The amazing effects of recent films like Downsizing and Ant Man &The Wasp, show how far Hollywood has come in making a convincing reality that is grounded in science fiction. Where the MCU Ant Man films have brought the idea of shrinking into modern pop culture and Downsizing gave us a new vantage point to view our culture and how mankind has mistreated the planet we call home, they were not the first films to deal with making people little.
Some of their predecessors were full on fantasy films, while others were the predictable mad scientist tale of power and control. There were even a few that were written and intended to be funny (and many that were unintentionally funny).
Here is a brief look at the history of shrinking in the cinema up through the 1950s.
The Devil Doll (1936)
A cross dressing Lionel Barrymore stars in this horror film directed by Tod Browning (1931’s Dracula). After being falsely imprisoned for robbing his own bank and killing a night watchman, his character, Paul Lavond, teams up with Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), a scientist who creates a formula to shrink people to 1/6th their normal size to make Earth’s limited resources last longer.
When they escape, the scientist dies and Paul joins forces with his widow, Malita, and decides to use the shrinking to get revenge on the people who framed him. Disguised as an old woman, Paul sells “lifelike” dolls. The dolls steal and commit murder on his behalf and he gets his revenge. Paul does clear his name and secures the future of his daughter, Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan) but fakes his own death.
By today’s standards, the effects are obviously early versions of the once common rear projection technique and do not stand up well over time but the fact that Barrymore dressed in drag in an effort to compete with other actors like Lon Chaney, who had gone into drag in his recent (and final) film The Unholy Three, makes this film an interesting side note to history.
Doctor Cyclops (1940)
A group of scientists are invited to visit Dr. Alexander Thorkel (Albert Dekker) at his remote laboratory in the jungles of South America. When they arrive, he asks one of them to verify something for him and once it is done asks them to leave. When they set up a camp and won’t leave till they know more about what he is doing there they ignite his ire and under the pretense of showing them his equipment that funnels radiation into a chamber where he has been shrinking animals, he locks them in the chamber and uses it on them. Thy pass out and when they awake they are twelve inches tall.
They escape from Thorkel and his cat but one of them, Bulfinch (Charles Halton) is convinced to speak with Thorkel to try and resolve the situation. It does turn out that the process isn’t permanent and so Thorkel kills Bulfinch when he realizes he is growing and decides to hunt down the others before they return to normal size and get the authorities involved. One of them tries to lead the doctor away so the others can escape but ends up dead. The others hide in a specimen case the doctor brought with him and find themselves undetected back in his lab.
They manage to hide the doctor’s spare glasses from him when he is sleeping, but he awakes before they can destroy the lenses of his main pair of glasses. He chases them into the mineshaft where his radiation comes from and ends up falling to his death. They return to their normal size and apparently live happily ever after.
Based on a short story of the same name by sci-fi writer Henry Kuttner, this film was made by the same team that made the original King Kong in 1933. Even though the dialog is horrible most of the time, Dekker’s portrayal of Thorkel is memorable. But the effects are convincing and were nominated for an Oscar.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Scott (Grant Williams) is on vacation with his wife Louise (Randy Stuart) when a strange cloud passes over him and leaves a reflective coating on his skin. Six months later, Scott begins to find his clothes don’t fit. X-Rays confirm he is shrinking. The cloud was apparently radiation that soaked into him and was activated when he was exposed to insecticide months later.
He tells his wife she can have her freedom, but she promises to stand by him as his ring falls from his shrunken finger.
Unable to keep his job he sells the rights to his story and becomes a minor celebrity. After taking out his frustrations on his wife, the doctors find an antidote that arrests his shrinking when he is around three feet tall. He is befriended by a midget, Clarice (April Kent), who teaches him that being smaller isn’t all bad. He doesn’t go for his next treatment and begins shrinking again. He contemplates suicide after getting small enough to live in a doll house, but he ends up wanting to live, as their cat chases him into the cellar.
After Louise finds his shredded clothes, she believes he is dead even though he is trying to get her attention. He resolves to master his surroundings and fights a spider for dominion with a pin before he begins shrinking again. He resigns himself to the fact he will continue to shrink to the size of atoms or smaller.
This film is based on the novel The Shrinking Man by sci-fi luminary Richard Matheson and won the 1st Hugo Award at the 16th World Science Fiction Convention in LA. The film was a hit for its day and except for some pacing is a taut thriller that beat the Marvel comic Ant Man to the idea of shrinking to the atomic level and beyond. The fact that there wasn’t a happy ending to the film made it a hard sell for the studio but a test screening proved that the ending didn’t ruin the enjoyment of the audience and so it stayed.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
Whilst Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) is on his way to Baghdad, transporting the Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), who is to become his bride and secure peace between her kingdom and his, the ship encounters the isle of Colossa.
Sinbad and his men are attacked by a gigantic, bestial one-eyed Cyclops, and are saved only when the mysterious magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher) appears and uses a magic lamp to protect Sinbad’s men. But in the process of escaping harm, Sokurah loses the lamp to the Cyclops. He desperately wants to retrieve it and tries to persuade Sinbad to put about and return to Colossa — but the captain won’t jeopardize the safety of the princess or the success of his mission, and the Caliph of Baghdad (Alec Mango) feels the same way, even after Sokurah amazes the court by conjuring up a snake-woman.
It is only when the princess is shrunk by an evil spell, the breaking of which requires the shell from the egg of the giant Roc that Sokurah can get his expedition mounted, with Sinbad in command. With a crew made up of a handful of his bravest men and some of the most desperate convicts in the Caliph’s prison, he has to contend with potential mutiny at every turn, and the men are driven almost to madness before they even reach Colossa. Once there, they find terrors as great as the Cyclops and the treachery of the magician, but Parisa (in her tiny state) also discovers the beautiful world inside the lamp, and the lonely boy genie (Richard Eyer) who inhabits it. They strike the bargain that, when Sinbad’s bravery is added to the equation, will bring their quest to an end. If, that is, they can all survive the dangers that Sokurah puts in their path.
This technicolor fantasy adventure was conceptualized by the venerable Ray Harryhausen. He used a full color stop motion animation technique which he used when he created the Medusa in Clash of the Titans (his last film) in 1981.
Attack of the Puppet People (1958)
John Hoyt (who would go on to play the original ship’s doctor in the 1st pilot for Star Trek, ‘The Cage’) plays the kindly Mr. Franz who runs a doll manufacturing company called Dolls Inc. June Kenney plays his new secretary, Sally Reynolds, who falls for Bob Westley (John Agar), a travelling salesman. After their relationship develops, he asks her to marry him and quit her job. When she agrees, he says that he will break the news to Franz.
The next day Franz tells Sally that Bob has left to take care of business and she should forget him. That is when she sees a doll that looks like Bob and goes to the police. The police sergeant (Jack Kosslyn) investigates but Franz convinces him nothing untoward is happening. When he finds out Sally is going to quit, he shrinks her and adds her to his growing collection.
Franz has also invented a form of suspended animation, which is how he convinces others that his shrunken people are just dolls. It turns out that Franz’s wife had left him and in his loneliness he created a way to ensure that no one ever leaves him lonely again. When the police close in Franz plans to kill his “dolls” and himself rather than being captured.
Sally and Bob manage to get back to their normal size and move on to live their lives.
This film was made by Bert I. Gordon, best known for making things larger in film. With films like The Amazing Colossal Man, Food of the Gods, and Empire of the Ants on his resume his nickname in Hollywood was “Mr. Big.”
While the title is misleading since there is no “attack,” but it is enjoyable as long as you can suspend your disbelief. The only true weak point is the ending where we only know that the two main characters get back to normal size and leave. Effectively there is no resolution as we never see what happens to Franz or the other “dolls.”
Tom Thumb (1958)
A poor lumberjack, Jonathan (Bernard Miles) meets the forest queen and is granted three wishes for not chopping down a tree that is home to a family of birds. He and his wife, Anne (Jessie Matthews) accidentally squander their wishes and they now have a room fully stocked for the child they wish they had. Anne wishes they could have a child “even if he were no bigger than her thumb.”
A soft knocking at the door awakes them and they find a young boy who is literally the size of a thumb, his name is Tom (Russ Tamblyn). A family friend, Woody (Alan Young) takes young Tom to a carnival in town where he is carried off by a balloon. He lands on a castle tower where two thieves are planning to steal some gold. They realize with his size Tom could easily slip inside the treasury and trick him into believing they are wanting to give the money to help poor orphans.
For his help they give him a coin that he accidentally drops into a cake his mother is baking. The local guards are searching for the missing gold and the thieves when Anne offers them some cake. They find the coin and arrest Tom’s parents. With Woody’s help they find the thieves and exonerate his parents.
The film is directed by George Pal (The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine) and is based on the fairy tale Thumbling by The Brothers Grimm. The two thieves are played by character actor Terry-Thomas and Peter Sellers.
This film won an Oscar for its effects.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list of films that relied on size difference effects, these are some of the most beloved genre pieces of the early days of film.
Did we forget any films that used shrinking as part of their story? Do you have special memories of these films that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments.