Move over Keanu, it’s GAY PURR-EE (Warner Brothers 1962)

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Where else can you see Parisian pussycats dancing the Can-Can at the Mewlon Rouge but in GAY PURR-EE? This animated musical feature from UPA Studios was a bit more adult themed than it’s Disney counterparts, at least by 1962 standards. It’s the story of Mewsette, a country cat in 1890’s Provincial France who dreams of living the life of a big city kitty in Paris. One day she decides to chuck it all and hops on her mistress’s sister’s coach to head for the City of Lights. Her boyfriend, the mouse-catching Jaune-Tom, and his amusing little pal Robespierre, set out to find her and rescue her from the clutches of the scoundrel Meowrice, who together with Madame Rubens-Chatte plan to train Mewsette in the ways of the world and sell her off to a fat American cat.

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The vocal stars of GAY PURR-EE are Robert Goulet, fresh off his Broadway success in CAMELOT, and the one-and-only Judy Garland. Judy’s film career had been at a standstill since the box office failure of 1954’s A STAR IS BORN (now considered a classic), and she owed big bucks to the IRS. But her singing career was still going strong, and getting Garland to do an animated film was considered quite a coup. Judy had only one demand, though: she had the filmmakers hire Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg to write the songs, the duo responsible for the tunes in Garland’s greatest hit, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and her signature song “Over The Rainbow”.

Arlen and Harburg didn’t disappoint. The songs in GAY PURR-EE are Broadway quality, and Judy adds her own inimitable style to “Little Drops of Rain”, “Take My Hand, Paree”, and “Paris is a Lonely Town”. Goulet gets to show off his baritone on “Mewsette”, and even voice actor extraordinaire Paul Frees (Meowrice) sings two humorous tunes, “The Money Cat” and “The Horse Won’t Talk”.

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Red Buttons can be a bit annoying as comic relief cat Robespierre, but he’s there mainly for the kiddies (no, not kitties!). Hermione Gingold lends her unique voice to Madame Rubens-Chatte, and Man of 1000 Voices Mel Blanc shows up as a burly bulldog. Morey Amsterdam is the narrator, and a man on a ship shanghaied along with Jaune-Tom and Robespierre. Special shout-out to The Shadow Cats, Meowrice’s silent henchmen. Delineated all in black, with shifty yellow eyes, these bungling criminal cats add an amusing dimension to the nefarious doings of Meowrice.

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The movie is done in limited-animation style, colored in a gorgeous pastel palette. One scene that stands out is in the film’s middle, with Meowrice writing to American groom-to-be Mr. Henry Phtt about Mewsette’s progress. A series of portraits of the feline fatale are shown in the styles of painters Cezanne, Gauguin, Monet, Picasso, Renoir, Rousseau, and Toulouse-Lautrec, among others. The visuals here are outstanding, and the colors pop with vibrancy.

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Director Abe Levitow got his start working under Warner’s cartoon king Chuck Jones, and their styles are very similar. Jones himself wrote the screenplay with his wife Dorothy, and when Warner found out afterwards, they promptly fired him for breeching his exclusive contract with the studio. Chuck bounced back quicker than Wile E. Coyote, moving to MGM to take over their TOM AND JERRY shorts, with the TV classic HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS soon on the horizon.

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GAY PURR-EE is fun for film fans, an interesting experiment in animation that’s not quite a classic, but still very watchable today. The visuals are lovely to look at, the vocal talents delightful, and we get to hear Judy sing some wonderful Arlen and Harburg songs one more time. I’d give it two paws up!

Pounded to Death by Gorillas: HIS KIND OF WOMAN (RKO 1951)

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People don’t go to the movies to see how miserable the world is; they go there to eat popcorn, be happy“- Wynton (Jim Backus) in HIS KIND OF WOMAN

Right you are, Mr. Howell, err Backus. There’s an abundance of fun to be had in HIS KIND OF WOMAN, the quintessential RKO/Robert Mitchum movie. Big Bob costars with sexy Jane Russell in a convoluted tale that’s part film noir, part Monty Python, with an outstanding all-star cast led by Vincent Price serving up big slices of ham as a self-obsessed movie star. And the backstory behind HIS KIND OF WOMAN is as entertaining as the picture itself!

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But we’ll go behind the scenes later. First, let’s look at the movie’s plot. We meet down on his luck gambler Dan Milner (Mitchum) in a bar…. drinking milk! Dan just got done doing a 30 day stretch in a Palm Springs jail “for nothin'” (an in-joke reference to Mitchum’s 1948 pot bust ). He returns to his apartment only to be greeted by three goons, who promptly beat the crap out of him. He’s made an offer he can’t refuse to clear his debt: accept $50,000 and move to Mexico for a year, no questions asked. Dan’s no dummy; he takes the offer.

What he doesn’t know is that deported vice lord and “upper crust crumb” Nick Ferraro (bulky Raymond Burr) plans to hijack Dan’s identity and return to the states. While Dan waits for his plane at a crummy cantina, he meets songbird Leonore Brent (Russell):

The heat is on between Dan and Leonore, and their sexually charged banter crackles throughout the film. Leonore is heading to the same place as Dan: Morro’s Lodge, a swanky hotspot for the idle rich. It’s here we meet our cast of characters, none of whom are what they seem. There’s Morro (Phillip Van Zandt), who’s comfortable on both sides of the fence,  Krafft (John Mylong) a chess playing writer with a past, Wynton (Backus) a cheery sort who likes to play cards and hustle young women, and Thompson (Charles McGraw ), who’s mixed up in Dan’s deal.

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Then there’s Hollywood actor Mark Cardigan, played by the one and only Vincent Price, and he’s a hoot. Price has a field day as the vain blowhard in the Errol Flynn mold (when his latest swashbuckler is screened, a wag says, “It has a message no pigeon would carry”). His Cardigan has a thing going on with Leonore, that is until his wife (Marjorie Reynolds) shows up to put a halt to it. Whether spouting Shakespeare or rousing up a rescue party, Price shamelessly steals every scene he’s in. It’s probably his best non-horror role, and he plays it up for all he’s worth.

Back to the story: Dan’s biding his time, waiting to get paid off, while Krafft and Thompson are always lurking in the background. A hurricane is brewing, and a drunken pilot (Tim Holt) barrels through it. But he’s not really a lush, he’s Federal agent Lusk, and he spills the beans to Dan about Ferraro’s scheme to make a patsy out of Dan. Lusk is killed by Thompson, Dan’s kidnapped by Ferraro’s goons, and taken to the gangster’s yacht to await certain doom.  Macho man Cardigan leads the Mexican police on a raid, and a battle ensues. Dan finally breaks free in time to save Cardigan from Ferraro, and the good guys are victorious! Dan and Leonore get together at last and have the final say in a memorably STEAMY ending!

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That ending wasn’t the one concocted by credited writers Frank Fenton and Jack Leonard and director John Farrow. They weren’t even involved in it. RKO studio boss Howard Hughes wasn’t satisfied with the conclusion, feeling it wasn’t exciting enough. Hughes hired director Richard Fleischer and writer Earl Fenton, who’d just wrapped up filming on another RKO noir, THE NARROW MARGIN. The three brainstormed a new ending, building a replica of Ferraro’s yacht inside the studio’s water tank for the added action. This put the film way behind schedule, but there was more to come. When Hughes viewed the footage, he decided the actor playing Ferraro (Robert J. Wilke, later Captain Nemo’s first mate in Fleischer’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA ) wasn’t appropriately menacing enough. Recalling seeing Raymond Burr in another film, Hughes recast the role, and Fleischer had to reshoot all the scenes featuring Ferraro!

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Hopelessly over budget due to Hughes’ tinkering, HIS KIND OF WOMAN lost money at the box office. Today aficionados see it as a camp classic, a romp through film noir territory unlike any other of its day. Mitchum and Russell make an attractive screen team, Price is a riot, and the rest of the cast is more than up to par. Familiar Face spotters will want to keep their eyes peeled for Tol Avery, Danny Borzage, Anthony Caruso, Robert Cornthwaite, King Donovan, Paul Frees, and Carlton Young, not to mention a very young Mamie Van Doren. There’s no other film in the noir canon quite like HIS KIND OF WOMAN, so put it on your must-watch list today.

I Wish I Were A Fish: Don Knotts in THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET (Warner Brothers 1964)

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Don Knotts’ popularity as Deputy Barney Fife on TV’s THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW led to his first starring feature role in THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET. Knotts plays milquetoast Henry Limpet, a hen-pecked hubby and military 4-F who longs to be a fish and magically gets his wish. This Disneyesque fantasy-comedy benefits greatly from Knotts’ vocal talents and the animation of “Looney Tunes” vet Robert McKimson. In fact, the whole film would’ve been better off as a complete cartoon, because the live-action segments directed by Arthur Lubin distract from the aquatic antics of Limpet as an animated fish.

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Lubin was a former Universal contract director noted for five Abbott & Costello films (including their first, BUCK PRIVATES), the Francis the Talking Mule series, and TV’s MR. ED. You’d expect lots of slapstick with a resume like that, but no such luck. Instead, Knotts is put through some domestic paces with shrewish wife Carole Cook and obnoxious best bud Jack Weston. No wonder he was happier as a fish!

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THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET comes to life when the animation takes over. Robert McKimson was a stalwart of the Warner Bros. cartoon factory, creating among others Foghorn Leghorn, The Tasmanian Devil, Speedy Gonzalez, and Hippity Hopper (the boxing kangaroo). The fish Limpet meets a new friend, Crusty the hermit crab (voiced by the ubiquitous Paul Frees) and a lady fish named Ladyfish (Elizabeth MacRae, no stranger to Mayberry herself. She was Gomer’s girlfriend LouAnn Poovie on GOMER PYLE USMC). Limpet develops a sonic roar dubbed “thrum”, and uses it to help the U.S. Navy combat Nazi subs. Soon Limpet is given a Lieutenant’s commission, much to the chagrin of Captain Harlock (Andrew Duggan) and Admiral Spewter (Larry Keating).

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The live action/animation scenes are well done, and there are some forgettable songs thrown in by Sammy Fain and Harold Adamson. On the whole it’s an enjoyable if inconsequential film for kiddies and family viewing. Don Knotts went on to do a series of 60’s family comedies, like THE GHOST & MR. CHICKEN, THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT, and THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST. He eventually went to Disney for films such as THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG and HERBIE GOES TO MONTE CARLO. Returning to TV as wanna-be playboy Ralph Furley in the 70’s “jiggle” sitcom THREE’S COMPANY,  Knotts is best known to modern audiences as the cable repairman in PLEASANTVILLE. But his movie career never did take off the way he wanted it. Don Knotts will always be Barney Fife to his fans from now til eternity, and that’s not such a bad way to be remembered. THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET will bring a few smiles to you though , and is worth a look for the animation artistry of Robert McKimson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If Ed Wood Directed STAR WARS…

…it’d probably look a lot like HARDWARE WARS, the 1978 short spoof by Ernie Fosselius. Set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyrie”, this trailer-styled parody features Mad Magazine type character names like Princess Anne Droid, Augie Ben Dogie, Ham Salad, and 4Q2. Narrated by none other than Paul Frees, even George Lucas is said to like it! “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss three bucks goodbye” but mostly you’ll laugh at the hilarious HARDWARE WARS:

 

Happy Birthday Frank Sinatra: SUDDENLY (United Artists 1954)

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Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. The Chairman of the Board certainly had a long and varied career, beginning as a bobby-sox teen idol in the Big Band Era, then a movie star at glamorous MGM.  Hitting a slump in the early 50s, Sinatra came back strong with his Academy Award winning role as Maggio in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. His follow up film was the unheralded but effective noir thriller SUDDENLY.

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The title refers to the sleepy little California town where the film takes place. Suddenly was once a wild and wooly Gold Rush settlement, now just a peaceful suburb. Sheriff Todd Shaw (Sterling Hayden) is a stand-up guy, in love with local girl Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates), a war widow with a son, Pidge (Kim Charney). Ellen’s not ready to stop grieving her husband’s death, and to further matters she abhors guns. Her father-in-law Pop (James Gleason), a retired Secret Service agent, gets exasperated at the way Ellen overprotects Pidge and keeps turning Todd away.

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Todd receives some major news through the wires: The President of the United States will be arriving by train at 5:00pm for a stopover. The news is top secret, and Secret Service agents, led by Carney (Willis Bouchey), descend on Suddenly to secure the area. State police are summoned, streets blocked off, and shops are closed so the disembarkment will go off without a hitch. Three men arrive at the Benson home, which sits on a hill overlooking the train depot. John Baron (Sinatra) and two others (Paul Frees, Christopher Dark) claim to be FBI agents sent to protect the president. They set up shop at the Benson house, but Pop has some suspicions about the whole thing.

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Everything’s been secured except the house on the hill. When Carney finds out his old boss Pop Benson lives there, he goes up with Todd to say hello. They’re met at the door by Baron and his men, who gun down Carney and wound Todd. The truth is now revealed: Baron is a hit man assigned to assassinate the president! Todd and the Bensons are held captive while they wait for the train to arrive so ex-Army sniper and Silver Star winner Baron can do the dirty deed. Baron exerts his will over them all by threatening to kill Pidge first if anyone tries to stop him from his murderous task.

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The tension is unrelenting in SUDDENLY, and the ingenious ending will have you cheering the good guys on (I know I did). The role of John Baron is a total departure for Sinatra, and he pulls it off superbly. Baron is cool, calm, and collected one minute, a raging psycho the next. He’s completely lacking in empathy, his motto is “ace, deuce, craps, it don’t matter”. The only thing Baron’s ever been good at is killing, and he enjoys the power it gives him. A sociopath with no redeeming qualities, Baron brags about his kill rate in the war, and doesn’t hesitate to use violence to get his way. Sinatra nails the role of Baron like he did his many songs, and though he’s a real rat, it’s among his finest performances.

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Director Lewis Allen does a good job here. Allen made his feature debut with 1944’s ghostly THE UNINVITED, followed by a semi-sequel, THE UNSEEN. After making the 1951 bomb of a biopic VALENTINO, his career was up and down. SUDDENLY gives Allen a good showcase, but the rest of his filmography is uninspired. He ended in TV, including episodes of MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE and THE INVADERS. Screenwriter Richard Sale got his start in the pulps, and wrote such varied film fare as MR. BELVEDERE GOES TO COLLEGE, GENTLEMEN MARRY BRUNETTES (which he also directed), and the Charles Bronson starrer THE WHITE BUFFALO. His screenplay for SUDDENLY seems to have inspired another Sinatra film, 1962’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, with Frank as the hero and Lawrence Harvey the psycho-shooter. SUDDENLY was allegedly remade in 2013 by Uwe Boll. I’ve never seen any of Boll’s films and from what I understand, I’m not missing anything. I’ll stick to the original with this one.

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Frank Sinatra was always a saloon singer at heart, and my contribution to his 100th birthday bash wouldn’t be complete without a song. Here’s Ol’ Blue Eyes at his mid-60s peak doing one of my personal favorites. “That’s Life”. Cheers, Frankie!

 

Keep Watching The Skies!: THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (RKO 1951)

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UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) were making headlines during the late 1940s/early 1950s. The sightings of UFOs in 1947 near Mt.Rainier, Washington, and Roswell, New Mexico brought about a government investigation called Project Sign, later replaced by Project Blue Book. Reports of “flying saucers” were coming in from around the globe, and no answers were in sight. Citizen’s nerves were already frazzled with the threats of “The Red Menace” and potential nuclear holocaust,  and the possibility of an invasion from outer space just added to the collective existential angst.

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Hollywood discarded its Old World horrors of Vampires, werewolves, and mummies and boarded the science fiction rocket ship. By 1951 a slew of space invaders was unleashed on box offices across the nation. That year alone studios released features THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, FLIGHT TO MARS, SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN, The Man from Planet X , and the serials LOST PLANET AIRMEN and CAPTAIN VIDEO: MASTER OF THE STRATSOSPHERE. But the film that stands out as most frightening is Howard Hawks’ production of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD.

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At an Air Force outpost in Alaska, Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his crew are sent to investigate a report by Polar Expedition 6 of a mysterious craft landing 48 miles east of their encampment. They fly out to the frigid wasteland, nothing but snow and cold for miles around them and, accompanied by lead scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwait) and his fellow researchers, find a large object embedded in the ice. It’s metal is of unknown origin, radioactivity emits from it, and it’s perfectly round shape lead them to one conclusion…they’ve stumbled upon a flying saucer. Their attempt to thaw it out using a thermite bomb destroys the ship, but not it’s occupant, an eight-foot humanoid encased in ice. The crew bring the body back to examine and discover it’s still alive.

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‘The Thing’ escapes after being thawed, killing some sled dogs but losing an arm in the process. The scientists run tests and believe it’s a highly evolved species of vegetable, with the intelligence of a human. The arm on the examination table moves, and the scientists conclude ‘The Thing’ has fed on the dog’s blood, rejuvenating it. Carrington and his cohorts want to capture and communicate with it, but Hendry and his men seek to destroy it. When the alien visitor kills two scientists, hanging them upside down to drain their blood for nourishment, all but Carrington agree ‘The Thing’ must be stopped for the sake of humankind.

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The ensemble cast isn’t made up of stars, just competent actors who give fine, realistic performances despite the fantastic nature of the script by Charles Lederer (based on the short story “Who Goes There?” by sci-fi author John W. Campbell). Tobey is perhaps the best known, gaining some fame in the syndicated 50s TV show THE WHIRLYBIRDS. Margaret Sheridan represents the love interest as Nikki. Her brief film career includes playing Mike Hammer’s secretary Velda in 1953’s I, THE JURY. Other familiar faces are Dewey Martin, Eduard Franz, Ben Frommer, George Fenneman (Groucho’s sidekick on YOU BET YOUR LIFE), and voice actor Paul Frees in a rare onscreen role. And we can’t forget about ‘The Thing’ himself. If you’re reading this, you probably know it’s James Arness, brother of Peter Graves, and star of the long-running TV Western GUNSMOKE. Yep pardner, that’s Marshall Matt Dillon himself playing the bloodthirsty alien under all that makeup in one of his earliest roles.

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Christian Nyby is credited as THE THING’s director, but rumors abound that Hawks really called the shots. It’s never been proven or disproven, but there are so many Hawksian  touches in the film it’s hard to believe he didn’t direct it. Nyby was editor on four Hawks films before taking this assignment. All I can say is Howard Hawks was one of the most distinguished directors in Hollywood, responsible for classics like SCARFACE, BRINGING UP BABY, HIS GIRL FRIDAY, SERGEANT YORK, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP, and RIO BRAVO (which has a lot in common with THE THING). Christian Nyby had a mostly undistinguished career as a television director, with only four other features to his credit. I have my opinion; you can watch and judge for yourself.

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TEH THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD inspired a remake in 1982 by John Carpenter, an admitted devotee of Hawks. The remake is excellent, but I prefer the original. The black and white cinematography by Russell Harlen makes the frozen North seem so much colder, adding to the feeling of isolation and fear. It’s a true classic of sci-fi, and movies in general. And remember, “Keep watching the skies!”

Halloween Havoc!: EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS (Columbia 1956)

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UFOs have been spotted across the globe. Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife Carol (Joan Taylor) are on their way to the secret headquarters of Operation Skyhook when they’re strafed by a saucer! They tell Carol’s dad, General Hanley (Morris Ankrum) what occurred. The General in turn reports all the satellities they’ve sent up have been destroyed by mysterious forces. When Marvin and his crew send up the next one, the base is attacked by saucers, and the rocket launch incapacitated. Soon General Hanley is captured by the aliens, and Marvin learns to communicate with them. The alien’s intent: destroy Planet Earth! Our weapons are useless against their superior technology! CAN EARTH BE SAVED FROM THE FLYING SAUCER INVASION?!?!

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If you’re a fan of 50s sci-fi, you already know the answer. And if you’re a fan of Sam Katzman movies, you know it’ll be chock full of stock footage and made on a miniscule budget. The saving grace of EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS is the special effects wizardry of Ray Harryhausen. Ray gives us alien spacecrafts instead of the usual giant monsters in this one, and they look fantastic. It’s fun to see Harryhausen’s saucers blowing up famous Washington landmarks (including the Capital building…beware, Congress!).

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Director Fred F. Sears keeps the movie moving along at a brisk clip, so you almost don’t notice the budgetary limitations. Well, almost. The cast perform their parts fine. Movies like EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS aren’t about the acting anyway, it’s all about the space aliens and their weapons of mass destruction. There are two cast members I’d like to single out, though. These guys don’t appear in the film, but you’ll recognize their voices. William Woodson narrates the movie, and if the name doesn’t ring a bell, the voice certainly will. He made a career out of narrating films and TV shows, most notably the 60s series THE INVADERS and the first season of THE ODD COUPLE. The other gentleman portraying the disembodied voice of the alien is Paul Frees. If I took the time to cite even half his credits we’d be here all day, so I’ll just tell you he’s most famous as the voice of Boris Badenov, arch-enemy of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and his pal, Bullwinkle J. Moose! If you want more info, all you’ve got to do is Google.

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EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS is the type of movie where you can just shut your brain off and enjoy. You’ve seen it all before, and you know the good ol’ USA will emerge triumphant. The fun is in getting there, and you’ll enjoy the trip watching EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS. So pop some corn, put your feet up, and get ready to be entertained!