James Arness cuts a distinctly Frankensteinian figure as The Thing, in 1951. There’s even a bit of a diagonal fold across the forehead, reminiscent of The Monster’s scar.
As the Fifties dawned, Hollywood embraced science fiction. Space aliens and atom age monsters — mutants, giant insects and one very famous radioactive dinosaur — took their place alongside the classic movie monsters of gothic origin.
The Thing (from Another World) was inspired by a 1938 novella, Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell, Jr. (writing as Don A. Stuart). The paranoid story of a shape-shifting alien who assumes the appearance of his victims was considerably simplified by screenwriter Charles Lederer (with an assist by an uncredited Ben Hecht). The science fiction trappings fall away after the creature is loose, the film playing out as an “Old Dark House” thriller, substituting a remote arctic station socked in by a blizzard for the classic haunted mansion, and featuring an bullet-proof vegetable-man as stand-in for the usual killer, ghost or gorilla menace. The same story device was used for It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), and Alien (1979), with its space monsters stalking victims trapped in a spaceship.
A reluctant James Arness, all of 6’6”, was cast as the title creature. He would become a household name in America as the star of the long-running Gunsmoke TV series. Shots here show Arness, sans makeup, testing his torn spacesuit fitted for the smoke effect that accompanied the monster’s climactic electrocution. You can see more photos of the test run on the remarkable Life magazine online archives. Note that the date given, March 1951, if correct, means that this was an absolute last minute job. The film premiered on April 6 and went into release on April 29.
The Thing’s Frankenstein profile was no coincidence. Makeup supervisor Lee Greenway worked for months on the project, submitting numerous sketches and sculpts — 18 different versions in all — to producer Howard Hawks. Eventually, Greenway would put makeup on Arness and the two men would drive over to Hawks’ home to show it off. As the shooting date approached, Hawks, frustrated, told Greenway to “make him look like Frankenstein!”
What makes Hawks’ instructions particularly interesting is that earlier on, in the film’s development stage, Hawks had sent memos to RKO boss Howard Hughes assuring him that The Thing would be a modern horror story and its monster nothing like “the usual Frankenstein”. Hawks’ change of heart suggests a realization that the general profile of the iconic Jack Pierce-designed Frankenstein Monster, 20 years after it was first seen, was still a truly scary and potent symbol of alienness. Many critics, including the New York Times reviewer, alluded to Frankenstein in their assessment of the film.
The Thing from Another World was a worldwide box-office hit and a hugely influential film. Among its admirers, director John Carpenter referenced the film in Halloween (1978) and went on to shoot his own extraordinary version, The Thing (1982), hewing very close to the original Campbell story, with creature shape-shifting made possible by the elaborate and stunning special effect makeups devised by Rob Bottin.
Life Magazine online archives: The Thing.
References from Howard Hawks: Hollywood's Grey Fox (Grove Press, 1997) by Todd McCarthy.
Who Goes There? print and audio versions available from Rocket Ride Books.