Hollywood unleashed a deluge of science fiction movies during the 1950s showcasing Earth’s battles against alien threats from the sublime to the overwhelming. Yet, in the early years of this period, a film which appeared to be a tale of threat and resistance instead delivered a message of understanding and hope. It Came From Outer Space was released by Universal-International Picture in June 1953. Set in the sleepy desert town of Sand Rock, Arizona, the film chronicles a couple witnessing the explosive arrival of an alien spaceship. Their attempts to alert the local police go unheeded, and soon friends and neighbors begin acting strange and disappearing. The set up is familiar but it is the reveal of the aliens motives and conclusion that sets It Came From Outer Space apart from other 50s science fiction.
It Came From Outer Space opens with amateur astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) and his girlfriend, Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush), enjoying a little star gazing one lovely Arizona night. Their interlude is interrupted by a blazing meteor streaking across the sky and crashing nearby. They drive to the crater, where John discovers the object sank down into the old mines, and is not a meteorite but an alien space ship.
John and Ellen notify Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake) but the story is too fantastic to believe. They return to the crash site, and John encounters George (Russell Johnson) near the body of his friend Frank (Joe Sawyer). John and Ellen leave the scene, convinced something has started affecting the townspeople. Locals disappear, only to return several days later, now focused on performing unusual tasks and transporting materials to the desert. Sheriff Warren finally believes John and forms a posse to attack the ship when John reports Ellen’s disappearance.
A battle would commence in many such movies. John rescue Ellen before destroying the ship and aliens. This was not the fate of It Came From Outer Space. John was contacted by the alien leader, impersonating George, and guaranteed nothing would happen to the hostages as long as they were allowed to repair the space ship. George explained the aliens were traveling to a different world when they crashed on Earth, and they are working as quickly as they can to get off our planet. They regard humanity as too immature and fearful for direct contact, prone to destroying anything they don’t understand. The impending attack by Sheriff Warren leaves them no choice but to fight.
John promises to delay the posse if Ellen and all the others are released. George agrees, and once everyone is out of the mine, John dynamites the entrance, sealing it off. As John reunites the townspeople with Sheriff Warren, the ship launches into the sky, and back into space. John comments that although now wasn’t the right time for humanity and aliens to meet, there are other nights, implying someday it may be.
It Came From Outer Space was written by Harry Essex from a treatment by Ray Bradbury. Essex went on to write The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954). Ray Bradbury was a legendary American science fiction author whose works included The Martian Chronicles (1950), The Illustrated Man (1951) and Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Jack Arnold directed the movie, and went on to direct many of the period’s sci-fi classics; The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), Tarantula (1955), This Island Earth (1955 – Uncredited), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). His television portfolio included episodes of Gilligan’s Island, It Takes A Thief, and The Brady Bunch.
Clifford Stine served as the special effects cinematographer. Stine started his career as an uncredited 2nd. Assistant on King Kong (1933). His expertise in visual effects would be demonstrated in This Island Earth (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Spartacus (1960), and Earthquake (1974). David S. Horley was the special effects technician. Horley began as an uncredited effects assistant on The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and worked on Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and Abbot and Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff (1949). Rosell Hoffman was the matte artist on the film. His artistry also graced The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Land Unknown (1957), and Earthquake (1974).
Milicent Patrick was an accomplished commercial artist and fashion designer. Aside from designing the movie’s disturbing aliens, Milicent designed the Creature in The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1957), and the towering demonic Chernabog from the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Disney’s Fantasia (1940).
Irving Gertz composed the film’s eerie unsettling score. Later compositions included the The Curse of the Undead (1959), Alligator People (1959), Perry Mason, and The Outer Limits.
Richard Carlson (John Putnam) Richard was so determined to be an actor he bought a theater and featured himself as the star before heading to Hollywood. His big screen break came in The Little Foxes (1941). He starred in classic science fiction movies The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), The Magnetic Monster (1953), and The Valley of Gwangi (1969). His television credits included The Virginian, Wagon Train, and Mackenzie’s Raiders.
Barbara Rush (Ellen Fields) Signed by Paramount Pictures in 1950, Barbara starred in When Worlds Collide (1951), Robin and the 7 Heads (1964), and Hombre (1967), and a memorable role as Nora Clavicle, a “special guest villain” on the Batman television series (1966). She remained active into the 1990s, with recurring roles on Flamingo Road (1980-1982), All My Children (1992-1994), and 7th Heaven (1996). Barbara Rush received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Aware for her stage performance in “A Woman of Independent Means.”
Russell Johnson (George) Russell is best remembered as the crafty Professor on Gilligan’s Island. His science fiction credits include This Island Earth (1955) and Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957).
Joe Sawyer (Frank) Joe was a Warner Brothers stock player and appeared in hundreds of movies, including the classics The Petrified Forest (1936), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and Gilda (1946).
Charles Drake (Sheriff Matt Warren) Signed by Warner Brothers, Charles appeared unbilled in such classics as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Man Who Came To Dinner (1942), and Valley of the Dolls (1967).
Kathleen Hughes (Jane) Kathleen Hughes was featured in B-movie crime thrillers, like Revenge (1950), For Men Only (1952), and with Edward G. Robinson in The Glass Web (1953). Her television career spanned appearances in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Mission Impossible, M*A*S*H, and Quincy M. E..
It Came From Outer Space cost approximately $800,000 ($8.4 million adjusted for 2023) and grossed $1.5 million ($15.5 million adjusted for 2023). The movie’s production value and designs, suspenseful story, and thoughtful themes make it an enduring science fiction classic.