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From the Vaults: 'Dr. Cyclops' (1940)

April 26, 2010 |  6:03 am

Cyclops_ad Well, this was just nowhere near as bad as I expected! Of course, it's difficult to be bored when the movie is only 77 minutes long.

Larry discovered an ad for "Dr. Cyclops" in the Daily Mirror files and gave me carte blanche to branch out into movies from 1940, so I gave it a shot. My expectations were rock-bottom. Low-budget sci-fi movies always seem like they'd be kitschy fun but so often turn out to be awful ("Teenagers From Outer Space" comes to mind). So this was really a pleasant surprise.

The titular doctor starts out as respectable biologist Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker, who would go on to run the mental institution where Liz Taylor gets menaced with a lobotomy in "Suddenly, Last Summer"). Thorkel has some interesting ideas about radium and human biology and The Secrets of Life, and all too soon we learn that he will kill to protect them!

Unaware of Dr. T's homicidal tendencies, a team of scientists answers his summons to come help him with his mysterious research in his jungle hideout. They're played by Charles Halton (who has a small uncredited role in "It's A Wonderful Life"), Janice Logan and Thomas Coley; joining the scientists are Victor Kilian as a strapping miner and Frank Yaconelli as Pedro, a cartoonish Latino who talks like Speedy Gonzales (Yaconelli was actually born in Italy).

It's not long before they discover Dr. Thorkel's horrible secret: He's shrinking stuff! Including Pedro's beloved horse Pinto, who is now the size of Barbie's horse Dallas! The quintet clearly knows too much, so into the shrink-ray they go.

Soon they are on the run from the enraged, now-giant doctor (earning his Cyclops moniker) and his cat! Will they survive?

CyclopsThe rest of the movie is pretty much the five tiny people running around trying not to get killed, trapped between the terrors of the jungle and the terrible Dr. Cyclops.

Since their clothes do not shrink along with them, they manage to fashion noble-looking togas out of their handkerchiefs -- except for the comic-relief Pedro, who turns his into sort of a giant diaper. In their down time they act like survivalist versions of The Littles, dismantling scissors to use as weaponry and turning tiny objects into shoes.

Dr. Cyclops chases them with a butterfly net, taking scientific measurements (they're about the size of Barbie dolls, although to my disappointment they never get around to riding on tiny Pinto). Eventually he starts chasing them with a shotgun. Yikes!

My favorite part (garden nerd alert) is when the tiny fugitives hide from Dr. Cyclops inside a large Opuntia, or prickly pear plant. Have you ever brushed your hand against one of those things? They're dotted with tiny spines that get everywhere. A giant one would NOT be a good place to hide. Silly moviemakers!

But really, the pacing of this film is pretty impressive; it's directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack of "King Kong" and produced by his co-director, Merian C. Cooper, and they know how to keep things trotting along. Every time the action starts to flag, something interesting comes along to pick it up: an alligator, a tropical thunderstorm, Dr. Cyclops with a shotgun. A fair number of animals are used, which must have been expensive -- tropical birds, a super-cute dog, poor shrunken Pinto. They definitely want you to feel like it's an adventure movie, even though the action is confined mostly to Dr. Cyclops' jungle lair.

I was also impressed by Janice Logan's character, a tough, intelligent scientist. All the posters feature her cowering in terror (and please note the very subtle image used in the DVD menu, above -- feeling inadequate, Dr. Cyclops?), but she's definitely no screaming Ann Darrow. At all points in the movie, she's part of the team, contributing to escape plans and scientific research alike, and the others treat her with collegial respect. Very nice to see.

To be perfectly honest, I figured I would watch five minutes of this movie and then keep it on in the background while I did other things, but I watched all of it. I'm not sure that I can recommend it exactly, but if you feel inclined to check it out, it's not unbearable. Low expectations -- your key to movie entertainment!

Next week: Zorro!

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon