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Jack Arnold Profile

Jack Arnold was born Jack Arnold Waks on October 14, 1912, in New Haven, Connecticut. The son of Russian immigrants who ran the concession counter for a local cinema, Arnold grew up with a love of science fiction novels. With the birth of a daughter, Arnold's parents relocated the family to New York City, where Arnold's father had some success as a stockbroker. Though they intended for their only son a professional career in law or medicine, Jack Arnold harbored an interest in the arts, particularly live theater. Cadging free tap dance lessons from his younger sister, Arnold also indulged in an amateur vaudeville act with a friend and competed in local talent contests without success. With the crash of the stock market in October 1929, and a downturn in family fortunes, Arnold took a risk on an audition with the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, headquartered in the basement of Carnegie Hall. A successful audition granted Arnold entre into the program, where his classmates were future stage and film actors Hume Cronyn, Martin Gable, and Betty Field.

After making his professional stage debut in New Jersey, Arnold was cast in his first Broadway play, a 1933 English language adaptation of Israel Joshua Singer's Yiddish novel Yoshe Kalb. Though the production closed after four performances, Arnold proved himself a Broadway perennial, useful as young male leads and in utility parts. He was trucked in by George Abbott to replace his fellow American Academy of Dramatic Arts alum Garson Kanin for the comedy Three Men on a Horse, which traveled to London's West End after a year on the Great White Way. While in Great Britain, Arnold made his feature film debut with a bit part in an Edgar Wallace mystery before returning stateside in 1936. While working in theatre both on stage and behind the scenes, Arnold began to experiment with amateur filmmaking, shooting performances of stage plays with a 16mm camera over the course of several performances, editing the footage into a highlight reel of the production, and selling the product to his fellow actors at a sizeable profit.

With America's entry into World War II, Arnold enlisted in the Air Corps and trained for a time with documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty, who turned the avid camera buff into a proper cameraman. During his military service with what became known as the United States Air Force, Arnold was sent to Great Britain, where he was a member of a D17 squadron. After his discharge from the Air Force, Arnold partnered with a fellow serviceman in the establishment of a documentary film production company, whose clients included the State Department, the Ford Motor Company, and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Arnold's With These Hands (1950), which condensed fifty years of union gains into as many minutes (and featured the talents of such Broadway actors as Sam Levene, Arlene Francis, Joseph Wiseman, Alexander Scourby, and Arnold himself as a Communist agitator), was nominated for a 1951 Academy award for Best Documentary and brought the fledgling feature film director to the attention of Hollywood. Universal-International Pictures offered Arnold a contract and put him to work on the juvenile delinquency drama Night Flowers, which underwent a last minute title change to Girls in the Night (1953).

Earning a reputation as an efficiency director able to bring in a film at budget and on schedule, Arnold was put to work banging out every sort of film, from crime thrillers (The Glass Web, 1953) and westerns (The Man from Bitter Ridge, 1955) to melodramas (The Tattered Dress, 1957) and love stories (The Lady Takes a Flyer, 1958). Though his dedication to efficiency precluded him from establishing a recognizable visual style, Arnold is best remembered for helming a series of science fiction films for Universal-International. The first of these was It Came from Outer Space (1953), an alien invasion tale based on an original story by Ray Bradbury and planned as a 3D release to compete with Warner Brothers' profitable eye-popper House of Wax (1953). Shot in arid Palmdale, California, and the adjacent Mojave Desert, It Came from Outer Space married the sober thoughtfulness of Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to the pulp ebullience of Christian Nyby's The Thing from Another World (1951), resulting in a bona fide crowd pleaser that tickled the critics to boot.

Relying on his boyhood knowledge of science fiction, Arnold persuaded Universal-International executives that he was the man to oversee the studio's slate of proposed genre offerings. He followed It Came from Outer Space with the 3D Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), whose aquatic antihero was a reptilian "gill man" believed to be the missing link. Arnold worked closely with producer William Alland to craft a thrilling science fiction adventure tale that balanced the derring-do of scientists Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, and Whit Bissell against a bogey who proved as sympathetic as he was fearsome - and as wholly original as Boris Karloff's Frankenstein monster. The film was another hit for U-I and a quickie sequel was ordered. Revenge of the Creature (1955) was another popular favorite, although John Agar seemed a second string substitute for Richard Carlson and first time director of photography Scotty Welbourne's camerawork lacked the eerie beauty that veteran cinematographer William E. Snyder had brought to the original. Revenge of the Creature is most often cited for providing Clint Eastwood with his first speaking role.

Arnold's deft touch was also apparent in Tarantula (1955), a surprisingly meditative monster-on-the-loose romp in which a giant arachnid terrorizes a desert community. John Agar and Mara Corday were the straight arrow protagonists, an atomic age Adam and Eve whose conformist canoodling represented a natural order perverted by bachelor scientist Leo G. Carroll's bid to boost the world's food supply by super-sizing its lower forms. Size mattered big time in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Richard Matheson's deceptively satirical but no less heartfelt tale of an average American Joe (Grant Williams) whose rapidly diminishing stature in Eisenhower America requires him to literally sweat the small stuff. Arnold capped his sci-fi cycle for U-I with the Jekyll and Hyde variation Monster on the Campus (1958) and the interstellar parable The Space Children (1958), while also turning his hand to four episodes of Ivan Tors' Science Fiction Theater, a weekly anthology series that ran in syndication from 1955 until 1957.

Arnold spent the balance of his career in the lucrative sausage factory of television, bringing his trademark efficiency to such popular series as Peter Gunn, Dr. Kildare, Rawhide (which reunited him with Clint Eastwood), and Gilligan's Island, while winning an Emmy for directing a 1966 comedy special starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. His infrequent forays into features included The Mouse That Roared (1959), featuring Peter Sellers in multiple roles, and the blaxploitation programmers Black Eye (1974) and Boss Nigger (1975) starring Fred Williamson. Arnold's final directorial credit was a 1984 episode of The Love Boat but the following year he contributed a cameo to John Landis' Into the Night (1985). Landis agreed to executive produce an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World as a feature length comeback for Arnold, which sadly stalled in preproduction due to budgeting concerns. Plagued by arteriosclerosis, Jack Arnold died in Woodland Hills, California, on March 17, 1992.

By Richard Harland Smith

Directed by Jack Arnold by Dana M. Reemes (McFarland & Company, 2012)
The Horror People by John Brosnan (St. Martin's Press, 1976)

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