Monday 26 April 2021

Zoning Out - The Hugo cinema of 1962

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

At the 1962 Hugo Award ceremony, held at the Pick-Congress Hotel in Chicago, Illinois on Sunday,
The audience at the 1962 Hugo Award banquet
photo by Ben Jason, via

September 2, the announcement that Twilight Zone had won Best Dramatic Presentation for a third time was greeted with mixed reactions. While many in the audience were fans of the series overall, there were suggestions that the show had declined in quality.

For the third year in a row, Rod Serling was not present to receive his Hugo Award, even though on the night of the ceremony, he was a relatively short drive (about five hours) away in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he was guest lecturing at Antioch College. Lacking even a delegation of Los Angeles-based fans to accept the trophy, Toastmaster Bob Tucker instead handed a chrome rocketship to WSFS business meeting chair Martin Moore, Jr.

This snub of the Hugo Awards was symbolic to some fans, who had often complained that Hollywood didn’t take science fiction seriously. The dissatisfaction with the situation was compounded by questions raised about the eligibility of a series to win the award three years in a row; as the 1960 WSFS business meeting had discussed such a restriction.

The Twilight Zone was still capable of extraordinary highs; The Invaders, which features a solitary
When Twilight Zone is great,
it's great. But there's a reason
people remember The Invaders,
but forget Quality Of Mercy.
(Image via

woman terrorized by tiny aliens, remains a favourite. It's A Good Life, in which a child with god-like powers terrorizes a town, may be the high point of the entire series. But more and more, the writers seemed to have fallen into a rut. Viewers had come to expect a surprise ending, and the writers only aim seemed to be delivering that twist and little else.

Serling's writerly preoccupations had begun to wear thin: nostalgia, aging, the civil war, and the misuse of magic powers. The series got repetitive. In March of 1961, Twilight Zone aired two different episodes that revolved around communicating across time using radio. By the time the dreadful civil war episode The Passerby aired in November, the series had already done at least two previous episodes where the main character was a ghost who didn’t know she was dead.

In retrospect, this is a perplexing shortlist for the Best Dramatic Presentation, with inclusions both interesting and questionable. Despite the fact that it’s a top-tier movie — one that several of us thought should have won the award in 1961 — Village Of The Damned should not have made a repeat appearance on the ballot.

The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon, a television movie faithfully based on Daniel Keyes’ short story Flowers For Algernon, is an interesting choice. By the time the television adaptation aired, the story had achieved rare crossover success, earning the author a Hugo Award, as well as critical acclaim from the New York Times and Time Magazine.

This would be just the first of several dozen dramatic adaptations of the story; the 1969 movie was
Boris Karloff is just delightful as a host
of the NBC series Thriller
(Image via Wikipedia) 

Hugo-nominated, and earned Cliff Robertson (who reprised his role) an Academy Award. Two big-budget stage musicals were later produced, as well as two Japanese film adaptations, and eleven different radio damas. In 1980, Stirling Silliphant was hired to write a sequel called Charlie 2. But The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon was the first of many.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it depicts experiments to increase the intelligence of a person with an intellectual disability. Although the experiments are initially successful, the protagonist Charlie Gordon then has to deal with a slow reversion to his pre-experiment abilities.

Performed live to air, this television production has a remarkable vitality to it. Several of the performances are terrific, including Cliff Robertson, who earned an Emmy nod for his sensitive and nuanced portrayal of the title character.

What is interesting to note is how many differences there are between this early version of the story and later retellings. Of these changes, Keyes would later write in his autobiography that his focus had always been on ensuring that the protagonist was not an object of ridicule, and that the reader perhaps walked away with more respect for persons with intellectual disabilities.

Another interesting shortlisted work is the second season of the television series Thriller. The show had been originally intended to be an NBC crime anthology series that would compete with CBS’ hit show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. For the first several episodes of the first season, the show was largely considered a failure. A slow retooling of the series over several months, which included the addition of supernatural elements, helped it find its niche, with stories by authors like Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, and Henry Kuttner drawing in audiences.

The introductory monologues to these stories are provided by Boris Karloff — making him arguably the first person of Indian descent to be a Hugo finalist. Modern audiences may not recall just how terrific Karloff’s sonorous baritone voice can be, but he delivers these macabre introductions with a perfect mix of glee and charm.

Stephen King has called the resulting show “probably the best horror series ever put on TV,” and we would not disagree. There are several stand-out episodes: The Hungry Glass (featuring a young and shockingly charismatic William Shater) is a perfectly paced ghost story. Pre-Bewitched Elizabeth Montgomery is note-perfect in the Henry-Kuttner penned Masquerade. Pigeons From Hell is the first Robert E. Howard work ever adapted to the screen. The high quality of this season of television is more consistent than the third season of Twilight Zone.
With Aniara honoured at the
1962 Hugo Awards, Harry 
Martinson became the first
person to earn a Nobel Prize
and a Hugo.
(Image via Youtube)

For us, the two works that were clearly head-and-shoulders above all the other Hugo finalists were the first two foreign-language works to be honoured by the World Science Fiction Society: Swedish musical Aniara, and Czech art film Invention For Destruction. Both are extraordinarily inventive, visually dazzling works unlike anything we’ve seen before or since.

Aniara, an opera adapted from an epic poem written by Nobel Prize winner Harry Martinson, was performed in 1960 by the Royal Opera of Stockholm and filmed for Swedish television. Due to the overwhelming response to the story of a spaceship filled with refugees from Earth encountering adversity in their voyage, the BBC broadcast a subtitled version in 1962.

The Worldcon committee determined — largely at the urging of British author Brian Aldiss — to name Aniara a “Hugo Award honourable mention.” As far as we are aware, this is a distinction that has not been repeated for any work since. The haunting music, powerful vocal performances, and surreal set design make this one of the most avant-garde and compelling works ever to be recognized by the Hugo Awards.

But in our opinion, the Hugo should have gone to Invention For Destruction, the artfully odd adaptation of several works of Jules Verne. Released in Czechoslovakia in 1958, and translated into English for a 1961 release, it was an international hit. To this day, it remains the most successful Czech-language movie ever made.
Invention For Destruction sometimes feels like a
Virgil Finlay illustration has come to life.
(Image via

Director Karel Zeman was a passionate fan of the history of cinema and of Jules Verne’s novels, using a combination of live action and animation to bring pulp-magazine-style illustrations to life. The acting is less naturalistic than most modern audiences would be used to, but in combination with the unreal visuals, that acting feels right.

The story — which follows a scientist and his aide who are kidnapped by pirates who want to use the scientist’s work for evil — moves along at a sprightly pace. It’s an enjoyable story that’s relatively well told. But we were often so taken with the imagery that the story became secondary. There were visual effects that we are still astounded by — how could something like this have been made more than 70 years ago? The only modern movie we might compare this to visually is the Hugo winner Spider-Man: Through The Spider-Verse.

But as difficult as it is to win a Hugo Award, it sometimes seems more difficult to stop winning them. By 1962, the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation had been in existence for five years, had been presented four times, and The Twilight Zone had won thrice.

It would be three more years before the Hugo Awards recognized anything else for Dramatic Presentation.

1 comment:

  1. I love Thriller- or specifically the supernatural episodes. As Jo Walton has noted it's hard to compare things that are so dissimilar. Thriller had 37 hour long episodes it's first season. I haven't seen the Zeman+ Bill Warren said it was the best movie in his second volume of Keep Watching the Skies which covered 1957-1962.