954 film.

We first meet Dr. Pat when the skirt of her suit set gets caught up in the plane. Actually, we meet her legs first. And the men clearly notice this. Robert comments that if Pat is a doctor, he’d like to get sick real fast. Pat’s clothing throughout the movie is the same kind of sharp, quality 1950’s suit sets, that flatter the figure without cheapening a lady’s look. She also frequently wears a hat over her short, neatly coiffed hair. Only in the final scenes does she dawn worker’s overalls, just like the men’s. Then she’s full-on badass. She’s definitely a woman ahead of her time.

Moving along with the plot, it’s soon discovered that the giant ants are building a nest underground, complete with queens and eggs and tunnels and all the stuff that ants have, only much bigger. And they’re mean. The ants themselves might induce a chuckle to any of us who are used seeing today’s cutting-edge computerized technology in every movie we watch. They might seem primitive with their stiff movements and furry, pipe cleaner-like antennae. But if you really look at them, considering how little they had to work with in those days, those ants are pretty amazing. It’s clear a lot of work went into creating the ants, who are not the cartoonish, red-eyed looking brutes that the movie poster makes them out to be. They look like 9-foot ants might actually look, should ants ever get that big. (Hey, I’m not doubting anything, the way the 21st century has gone).

A scene that surprised me was when Dr. Harold Medford is explaining the way ants live, showing a filmstrip of an ant colony underground. He actually mentions their mating habits! What kinds of questions did that conjure up in the heads of the innocent youth of the day?! (Ironically, most of the teens who went to see this film were probably too busy necking to watch it anyway!)

Soon, hiding the secret of the ants from the world is too much, and the public begins to discover that we, as humans, are in real trouble. Dr. Harold Medford has to devise a plan on how to kill the ants, their eggs and their queens so they don’t take over the planet.

After announcing a warning to the city of Los Angeles, the city is put under Marshall Law and people are asked to stay in their homes or else. Next, our heroes are on their way down into the tunnels of the city to kill the ants. I think the best part of the film is when they show all the regular folks hearing the warning about the ants. They show people stopping in on the street in their coats and hats, they even show teens at a diner having malts and a couple in a convertible listening to the radio! I had to remind myself that this movie did not “take place” in the 1950’s, it actually WAS the 1950’s. They were portraying current-day people!

In addition to our heroes, there are also plenty of other characters that we meet along the way. This includes a gentleman who is in the psych ward. Crazy Mr. Crotty is happy when our heroes believe him when he says he saw “big spaceships shaped like ants”. This quirky character is played by none other than 1950’s Movie Staple, Fess Parker, of Davy Crockett fame! Because in the 50’s, it just wasn’t a movie without Fess Parker!

Another minor character is Mrs. Lodge, a frantic mother of two boys who disappeared while playing near the tunnels. Oddly enough, I think Mrs. Lodge (played by Mary Ann Hokanson) was too old to have boys only aged 6 and 8, especially in those days. But I digress…

Finally, after discovering that the boys are okay (scared and dirty, but okay) it’s time to take out the ants. They are mostly killed using fire torches. They die in a sea of flames, making that annoying squeaking noise, which we hear throughout the movie. It sounds more like radioactive crickets… I guess I’m saying that because I’ve never heard ants make noise.

The movie ends rather abruptly. They find the three remaining queens conveniently sitting together. (The queens’ cellophane-like wings made me laugh. They kind of looked like Halloween lawn ornaments. Or they could have been auditioning for a part in a bizarre Muppet version of Swan Lake, one that stars insects, as a Henson-esque twist.) The queens are taken out easily by the fire torches. Once all are dead, Dr. Harold Medford says wisely: “When man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world.” I like that part. Dr. Medford was cool!

“THE END” is plastered across the screen, with no ending scene involving tears of joy from Mrs. Lodge, and no kiss between Dr. Pat and Robert. But that’s okay. All those extra scenes and time spent wrapping up a movie is over-rated anyway.

Overall, I really liked Them! I thought it was well-done for a movie of it’s time. It’s definitely not a “B” movie- it has a lot more substance than that. Of course today, it might seem silly to us, but let’s compare apples to apples. I do find the movie poster odd, however. The ants didn’t have glowing red eyes like that and none of them lifted up any Hollywood Starlets in a King Kong-like fashion. If you ask me, it was false advertisement.

If you want to see Them! (either again or for the first time) it’s available on Amazon and all those other places you can stream stuff these days. Or it’ll come on TV again probably. That’s how I watch ’em. But then again, I’m Old School.


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