Living Large: Bert I. Gordon 1922-2023
Bert I. Gordon, one of the filmmakers most beloved by “monster kids” everywhere, has died, departing this shabby, low-budget set we call earth for the big Premier in the Sky on March 8th. He was one hundred years old, prompting thousands to say, “He was still alive?!”
Producer, director, and screenwriter, Gordon was a key figure in the Saturday afternoon matinee and late-night television viewing of generations of people who are now looked at askance by all who know them, and the litany of the films he directed is a popcorn-gobbling adolescent’s delight: King Dinosaur (1955), The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man, Beginning of the End (all 1957), Earth vs. the Spider, War of the Colossal Beast, Attack of the Puppet People (all 1958), The Magic Sword (1962), Village of the Giants (1965), The Food of the Gods (1976), and Empire of the Ants (1977) are the high points, such as they are.
Most addicts agree that the best of these offerings is The Amazing Colossal Man, but remember — best is an entirely relative term. (The autobahn was the best thing Hitler ever did, but modernizing the Reich’s roads doesn’t move the Führer’s needle all that much.) Truth be told, Bert Gordon’s movies are almost all just awful. Derivative and dull, they deploy the standard 1950’s science fiction pulp devices without a shred of originality or often even minimal agility, and their reckless cheapness makes Roger Corman look like David O. Selznick. Mate giant people or giant bugs or giant dinos with miniscule budgets, amateurish scripts, and the kind of actors that even fans of George Zucco and Lionel Atwill have never heard of, and you’ve got a Bert Gordon movie.
Gordon’s chronic lack of both cash and ability manifested itself most glaringly in his films’ legendarily laughable special effects; on six of the movies I mentioned, in addition to directing, Gordon was the… how to put this? I could say “special effects artist”, but hell, he’s dead now and there’s no reason to spare his feelings by lying. A “person of interest wanted for questioning in regard to crimes against cinema” comes closest, I guess.
Rear-screen projection, stationary mattes, superimposition, and all the other tricks of the trade have rarely been subjected to the kind of abuse that Gordon inflicted on them. (In Beginning of the End — all these years later, still the definitive film about giant grasshoppers rampaging through Chicago — some of the shots consist of still photographs of buildings, photos on which Gordon placed actual grasshoppers. You can occasionally see the hapless insects’ shadows on the photos behind them, and artillery hits were simulated by someone off-camera taking a big breath and literally blowing the bugs off of the pictures. Whether the grasshoppers filed a complaint with the William Morris Agency is unknown.)
What all this means is that poor Bert Gordon is the Platonic ideal of a MST3K filmmaker, and indeed, eight of his movies were featured on the show, and one more was subjected to the tender ministrations of the guys at Rifftrax. Nine movies must surely be some kind of record, and it’s certainly easy to laugh at Gordon’s efforts — too easy, as the gross deficiencies of his movies are obvious to even the least critical viewer. (The ever-reliable Bill Warren in his definitive book on 50’s sf films, Keep Watching the Skies, says, “Most of his movies are poorly directed, indifferently acted, and with nakedly obvious and inadequate special effects.”) A Bert Gordon movie is the very definition of “low-hanging fruit.”
Here’s the thing, though — you have to give the man points for persistence. Inept as Gordon usually was, he never gave up. Indeed, one wonders what could have kept him working hard and making these movies for sixty years, the span of time between his first feature, 1954’s King Dinosaur, and his last, Secrets of a Psychopath, in 2014; his films certainly didn’t earn him wealth or renown or the respect of his peers. Whatever his motivation, the effort of shrugging off the ridicule and just keeping at it for that long is worthy of some measure of respect, even if the actual results prompt justified snickers, which brings us back to MST3K. One of that show’s writers, Kevin Murphy, once recounted an occasion when by chance he met one of his heroes, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. However, the conversation didn’t quite go the way Murphy thought it would:
I went gooey all over the place. I told him how much I loved his work, and he thanked me and asked what I did. I told him about Mystery Science Theater. He drew a blank. I told him about the robots, about the bad movies, about the silhouette. Then his face lit up. Why, yeah, he’d seen the silhouette while channel-surfing. Yeah, we were the guys with the bad old sci-fi films and such. Then he said that we should try to appreciate the fact that many of those writers were struggling and turned out scripts for those movies virtually overnight. I thanked him, and not knowing whether he had complimented me or chastised me, I turned away, my head full of the bees of confusion.
Murphy might not have been sure of Vonnegut’s intentions; I’m not in much doubt, myself.
Bert Gordon apparently had all the energy and determination needed to do good work — what he didn’t have was the time, the money, and (even more importantly) the talent — which, when all is said and done, is not a moral failing. Not everyone can be Steven Spielberg (or even the aforementioned Roger Corman, who proves that genuine talent can trump an empty wallet, at least to some extent); they also serve who only crank out low-budget schlock because that’s the hand life dealt them (if Bert had just been a crappy plumber, would we still be talking about his pipes?), and if King Dinosaur, Earth vs. the Spider, and War of the Colossal Beast deserve a stream of merciless wisecracks (and they do, they do), perhaps they also deserve a salute; not a giant one, maybe, but a salute nevertheless.
Rest in peace, Big Guy.
Thomas Parker is a native Southern Californian and a lifelong science fiction, fantasy, and mystery fan. When not corrupting the next generation as a fourth grade teacher, he collects Roger Corman movies, Silver Age comic books, Ace doubles, and despairing looks from his wife. His last article for us was A Poisoned Bouquet: Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier
As a long-time MSTie, I can confess to a love/hate relationship with the movies of Mr. Gordon (or other equally non-dexterous films by other notorious producers like Robert Lippert). But we do know their names and their work, nearly as intimately as more respected cineasts know the works of auteurs like Hitchcock and Truffaut. Admittedly, them movie-goers are not primed to scream at the mere mention of their idol’s name, or at least scream with delight and not despair. But we did watch their films and know enough about them to make or appreciate those snarky and informed remarks. As the saying goes, the opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy. And we are not apathetic. Thank you, Mr. Parker, for reminding us.