Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Dr. Hynek's Impression

It's a worthwhile observation that years after a highly skeptical Al Chop had radically changed his mind and decided that UFOs were something real and extraordinary, perhaps of a source extraterrestrial, the Air Force's chief UFO consultant, astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek, reached a similar conclusion.

However, in a letter typed about a month after the release of "U.F.O." dated June 19, 1956, a still-cautious (perhaps "on the fence" is a better description, as negativity toward the phenomenon's potentially incredible origin was part and parcel of Hynek's early approach) Dr. Hynek addressed the movie and a few other issues with veteran UFO researcher Alexander D. Mebane (NY).  At this time, Hynek had just moved to Cambridge, MA to work with the Smithsonian Institution Astrophysical Observatory.  Among the subjects of interest covered in the letter was this:

"Activity at ATIC*  has picked up considerably recently, what with the UFO film, which I had an opportunity of previewing before it hit the public theaters, and with Jessup's**  UFO Annual  . . .well, all of these things are having their repercussions."

Hynek also noted that ATIC's "Saucer Division" had recently acquired Capt. Gregory, a name familiar to historians, as its chief.

Though frequently seeming to tow the Air Force line regarding UFOs in the fifties, Hynek nevertheless confessed to Mebane, "The Air Force still believes that my services are of some value to them, even though lately I have been quite critical of a number of things."

Finally, zeroing in on the motion picture, Hynek stated:

"I enjoyed the UFO film immensely even though it was over-dramatized and terribly slanted.  I suppose it's some sort of a commentary that I found the most dramatic part of the picture to be the bringing in of a plane through fog by radar.  This part at least was factual."

This part at least was factual.   One gets the impression that Hynek was still securely locked away in his skeptical box as apparently, in his view, all the other contents and components of "U.F.O." were based upon thin air.  Whatever he meant, this was a curious statement, probably quite telling of Hynek's fifties UFO approach. 

Of course, by the time the mid-sixties, the Socorro encounter, the Michigan sightings and then abduction reports of the seventies started to evolve, Dr. J. Allen Hynek was no longer a skeptic, and in the seventies his J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies set out to be a repository and investigative source for reports by police officers and what were envisioned as other qualified UFO observers.  In other words -- the version of Dr. Hynek observed briefly during his walk-on in the film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was by that time (1977) both what we saw and what we got. 

Indeed, what a metamorphosis had occurred, since Hynek in 1956 declined Mebane's invitation to make a public appearance in NY City because he felt he could do more by remaining in the background as a "catalyst."

(Thanks to author and veteran UFO researcher Barry Greenwood for bringing the Hynek letter to our attention.)

(* Air Technical Intelligence Center)

(** Morris K. Jessup's UFO Annual, appearing in hardcover, was basically a collection of newspaper stories about UFO activity, and I recall an addendum here and there afterwards, but any possibility of a continuing "annual" book of monumental proportions was dashed due to Jessup's death -- which is another story in itself, recounted elsewhere.)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Towers on the News Beat: Before and After the Movie

Knowing why Al Chop suggested that producer Clarence Greene ask Tom Towers to play him in "U.F.O." is easy.  The two knew one another, both had extensive experience as newspaper reporters, and each, for different reasons, was convinced the UFO issue deserved to be taken seriously, though in agreement that a delusional or fringe aspect also haunted the subject.

Regarding today's scans:  A 1954 Towers column from the Los Angeles Examiner recounts a meeting at Giant Rock in California, famous for "contactee" gatherings and lucrative book sales by and about folks who claimed generally friendly contact and excursions with flying saucer occupants.  In my correspondence with Towers, he never denied his negative impression of the contactee realm, and in fact his closing paragraph (as shown) about Venus and the like clearly illustrates this.  Incidentally, if you think we may have mentioned Giant Rock previously, you're correct.  When I put up my e-mail months ago from the late recording artist Andrew Gold, whose father Ernest Gold wrote the music score for the motion picture, the younger Gold had mentioned that his grandparents used to go to the Giant Rock affairs.  I'm betting they were in attendance while Towers was there -- too bad he didn't get an interview with them.  Anyway, in 1954 plans for the Greene-Rouse production were well underway, though Towers may not have known at this point that he would be requested for the movie role.

The June, 1956 photo from the Boston Sunday Advertiser shows Tom Towers looking over film in a projector in conjunction with publicity for "U.F.O."  A major "selling point" for the movie was the inclusion of two actual films of assumed UFOs, and that fact was extensively circulated via studio PR activities.

The 1957 Boston Sunday Advertiser column, originating from Towers' home base at the L.A. Examiner, saw print long after "U.F.O." was released, and temporary movie star Tom Towers was back at the newspaper, this time writing about a terrible air collision between an airplane and a jet over the densely populated San Fernando Valley in California, which killed five people in the air and two high school students on the ground -- with 73 more serious injuries inflicted upon students at the school over which the chaos occurred and flaming aircraft fragments rained.  Towers remained very keen about social issues related to aircraft in his position as aviation editor and, as we've indicated previously, noise abatement at airports near residential areas concerned him much of the time.

(Thanks to author and historian Barry Greenwood for the scans in today's entry.  Click on my main blog in the link list, and once there click on Barry's name noted at the top of that page's link list to access free copies of his former UFO history newsletters and other material via his Web site.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Physicist Disturbed by Movie

Somewhere along this very long cinematic journey, we mentioned that a rare copy of the Great Britain press book for "U.F.O." dropped into our hands (well, that is, after I paid handsomely for it many years ago), and its appearance surpassed the more readily available American version.  In fact, we were able to extract and scan a considerable amount of information for this blog from the English press book.

Because the two press books evidenced subtle differences, maybe audience reactions reported by the press in each country could be expected to differ as well -- and, at least in this instance, one did.  Having had an opportunity to read numerous reviews, particularly from the USA, regarding the film's 1956 premiere, I noticed that some were polite, others relentlessly negative and still others showered praise upon the new movie in town.

However, I don't recall an American review quite like that offered by England's New Scientist of November 22, 1956, in which a staff physicist for the publication admits being (with my apologies to James Bond fans) shaken more than stirred following a session at a London movie theater.  Like every good skeptical scientist, the unnamed physicist found reasons to attack the film's uninspiring "blah" aspect (read as:  the acting and progression sucked) in depth -- but then, as imparted by the writer quoting his impression:  "And yet it is uncomfortably convincing."

Apparently drawing upon press book material, as the review briefly spreads out details about the famous 1952 Washington, D.C. UFO pursuit and the Montana and Utah UFO films, the New Scientist article also manages to throw in a little commentary disparaging the British Air Ministry's negative attitude about the UFO phenomenon.  The B.A.M. may not be impressed publicly with UFOs in the fifties, "however," states the writer, "Unidentified Flying Objects revives doubts."

The very existence of this little piece from a scientific publication which dares to admit a staff physicist's mental shape-shift regarding UFOs -- in the 1950s yet, when the mere thought of a scientist taking "flying saucers" seriously could elicit potential career-killing ridicule -- causes us to wonder how many other scientists throughout the world were impressed by Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse's movie -- though remaining so in utter silence.  Forever.

(Author Barry Greenwood, recent contributor to the monumentally documented and impressive volume, UFOs and Government:  A Historical Inquiry, kindly passed the New Scientist gem along for today's entry.)

Friday, March 7, 2014

On Their Own

A reader (whom I'll be happy to identify by name in this space, should he wish to grant permission) recently questioned me about something indirectly related to a substantial issue -- the use of stock film footage in motion pictures.  Stock films and photos are generally in the public domain or available to a production staff from some source for a fee, or simply for a mention in the end credits.  The inclusion of stock images can greatly enhance a motion picture's message when alternative sources are just not available or beyond the director's reach for legal reasons, or merely because the ownership contact at a location where one wishes to film refuses to cooperate for any variety of reasons.

Of course, the use of stock music in movies is also well known.  The creepy background music for the original George Romero film, Night of the Living Dead, depended greatly upon stock music as a mood enhancer and scare tactic, and the implementation of stock music is noted in the original soundtrack (LP)album.

As the motion picture, U.F.O." was being developed and eventually produced between 1954 and 1956, a major obstacle became clear:  There would be no official government cooperation for producers Clarence Greene or Russell Rouse. 

To the current day, it's widely common for U.S. government officials to go "all out" to provide locations and in-your-face production values for movies intended to put the government or military in a "good light" -- but woe, unspoken brickbats and denials to scripts taking an opposite view.  In fact, this acknowledged practice has been and is still being discussed by Robbie Graham (of the Web site Silver Screen Saucers) and his colleagues in the film industry.

But -- a major motion picture about UFOs and recognition that in the early fifties some higher-ups believed the U.S. government should be on the verge of 'fessing up about "saucers" representing an extraterrestrial source?  Government cooperation?  Fat chance!

Indeed, the reader's query sent me back to my old faded and submarginal (especially for handwritten notes) photocopy of Tom Towers' script, and as I flipped through more than 100 pages from beginning to end, every spot where fresh filming would have been ideal was sacrificed instead for the use of stock film footage.  This was no accident or oversight.

Long after the movie's release, Air Force documents surfaced indicating official fears about "U.F.O." and the negative publicity it was expected to generate regarding the government's position on the phenomenon.  As it turned out, Clarence Greene's documentary pretty much bombed at the box office and any potential public uproar of consequence did not materialize -- as the government continued to dismiss and deny, as per Robertson Panel (1953) protocol, by the time the early fifties' frank official honesty had all but disappeared.

Greene realized from the outset, even after enlisting the help of notables Edward Ruppelt, Dewey Fournet, Al Chop and others with previous government UFO investigation experience, that official cooperation would not be forthcoming.  As a result,, other than the weekend that Tom Towers spent filming exterior "walking around" scenes in Washington, D.C., stock film footage fills a lot of production nooks and crannies.  Such file footage in "U.F.O." includes exterior Pentagon scenes, Wright-Patterson AFB, runway shots, Air Materiel Command, miscellaneous Washington scenes, F-51 aircraft and other military planes, views of military pilots (!), plus a laboratory and work table.  In addition, scenes involving a darkroom (I'm not sure that some of these made it into the movie's final cut), projection room, Washington Airport and the White House were file footage, as were scenes showing a busy Pentagon switchboard.

Topping off this mosaic of old footage was obvious newsreel material of General John A. Samford and others.

The funny thing is, were Clarence Greene alive today (and it is my understanding that he died in a nursing home years ago, virtually broke financially, and perhaps a broken man in other Hollywood ways), attempting to remake "U.F.O." nearly 60 years later -- this time, armed with awesome computerized special effects and digital cinematography unimaginable in the fifties -- the government would still slam the door of cooperation.  What's changed since 1956?  Well, with the addition of the TSA, DARPA, NSA steroid-level spy abilities and all manner of who-knows-what -- I think you can guess.