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For a nation firmly trapped in the icy grip of the American-Soviet Cold War of the 1950s, The 27th Day (1957) offered audiences a suitably chilling movie experience. Sharing some themes with the better known sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The 27th Day poses a tantalizing end-of-the-world scenario, on a much more modest budget, that played off the fears and prejudices of contemporary Americans, circa 1957.
The 27th Day began life as a novel by Canadian-born writer John Mantley who, after completing service in the Royal Canadian Air Force during WWII, decided to try acting as a career. He may have been influenced by his second cousin, former silent movie superstar Mary Pickford, whose name still commanded huge respect in Hollywood. After working at the famous Pasadena Playhouse and, with other theatrical roles soon under his belt, he turned away from acting to behind-the-camera work in early live television in New York City. After moving to Rome and working in the movie industry there as both a director and a writer, Mantley returned to the U.S. to primarily pursue a writing career. Earlier philosophical discussions with Pickford had given him the idea for his first novel, which he called The 27th Day. Mantley is probably best known for his years behind the helm of the classic TV western series Gunsmoke. He helped revitalize the franchise when it was in a ratings slump after its first decade, and was credited with keeping it on the air during the last ten of its twenty-season run.
The 27th Day is the story of what happens when a representative of a much-advanced alien race comes to Earth and forces its inhabitants to come to grips with possible annihilation, courtesy of a set of capsules which contain the power to kill everyone on the planet. It had some real success as a novel, including being chosen a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. In light of the rising interest in science fiction, unidentified flying objects and American-Soviet relations in the fifties, the novel was quickly optioned by Columbia Pictures. A year earlier the studio had produced the UFO-themed Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and its positive reception made The 27th Day an ideal follow-up. In fact footage from the earlier film would be used in The 27th Day.
Producers for the movie were Lewis Rachmil and Helen Ainsworth. Rachmil had worked in movies since the early 1930s in a variety of capacities, moving from Art Direction to Production Management to Producing, first with B-Westerns and moving upwards; his next-to-last feature credit was 1984's Footloose. Ainsworth, who had started her career as an actress, transitioned into a career as an actor's agent, and is credited with starting the success stories of such personalities as Marilyn Monroe, Rhonda Fleming, Howard Keel, Guy Madison and others. She also dabbled in writing, mostly in the western genre.
Chosen to direct The 27th Day was veteran William Asher, a second-generation show biz kid his mother was an actress, his father a well-known producer who worked extensively for Mack Sennett who began his career producing and directing a low-budget fight picture called Leather Gloves in 1948, then moved into directing live television shows such as The Colgate Comedy Hour which shot Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to stardom. In later years he would direct the original Beach Party (1963) movie and several sequels, and undoubtedly his greatest fame came from his production and direction of the Bewitched TV series starring his then-wife Elizabeth Montgomery.
Production on The 27th Day began in early September of 1956, and filming had finished by the end of the same month. The movie was photographed by the veteran cinematographer Henry Freulich, a long-time Columbia employee who had lensed some of The Three Stooges best shorts, including Punch Drunks (1934), Three Little Pigskins (1934), and Pop Goes the Easel (1935).
Leading man Gene Barry was no stranger to science fiction, having starred in George Pal's classic 1953 film The War of the Worlds, as well as less-known SF title The Atomic City the year before. Barry's primary success and it was huge came for his television role as the suave Bat Masterson in the long-running Western series, and TV would continue to offer Barry continued work in hundreds of appearances.
Another key player in The 27th Day was actor Paul Birch, who is remembered for his role as one of the captured Earth astronauts in 1958's Queen of Outer Space, and in other cult favorites such as The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), Day the World Ended (1955), and Not of This Earth (1957). Arnold Moss played the alien leader who comes to earth; he is no doubt best remembered for his role as murderous tyrant-turned-Shakespearean actor Anton Karidian in an episode of the original Star Trek. English-born beauty Valerie French played Gene Barry's love interest, and the dastardly Russian official was played by Stefan Schnabel, a German-born actor who specialized in European types but later appeared in the soap opera The Guiding Light for over seventeen years.
The 27th Day was released in July of 1957, but soon disappeared into relative obscurity, despite its science fiction hook. Reviewers of today reassessing the film give credit to its almost unparalleled literacy and clearly the film is ripe for rediscovery. Despite its modest production values, The 27th Day is a dandy little science fiction tale completely infused with the inescapable political zeitgeist of the time.
Producer: Helen Ainsworth
Director: William Asher
Screenplay: John Mantley (novel and screenplay); Robert M. Fresco (uncredited)
Cinematography: Henry Freulich
Art Direction: Ross Bellah
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff (uncredited)
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Cast: Gene Barry (Jonathan Clark), Valerie French (Eve Wingate), George Voskovec (Prof. Klaus Bechner), Arnold Moss (The Alien), Stefan Schnabel (The Soviet General), Ralph Clanton (Mr. Ingram), Friedrich von Ledebur (Dr. Karl Neuhaus), Paul Birch (Admiral).
by Lisa Mateas