If I were to ask a classic-era movie fan the ‘truth’ in a Truth or Dare game, my question would be: “Have you ever seen, or have you ever wanted to see, The Giant Claw?” Just imagine the pleasure of watching the blushes, the pauses, the hemming and hawings, before the answer came haltingly forth, to the merriment of the rest of us.
(And if you answered “No,” I wouldn’t believe you…)
And why would I ask such a question? Because The Giant Claw is notorious, even for schlock-movie geeks like myself, and of course I’ve seen it—I’ll admit, I was even curious to see it. The 1957 film is infamous for its title character: a giant bird, “as big as a battleship,” terrorizing helpless earthlings as it snatches people, airplanes, livestock, and the occasional train for a light snack. It also makes an awful cawing noise, like an electronic parrot with the volume switch stuck on high. And it lays an egg. You could say the same of the movie, which to no end mortified its lead actors, who later claimed in interviews they had no idea what the monster bird would look like. Apparently all their onscreen reactions of terror and dismay was strictly acting, imaginative projections of what they thought a Feathered Horror should be. Only to attend the premiere and see this onscreen:
Yes, that’s Mr. Giant Claw, or Claw, if I may be so informal, an escapee, we’re told, from some “godforsaken anti-matter galaxy” (don’t ask), who looks as if he’s been assembled from unwashed laundry left under the sink. Maybe he is the “Flying Beast Out of Prehistoric Skies!”, as the ads proclaimed, but I’ve a suspicion he’s really the seedy, low-rent cousin of Sesame Street’s Big Bird; someone who keeps the avian equivalent of fermented applejack tucked in his back feathers when not swigging it behind the bird feeder.
First seen zooming past the camera like a giant dust bunny in a hurry—
—Claw moves on to chasing aircraft (snapping up their escaping parachutists with an audible crunch), busting buildings such as the Empire State (no doubt a steal from King Kong), and terrifying a French-Canadian citizen, who claims Claw is actually la Carcagne, a mythological creature he describes as having “the face of the wolf and the body of the woman!”—
—I don’t think so.
Yet this cross between an animated feather duster and a vacuum cleaner nozzle has the President, the National Defense Board, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff huddled in emergency sessions while the military sends up its best and brightest to combat its beaky terror. “Bullets, rockets, nothing touches it!” radios one ace Air Force pilot, before his plane is scarfed down for breakfast on the fly. Even the generals are baffled, with one bemedaled officer bemoaning “Machine guns, cannons, rockets, nothing touched it!” The old boy just can’t get over the shock of an untouchable fowl, exclaiming, in existential angst, that “it doesn’t make sense—it’s just a bird, a big bird—guns, cannons, rockets, it’s just a bird!”
Ah, if only it were ‘just’ a bird. I could at least preserve my self-respect. As Hitchcock would later show us, our fierce little pinioned pals, whether rocketed, gunned, or cannoned, could easily reduce the world to what this film’s portentous narrator calls a “fantastic orgy of destruction.” But not here, folks. Nope, nothing so dignified. Instead, we’re basically done in by what amounts to a balding turkey puppet with attitude.
I don’t know about you, but I’m embarrassed.
I’ll give the film’s producer, the prolific Sam Katzman, the benefit of the doubt, that he wasn’t setting out deliberately to make a turkey but was himself done in by a low budget. Still, I wonder. Katzman had a history of sub-basement-level productions, the kind where corners aren’t so much cut as lopped off without mercy. His roster included such gems as the Jungle Jim cheapies, the East Side comedies, and the famous “Monogram Nine,” a series of Grade-D horror flicks that starred Bela Lugosi in his last gasp at glory (I wrote about one of them, the amazing Voodoo Man, here). Katzman did produce the pretty good Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, which had the virtue of some terrific stop-motion animation by the great Ray Harryhausen. Supposedly The Giant Claw was to receive similar treatment, only the funds weren’t there, and Katzman had to outsource his floppy fiend. Which resulted, per the film’s star Jeff Morrow, in audiences shrieking in laughter instead of fright.
OK, so like those audiences, I’m laughing at Claw. Like, really laughing, the almost piss-in-your-pants kind. But I’ll tell another truth here, which is—I’ve become rather fond of my bird monster. Yeah, I know, he looks like a flying mop with mange; but he grows on you. That’s what happens when you watch giant movie monsters; by film’s end you actually start to root for these guys. I think it’s a case of projecting one’s own feelings onto a mash-up of rubber, putty, and fur. You anthropomorphize them, the way one does with toys or dolls or stuffed animals. After a bit, Claw started to look friendly to me, even kinda cute, as with the faces of ugly dogs—a belle-laide sort of thing, n’est-ce-pas? Maybe I’m stretching it with Claw, but that’s often the way with dumb, falling-apart toys; familiarity breeds an affectionate contempt. I found I didn’t want him (or her, peut-être?) shot up by the end. Couldn’t we have just kept him in a cage and fed him a cracker? You know, like a pet?
Well, being that it’s near Turkey Day, when the president follows that fine old tradition of forgiving the White House gobbler, I’m also gonna absolve old Claw of his turkey-ness. Not every ugly duckling can turn into a swan, and not every turkey-fied monster deserves his bad rap. Meaning I’m giving Claw a break. And as I tuck into my cranberry sauce and stuffing this Thursday, I’ll be sure to raise a toast to this turkey, and to all those other clay pigeons who make us laugh in the fine old tradition of schlock cinema.
So, here’s to Claw and all his cinematic ilk — Long may they, er, flap—
Bonus Clip: The shocking trailer for The Giant Claw, in which Sam Katzman dares to leave nothing to the imagination. “Panic from Broadway to Bombay!”:
Play Truth or Dare for your holiday! Watch The Giant Claw movie here!