Ron Howard, Johnny Crawford and giant ducks made the kookiest teen movie of the 1960s
In the 1960s, Hollywood needed just two things to get teenagers in movie theater seats — bikinis and bands. The formula was proven again and again by the beach movie craze, those fluffy party movies like Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, that stuffed teen idols in swimsuits and booked Beatles-ish groups to play throughout the soundtrack. Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon became icons in such movies.
A decade earlier, adolescents would have been lining up at the box office to see sci-fi flicks. B-movies like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Them and 20 Million Miles to Earth used cutting-edge optical tricks to pit giant creatures (ants, aliens, blonde bombshells) against wholesome American towns.
At last, in 1965, one movie would finally have the gumption to throw together all of the above into one drive-in teenage dream. This film would have go-go dancing and giants. Heck, it would have go-go dancing giants. The film featured a hot rock 'n' act, enormous dancing ducks, and fresh, familiar faces from television.
Oh, and it would only have a budget of $750,000. To put that in context, Thunderball, the dazzling James Bond adventure from that same year, worked with a $9,000,000 budget. But the charmingly goofy Village of the Giants was no Thunderball. It was more like Opie vs. The Enormous Toga Teens.
Director Bert I. Gordon, affectionately and appropriately dubbed "Mr. B.I.G.," was one of the filmmakers cranking out monster-movie mayhem in the 1950s. Gordon had helmed special-effects-laden, low-budget spectacles like The Cyclops (1957), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and The Spider (1958). Village of the Giants would fuse his trademark camera trickery to the teen-movie trends of the mid-'60s, with a pinch of Disney here and a dash of youth-gone-wild there.
The movie also cast two beloved young actors from the small screen, who were growing up fast and perhaps looking to shed some of that wholesome Americana image. Ron Howard (billed as "Ronny") and Johnny Crawford charmed audiences on The Andy Griffith Show and The Rifleman, respectively. But in Village of the Giants, Howard and Crawford were a long way from Mayberry and North Fork. The two did, at least, play the good kids, the ones who save the town from the wild, 30-foot teenagers led by Beau Bridges.
At the time, Howard was still working on The Andy Griffith Show, while Crawford was a few years removed from playing Mark McCain, son of Lucas McCain. Crawford, also a singing sensation thanks to puppy-love singles like "Cindy's Birthday" (1962), had hit a significant growth spurt since The Rifleman wrapped. Perhaps that why Village of the Giants had him constantly wearing a cowboy hat. Oh, and his character's name was "Horsey." Just in case you forgot he was from a popular Western.
Howard portrayed a brainiac named, um, "Genius." He spent most of the movie in his home science lab, trying to find a cure for the pink goo (in reality, angel food cake mix and red food coloring) turning animals and teenagers into giants. Genius feels obligated to fix the giant mess — he made the pink goo with his chemistry kit. A loyal, enlarged dog stands by his side, watching on.
Oddly enough, this plot would prove to be somewhat influential. In 1969, Howard guest-starred on an episode of Land of the Giants, playing a young science prodigy who invents a growth formula! Even weirder, the episode was called "Genius at Work." So Irwin Allen must have been a fan of Village of Giants, at least.
Howard was not the only familiar red-headed television star in the film. Orangey the cat, a hard-working feline who "acted" on everything from The Beverly Hillbillies to Mission: Impossible, also grows giant.
Crawford, on the other hand, gets more to do. Like dangle from the bra of an enormous girl. No, really.
He also feasts on a wing from a giant roasted duck. (Perhaps a giant turkey would have been too on the nose.)
Wait, we should probably explain those ducks.
Two white waterfowl are first to gobble up the goo. The six-foot ducks then, naturally, end up in a hip club, where they dance to the swinging music of the Beau Brummels. Oh, did we fail to mention that Village of the Giants is about 24% go-go dancing? Because it is. Girls and guys are constantly swinging their hips to a hot rock rhythm. The Beau Brummels had just dropped their debut album, Introducing The Beau Brummels, and the San Francisco act was tipped, like so many others, as the domestic Beatles. The befuddled looks on their faces, as they watch two behemoth ducks dance to their tune "Woman," are priceless — and perhaps similar to what theater audiences were experiencing as they watched. "Wow, look at those ducks!" a girl in a floral-print minidress proclaims.
This sort of Sixties kitsch is not the only reason to revisit the movie decades later. Toni Basil, the dance pioneer who would go on to pop fame with her 1982 hit "Mickey," landed her first Hollywood gig as a lead choreographer with this film. Speaking of the 1980s, during the film's climax, astute viewers and Gen-X cinephiles will recognize the downtown area of fictional Hainesville, California, the setting for the action. Exactly two decades later, the same city set was used as Hill Valley, the hometown of Marty McFly in Back the Future. When the enlarged, toga-clan Beau Bridges gets into a Goliath-versus-David match with Mike (Tommy Kirk of Disney-movie fame), the battle takes place in front of the same courthouse that Doc Brown must climb to harness the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity from a lightning bolt.
Genius rides his bike into the town square, spewing his antidote gas, and it's hard not to flash to Michael J. Fox skateboarding around the same set in 1985. Yep, both Howard and Fox got started on family sitcoms — and both of them zipped around the same phony studio village in their early breakout big-screen roles.
Okay, sure, so Back to the Future was more of a hit. Well, a blockbuster. An instant classic, really. But whether it's cooler to have the Beau Brummels or Huey Lewis in your movie is up for debate, right?
Watch Village of the Giants this Saturday, January 7, on MeTV in an all-new episode of Svengoolie.