Wednesday, January 30, 2013
All-Out Giant Monster Attack! Episode 6 - Godzilla, The King of the Monsters!
What happened with "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!" is that its the American release of "Gojia", coming out two years later, in 1956. Toho in the Fifties, being a Japanese film company, had little thought to exportation of their movies, and took a very low sum of $25,000 dollars for the international rights. It would have been impossible for them to guess that "Gojira" was going to become an international hit, as no Japanese film previously had made much of a worldwide impact. The American company that bought the rights was an independent company called Jewell Enterprises, who decided that US audiences would never want to watch a film featuring only Japanese characters. So they created a character named Steve Martin*, played by Hollywood actor, Raymond Burr, who is a reporter hanging around in the background of the major events of the original film. Obviously it isn't easy to splice an entire character into a movie since they cannot interact with the other actors or sets or monsters, but "Godzilla" does not even attempt to make Steve Martin appear like he belongs in this story.
Ironically, that actually makes "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!" a surprisingly faithful adaptation, despite the addition of an entire new protagonist who steals the spotlight from the real heroes. The story plays out exactly the same as the original, with every major scene remaining more or less intact. Lots of scenes were cut out or shortened considerably since this version is about twenty minutes shorter than the Japanese, but the flow remains intact, its just that we see much less of the Japanese heroes. Obviously this is the inferior version, as Raymond Burr's existence is more distracting than anything else, though they do a surprisingly decent job making it appear like he's in the same locations as the Japanese actors from 1954. But the special effects are all intact, several of the best scenes are still intact, and actually the movie is somewhat breezier this way, if lacking the emotional punch of "Gojira".
Throughout all of "Godzilla", Raymond Burr has maybe four or five conversations with the original actors, at best. And one of them is over the phone with a still-shot of Dr. Serizawa in a position where you can't see his mouth. For most of these conversations, the Japanese characters are played by a double dressed in identical cloths as they were wearing in the original footage, but their backs turned to the camera so you can't see their faces. Sometimes we'll see a reaction shot of the original characters, but usually this looks so choppy and bad that I'm reminded of "Kung Pow! Enter the Fist", which is pretty fitting since "Godzilla" is exactly the kind of bad Westernization of Asian films that "Kung Pow!" was parodying. (By the way, if you haven't seen "Kung Pow!" forget Godzilla and giant monster movies, go watch that film immediately) Of course, the Japanese characters can speak English perfectly in generic Fifties American accents. Naturally Steve Martin knows all the Japanese characters, just because.
For the remainder of the film, Martin is mainly interacting with his Japanese translator or speaking with minor Japanese people. He'll sometimes call his boss George, or just watch from the sidelines while Takashi Simura and the other actors play out scenes in the original Japanese. When they decided that you needed to understand the dialog, they'll dub over the Japanese actors, but half of the film is left undubbed. And yes, the dubbing looks just as terrible in 1956 as it will look for the remainder of this countdown. There were several points during the film where I thought Raymond Burr's character could have stepped forward and actually done something, even if it was so mild as to pick a fallen character up, but nothing of the kind happens. He just stands there in the sidelines with a pipe in his mouth as his film noir internal narration rolls.
I will say one thing, the production company actually did a great job recreating the original Japanese sets and environments. Its more or less seamless, the Japanese actors will do their thing, and Raymond Burr will be off the side, seemingly in the same room, watching. He never does anything, but you can believe he's in the same room. This isn't a jarringly disconnected film like say, "Turkish Star Wars" where obviously the real Star Wars stuff looks nothing like the sand-blasted caves of Turkey.
All of Godzilla's best moments are there intact. The great Godzilla score still runs, he still burns away Tokyo with the unstoppable wrath of a true monster, he still crushes innocent people, its still watchable. But its definitely less frightening this time because since you've been given a White guy's POV, its no longer your city that's getting ravaged, its some foreign city you're just visiting. "Oh well, that's a shame, giant monster attacked Tokyo? I guess I should donate to UNICEF or something to make myself feel better, what else is on?" If you're going to watch a version of the original "Godzilla", make it the Japanese one.
Still, "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" has its place in history. This was the first version of Godzilla that most regions experienced, and it was a well-received film for the most part. Some critics complained that it was SciFi nonsense, but this is a B-movie, nobody cared. From the US, to Europe, to South America, suddenly Godzilla was a part of the global culture. "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!" even found its way back to Japan, where it was released as something of a re-run of the original "Gojira" and actually was rather well-received by its native audience. This is what led to the speedy localization of the entirety of the original Showa Godzilla series, with few alternations beyond a goofy dub. "Godzilla" is the movie my Grandma watched, its the version I saw as a kid. So it does have some meaning. Some people today really hate this version for mucking up "Gojira", but let's be honest, that movie wasn't perfect, and this movie didn't do that much to damage it.
Next time on All-Out Giant Monster Attack!, giant ants invade the American Southwest in "Them!"
* Who embarrassingly would turn out to share the name of a very popular film star who would rise to fame several decades later. "Godzilla"'s Steve Martin is not very funny.