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August 20, 2005

The Alligator People

Roy Del Ruth - 1959
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

A few days ago there was a news story from Reuters explaining that crocodiles had an immune system that could kill HIV. Scientists are at work developing a drug for humans. While I am all in favor of a cure for HIV and AIDS, this story sounds like Fifties science fiction. I took it upon myself to investigate what happens when reptiles and humans mix.

The Alligator People was somebody's idea of a follow-up to the massive success of the original The Fly. On the eve of her honeymoon, Beverly Garland's husband disappears after recieving a telegraph. Garland uses various clues which lead her to a remote plantation in Louisiana bayou country. After being met at the train station by hook-handed Lon Chaney, Jr., you know she's in trouble. Actually, we know Garland would be in trouble simply by sitting on a box of radioactive material, which she does. Her husband looks like a Marvel comic reject, the Hulk without bulk. For a while he is still human enough to play piano. What does an alligator person play on the piano? Scales? Crocodile Rock? Actually, schmaltzy movie music. Chaney, who's hobby is to shoot alligators with his pistol, saves Garland when she's lost in the swamp. Doing his darndest to get her drunk and naked, the alligator husband saves Garland from Chaney's hook.

The scientist who created the alligator people explains that his goal was to cure injured people in the same way that certain reptiles are able to regenerate body parts. Garland's husband, thought to be cured of severe injuries, has a severe skin problem and the need to play in mud. Chaney causes the husband to get more radiation than needed causing him to have a rubbery upper torso and an alligator head. You would think he would get stumpy legs and a tail, but not according to this film. Garland sees her mutant husband and screams. It's a moment that wishes it duplicated the scene when Patricia Owens sees David Hedison, and the CinemaScope screen shows the fly's eyes view of the scream heard 'round the world.

The Alligator People was the second to last film directed by Roy Del Ruth. Del Ruth made a fair number of purely entertaining films based on the handful I've seen, primarily Taxi, Blessed Event, and Du Barry was a Lady. Into his sixties, his career was limited to low budget horror films and television series work. While overshadowed by John Huston's version, Del Ruth made the first film version of The Maltese Falcon which is reportedly interesting in its own right.

I also am something of a fan of Beverly Garland, primarily from her films with Roger Corman. When I was a contestant on The Ultimate Film Fanatic, I stayed at the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn in Los Angeles. Not only can one get various memorabilia, like a poster for It Conquered the World, but the television has a channel dedicated to a documentary on Beverly Garland's career. After the age of 77, she seems to have retired, but I am convinced Beverly Garland was the hardest working woman in show business.

While The Alligator People isn't scary, the biggest shock for me is that it is on DVD when so many other films from 20th Century Fox are still in the vaults. I wish someone at Fox could explain how this film was given priority over such films as Pretty Poison (Noel Black - 1968), a film Pauline Kael declared the best debut film since Cititzen Kane, Royal Flash (Richard Lester - 1975) , Yellow Sky (William Wellman - 1949) and Frank Tashlin's best work. It's bewildering decisions by unknown studio executives that always manage to haunt me.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 20, 2005 06:49 PM