Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Gamma People (1956)

U.S. One Sheet Poster

The Gamma People, a black-and-white British production directed by John Gilling, is a veritable hodge podge of film genres, part drama, part sci-fi, part horror, and part comedy.  The story begins with an American journalist, Mike Wilson (Paul Douglas), and a British photographer, Howard Meade (Leslie Phillips), traveling by train through the European countryside on their way to cover a music festival.  They are riding in the rear car, and it accidentally decouples from the rest of the train, whereupon it rolls down a diverted sidetrack and into a small village that is startled by the sight of the train car.

It turns out that the Bavarian-looking, mountain village is part of a tiny, not-on-the-map country called Gudavia.  It is clear from the start that something strange is afoot in the village.  A hotel worker, Anna (Jocelyn, as Jackie Lane), passes a secret, anonymous note to the journalists begging them to help the children.  We eventually learn that an evil scientist, Dr. Boronski (Walter Rilla), is terrorizing the village from a nearby castle/school, where he conducts experiments on the local children with gamma rays.  Some children become “geniuses” while others become “embeciles” or “morons.”  The embeciles are formed into a pack of Frankenstein-like goons that can be dispatched and retrieved by Boronski via whistle.  It almost seems to be a Nazi-type situation with Boronski trying to creat a line of Hitler-youth-like geniuses. 

As the journalists work to solve the mystery of the village, the situation becomes increasingly tense and confrontational with Boronski and his goons.  They also clash with a young boy, Boronski’s prized pupil, Hugo (Michael Caridia), who comes across as a stereotypical “Hitler-youth.”  Additionally, the journalists encounter (and are ultimately helped by) one of Boronski’s school assistants, Paula (Eva Bartok), who has found herself unwillingly stuck within his evil plans.  Although there are a couple of murders along the way, there is a fairly typical happy ending to the story.

The Gamma People is OK entertainment, but it tries to be too many things, without really doing any of them particularly well.  It has dramatic elements, sci-fi elements, and horror elements, all laced with humor, as if to make it clear that nobody is taking this film too seriously.  Douglas seems to be a decent actor and seems to fit the part of a journalist, but he seems too out of shape, too overweight, and too much of a smoker to be handling some of the more physical scenes of his character.  Interestingly, Douglas died of a heart attack a few years later at age 52, in 1959, right after he had been cast in The Apartment (a role that would go to Fred MacMurray and a film that would be a critical and box office hit).  Leslie Phillips had a long and successful film career, and I suppose his performance is fine at bringing a “British” element to the proceedings.  The Hungarian-born Bartok is passable, though I’m not familiar at all with her career.  In 1994, she publicly declared that Frank Sinatra was the father of her daughter, Deana Jurgens, conceived during a separation from her husband, actor Curt Jurgens.  Perhaps the standout performance of the film was from young Michael Caridia, who was near perfect in his role as Hugo.

As for our girl, 18-year-old Jocelyn in her first credited big screen role, she fares quite well.  She has a decent amount of screen time in the first 30 minutes of the film, with several lines delivered in a generic “foreign” English accent.  She would go on to several such roles over the next 15 years.  Her acting was very respectable, she looked gorgeous with a short brunette hair style, and you would think that producers would have been scrambling to line up such a promising talent.  While the film is no classic, it is decent entertainment with a quick 78-minute running time, so Jocelyn fans should track it down to check out one of her earliest appearances.

The Gamma People was produced by Warwick Film Productions (UK) for distribution by Columbia Pictures (U.S.).  It was shot in Austria and in England at MGM British Studios, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, England, UK. Filming commenced on July 25, 1955 and was completed by October.  British actress Patricia Medina was slated to play the part of Paula, but she was preempted at the last minute by producer Sam Katzman, who instead required her to appear in an adventure drama directed by William Castle called Uranium Boom.

Apparently, the film had a rather tortuous history.  In the summer of 1951 it was being reported in the trade papers that producer Irving Allen had obtained rights to the story by Louis Pollack and was to commence filming in Technicolor in Vienna, Austria.  Tony Bushnell was to direct a cast that included Lon Chaney.  Allen had commenced pre-production work, and deals were being cut for worldwide distribution.  However, the plans were mucked up by a dispute between writer-director Robert Aldrich and Allen, because Aldrich was asserting that Allen owed him money for a screenplay and for associate producer services on The Gamma People.  By the fall of 1953, Aldrich had formally filed a lawsuit against Allen, which was ultimately settled out of court in March of 1955.  Allen had formed Warwick Film Productions in 1951with Albert R. Broccoli (after their split in the early 1960’s, Broccoli went on to form Eon Productions, produce the James Bond films, and make cinema history).  

IMDB lists the film’s UK release as having been in January 1956.  According to reports in Variety, The Gamma People hit U.S. theaters in September of 1956, paired with the UK production of 1984, starring Edmond O’Brien, Michael Redgrave, and Jan Sterling.   By November, it was being paired in some theaters with another John Gilling-directed film, Odongo, an adventure drama starring Rhonda Fleming and Macdonald Carey.  The U.S. box office returns for the double bills generally appear to have been in the fair-to-mild range.  It’s no surprise that the film was not a big hit, but I expect it had a fairly low budget and did not lose money over the long run.  I have not seen any reports of how the film performed at the U.K. box office, or any other country.  IMDB shows that it was also released in Brazil as Tormenta de Fogo and in Italy as I conquistatori dell'uranio.

Variety, in the September 12, 1956 issue gave the film a weak review, concluding: "Exhibs packaging a twin horror show might find 'The Gamma People' a passable subject, but it has little merit otherwise."  It noted that "Jackie Lane" was among the adults in featured roles.  

The Gamma People has not been released on DVD, but it was released on VHS video on the Goodtimes label in the U.S. in 1989 

and on the Columbia label in 1996.  

It has also been aired in the U.S. on the TCM channel several times over the last five years.

The U.S. one sheet poster is shown at the top of this post.  Here are the U.S. half sheet and insert posters, as well as the lobby card set:

Here are some U.S. stills (only two of them show Jocelyn):

Here is a Mexican lobby card:

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