Tuesday, June 7, 2011

James Arness: Dodge City lawman came from outer space...

By Jim Heffernan

James Arness is dead and I’m not feeling very good myself. Oh, I’m fine. Some wag wrote that after Elvis died, and somehow I always think about it when I read of a celebrity’s death.

But James Arness did once cause me to feel very badly indeed.

Of course we all know the Minnesota-born actor as “Gunsmoke’s” Matt Dillon on TV, a role he played for some 20 years, for a long time the longest-running show ever on television (1955-’75 or thereabouts).

The actor died June 4 at age 88. He seemed indestructible in his prime. At 6 foot 7, he was a giant of a man whose image on the long-running western always displayed confidence and resolve. You couldn’t help but admire him. He was a stalwart Norwegian.

But a few years before he found his niche in the old west’s Dodge City, he came from outer space, in the title role in the movie “The Thing,” which was fully titled “The Thing From Another World,” and they weren’t talking about Norway or Minnesota.

It is as “The Thing” that I remember him best, even though his face was never shown and he didn’t speak. The movie came out in 1951 when I was about 11 years old – the age when you are getting ready to close out your childhood and start bracing for adolescence (heaven help you).

In those days I’d regularly go to Saturday movie matinees, preferably at Duluth’s old Lyceum Theater, where you could see double features for 9 cents if you were 12 or under. Other theaters charged 12 cents for that age group. Who had that kind of money?

Because I was getting so “grown up,” I had reached the stage where I had no qualms about being home alone at night, no babysitters necessary, if other family members went out. No problem.

I should point out that 1951 was smack dab in the middle of the post-World War II flying saucer era. Flying saucers were all over the news all the time, with fuzzy pictures in the newspapers of the discs flying in formation over various parts of the country, including Moose Lake. Crazy.

So, thought Hollywood producers, why not make a motion picture about a flying saucer? How about one that crashes in the Arctic, is discovered by U.S. military personnel stationed in a nearby remote outpost, who also discover there a giant human-like creature (about 6 foot 7, encased in a block of ice) but is not human at all; it comes from the vegetable family and feeds on the blood of humans and sled dogs – any mammal it can get its crusty hands on, like a Venus Fly Trap eats bugs. Oh yes, one handy thing about “The Thing”: If you cut off one of its appendages – in one scene an arm is amputated by a slamming door – the appendage GROWS BACK! Yikes. That cured me of vegetables, especially beets.

Meanwhile, back on the screen, the unlucky crew transports “The Thing” back to their base camp and inadvertently – yes, inadvertently -- melts down the ice block encasing him, releasing the monster to go about his business of plucking unsuspecting humans and other mammals from their appointed rounds and drinking their blood. Oh, the horror.

A friend and I sat petrified in our seats at the Lyceum, although my friend ended up on his knees on the floor, his head on the seat, covered by his jacket. We lasted until “The Thing” took to hanging blood-drained sled dogs from meat hooks as he lurked about the wintery encampment, and a mad scientist (you knew he was crazy by his goatee) inside insists that the group should make friends with this monster from outer space, thank you very much.

Whispering during a lull, my friend and I agreed we’d better get the heck out of there before the monster drained our blood (he already had, from our heads). Up the aisle we scampered, darting to the nearest exit sign and out into the bright Saturday afternoon sunshine of Superior Street, safe. Whew.

But I wasn’t really safe. The fright caused developmental regression in me. No longer would I stay home alone at night. Any foray into darkness was accompanied by the concern that “The Thing” was lurking behind every tree. I was, in short, afraid of my own shadow for months.

I didn’t see how the movie ended, having bolted for the street mid-way through. Many years later, as a consenting adult, I watched the entire movie on television, and finally saw how they killed poor James Arness (electrocution). By then I was no longer spooked by the movie. Real life is way scarier.

To read more about Arness and the phenomenon of The Thing and view the original 1951 movie trailer, check out this Baltimore Sun link HERE.

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