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Godzilla (Blu-ray Review)

23 Jan, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Street 1/24/12
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Takashi Shimura.

Though no one will ever categorize the vintage Toho library holdings as a cache of pristine print sources, the fact is that the new Criterion DVD of 1954’s Gojira (which launched the by now all but eternal “Godzilla” franchise without necessarily intending to) looks and sounds even better than the Blu-ray version of it that Classic Media put out in 2009. So let’s get this not insignificant point established right up front — even if the real fun from this release is in learning about Gojira’s production and its re-editing into the most commercially successful Japanese import that had reached U.S. shores at the time — as, of all possibilities, one of screen history’s stranger Raymond Burr showcases.

This latter and largely English-dubbed version, which became the source of much school playground discussion when I was in the third grade, was titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Directed by the era’s well-known “film doctor” Terry O.  Morse (who was often called upon to reconstruct and save the life of ailing productions), it is included in full here as a bonus feature, which effectively makes this Criterion release a two-fer.

The fun of watching director Ishiro Honda’s original comes in being able to appreciate it as a more solemn (even mournful) Godzilla pic, one that is not quite as sensationalistic as the American re-edit. For one thing, there’s more consideration given to the professional plight faced by the elderly scientist played by the great Takashi Shimura (who, the same year Gojira was released in Japan, was co-starring with Toshiro Mifune in The Seven Samurai). Without underestimating the awakened monster’s threat and plodding ability to level Tokyo and lesser cities, there’s a part of Shimura’s character that would like to go easy with the scaly one and take time to study him for the benefit of science. In the American version, there’s less procrastination: let’s just bust the s.o.b., OK? Both cuts, however, indulge a convention that was pretty much a given in creature features of the day. Respected scientists were almost bound to have comely daughters, as was the case in Them! — which was Hollywood’s own 1954 (giant ant) contribution to what was still a fairly new genre.

On 1950s screens, giant “everythings” almost invariably emanated from mutations brought on by nuclear testing — and, in fact, Gojira was partly inspired by a dreadful real-life episode (also 1954) in which Japanese fishermen were exposed to the aftermath of American H-bomb tests, even though they were outside the detonation zone. The added culprit: errant winds that carried the residue much further than intended to create a nuclear fallout situation something like the one Grant Williams’’ character would later face in 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. Both versions of Godzilla are a little political in that nuclear testing is the culprit, though the U.S. and Soviet Union aren’t really slammed by name.

No one in my grade school group was thinking of politics when the Raymond Burr cut of the picture played our neighborhood Boulevard Theater, right next to the White Castle. The newspaper print ads primed us for mayhem, and we sat dutifully through the opening Western on the bill: Pillars of the Sky, with Jeff Chandler and Dorothy Malone. Even at age eight, we knew that Malone’s stats were far superior to, say, second-division baseball teams — but we wanted gore nonetheless and sat impatiently through these prelims. The payoff finally came when Godzilla basically ate a moving train, which was the best non-Elvis showmanship the entertainment year had to offer until The Ten Commandments came out late in ’56. It did not occur to us that Burr (as a wire service reporter) had been edited as a “commentator” into the picture — or even that there even had been a different version of the same film. But seeing Burr at that point was no special deal: We kids basically knew him as the oddly sympathetic murderer in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and the actor’s “Perry Mason” TV glories were still more than a year away.

The Criterion extras here touch upon the special effects, that ill-fated fishing boat, actor reminiscences and the effective score — plus an interview with film critic Tadao Sato, who notes that when you called Toho Films in those days, someone would answer the phone by plugging Godzilla. Film historian David Kalat offers commentaries for both versions of the film, though the Morse/Burr cut (which he likes and defends) offers more opportunities for voice-over revelry — especially when he notes that the English dubbing was often woefully inconsistent with what Japanese actors were sometimes saying in regard to sequence of events. Kalat persuasively refutes the oft-stated assertion that the effects here are “fakey” (or at least tells us why the miniature work was intended to look the way it does). And he goes off into some amusing by-ways, such as the bogus Hollywood romance between the ’56 Burr (gay) and a Natalie Wood who was half his age  — reportage I remember vividly from the time.

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