Greetings size fans,
Today, we’ll turn back the clock and analyze a film which deserves more attention than it receives. When the size community deigns to discuss older Hollywood movies there’s much ado about 1957’s “The Incredible Shrinking Man” or 1958’s “Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman” (BTW the poster is cherished, but nobody watches that movie). We should broaden the discussion and add another classic to our repertoire. With the intent of unearthing a diamond in the rough let’s look at 1958’s “Attack of the Puppet People” from celebrated director Bert I. Gordon.
In truth, I exaggerated a smidge. For one, I’m not the only person who actually watched Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman. (SIDE NOTE: Although, the 1993 HBO remake is superior.) More pertinent to this article, I’m also not the only one who enjoyed Attack of the Puppet People. As proof, please peruse these wise words from Ms Taedis:
I had the pleasure of attending not only the last in-person SizeCon, but also that year’s history panel. A member of the audience asked the distinguished panelists (and one hyperactive nerd in a yellow hat) which film was better, The Incredible Shrinking Man or The Incredible Shrinking Woman?
The Reducer cut to the chase and said “Attack of the Puppet People”.
And he’s right.
(SIDE NOTE FROM SOLO: The Reducer continued the film’s narrative in “Puppet People – Georgia Lane” which can be found in “The Reducer’s Realm: The Vault is Open.” Reducer’s tale takes a more adult approach, but is not graphic. Instead, it describes a budding romance between the tiny woman and a normal man. Check out an interview with Reducer here.)
I’d say Shrinking Man is technically a better film, with a stronger script, but it’s not the size film I put on when I want to put my feet up and enjoy some size-fi. Attack of the Puppet People is. Both are horror films, but Matheson’s Shrinking Man is about isolation, toxic masculinity, and a gradual descent into nightmare. Even its optimistic ending doesn’t make up for the bleakness of the main story.
Puppet People is in some ways just as dark, but the tone and the telling are light years from Shrinking Man. Scott Carey is shrunk by a combination of random chance and modern technology/society. The Puppet People are shrunk to give a lonely old doll maker company. The former is a story about an indifferent universe; the latter about trying to overcome loss and loneliness.
By all rights this shouldn’t be as good as it is. It’s a Bert I Gordon production. A gentleman known for turning out cheaply made, if entertaining, pictures. He’s responsible for a number of other size related films, but only The Amazing Colossal Man comes close to matching Puppet People in terms of impact on the size community. And Colossal Man is not the size epic it could have been.
And, yes, I know there are plenty of things to nitpick or joke about. Rifftrax has skewered this film. Everything from the idea of a demonstrably bad* doll maker figuring out what is essentially transporter technology to a puppet show being played in a Broadway theater. There’s a stretch towards the end where the special effects weren’t that special (but nowhere near as bad as the post card scenes* in other Bert I Gordon movies). And the unresolved plot threads? I’ll leave SolomonG to dig through those.
With all that this movie has had one of the most profound impacts on the size community of any film or television show I can think of. The number of writers in our community who’ve been influenced by this film is incredible. One of the finest shrunken woman writers out there took her pen name from the main character.
There is the iconic scene where Sally wakes beside a giant telephone, freshly shrunk and wearing nothing but a handkerchief. Only to be told to put on a doll dress she herself picked out when she was still normal. If that isn’t a sublime size moment I don’t know what one is.
But I think there’s more to it than that amazing scene.
What Puppet People does that no other size film did before was humanize the person doing the shrinking. Up until then size-shifting of any sort was either a random accident (Shrinking Man, Colossal Man, giant bug movies) or a mad scientist (Dr. Cyclops, the alien who grew Alison Hayes). The anti-hero of The Devil-Doll (1936) comes closest, but he inherits the shrinking technology from a mad scientist couple and only uses it for revenge.
Mr. Franz is unique up to that point. A man who has been abandoned by his wife and everybody else that he loves, forces people to be his “friends” by shrinking them and holding them hostage. It’s unclear if the abandonment resulted in him having a need for control or if he already was over controlling leading to his partner leaving him. What we do know is that when people he likes try to leave him, Franz cuts them down to size.
I give much of the credit for the film’s overall success to John Hoyt. A veteran character actor who played Mr. Franz as well as a number of other roles over the years. It’s his sweet villain who steals the show. In my opinion there’s something magical in the way he plays the role. Something sympathetic. In another actor’s hands I think the part would either come out too dark or too saccharine. Hoyt’s Mr. Franz is alternately sweet, creepy, befuddled, impatient, kind, and pissy. I frequently “cast” my stories in my head. Using a specific actor’s voice when I read back dialog to myself. Over the years I’ve gone back to Hoyt more than once.
There’s also more interaction in this film than most shrinking movies. Scott and Lou may barely touch after he shrinks out of his wedding ring in Shrinking Man, but the tinies in Puppet People (once removed from their tubes) are in almost constant contact with someone else. Usually that’s another tiny, but there are more scenes of giant/tiny interactions than most other films before it. Not all of it the handheld special effects we might crave, but there are several nice touches in this film.
Random stuff only Taedis cares about:
I’ve seen film sites list this as a remake of 1936’s The Devil-Doll. It isn’t.
Bert I Gordon’s daughter Susan had her film debut in this picture. The child actor they’d hired to play a visitor to the doll factory backed out at the last minute. Susan stepped in and began a busy career as a child/teen actor into the 60s.
Bert I Gordon had a habit of promoting one film in another. In Puppet People our two romantic leads go to a drive-in showing The Amazing Colossal Man. The scene they show of the other movie actually works well with Puppet People, but John Agar shilling the picture in character was pushing things.
Puppet People got a similar treatment in The Spider. One of the teens in the film works at his dad’s theater. He really wants to see that swell new picture they’re getting in. The marquee reads Attack of the Puppet People.
Hank Patterson who played the janitor at the theater may be the king of giant bug movies. He had minor roles in Tarantula, Beginning of the End, Monster on the Campus (brief giant dragonfly), and The Spider (aka Earth vs The Spider). He was also in The Amazing Colossal Man.
The scene where Laurie sings may seem a bit jarring to modern audiences, but was common for drive-in fodder at the time. Ken Miller (who played Stan, the other shrunken teen) sang a number in I Was A Teenage Werewolf.
Alfred C. Baldwin III, the lookout for the Watergate burglars was stationed at a nearby hotel the night of the burglary. Attack of the Puppet People was playing on TV while shit was going down. He got so caught up watching it he didn’t warn his colleagues in time. They were arrested by two plainclothes detectives.
*This is my own observation based on the few scenes we see Mr. Franz actually making dolls. If you go to the 54 minute mark (just after the PP are put to bed after their escape attempt) you’ll see him making doll heads on a conveyor belt. Watch carefully. When the molds turn upside down their contents spill out. We know from an earlier scene that the material is meant to harden in the mold.
**I accuse Tommy the cat of getting rid of the unaccounted for Puppet People. Maybe that’s why Franz really shrank him; as punishment for hurting his friends.
***In at least two of his movies Bert I Gordon used postcards as scenery. In Beginning of the End grasshoppers climbed a postcard of a skyscraper to simulate giant mutant grasshoppers climbing a real building. In The Spider postcards of caverns were blown up and used as backdrops for some cave scenes.
Thank you Taedis! (Read an interview with Taedis here.)
Just a few points I’d like to add. The first is to also praise John Hoyt’s performance. This film ends not with an action-packed confrontation, but with a poignant plea from the actor. That unexpected conclusion was a refreshing surprise and was effective due to the strength of Hoyt’s acting.
Second, and this may just be me, but it’s interesting to notice small details which tell us about daily life in times gone past. Little things like Mr. Franz lighting a doll on fire and it burning easily and rapidly! Safety standards were different back then so no one even bats an eye at the flammable toy. There was also an elevator attendant and a classified that mandates typing applicants “must be attractive.” The production team added these details because that’s how they believed elevators and want ads should appear, based on their own experiences from the 1950s.
Third, something was set-up and reinforced, but never got a pay off. I’m referring to “Chekhov’s gun,” per Wikipedia that’s the idea that “… every element in a story must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed. Elements should not appear to make ‘false promises’ by never coming into play.” This is one of the unresolved plot threads that Taedis mentioned.
In this instance, a mailman, old Ernie, appeared in the very first scene, then later on people discuss his bizarre disappearance and we see a mailbag hanging off Mr. Franz’s door! However, the character was never seen again; so, viewers weren’t privy to his final fate. It was clear that he was abducted, but he didn’t even warrant a mention when we met the other shrunken people.
Maybe a scene was cut during final edits? I’m inclined to agree that Tommy the cat likely ate the poor fellow, mere days before his retirement! 😥
That’s all I wanted to add. Bottom line, Attack of the Puppet People is a classic and strongly recommended.
Next on the schedule, Thursday’s review will cover a clip from Ginary’s Giantess Adventures. Until then, keep growing!
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