There are many classic Science Fiction producer/directors who are more revered and influential than Bert I. Gordon, but there are none more beloved by Monster Kids, those Baby Boomers who grew up on classic Horror and Science Fiction from 1930-1970. Most of those films were first seen on local television stations by kids in the late afternoon or evening. The late evening was usually the domain of Horror, but the late afternoon, after school, was the time from classic Science Fiction giant creations to roam the small screen of the old Zenith.
Trashing the cities and villages were the creations of stop motion animation genus Ray Harryhausen in The Beast from 20,000 Fathom (1953), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). Bert I. Gordon’s films were not quite in that league. His giant monsters were human actors and/or most of the time, uncontrollable insects and iguanas crudely superimposed on the film. Still, they had their own special charm and were often box office hits. Because of those films and Bert I. Gordon’s initials, he became affectionally known as "Mr. Big” by his fans.
“It started when I was about 9-years old and my aunt gave me a 16mm camera and from that moment on, I did nothing but make movies trying to do special visual effects using toys and games and I’m still the kid making fantasies.”
-Bert I. Gordon, 2014 Radio of Horror interview
His first feature film as a producer/director was Serpent Island (1954) and it had none of the angry and ravenous Bert I. Gordon behemoths audiences came to love, but it did have voodoo, a treasure, and a boa constrictor guarding the loot. It was his second film, King Dinosaur (1955) that gave the movie world the “Mr. Big” touch.
In King Dinosaur, an earth-like planet has moseyed into flying distance of Earth, so a team of scientist-astronauts head that way to check it out. There first indication to the explores that something is amiss on Earth’s newest neighbor is the appearance of an uninvited giant mole cricket having an apparent seizure in their camp. Things get worse when the team ventures to a mysterious island filled with giant prehistoric monsters, including a 60-foot armadillo and hungry, vicious, battling dinosaurs played adequately by iguanas and one outmatched alligator. The effect didn’t live up to the movie poster, but that’s what a $15,000 budget will get you.
1957 was an extremely productive year for Bert I. Gordan and his enormous imagination. He released three giant-themed features that year, beginning in June with Beginning of the End. It was a hit and won him a contract with RKO. It was also the first of three Bert I. Gordon interpretations of the H. G. Wells novel Food of the Gods.
In Beginning of the End, Peter Graves plays a well-meaning botanist trying to grown giant fruits and vegetable with radiation to end world hunger. There is a downside to his plan. The radiation has created locusts larger than two 1958 DeSoto four-door sedans including the tail fins. The locusts overrun Chicago.
For Beginning of the End, Bert I. Gordon purchased 600 grasshoppers from Texas, but California agriculture official said he could import only male grasshoppers so they couldn’t breed and infest the state. So, Gordon had to hire a specialist to check the gender of each grasshopper. 200 male grasshoppers made the cut and their way into California. What Gordon didn’t know was male grasshoppers don’t like each other. While in storage, the grasshoppers engaged in nighttime fights to the death. By the time film production started, Gordon had only a handful of grasshopper actors left.
Some of the giant species from King Dinosaur would return for Gordon’s next feature and be joined by overgrown hawks, snakes, various rodents, and the title character, The Cyclops. It was released in July of 1957. In this big film, Gloria Talbott plays the fiancée of a missing pilot who crashed in a radioactive Mexican mountain region. The fiancée assembles a team to search for her betrothed. One of the team members is a uranium miner played by Lon Chaney, Jr. who by this time in his career was in gripes of alcoholism. His character had two speeds…calm and dangerously unstable.
“We were finding empty gin bottles lying around everywhere and finally we found out they belonged to Lon. He was the drinker, but it never effected his acting.”
-Bert I Gordon, 2014 Radio of Horror interview
The search party finds the missing boyfriend, but unfortunately the radiation from the uranium-filled mountains has turned him into a 25-foot tall, one-eyed simpleton in a diaper. It was a trial run of what was to come next in the career of “Mr. Big” and his fondness for giant men in poopy pants.
In October of 1957, Bert I. Gordon unleased The Amazing Colossal Man, the story of an unfortunate Lt. Colonel who survives the blast of an atomic bomb test. I say “unfortunate” because the radiation turns him into a 60-foot tall Lt. Colonel out of work, living in a circus tent, wearing diapers and trying to persuade his fiancée it’s time for her to move on to someone else. Eventually, all that stress combined with a shrinking mental capacity causes the poopy pants colossus to trash Las Vegas before a bazooka shot sends him tumbling off Hoover Dam. Don’t be alarmed. The colossal Lt. Colonel returned in 1958, a bit scarred and with only one eye, but his diaper was intact. This time he reaped havoc on Los Angeles. That film was released on a double bill with a Bert I. Gordon film in which he turned the tables. Instead of humans growing to enormous size, Attack of the Puppet People (1958) featured, you guessed it, humans shrunken to the size of Barbie Dolls by an insane dollmaker. This time it was the set and the props that were supersized.
“My films were big especially in drive-ins, but they played in big theaters too. I went to the opening of The Amazing Colossal Man at The Paramount in New York and they had a 60-foot cutout of the giant in the film.”
Bert I Gordon, 2014 Radio of Horror interview
After his giant radioactive man trilogy, “Mr. Big” returned to rampaging humongous arthropods with Earth vs. the Spider (1958). It wasn’t exactly the entire planet battling the giant spider. It was actually just a bunch of high school kids running for their lives after the monster ate their janitor who was also Fred Ziffel from the television shows Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. Poor Hank Patterson. Still, the 11th grade science teacher was able formula a plan to rid their small town of the annoying pest. but not before he rammed it in the buttocks a couple of times with his 1958 DeSoto four-door sedan.
Gordon’s next monster wasn’t gigantic or even alive. It was just the head of a dead jilted lover in Tormented (1960). In this inventive visual effects melodrama, Richard Carlson plays jazz musician who’s engaged to a wealthy island socialite, but has a Miss Hottie on the side as musicians often do according to future mothers-in-law.
Carlson and his Miss Hottie like to make whoopie in an old light house. When Miss Hottie slips throw a broken railing and finds herself dangling for her life from the top of the light house, Carlson decides it’s a good opportunity to get rid of his side thing before his fiancée finds out about her. So, the ghostly head of Miss Hottie returns from a watery grave to torment her jazz man.
Mr. Big entered the 1960s in color with two off-the-wall romps. The first was The Magic Sword (1962), a medievil fantasy film starring Basil Rathbone, Estelle Winwood, Gary Lockwood, a two-headed dragon and a man-eating ogre. That’s an upgrade from the giant convulsive mole cricket in King Dinosaur.
The second film,Village of the Giants (1963), was Gordon’s second interpretation of The Food of the Gods. This time, Gordon’s vision of the novel was a hipster teenage comedy with a giant Beau Bridges, giant ducks, giant putty cat, giant dancing bikini boobies, and little
Ronny Howard as the kid scientist genius who makes everything supersized.
Bert I. Gordon revisited The Food of the Gods for the third time in 1976 with a film of the same name and this time it was not a teen comedy. It was truer to the novel and featured Hollywood legends Marjoe Gortner, Ralph Meeker, and Ida Lupino overrun by enormous island wildlife and farm animals of all kinds. You haven’t experienced the all-out cinematic vision of “Mr. Big” until you’ve seen Marjoe Gortner trying to wrangle 6-foot chickens or battling an 800 pound white lab mice.
After more than 20 years of making his giant features, “Mr. Big” had one more gigantic trick up his sleeve. It was to have Joan Collins eaten by an enormous ant in Empire of the Ants (1977), based on another H. G. Wells story.
A toxic spill ruins an island paradise and caused the insect growth spurt, but a ruthless real estate agent played by Joan Collins tries to coverup the disaster and the giant ants even as her clients are devoured one by one by the hungry ants. Collins remains determined to close the deal.
Bert I. Gordon made his last feature film in 2014 at the age of 91. He’s now enjoying a well-deserved retirement. Even as he approaches his 100th birthday, he has never lost that love of making films larger than life…a love ignited at the age of 9…a love that lead to 18 feature films. Not all of them starred giant monster, but he’s so associated with the genre it has given him the name “Mr. Big” that has stood the test of time.
“I really wanna see an Eric Rohmer movie take place in a Bert I. Gordon universe. Where there's a story going on that's about, you know, loss and desire, but with a giganticized-animal element.”
Panos Cosmatos, film director