RIP Mr. B.I.G.

I just learned that Mr. Bert I. Gordon has passed away at the ripe age of 100. Those with even a passing knowledge of the sci-fi films of the 1950s do not need to be told about Mr. Gordon, nor those who grew up watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, of which he was a frequent subject (much to his displeasure, fairly enough).

For those who aren’t aware, however, Bert I. Gordon was a filmmaker in the 1950s and beyond who specialized in ‘size-changing’ special effects using matte work (hence his nickname “Mr. BIG”). After serving in World War II, he and his wife set up more or less a home studio and started making commercials, then graduated to feature films in the 1950s.

When you think of 1950s B-sci-fi, you’re pretty much thinking of Mr. Gordon’s films: The Cyclops, The Beginning of the End, The Spider, The Amazing Colossal Man, and so on. He generally wrote the films as well as directing and always did the special effects out of his garage with the help of his wife.

(A rather gruesome side-effect was that when Mr. Gordon brought in bushels of grasshoppers for The Beginning of the End, the insects started eating each other, leading to a dwindling swarm as the picture went on).

His movies of this period were, well, not great for the most part, but with few exceptions they weren’t awful either (King Dinosaur, one of his first films, is also one of his worst). The special effects are very crude, with the giant people and critters often going transparent, and the scripts are pretty basic and uninspired. But, on the other hand, there are signs of thought going on here: the titular Colossal Man is very well-played by actor Glenn Langan and his struggle is portrayed with genuine pathos. Or, take the surprisingly reasonable reactions of the sheriff in The Spider: he laughs at the idea of a giant spider, but takes the missing persons report seriously enough to form a search party and then, when the Spider is revealed, takes a very rational approach to the situation by ordering it gassed with insecticide and arguing in favor of sealing its body in the cave.

That is to say, the films were cheap, silly, and had lots of goofy conceits, but for the most part they were competently told as stories.

He also made pretty good use of talent: he tended to try to give work to well-known and established actors who were on a career slump, like Lon Chaney Jr., or Basil Rathbone, or Gloria Talbot. Though he also cast at least a few actors who would go on to great things in the future, including a very young Joe Turkel (best known since for his roles in Blade Runner and The Shining) in Gordon’s heavy-handed, but not-unwatchable ghost story Tormented. Incidentally, the film also starred his own 10-year-old daughter, Susie Gordon, who gives a really good performance for such a young actress in a B-picture (she actually had a pretty solid career as a child actress, including appearances on The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents).

In summary, I’d gladly pit the average Bert I. Gordon film against almost any modern blockbuster; it’d likely be at least as smart and much more enjoyable. And in any case, film making is such a complicated and difficult process that I’d say he deserves massive props for pulling it off and delivering a goodly number of moderately successful movies essentially out of his garage. He’s more than earned his place in film history, and may we someday see his like again.

In fact, I think a line from one of his films applies to some degree. It comes to my mind a lot as I look upon the preening, self-satisfied incompetents that dominate our culture. In context, it almost seems to sum up the relative stature and prestige of hard-working, old-school, B-level filmmakers like Mr. Gordon. And it comes courtesy of The Amazing Colossal Man:

“But see, I think it’s the other way around. I think you’re the one who’s different. I’m not growing! YOU’RE SHRINKING!”

Rest in Peace, good sir.

2 thoughts on “RIP Mr. B.I.G.

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