This interview, conducted by Professor Kinema (Jim Knusch) with actor Jeff Morrow, originally appeared in Psychotronic Video magazine (Fall, 1993). Professor Kinema expands on his article for Zombos' Closet. Photos and illustrations are from Professor Kinema's archives.
This Island Earth (1955), a major studio-produced true science fiction epic, has been described as "a Science Fiction pulp cover brought to life." Screen immortality was achieved with the appearance of Exeter, emissary from a planet in a distant galaxy called Petaluma. In appearance he stood tall and gaunt topped with a high forehead sporting a crop of puffy white hair. Curiously, none of the other resident Earthly geniuses under his tutelage questions or even seemed to notice these physical eccentricities. Two characters take the time and effort to render two accurate portrait drawings of Exeter and his assistant Brack and comment only on their forehead recesses.
Yet this alien, under orders from a beaten and desperate exterrestrial governmental force exude a dignity and humanness rare in science fiction films of any era. These qualities, absorbed from living among Earthlings, proved to be his fatal undoing, while at the same time the saving grace of the two protagonists. While most cinematic visitors from the Cosmos come here to conquer, issue some sort of ultimatum for peace, or in some way do grievous harm, Exeter emerged as the true hero of This Island Earth. This unique quality was infused in this character by the actor, the very Earthbound Jeff Morrow. Perhaps the only other movie alien in the very Earthbound science fiction cinema that was more prominent on the screen than Exeter was Michael Rennie's Klaatu from the original The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
In the history of science fiction films, mainly those with aliens from other worlds, the aliens are almost always depicted as strangely shaped humans. Some are completely humanoid in appearance (as if to enhance Van Dannikan's theory that all life in the universe spawned from a common ancestor), partially humanoid, or grotesquely shaped. However, they all seem to be able to function in Earth's environment, breath our air, and, in the case of The Thing From Another World, thrive on the blood of Earthlings. Most even speak our lingo, mainly English.
More recently, the film Avatar utilized advanced CGI to depict aliens as well as humans morphed into aliens. But again, all seemed to be infused with very human personalities adorned with long blue bodies and tails. Two films stand out as examples of depiction that were convincingly alien (at least to me): The Andromeda Strain (1971) and 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968).
The former film presented a life entity that took the form of a virus that became very deadly when exposed to Earth's atmosphere. However, like a true virus (albeit, Earth born virus), it mutated into something benign. In the Stanley Kubrick opus, the aliens were presented in the very last scenes. Over the actions of the hapless space traveler (Kier Dullea) in the elaborate room is heard their voices, presumably commenting on the action and humanity's future (or demise).
Other 1950s aliens that come to mind are those in War of the World's, The Man From Planet X, The Phantom From Space, The Devil Girl From Mars, the pop-eyed Killers From Space, the Venusian mushroom creature of It Conquered the World, the alien vampire of Not of This Earth, Eros and Tanna (plus, of course, the Ruler) of Plan 9 From Outer Space, and the long dead and never seen Krell of Forbidden Planet.
The list could definitely go on. The bulk of this alien invasion population had far less than kind intentions for Earthlings. Morrow's Exeter character was presented as being assigned to systematically kidnap Earth scientists expressly for his home planet's needs. Evidently, his far advanced planet thrives on the identical science and technologies that can be found on Earth.
His acquired alien-humanness surfaced at the point in the film's story when he defies the supreme ruler's direct order to subject Rex Reason's and Faith Domergue's characters to the brain transformer (an other-worldly lobotomy) device. As they make their escape from the doomed planet, Exeter's ship uses up all its rocket fuel (no similar fuel could be found or somehow manufactured on Earth?) returning them to Earth. With nowhere else to go, no fuel, and no one of his race left, Exeter commits suicide by crashing his ship into the ocean.
In a case where an actor's persona infuses with his on-screen character's and creates a truly memorable performance, such is Jeff Morrow's contribution to This Island Earth.
Jim: Now we come to This Island Earth.
Jeff: I had just signed a contract with Universal for two pictures a year. I was offered the role of Exeter and read the script. I liked the story very much and thought that the Exeter character had much potential...with a few changes. My contract didn't start for a few weeks so I was under no obligation to accept the role. I had a conference with the screenwriter, Franklyn Coen, and suggested the changes in the character. The producer, Bill Alland, then got in on the conference.
Jim: Would you recall what the changes were?
Jeff: Exeter as written was more of a two-dimensional character. By the end of the story he emerged a sort of self-sacrificing tragic hero. Specific points of the script that were revised I can't recall but had to be concerned with Exeter as a scientist, his dedication to his home planet and civilization, and ultimate realization of the futility of it all.
Jim: This would contrast with the Brack and Monitor characters. Both of them were coldly dedicated to the mission and seemed to not care about any of the Earth scientists, or even for the entire Earth population for that matter.
Jeff: Yes, that's right. These subtle script changes were shown to the front office and they unanimously approved them. Franklyn Coen made the comment, "Great! I've been trying to sell them on similar changes for the past several months."
Jim: There is one line in the script that was spoken by you (as the Exeter character) toward the end of the film that I believe will be remembered as the immortal line of This Island Earth. You, Faith Domergue, and Rex Reason are confronted by an injured Metalunian mutant, which stands about 7 feet tall. They ask, "What is it?" You answer, "...actually they are quite similar to the insect life on your planet...larger of course, with a higher degree of intelligence."
Jeff: Yes, (laughs) that's right.
We both shared a laugh at this point.
Jim: Do you remember how long your involvement with This Island Earth was?
Jeff: Yes, four, maybe six weeks. I remember six day weeks and long tedious days. I had to be at the studio at 6am to be made up and on the set by at least 8am.
Jim: So presumably the "2 and 1/2 years in the making" that figured in the film's promotion was taken up by elaborate set building, miniature set building, special makeup, costumes, and the highly impressive special visual effects. Do you recall any of the set-ups of any special effects scenes that involved you?
Jeff: I do remember being in front of a sort of process screen gesturing to off-screen actions.
Jim: It has been established that Jack Arnold was involved in the latter part of This Island Earth. Do you recall working with him?
Jeff: What I do recall is that Jack was originally scheduled to direct This Island Earth but, I believe, was pulled off the project and assigned to something else. Joseph Newman handled the bulk of the direction. I do remember Jack at work during the sequences that took place on Metaluna.
Jim: This was because Newman's footage proved to be inadequate so Arnold was recalled to reshoot it, being a director who could more effectively handle aliens, BEMs, an intergalactic war and a fiery return by a UFO to Earth.
Jeff: Yes, that's true.
Reportedly, the budget for This Island Earth was something like $800,000, a hefty sum for any studio in the early 1950s. In modern times such a property would run up a bill in the tens of millions. Universal had the advantage of having personnel on salary and owning the facilities used.
One of the largest material costs was the mutant suit at $20,000. People who worked on the suit were Jack Kevan, Robert Hickman, Chris Mueller and Millicent Patrick. The creature was first played by Eddie Parker, who left after a salary dispute, and then Regis Parton. Parton is listed in the credits.
The suit is generally well designed with a few glitches. The face is almost totally immobile drawing attention to the fact that it is a full head mask. The pants are eccentric. Censorship laws of the day were such that even a creature from outer space couldn't be caught on screen without pants. The belt buckle has an atomic symbol on it and, most strange, the bottom of the pants become the mutant's feet. An alien being wearing only extraterrestrial-style pants also turns up in I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958). The mutant's arms telescope into a section extending out further than a man's would. Unfortunately, they flop around loosely. One can only wonder what kind of menial work they were bred for (according to the story).
Jim: Do you have any memories of working with your co-stars: Rex Reason, Faith Domergue, Russell Johnson, and Douglas Spencer?
Jeff: They were all pleasant to work with. I know Faith hadn't made many films beyond the '6os. Rex, I know, continued in films for a while and, like myself, did TV shows and commercials. Russell Johnson, I know, continued an association with Jack Arnold which rolled into TV's Gilligan's Island.
Jim: You were reunited with Faith and Rex in later movies?
Jeff: Right. Rex I worked with again in The Creature Walks Among Us the following year. Faith I worked with again in 1973 in Legacy of Blood.
Jim: It's interesting to note that to further add to the feel of 1950s cinema sci-fi, two of the actors who appeared in This Island Earth had also been in The Thing From Another World. These two were Douglas Spenser and Robert Nichols.
Jeff: Yes, I didn't realize that.
The original story of This Island Earth appeared in the pulp magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1949. It was a 15 page novelette titled The Alien Machine by Raymond F. Jones. The story ended with the Cal Meacham character awaiting the airplane that is to take him away to his great adventure. This novelette proved to be so popular with readers that two more follow-up novelettes by Jones appeared in later issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories, The Shroud of Secrecy, Dec 1949, and The Greater Conflict, Feb 1950. (I have copies in the Kinema Archives.)
Eventually all three of these novelettes formed the basis for This Island Earth, the novelization and film. In the novelization, the first alien face that Cal Meacham sees on the interociter screen is Warner's, a functionary of the Peace Engineers. Later, Cal Meacham's plane is sucked up into the aliens' gigantic spaceship and taken to Earth's moon. Meacham inquires as to where he's being whisked off to and the aliens reply, "To Luna."
There, at the alien's base on Luna, he is reunited with Ruth Adams and Dr. Swenberg ( Dr. Engelborg in the film, who was killed). The name of the home planet is never mentioned. The aliens explain that they are recruiting Earth scientists as well as utilizing Earth resources to construct new and improved interociters. The functions of these devices ranged from communication to destruction to tuning into and reading minds. The interociters were to be taken back to their home planet to aid in their millennium-long intergalactic war. Meacham, Adams and Swenberg were finally returned to Earth, convinced to continue working for the aliens.
From printed page to screen certain changes and additions occurred. In the earlier draft of the screenplay by Edward G. O'Callaghan the Jorgasnovara and Warner characters were merged and became Warner. Jorgasnovara was also known as the Engineer. The Engineer then became a superior character on their home planet. In the final draft of the script by Franklyn Coen, Warner was changed to Exeter. The Engineer then became the Monitor, and the Engineer's Palace became the Monitor's Dome. The only off-Earth location, Luna, Earth's moon, morphed into Metaluna, the alien's far off home planet. The latter part of the film's action was moved to the planet Metaluna, then back to Earth for the climax. The Bug Eyed Monster element was also an addition to the story. Universal insisted on the movie having some sort of exploitable monster in it (after all, this was the height of the 1950s). The design of the Mutant evolved from a rejected earlier design of the Xenomorph alien for It Came From Outer Space. This was the script that Jeff Morrow was given to read.
As impressively made and enjoyable This Island Earth is, a few eccentricities and unanswered questions do pop up. When Exeter's ship finally does emerge from under the canvas that was covering the hollowed-out side of the hill, several Metalunians are seen operating the controls - including one female (Charlotte Lander). Where could they have been all the time they were on Earth? Were they inside the ship awaiting the moment when they would take off? Where did they go after they landed on Metaluna, which at one point Exeter refers to as "our Earth?"
Ultimately, the Metalunian ship was designed to be controlled with the barest of crews. All who were on it when it landed evidently departed since when it takes off again only Exeter, Ruth, and Cal are aboard (also the Metaluna Mutant, who slips aboard but disintegrates in flight). The interior of the ship is furnished with upright chairs that seem to have been designed by the same designer of Karloff's monster chair for breaks during the shooting of The Bride of Frankenstein. Naturally, the framing of the scenes of the space travelers reclining in their chairs favor Faith Doumergue: she was placed closer to the camera in these and it's obvious she wasn't wearing underwear under her tight-fitting spacesuit.
Other questions and observations:
Metaluna becomes a sun; did it get propelled out of its orbit and become caught in a solar system that needed a sun? Did it collect planets wandering around that little niche of the Universe and somehow form a new planetary system? Were smaller, inhabited planetoids already orbiting around Metaluna? The enemy planet Zahgon was described as a planet that was once a comet, hence the warships resembling comets. In this far off corner of the Cosmos do comets cool and become planets? Did any other Metalunians manage to escape? Of these others scheduled for 'relocation' to Earth, were Ruth and Cal earmarked to accompany them, after their trip to the 'sun lamp?' When traveling away from Earth the spacecraft passes through what is described as a "heat barrier." A similar heat barrier is present in a later Corman film, War of the Satellites. This has no scientific basis.
The lab pet cat is named Neutron, "...because he's so positive (states Ruth)." Technically, then, he should have been named Proton. During the dinner scene Meacham responds to the strains of Ein Klien Nacht Musik, heard as background music, by asking Exeter "What do you think of Mr. Mozart?" At first Exeter says "I'm afraid I don't know the gentleman." Then he catches himself with "Oh, my mind must have been wandering. Your composer, of course." Ein Klien Nacht Musik is heard in, and is usually associated with, 1979's Alien.
Exeter's ship was designed well within the popular concepts of the flying saucer. Eleven years later a graphic of this ship turned up in the promotion for Women of the Prehistoric Planet. The poorly designed spaceship used in that film didn't remotely resemble this ship. When Exeter's ship burns up and crashes at the film's end it would have had to be going much faster that depicted on the screen. When it crashes in the sea a great water crater would have been formed, followed by a great wave.
It has been established that an inspiration for Forry Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland was a French magazine titled Cinema 57, published Juillet-Aout, 1957. This magazine was the 20th in a series of French Cinema magazines that were titled according to the year they were issued (e.g., Cinema 56, Cinema 57, Cinema 58, and so on). The back cover of the magazine was a posed publicity still from This Island Earth depicting Faith Domergue and Rex Reason struggling with the Metaluna Mutant.
A sequel to This Island Earth was planned in 1956. Screenwriter Franklin Coen and producer William Alland submitted a script titled Aliens In The Skies to Universal Pictures, and for a short time it was announced as in pre-production development at the studio. It was to be shot in Technicolor and CinemaScope, to co-star Rex Reason and Faith Domergue reprising their roles and to be released in 1957. However, the studio boss, Edward Muhl, shot down their proposal when he looked over the proposed budget for the film, being too expensive he said.
Three years later a Universal produced B (more like Z) film titled The Thing That Couldn't Die reused the music from the opening credits of This Island Earth for its opening credits. More themes from This Island Earth were heard through the film as well as original music by an uncredited Henry Mancini. Someone must have thought that music composed for an intergalactic war (as well as other sci-fi classics) would work as well for a story concerning the still living, disembodied head of a 16th century devil worshipper.
For reasons that defy logic, the excellent This Island Earth was held up for ridicule in the theatrically released film version of Mystery Science Theater.
Notes on Jeff Morrow's other movies:
Flight to Tangier 1953 -- This was in another, then hot, process: 3-D. The plot was about characters in Northern Africa who are after gold from a plane crash. Morrow played Colonel Weir. Historically, this film was the second of only two 3-D films shot in 3-strip Technicolor (and thus requiring six strips of film). The first was Money From Home (1953).
Jeff: The director, Charles Marquis Warren, was a very genial, happy person to work with. Joan Fontaine, Jack Palance and Corinne Calvert were pleasant. I can't say that I have many recollections of the 3-D process, being essentially new to the cinema at the time.
The Siege at Red River 1954 -- This was a civil war movie directed by Rudolph Mate using stock footage from Buffalo Bill (1944). Co-stars were Van Johnson, Joanne Dru, Milburn Stone (soon to be Doc Adams on TV's Gunsmoke) and The Robe alumnus Richard Boone. A New York Daily News article at the time said that Morrow has a face "not overly handsome by traditional standards, but pleasant, friendly and mobile. From a certain angle, he looks a little like James Mason." A film he would like to "quietly forget."
Tanganyika 1954 -- Also from Universal and directed by Andre de Toth, Tanganyika was set in Africa in 1900. Morrow was a renegade murderer who controls a tribe of Nukumbi. Van Heflin co-starred with Ruth Roman and Howard Duff. In what sounds suspiciously like planned publicity, Morrow made Hedda Hopper's gossip column during production. He walked around with an unkempt beard for the role and was picked up five times as a vagrant by Hollywood cops.
The Sign of the Pagan 1954 -- Jeff Morrow also co-starred with Jack Palance in this Douglas Sirk movie for Universal. As was a practice at the time the film was over-produced and took liberties with historical facts. Palance starred as Attila the Hun and Morrow appeared, for some reason, as a character with a name similar to that in The Robe, Paulinus. Jeff Chandler was the Roman Centurion hero and the interesting female cast included Ludmilla Tcherna (a ballerina), Rita Gam, and Allison Hayes as Attila's wife.
Traditionally, Attila's physical appearance has been described as short, stocky and with a large head. It has also been accepted that he was a dwarf. His death came about because of a woman -- not in battle, but rather as the results of having sex. Since such activity couldn't possibly be included in a film released in 1954, Attila is depicted being stabbed to death by his wife during a battle. Leo Gordon and George Dolenz (Mickey's father) were also in it. Rex Reason provided the opening off-screen narration, uncredited, one year before co-starring with Morrow in This Island Earth.
Jeff: I had one scene with Palance that I remember, where he, as Attila, was supposed to grab me and spin me around. Now, he's a very strong guy. I was glad when it was all over and was still in one piece. I was also glad that I didn't lose my balance. He wasn't that experienced and was supposed to hold on to me, but he sort of let me go.