Program Notes: When Worlds Collide (1951)
Everybody knows what directors do. Or what writers do.
But what the heck does a producer do?
Well, that depends. George Pal (1908-1980) was one of those Hollywood producers – like David O. Selznick – who deserve to be known as the “authors” of their movies. He picked the topics, raised the money, hired the writer and director, and oversaw his productions down to the last detail.
And his work was instantly identifiable. George Pal was a purveyor of classy sci fi. In an era when cheap science fiction was the norm, Pal delivered thoughtful yet hugely entertaining yarns that have become classics ... movies like Destination Moon (1950) and The War of the Worlds (1953).
As he learned his way around Hollywood production, this native of Hungary took up directing chores as well, churning out hits like Tom Thumb (1958), The Time Machine (1960), Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961), The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964).
When Worlds Collide (1951) finds Pal in producer mode, ending all life on Earth with a wave of his hand.
The notion that Earth might meet its end thanks to a collision with another planet was proposed in When Worlds Collide, a novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer that was serialized in Blue Book magazine in 1932.
Paramount had purchased the book as a vehicle for director Cecil B. DeMille. But DeMille never got around to tackling the project and so it gathered dust for 17 years.
The rights to the story were sold to Pal, who was looking for another science fiction story to follow his Destination Moon. Pal, who had been in the U.S. since 1940, had already established himself as an animator with his Puppetoons series, receiving Oscar nominations for best short cartoon for seven consecutive years. Now he felt he was ready to tackle some serious subject matter.
Worlds... finds South African aviator Dave Randall (Richard Derr) flying a mysterious black box to America to be delivered to an astronomer. Turns out the box contains photos of two planets on a collision course with Earth.
One, Zyra, will pass so close as to cause tidal waves and earthquakes. The second, Bellus, is even larger and will clearly destroy our planet.
This is news nobody wants to hear. His entreaties rejected by the United Nations, the American astronomer decides to build a spaceship – an ark, if you will – so that at least some of humanity will survive.
Dave Randall, meanwhile, is falling in love with the astronomer’s daughter (Barbara Rush), setting up a confrontation with her current beau.
Some of the science on display in When Worlds Collide looks suspect today... but then we’ve had 60 years of advancement since the film was made.
What still rings true are the ways in which humans react. Many are in denial. Others, like a selfish, wheelchair-bound millionaire, get involved to save their own skins. A lottery is held to choose who among the workers building the ark will be allowed on board. Those not chosen then riot and storm the launch site.
Meanwhile the first planet is approaching Earth, setting off volcanic eruptions and triggering a tidal wave that inundates New York City.
When Worlds Collide only works if we buy the special effects, and here Pal’s history as a puppet animator paid off handsomely. The rocket ship was a carefully constructed miniature and the scenes of devastation thrilled audiences in 1951.
They still do the job today.
Other films in the series “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- December 3: When Worlds Collide (1951) Not Rated
- December 10: Miracle Mile (1988) Rated R
- December 17: The Road (2009) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.