A Look Back at “Doctor Cyclops”

Good morning everyone,

For today’s review let’s turn back the clock and examine a size-themed science-fiction film produced over 80 years ago. I’m referring to “Doctor Cyclops,” an American movie with a runtime of 75 minutes which was first released on April 12th, 1940. Dr. Cyclops came after “The Devil Doll,” released in July 1936, but came before “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” released in February 1957. According to Turner Classic Movies, Dr. Cyclops was the first “horror” film to be filmed in Technicolor since 1933’s “Mystery of the Wax Museum.” (NOTE: Modern audiences would most likely not consider this horror.) Additionally, to the best of my knowledge, this was the first color film featuring miniature humans. Earlier productions such as the aforementioned Devil Doll and 1935’s “Bride of Frankenstein” had tiny people, but they were black and white films.

Also of note, the director, Ernest B. Schoedsack, of Dr. Cyclops was also the director for King Kong! King Kong, released in 1933, is a personal favorite of mine and one of Hollywood’s longest-lasting media properties with the giant ape recently appearing in this year’s “Godzilla vs. Kong.” Sadly, I cannot claim that Dr. Cyclops was as interesting as King Kong, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

First, let’s briefly discuss the plot of Dr. Cyclops. It involves three scientists summoned to the jungles of Peru by biologist Dr. Alexander Thorkel who was called “… the world’s greatest living authority on organic molecular structure.” Those scientists were Dr. Rupert Bulfinch, a biologist, Dr. Mary Robinson, also a biologist, and Bill Stockton, a mineralogist. Dr. Thorkel requested their presence to assist his research into shrinking living creatures. Although, they were not privy to the nature of his research until after they joined him in Peru.

Shortly after arriving, the trio of scientists briefly look through a microscope then Thorkel promptly dismisses them, and the owner of some mules who insisted on accompanying them. One of the scientists, mineralogist Bill Stockton, looked at some cells and reported that he saw iron crystals. (NOTE: Dr. Thorkel’s poor eyesight made it impossible for him to use the microscope.) The fact that iron was present was all the information that Dr. Thorkel needed to refine his efforts. Afterward, he tried to send them away. However, the group had traveled thousands of miles and were less than pleased at the prospect of returning home right after they got there.

Dr. Thorkel became angry at their interference and lured them into a room housing his equipment. He promptly locked them inside and activated the radium-powered machinery. This reduced them to about 1/6th of their regular heights. (NOTE: The process of changing size was not shown, but instead occurred off camera.)

The rest of the film involved the struggle between the tiny people and the mad scientist. I won’t give away anymore important details, but even without spoilers there are few surprises.

In general, the biggest selling point is the special effects work. An extensive number of oversized props were used. The production crew duplicated the doctor’s quarters to a high degree of accuracy and recreated normal-sized objects in giant scale to sell the illusion that the actors had become tiny. These efforts worked well. A giant chair, seen below, was accompanied by extra-large books, a knife, a pencil, pin, scissors, etc. I was pleasantly surprised at how much effort was put into the practical effects.

However, less convincing than the props was the rear projection meant to place the actors alongside a menacing cat, aptly named “Satanus,” chickens, a dog, and a caiman (an alligator-like predator). It never felt like those animals and the people were really in the same place. This issue also came into prominence during a scene in which one of the scientists attempted to poke Dr. Thorkel with a pen. It was obvious that the two were not really interacting; although, the actor playing Dr Thorkel tried to act as if the tiny scientist had hurt him.

I claim that the special effects were the highlight because the story was very thin. Viewers learn very little about the characters or their motivations. Thus, it was hard to care about what happened. Preferably, we would have been given backgrounds and thus when a particular character was killed there would have been a sense of loss. For example, we could have been told that Dr. Bulfinch had a family with wife and kids and gosh darn it they really miss him when he’s gone. Then we might have been sad when Dr. Bulfinch met his unfortunate end. However, we never learn anything about the characters. The sole exception being that Bill Stockton had a bit of a character arc beginning as a slovenly type and then becoming more helpful.

Credit where credit’s due, this prop arm looked significantly better than the equivalent used in 1958’s “Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman.” This practical effect from 1940 was markedly better than one made 18 years later! Accordingly, Dr. Cyclops was nominated for, but did not win, the Oscar for Best Special Effects during the 13th Academy Awards.

Additionally, at one point Dr. Bullfinch called Dr. Thorkel “Cyclops,” referring to the one-eyed monster in Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey. Dr. Bullfinch claimed that Thorkel was like the cyclops insomuch as Thorkel relied on his “size and strength.” That was the justification for this movie’s title. However, my suspicion is that Paramount wanted an attention-grabbing title and settled upon Dr. Cyclops. Then they tried to shoehorn in references. Toward that end, the scientists also broke a lens in one of the evil doctor’s eyeglasses and afterward he called himself a cyclops during the last five minutes. Regardless of the attempted justifications, the title was a poor descriptor. Not to put too fine a point on it, but one reasonably expects that a man called Dr. Cyclops should actually BE a cyclops 😉 Although, others might appreciate the metaphor.

Lastly, Dr. Thorkel’s motivations should have been more engaging. He sought power and the ability to mold life as if it were putty. (As one does…) However, that did not make for the most exciting of motivations. Overall, he was a boring villain and I felt myself wondering if his master plan was to lure the world’s population into his shrinking room one small group at a time to (eventually) reduce all of humanity and achieve world domination. Doable perhaps, but a rather tedious way to take over the globe.

Overall, I can’t recommend Dr. Cyclops unless you’re a fan of historical films or a completist who must watch everything size related. Please note that there is nothing wrong with being a completist. In addition to my love of size-themed productions in general I am also a fervent watcher of Godzilla movies and a completist when it comes to anything with the big, green, fire-breathing monster. That includes stinkers like 1969’s “Godzilla’s Revenge” (a.k.a. Godzilla, Minilla, and Gabara: All Monsters Attack). I have no shame and will watch anything with “Godzilla” in the title. (Somebody give me a Blu-ray of Legendary Giant Beast Wolfman vs. Godzilla!) However, folks who aren’t tiny people fans may not like Dr. Cyclops. Personally, I appreciated the special effects considering the era in which this was made, but I would not blame modern viewers if they found them unconvincing. And, as previously mentioned, the story was forgettable.

That’s it for today folks, next week will commence with a review of a breast expansion comic. Until then dear readers, be suspicious of invitations from mad scientists in South America and until next time, keep growing!

This review is protected under Fair Use copyright law.

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