When Worlds Collide, Moviegoers Love to Watch
It’s 1910 and the world is in a panic.
Halley’s Comet is on its way, and people are terrified. They buy gas masks to save themselves from poisonous fumes and take anti-comet pills for protection from other bad things. They pray in the streets and seek shelter in caves.
The comet comes – as close as 13.9 million miles from Earth or about one-fifteenth the distance between Earth and the sun – but leaves the Earth safe and untouched. Yet it has a lingering effect.
In 1916, fears are revived by director August Blom in his Danish silent film Verdens Undergang (or The End of the World) where a comet passing too close to Earth brings poisonous smoke, flooding and fire – the same things feared from Halley’s Comet.
Welcome to the birth of the world’s first doomsday movie. Verdens Undergang was a hit.
More than a century later, moviegoers still enjoy the “giant object is getting too close to Earth” doomsday subgenre which includes decades of films and TV movies including The Green Slime (1968), Meteor (1979), Deep Impact (1998) and Moonfall (2022). Most deal with the impending doom by going on the offensive and attacking the incoming object with bombs and rockets, even sending brave citizens into space to meet it head-on.
That’s not what happens in When Worlds Collide (1951), one of my favorites. In that film from visionary producer George Pal, the mission is to build a spaceship – a Noah’s Ark in space – to take a small group of survivors to a new planet, leaving everyone else behind. Don’t blame them – they did try to save the world but weren’t believed until it was too late. And if that sounds familiar, it should. It’s among the disaster film tropes that When Worlds Collide brought to sci-fi movies.
Add the movie’s nifty Oscar-winning special effects and that explains the full house more than 70 years later to watch When Worlds Collide at the Hollywood Legion Theatre/Post 43 in Hollywood during the 14th Turner Classic Movie Film Festival in April of 2023. The audience was enthralled witnessing the mass destruction of Earth by fire and water as a thunderous sound rumbled under foot and the theater doors blew open. This extra movie magic was courtesy of Oscar winners Craig Barron and Ben Burtt who brought 14 additional subwoofers to add special sound effects during a presentation for the film. The audience cheered Burtt’s “Bensurround,” as it was humorously called as a nod to Hollywood’s Sensurround of the 1970s. It was a blast – and so was the movie.
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When Worlds Collide is based on the 1933 sci-fi novel co-written by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. The sequel After Worlds Collide, was written but never adapted into a movie because of Pal’s lack of success with a later project (fickle studios!).
The film opens with a bit of humor as we watch a couple cuddled in the cockpit of a small plane. It’s our intro to brash young pilot David Randall (Richard Derr, a dashing Danny Kaye lookalike). He’s a smooth operator and a great pilot whose world is about to change.
Cut to a laboratory in South Africa where scientist Emery Bronson (played by Hayden Rorke, the first of our familiar faces from his time on I Dream of Jeannie) has discovered the star Bellus is on a collision course with Earth, bringing with it the planet Zyra.
Bronson hires David Randall who thinks he’s going to pilot a delivery, but instead is handcuffed to a briefcase he must hand-deliver to Dr. Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) in New York.
David, who is only in it for the money, is met by Hendron’s daughter, Joyce (played by Barbara Rush) and immediately falls for her. That fact that she’s engaged to the nice Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hansen), doesn’t matter.
Inside the briefcase are photographs and Dr. Bronson’s calculations predicting the collision which Dr. Hendron and his team confirm. In eight months, the planet Zyra will pass perilously close to Earth messing with our gravitational pull and causing all sorts of natural disasters; Bellus follows 19 days later and obliterates the planet.
They present their findings to the United Nations and the government to ask for help (money) to build spaceships in hopes of rebuilding humanity. They are rebuked and laughed at by all but two wealthy humanitarians who offer funds while knowing they will be left behind to die. But it’s not enough to build even one ship, and they are forced to take money from the despicable businessman Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt), in exchange for a seat on the spaceship. It’s clear the entitled business tycoon is going to be a problem, but his money is desperately needed.
So they build. Hundreds of people – mostly students in engineering, agriculture and the like – create the space ark dubbed “Stanton’s folly” in record time. And that’s basically the rest of the film. The workers keep building the ship and doing other “save our civilization” tasks like copying pages of books that will be too heavy to bring along; Stanton grows crankier and more demanding, and the love triangle plays out. (I can’t help but always feel sorry for poor Dr. Drake who is a good man, but no match for the charismatic pilot.)
Time is counted down on a paper calendar – the type where you rip off the days – for the arrival of Zyra and Bellus. On the calendar and elsewhere you’ll see the motto: Waste anything except time … time is our shortest material.
Finally, it’s Z-Day and we witness the reason we’re here: mass destruction. (I apologize for my giddiness.) As Zyra passes earth, it causes tidal waves, fires, flooding, earthquakes (cue those subwoofers) and ruin. Survivors try to help others knowing the end is near. Even romantic rivals David and Tony team up in a helicopter to drop supplies and rescue a little boy from a rooftop. It’s one of the moments that gives the film a dash of hope and humanity as does the subplot of two sweet young-and-in-love workers (played by Rachel Ames and James Congdon). Watch what happens when the lottery numbers are chosen.
Meanwhile, our disagreeable millionaire Stanton warns that those left behind will revolt while Dr. Hendron trusts in the goodness of people. “You spend too much time with the stars. You don’t know anything about living – the law of the jungle – the human jungle,” Stanton says. Sadly, he is right, but the film prefers to focus on the positivity and hope for humanity and that’s what we’re left with by the end.
Now if you think When Worlds Collide is all sci-fi, think about this: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has an asteroid watch dashboard that shows the next five objects passing within 4.6 million miles (7.5 million kilometers) – the danger zone – of Earth. I am creeped out but will try not to think about the reality while enjoying my treasured doomsday movies.
The special effects
Chesley Bonestell was a pioneering and influential painter and designer, credited with inspiring the American space program. In his later years, the work of the “father of modern space art,” was seen in many films including Pal’s Destination Moon, The War of the Worlds and Conquest of Space. For When Worlds Collide, Bonestell designed the space ark, coming up with the idea for it to take off horizontally instead of vertically, and created the pre-production sketches that depicted the destruction when Zyra passed closest to the Earth.
Those sketches were used by Oscar-winning special effects artist Gordon Jennings, who led the Paramount team, for such scenes as the flooding of Times Square. To create it, a scene from a Samuel Goldwyn film was used. They freezed the frame and built a replica in black of the buildings; later dumping water from two tanks. Pal said each frame was rotoscoped and hand-painted mattes were used. The sequence cost $1,800.
In the presentation at the TCM Film Festival, Craig Barron and Ben Burtt discussed these effects, explaining how they were done, sharing rare behind-the-scenes photos, videos and outtakes. They showed a photo of the “rocket operators’ group” – the men who created the space ark in the film – calling them “the unsung heroes of When Worlds Collide.”
In one outtake, the miniature rocket had a bit of a hard time moving up the runway ramp. “There was no chance of CGI then,” Barron said. “This is pioneering stuff, so we will have to forgive a bit of wobble.”
Behind the scenes
For all its great work in special effects, When Worlds Collide had some shortcomings that are often mentioned (but that I forgive).
Though the mass destruction scenes are great, we don’t see the collision promised in the film title, but instead see two small circular images – the Earth and Bellus – move closer on a small screen in the space ark and then there’s fire. Anticlimactic is an understatement.
Another complaint is that the space ark flies over snow-capped mountains and icy terrain on Zyra, yet when the doors open it’s all green and beautiful with an obviously painted backdrop. Although it could have been handled better, it’s not quite as bad as it seems. Look closely at the bottom of the screen in some shots and you’ll see part of the ark has landed on snow and the rest is on grass.
Now that painted backdrop ruins it for many viewers because, well, it looks like a painting. Blame that on the studio.
In the book The Films of George Pal by Gail Morgan Hickman, Pal describes how Paramount made him rush the final days of shooting and scrap his original ending to get the film out for preview and take advantage of the newly announced Oscar for his film Destination Moon. “We wanted to have a miniature for that ending shot, but Paramount was anxious to preview the picture. We had a painting by Chesley Bonestell from which we were going to build a miniature, so we just cut the painting into the picture for the preview,” Pal is quoted as saying.
The preview did so well that Paramount refused to give Pal the time or extra $5,000 needed for the miniature to finish his film. So instead of criticizing what was out of the control of Pal & Company, let’s take a closer look at the picture and allow our imagination go wild. See those pyramids Bonestell painted in the background along with another interesting structure on the left? They are clearly the work of an alien race that did the same thing on Earth. That would have made a great sequel if only the studio allowed.
The familiar faces
You may get a kick out of spotting the large number of character actors in this film. Here are a few.
Rachel Ames as Julie Cummings (she was half of the young couple) and Peter Hansen as Dr. Tony Drake. I’m putting them together for their notable reunion in the 1960s on “General Hospital.” For decades, Hansen played Dr. Lee Baldwin and Ames was Nurse Audrey Hardy on the soap, each earning accolades and awards.
Frank Cady as Harold Ferris. Cady plays the put-upon manservant to the nasty Sydney Stanton. Watching him go bad is a surprise for viewers who know Cady as the comical Sam Drucker on TV shows Petticoat Junction, Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies.
John Hoyt as Sydney Stanton. The former Broadway star was in The Blackboard Jungle, Julius Caesar, Spartacus and Cleopatra, along with many TV appearances.
Larry Keating as Dr. Hendron. He was known for such comedies The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and Mr. Ed, along with the films Monkey Business, Daddy Long Legs and The Mating Season.
Hayden Rorke as Dr. Bronson. Rorke may be the most familiar face, thanks to his long-running role on I Dream of Jeannie. He also had a long and distinguished film career in more than 50 movies including Pillow Talk, Midnight Lace, All That Heavens Allows and The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.