Strother Martin Wednesday #12 The Magnetic Monster

This was a fun choice today because of the odd film and the manner in which it was selected to go on the project. There are already posts on most of Strother’s major films from the 70s, and the 60s’s films are also mostly complete. There will still be entries in the future covering those films and the small role he played in them (The Villain and Nightwing are a couple of examples), but if I am ever to get to all of the credited roles he played, I have to cast the net a bit further and this one came up in today’s catch.

To find and select this film, I simply went to Amazon Prime and entered Strother Martin in the search box. Plenty of films came up, many of them need to be purchased or rented to view, or perhaps you could start a free trial of a streaming service. I simply scrolled down to one that was available on Prime itself, which I already subscribe to, and picked a film I had never heard of before.

“The Magnetic Monster” is a 1950s Science Fiction film, that postulates the dangers of radioactive research without creating a monster which is a guy in a suit. A new element has been created by bouncing radioactive gamma rays at an existing rare element, and the resulting product is a dangerously voracious consumer of electricity that is changing magnetic polarity and may eventually cause the Earth to spin out of orbit from the Sun and kill us all. First however, it has to be a threat to smaller numbers of humans so that we have a story.

This film was done on the cheap, using existing footage of scientific experiments with magnetism and some sets that look like they used up most of the budget, but then budget was small to begin with. This was directed by Curt Siodmak, the screenwriter of numerous sci/fi and horror films, most noably the original “The Wolf Man”. It was only his second credited feature as director (The First was “Bride of the Gorilla”).

Strother’s role is that of the co-pilot on a commercial plane, which happens to be carrying the dangerous element and is at risk of complete electrical shutdown at any moment. It is surprising that as the second in command he gets most of the lines spoken in the cockpit, but that results from the fact that he is the radio operator as well and is in contact with the scientists on the ground, taking their direction and passing them on to the pilot.

The set is a few steps up from the rickety “Plan 9 from Outer Space” cockpit, but the interior shots of the plane are almost as bad. This is only one sequence in the middle of the film and Jay is in the shots for a very few minutes. He has to share the screen with his pilot, played with very little energy by a low key Douglas Evans. Evans would go on to an extensive career playing forgettable characters on numerous TV shows. Not to put him down, but when you watch these scenes it was easy to see that Strother was a more compelling actor and that he had an interesting career in front of him.

Strother did get some close ups in his scenes and once again, the facial reactions are were the gold is in his performance. He did have one funny line, when informed that the plane might shut down at any moment, he says “It’s a good thing we aren’t flying over the Rockies”. A little understatement to layer on top of a cheesy situation to begin with.

Like I said, most of his characters connection to another person is through the radio on the plane, so the reaction shots are just a natural opportunity for him to give this slightly interesting, low budget, silly dialogue script, something to enjoy.

I was a little concerned as the film came to an end that he would not get an on screen credit. The main cast was listed in a scroll, some of whom had far less to do in the movie than Strother, but finally there was a credit frame in the end titles that magnanimously identified him as “Co-Pilot”.

Not an essential Strother Martin performance but it is widely available and worth a look. The dialogue and character development make it cheesy, but it is an interesting take on the “science gone wrong” genre of atomic fifties films.

Strother Martin Wednesday #11 The Shaggy Dog

This film came out when I was just a year old, so I know I did not see it at that time. I am pretty sure I did see it in a theater at some point but the real reason I remembered it, and that Strother was in it, was that I had a paperback novelization of the movie when I was in Middle School and it had a picture of Jay in it. I’m sorry to say I have no idea if I still own that book, maybe out in the shed in California, but I do have access to the movie as do all of you who have Disney +.

His name does appear on the clever title credits, which included some animated elements of a furry mop dog chasing after a grasshopper and wiping each title card off as the dog runs by.

This is a children’s film featuring a boy who magically turns into a dog and overhears the plans of the spies in a house down the street from where he lives.

Strother plays “Thurm”, the inside man at a missile plant in the town where the events take place. He shows up at the door of a renown art scholar who has taken over as curator at the local museum. We don’t know why he is there at first, the scene simply shows him arriving and being escorted upstairs. Francesca is the daughter of the man and the object of interest to the two teen boys in the story, one of whom will soon be transforming.

Fred MacMurray and Jean Hagen are listed as the stars, but they are simply the names. Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran are the sons in the family and they have most of the action. Kirk was a child star who made several Disney films, including “Old Yeller”. He passed away just a year ago.

Strother’s part in this film is relatively minor, but he did show up more than I had remembered. Once the spy subplot kicks in he is in several shots.

He arrives with a widget from “Section 32”, yes even Disney Kid’s pictures can have a MacGuffin in them. The dog overhears the plot to steal this secret and the rest of the story revolves around MacMurray’s dog hating mailman, trying to convince the authorities to believe he got his information from his son the dog. The daughter gets dragged away by the spies as they try to escape with the stolen secret.

There is a chase scene with the dog driving a hot rod and later a police car, trying to catch up with the spy ring before they get away. Actually, the talking dog effects are pretty good and the mix of puppets, real dogs well trained and even a guy in a dog suit, works just well enough to keep us from groaning at the silliness of it all.

The crooks end up trying to escape by boat, which gives the hero dog a chance to knock Strother into the water, jump on the boat and foil the escape as well as rescue the girl.

For us, the final important shot is one that is befitting a former diving champion. Strother is struggling in the water to get back up on the pier to be taken into custody by the police.

“The Shaggy Dog” is not a great movie but it is kind of fun for the family. Strother would usually remain a supporting character but those characters would have better lines and development as his career went along. This was one of the earliest films I could brag about to my friends that my cousin Strother Martin was in, at least they would have seen it.

Strother Martin Wednesday #10 Cowboy

This is only the third film on the summer project that I’d not seen before. It is also a film where Strother does not receive a screen credit, despite having a great death scene and being the focus of attention for everyone on screen for a couple of minutes. Of course the cast was pretty full of what were bigger names at the time, including: Brian Donlevy, Richard Jaeckel, Dick York and James Westerfield. Strother was probably better known as a TV actor in these days, having appeared in 15 episodes of television series in the same year that this movie came out.

He shows up driving the wagon that is going on the cattle drive. It may be that he was supposed to be a cook as well as a cowhand. He certainly appears to be much younger than in many of his more famous roles. This film stars Jack Lemon as a hotel clerk who buys his way into a cattle drive, headed by veteran cowboy Glenn Ford. The story revolves around the travails of a drive down to Mexico and back to Chicago. Lemon’s tenderfoot has to learn along the way, how unforgiving the trail can be.

Dick York plays a cowboy in the drive who has a way with the ladies and he and Strother discuss the aroma of horses as a attractant to the ladies. He also admires Jay’s boots and that becomes a minor story point in a later scene. Although there is no title card with his name on it, he is recognized by name on the back cover notes of the Blu Ray that I acquired for this entry. This was a Twilight Time Edition of the film. Twilight Time was a specialty company that produced exceptional versions of films in a limited run. This boutique manufacturing usually ended up with about 3,000 copies of any title. The company no longer exists but once in a while on ebay, you can find some of their product.

Strother is only in this early sequence and another one that comes up just a few minutes into the cattle drive when it starts.

You can see him here in the background, washing up the dinner dishes, another indication that he may be the trail cook. Unfortunately, his character does not have a name. On IMDB, he is listed as Cowhand Bitten by Snake, which gives away immediately why he has only the two scenes. In a moment of macho levity, the cowhands are tossing a rattlesnake at one another and they accidentally end up wrapping it around Strother’s neck.

The snakebite goes right into the vein, meaning there is nothing they can do for him. They end up making mundane small talk while he dies on the ground while the group is helpless. It is a pretty chilling scene.

Lemon’s character is flummoxed over what seems to him the casual way that the cowboys receive death. When Richard Jaeckel’s character starts to remove the boots that had been admired earlier, Lemon’s character takes umbrage and a fight starts but it is finished pretty quickly by trailboss Ford.

The notes in the Blu ray box are similar to those you would find in a Criterion release, something thoughtful, written by a film expert. I did not copy the whole page, but here is the relevant Strother passage.

Glen Ford then confirms that Strother has died,

and the movie moves on. The film is actually very good. There is a growing respect from Ford toward Lemon’s character, and Lemon learns some lessons too well from his “partner”. There are stampedes, and fights, and Indian attacks throughout the rest of the film, but none of them is accompanied by the familiar voice or face of Strother Martin.