Sunday, 25 October 2020

Hugo Cinema Club: The "No Award" of 1959

This blog post is the second in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

At the 1959 Hugo Awards, three movies that are still well-remembered today vied for the title of “Best
(Image via IMDB)

Hollywood Movie.” There was The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, in which Ray Harryhausen crafted the first of his mythology-inspired adventure movies; the influential off-kilter science fiction horror in The Fly (directed by Kurt Neumann); and Christopher Lee redefined the modern vampire in the Hammer Studios version of Dracula. It was an excellent shortlist.

In a decision that looks more and more curious in retrospect, none of these films were honoured, as Hugo voters chose to present no award.

At the time, this was not a controversial choice. In the fanzine Science Fiction Times, Belle C. Dietz describes that the vote to do so was overwhelming. Writing in Fanac, Dick Eney describes people cheering as they learned that no movie would be honoured that year. The long-standing beef that many fans had with how filmmakers outside of fandom had adapted their genre to the screen seems to have been in full force that year.

It’s a shame because each of these movies has a lot of strengths, and each show differing ways in which science fiction and fantasy cinema continued to evolve.

Of the three, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is the most visually compelling, but it’s also clearly the weakest in terms of storytelling and acting. The movie follows Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) as he goes to Colossa Island, fights monsters, and gets involved in a magician’s subterfuge. The plot seems to exist mostly to take the viewer from one special effects sequence to the next, but those sequences are compelling enough to warrant a viewing.

In many ways, it is not a movie that has aged well: There are significant issues of cultural appropriation, of casting lilly-white actors to play Middle-Eastern protagonists, and the reinforcement of unfortunate
As visually impressive as any
movie made in the 1950s,
7th Voyage of Sinbad is
basically still just a kids movie.
 (Image via Classic Film)

cultural stereotypes. But the creature effects and the skeleton fight scene are epic. It pushed special effects forward so much that it was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry.

Modern viewers are probably more familiar with David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake, but the original The Fly also holds up remarkably well. Much like the remake, the 1958 original is a body horror about a man who becomes merged with a fly during an experiment in teleportation.

The narrative framing of having the story told as an extended flashback as police interrogate Hélène does a disservice to the plot. Because of this framing, viewers go into the horror knowing how the story will end, who will survive, and who will not. This unfortunately leeches some of the tension out of an otherwise first-rate science fiction horror.

The pacing of The Fly is terrific, the acting and directing are more naturalistic than was common for films of the era, and the horror of a man slowly losing himself is extremely effective. This would have been a worthy Hugo winner, and was the top pick for at least one of our viewers.
He may not have a clue and he may not have style
But everything he lacks, well, he makes up in denial.
(Image via Avalon Theatre)



But for most of our viewing group, the clear stand-out on the ballot was Dracula. From top-to-bottom, the 1958 version of Dracula has an extraordinary cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, and Melissa Stribling are all note perfect.

Despite making significant changes to the novel, it was still clearly made with care and respect for the original source material. The story may be more confined to a smaller stage, but the broad strokes are all there. And unlike previous almost-chaste adaptations of the novel, the Hammer Horror version oozes with a dark lust. This is the definitive movie version of Dracula, and should have not only won the Hugo Award, but deserved recognition from the Oscars.

All three of these movies received significant praise and commercial success outside of fandom. The 7th
Christopher Lee is the all-time
 definitive movie Dracula.
(Image via Filmschoolrejects.com)

Voyage of Sinbad
earned $6 million at the box office — more than ten times its budget. A contemporaneous review in the London Spectator praised The Fly as ‘serious,’ ‘respectable,’ and ‘ingenious.’ While Motion Picture Daily listed Dracula as one of the all-time best horror films.

Interestingly and likely relevant, 1959 was the first Hugo Awards in which “No Award” was an option, and voters chose to snub all the movies in this category. In explaining why they offered voters that choice, Worldcon publications editor George Young wrote “It was very apparent from the nominations ballots that in some categories there was no particularly outstanding selection. Because of this we have included a choice called “No award in this category.” The option was offered in three categories: Short Story, Best New Author, and Best Movie.

It is an intense shame that voters felt the need to insult these films by declaring that none of them deserved recognition. It is sometimes easier to assess the enduring merit of works with the benefit of hindsight. It seems likely that if there were Retro Hugos for 1959, modern audiences would not select “No Award.”

4 comments:

  1. What I find most curious is the apparent decision made by the committee to sort of put their finger on the scales, by declaring that No Award should be an option in only three specific categories, because "there was no particularly outstanding selection". Doesn't seem to me that that should have been their decision to make! (I do agree that No Award is a useful option, but either apply it to all categories or none.)

    In Short Story, I'll say, I'd have voted for "The Edge of the Sea" or "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed". And "That Hell-Bound Train" is good too. That said, it's not the greatest shortlist ever, but so be it.

    However -- in New Writer. Come on! BRIAN W. ALDISS was nominated! And they had the gall to say he wasn't a "particularly outstanding selection"? For that matter, KIT REED was nominated! And serious, Rosel George Brown and Pauline Ashwell/Paul Ash are pretty decent nominees as well. Note that "No Award" won in that category as well -- a shocking injustice.

    I have little doubt that it was the committee's snippy judgement that influenced voters towards No Award in both the Movie and New Writer categories.

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    Replies
    1. I wholeheartedly agree. The Best New Writer "No Award" in 1959 is one of the all-time low points in Hugo-voting history.

      In terms of short story, "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" would have been my top pick. (I just read the Anton Lee Baker story a few months ago ... and I'm a bit puzzled by its inclusion.)

      In terms of Hugo oddities, did you notice that the previous year at Solacon, they split the Hugo categories into "Bests" and "Outstandings," with a proviso in the rules that the "Outstanding" categories were lesser Hugos?

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    2. I had noticed the "Best" vs. "Outstanding" wording but not picked up on the implication that the "Outstandings" were children of a lesser god, so to speak.

      The whole history of the Hugos is fascinating, and it's really cool that we're learning a lot more about the early history now ...

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  2. Bookmarked the Dracula film for later viewing thanks to your review.

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