AS THE EARTH TURNS
(1938)



[Howdy folkses! I was lounging in my office at Million Monkey Towers last week, enjoying a delicious Shasta and reading online reviews of self-cleaning litter boxes (these goddamn interns shit constantly), when I received an unsolicited email from someone calling himself "ANNO MMXX." This mysterious stranger wished to know if we were currently looking to publish any reader reviews and, if so would I be so kind as to reply. The fact is we have actually been looking for someone to write guest reviews for some time, but the length of our articles and our stringent quality control protocols tend to frighten off any potential contributors. At least the first part of that statement is maybe probably true.

Naturally I was intrigued, but I didn't want to say yes without knowing a little about this person and whether or not they could actually write. I wrote back to get a little more information and perhaps a text sample, but imagine my surprise when they claimed to not be a human being at all but the actual year 2020 that we're all just barely living through right now! It sounds absurd, I know, but after a little back and forth and some surreptitious online research I was able to confirm that 2020 is exactly who and what he says he is. It's amazing how much information you can get with a $10 background check.

I figured I probably shouldn't turn down 2020's offer if only for the novelty value, but I did want to be sure he could deliver something readable and in a timely fashion, so I asked if he wasn't maybe too busy fucking up everyone's autumn to take time out for something as mundane and tedious as a shitty movie review. He assured me that not only could he write a punchy article, he's also "very good at multi-tasking." When I considered the raging global pandemic, political turmoil, social unrest, uncontrolled wildfires, tandem Gulf Coast hurricanes, brutal heat waves, near-miss of an oncoming asteroid and the ongoing national coin shortage, I had to admit he had a point.

So here he is, the year you love to hate, reviewing a movie you've probably never heard of and won't get to see because we'll likely all be dead by New Years. Take it away 2020!
] --Editor Bradley

********


Hey everybody! First of all I'd like to apologize for dropping the ball on those killer bees I promised you all back in March. I pre-ordered them in February but there was some sort of cock-up at the warehouse and I ended up with a shipment of spotted lanternflies instead.


They're not killing you but at least they're killing your trees.

I was talking to my uncle 1938 a while back and he was really excited because a fun little unreleased movie made back during his tenure had been rediscovered in a basement, restored and sent out on the film festival circuit in 2018, back when you could still have a film festival without creating a super-spreader event. Its director, Richard Lyford, was an indie film and theater pioneer from Seattle, Washington who made nine 16 mm silent films and wrote fifty-eight original plays as an amateur, all of which he presented at a 50-seat venue in the basement of his parents' home. Walt Disney hired him on the strength of those productions and he later won an Academy Award for a documentary on Michaelangelo called The Titan (1950). As the Earth Turns was his final amateur work, made when he was 20 years old. In addition to writing and directing he also starred as the villain and created all the miniatures and special effects. It's pretty darn good, too, with its narrative and budgetary shortcomings outweighed by Lyford's talent, ingenuity and enthusiasm.


Not to be confused with the Jean Muir melodrama As the Earth Turns made in 1934, who is my third cousin twice removed.

The opening credits use a neat effect where Lyford placed the letters on a black board then blew them off with a fan. He then superimposed them over a bleak image of a barbed-wire barrier stretched across a barren desert, running them backwards so each page of text assembles itself before the viewer's eyes.

The story begins with a title card indicating that we are in "the near future," and we are shown a nicely paced multiple exposure montage of various scenes of war. Bombs explode on nameless battlefields, warships fire their massive cannons, engulfing their enemies in expanding clouds of fire, smoke and shrapnel, and shadowy troops march menacingly past the camera, anonymous and threatening in their protective masks. It's a frightening display of senseless violence, and it really makes me want to up my game in these last few months I'm in charge of the planet. It fades to a series of spinning newspapers informing us that the world is, indeed at war and that hundreds of thousands of troops are dying on the battlefields of Europe.

It should be noted that this film was made well over a year before Hitler invaded Poland, meaning World War II was still a hypothetical possibility rather than the solid historical clusterfuck we all know and love.

We cut to the offices of "The New York Evening Star" where plucky new hire Julie bemoans to her reporter pal Arthur that she's either stuck at her desk doing busy work or seemingly in everyone's way, that if she could just get out there on the streets she'd find a big story that would make her reputation as a journalist.


Julie. Arthur admires her spunk, if you know what I mean.


Arthur. He'd like Julie to admire some of his spunk, if you know what I mean.

Julie is played by Barbara Berger, the only performer in the film to have become a professional actor. Frustrated by people mispronouncing her last name she subsequently changed the spelling to Berjer and went on to a successful career appearing in several American soap operas, including, ironically, a six-year run on As the World Turns (1956-2010).

Arthur tells Julie to come upstairs to the boss's office so he can put a good word in for her and maybe get her career as a real reporter on track. She excitedly follows him to meet Managing Editor George Talbot, who is played by a nameless 16-year-old with a fake mustache and some middle-school-level greasepaint.


"Actually, I'm only nine, but I've been a heavy smoker since I was three."

Talbot sends Julie out to a Naval radio station, saying if she hangs around long enough something interesting might turn up. Julie thanks Talbot for the opportunity and promises she'll "bring back a story that will rock the earth," which is both a bit of foreshadowing and a shout-out to the novel The Man Who Rocked The Earth (1915) by Arthur C. Train and Robert W. Wood upon which As the Earth Turns is loosely based.

An establishing shot shows a little square building equipped with a huge antenna and attached to an array of telegraph and telephone wires. Inside a radio operator is idly thumbing through a book and puffing on a pipe, and Julie is beginning to think this might not be the earth-shattering opportunity she'd hoped for. The Operator explains he usually only gets a few brief messages a day, usually routine check-ins from nearby naval vessels. He tells her they should be getting a transmission from a ship called the U.S.S. Washington in about an hour if she'd care to wait around.


The U.S.S. Washington (BB-56) was just being built when this film was made, with its keel laid down at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in June, 1938. It was launched on June 1st, 1940 and officially commissioned on May 15th, 1941. Extra points to Lyford for verisimilitude.

Suddenly the switchboard lights up and the Operator receives a bizarre morse coded message "To All Mankind" from someone calling themselves "Pax." It's a demand for "cessation of hostilities" and "the abolition of war" amongst all nations, designating the United States as an agent to make this wild, ambitious dream a reality. It furthermore states that as a demonstration of the awesome power this mysterious correspondent allegedly holds he will increase the length of the day of Thursday, July 7th by five minutes by slowing the rotation of the Earth!


"He also says your hat looks like a chip-n-dip serving bowl."

I kind of like this so far, even if "extending the day by five minutes" is pretty lame as an extortionist threat. I'd maybe have thrown in an angry honey badger with rail gun or some handsy-gropey robots with chlamidia.

I should also point out that July 7th was a Thursday in the year 1938, which explicitly is not the year in which this was meant to take place since that would have been "the present" rather than "the near future." The next year where July 7th fell on a Thursday was 1949...who was actually my great grandmother on my father's side.

The Operator dismisses the message as a joke from some ham radio amateur, but Julie smells a potential story, snatches the handwritten note and absconds with it back to the office. Editor Talbot isn't any more impressed than the Operator however, telling Julie there's no room in the newspaper for pranks while the world is at war. He throws the note in the wastepaper basket, temporarily tamping down Julie's dreams of journalistic superstardom.

We cut to the Washington Observatory, which an ornate caption helpfully informs us is "The Equatorial Time Center of The United States." A concerned-looking fellow exits the "Meridian Circle Room" where actual time is determined precisely by measuring the Earth's movement against a stationary object in space. The gentleman is perplexed, because according to this routine check of real-time all of the clocks are running precisely five minutes slow. As he ponders what he might have done wrong he gets a call from the equivalent agency in Paris reporting that all of their clocks are also five minutes slow. Meridian Circle Clock Guy surmises that the universe might be "running down," but opts not to tell anyone about it because he doesn't want to create a panic.


Which is a strategy that always works out just fine for everyone.

Now we see the Operator getting a message about a tidal wave having suddenly appeared on the Great Salt Lake and warning trains to steer clear because the trestle bridge across it has been wiped out. There's a nifty sequence here where Lyford combines stock footage of a locomotive with a model he filmed himself to create a pretty convincing crash into the lake.




Who doesn't love a good train wreck?

This is followed by another message from Pax claiming that this wave was his second warning, and that he still demands official recognition. A subsequent message again demands the abolition of war, and as further evidence of his power over the elements Pax claims he will "excavate a channel through the Atlas mountains and divert the Mediterranean Sea into the Sahara Desert." Now that's a threat worth threatenin'!

We cut to a funky-looking silver plane flying above some mountains. It hovers over a particular spot and shoots some kind of energy beam, destroying part of the range and allowing the sea to pour through. The ray effect is clearly a scratch made directly on the film negative. It's one of the weaker effects in the film, but considering Lyford was doing everything himself, mostly in his basement and paid for out of his own pocket it's kind of hard to hyper-critical about it.




Still...woof.

At this point the world has no choice but to recognize Pax's power. The President of the United States holds a meeting to discuss how to respond to the terrorist's demands, and we're treated to the risible sight of a bunch of teens and young adults with fake facial hair and rented uniforms pretending to be generals and diplomats from various nations.


This guy enlisted in the Navy when he was six.

Not surprisingly a meeting between representatives from both sides of the ongoing global conflict can't even agree whether they want guac or salsa, let alone how to draw up a plan for world peace. In fact it doesn't take more that a few minutes of snide remarks and big dick posturing before the representatives from Germany and the Soviet Union are jumping across the table and trying throttle each other.

When an aide brings in the Operator with another message from Pax the room is in utter chaos, with clenched fists, shouted insults and diplomatic papers thrown into the air in disgust. The President slams a tiny gavel against the table but he might as well be shouting at a hurricane.


Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.

As the Operator hands the President the message, however the room begins to shake. Everyone is thrown about willy-nilly as the plaster above them begins to crack and fall. Finally, the walls buckle and part of the ceiling collapses.

When the shaking stops and the assembled dignitaries begin to survey the damage, the Aide who brought the Operator in points to the remains of a shattered mullioned window, now open to the elements. She points out that it's suddenly begun snowing. In July.

We fade to another montage of newspaper front pages indicating that the earthquake was a transatlantic event, occurring in America and Europe simultaneously...which is not only a tired trope that was already used during the opening scene, but also a rather obvious missed opportunity for a dramatic reveal. Instead of the hackneyed newspaper schtick the President should have pulled open the crumpled note he had clutched throughout the temblor and read aloud that Pax had promised at that exact date and time to send an earthquake and make it snow. As it stands we never actually get to see the contents of that note, so for all we know it could have been Pax's discarded grocery list or his all-time favorite knock-knock joke.


He came up with this one himself.

Now we rejoin Julie and Arthur, sitting in what appears to be a sweet mid-30's Packard convertible. She's showing him copies of the messages from Pax she's been snatching from the Naval radio station, ostensibly when the Operator has been busing filling his pipe with shag or having a morse-code potty break.


Looks like Richard Lyford's parents had some serious scratch.

Arthur decides to take Julie out to see his old Physics teacher from Harvard, Professor Banks, in the hopes he might have some ideas on how to proceed with their investigation.


If there's one thing I've taught you people it's that even in the midst of a global crisis you should always make time for cocktails.

Banks surmises that Pax has mastered both "thermic induction and atomic disintegration," which is science talk for "he can sure fuck y'all up." Julie points out that if only the world powers could meet his demands and cease fighting Pax might be more amenable to discussion. Banks concludes that since the governments of the world are incapable of facing down this enemy the three of them must take matters into their own hands. The first order of business is locating Pax, of course, but none of them have the faintest idea where to begin.

As Arthur is driving Julie back to town she spots the strange silver airplane we saw blowing up the Atlas Mountains earlier. Arthur comments that the pilot appears to be in trouble and trying to make an emergency landing, and we see the plane zipping through some trees and alighting in the woods just slightly down the road from where Arthur and Julie are driving.


That's one mighty convenient forced landing.

Arthur pulls over and Julie immediately bolts off into the woods to search for the landing site, saying that whatever that plane might be it means ink in the newspaper for her, and she's sure not going to let the grass grow beneath her platform heels when a story literally falls out of the sky in front of her.

Arthur shouts after her and steps out of the car to follow, but he trips and lands head-down on a rock, knocking himself out cold.


He's not really getting the hang of this "dashing young hero" thing.

Julie, meanwhile finds the plane and peers inside the hatch to find a world map with flight paths scribbled all over it and the legend "Peace Flights of the Space Ship PAX-II." The flights originate from the center of Labrador, Quebec, and she realizes with a gasp that this must be the elusive lair of the man they seek.

She scribbles the location of the base on a sheet from her notebook and makes a hasty exit. Unfortunately her escape path is blocked by Pax himself!


Maybe back the camera up just a tidge there, buddy.

Because this movie was made in 1938, and despite that she's proven to be strong, smart, capable and resourceful up to this point, Julie faints like a southern belle with a sudden case of the vapors and falls limp at Pax's feet.

Fortunately the note she just wrote with the latitude and longitude of Pax's base falls from her hand as she loses consiousness, and even more fortunately Pax doesn't notice it lying there in front of him as he carries her off and flies away. Even more fortunately yet dumb old Arthur wakes up and wanders into the woods just in time to see the plane taking off, and just happens to walk right up to the note sitting on that tiny patch of the vast forest floor.


"Wowsers! What are the odds?"

Back at Professor Banks' house he and Arthur pinpoint the exact location of the base on a map. Arthur suggests they should alert the army, but Banks rightly points out that a guy who can flood the Sahara could probably wipe out an army with the flick of a switch. They decide instead to go after Pax themselves, which is going to require that they fly directly to Canada.

Banks says that although he flew during the war he hasn't been in a cockpit for many years and wouldn't trust himself with a modern aircraft. As it turns out Arthur is an amateur aviator with 40 hours solo in the air...because yeah, of course he is. Arthur doesn't happen to have a plane handy, but he does think they can get one if they're willing to commit a felony.


Hey, Nate...is that a Lockheed 10A?

So the two intrepid heroes schlep out to the local airfield and pick out their bird. Arthur sneaks into a building marked "Pilot's Quarters" to punch out some poor Northwest Airlines pilot who's just put on his uniform. After a few moments of off-screen man-on-man nudity Arthur emerges dressed in the nameless victim's gear.

He and Banks hop on board the plane and take off towards Labrador, watched by a very confused Northwest co-pilot who immediately runs inside to raise the alarm. Yet another newspaper montage tells us that Army planes took off in pursuit of the stolen plane but eventually lost it somewhere near Quebec City and had to call off the chase.


I've grown weary of this expository device.

Now we see a radio operator in a little shack somewhere in Canada reporting that the stolen plane has been spotted over Belle Isle off the coast of Labrador and is heading towards the interior.


"Hehe...I'm in a movie!"

We're not supposed to think about the fact that Arthur and Julie work at a newspaper in New York and that Arthur is currently flying up the East Coast of Canada in a plane owned by a regional airline that in 1938 only flew in the western half of the U.S. Let's all just pretend I didn't point that out.

So now our pilfering pilots are near their destination and notice some strange structures poking out of the rocks. They fly in to take a closer look and suddenly one of those destructive rays shoots up and blows out their starboard engine.



Yep...scratching the negative still looks like shit.

Fortunately the actual crash landing is well-shot with a decent model and some terrific editing. It's riveting stuff, damn near as good as a professional effects crew of the time might have achieved.

No, I'm not gonna show it to you.


Enjoy instead this behind-the-scenes photo of Lyford filming a sequence we haven't yet seen.

Arthur and Banks exit the plane a little banged up but otherwise unhurt and begin hiking back to where they saw the strange structures. Eventually they crest a hill and spot the model Lyford is filming in the above photo.


Hey, a super villain needs a super secret lair.

As they stare across the chasm separating them from Pax's base the weird silver plane flies in and alights on a special landing rail.


Made from balsa wood and Elmer's glue. Priceless.

Arthur and Banks eventually make it across to the compound, which is actually a Seattle area landmark called "Gas Works Park." At the time it was still operating as a gasification plant, but today it's a popular public recreation area.

They manage to sneak in and find Julie asleep on a comfy couch with a swanky breakfast tray and silver coffee pot on a table in front of it.


It was so cozy she didn't even think to escape through the open window two feet from her head.

Arthur wakes her and Banks asks if she's seen Pax. She says no, at least not since she's been in the compound. She's only seen his servant, she explains, but as she speaks the door opens and the man himself enters the room.

Banks tries to butter him up a bit, congratulating him for his ingenuity and scientific genius. Pax counters by congratulating Banks for managing to reach the base without getting killed.


Pax rocks a Bond villain scar and a serious Aryan haircut.

Banks seems puzzled, asking Pax if they've ever met before, and as they stare into each other's eyes we fade to a flashback featuring stock footage of combat biplanes from the first World War.

Banks, then a pilot in the U.S. army, shoots down a German plane, then lands to see if his victim survived the crash. He finds the German injured but conscious. When he discovers the fellow can speak English, he offers him a cigarette and sits down with him for a friendly little chat. He asks why he didn't put up a fight to which the pilot replies "I'm a scientist, not a butcher!"


"Dammit, Jim!"

Banks suggests there should perhaps have been a place for him behind the lines instead of in the air, but the pilot says he didn't want to be that guy, formulating murderous weapons and toxic gasses to exterminate the hapless youth of the Earth's nations. "No," he insists. "Someday they'll learn their lesson. Even if I have to teach it with my own hands!"

He vows that in the future he will make one word dominate the Earth: "Pax--for peace!"

We fade back to the compound where Banks realizes Pax is that German pilot he had shot down all those years ago. The coincidences that drive the plot of As the Earth Turns are legion, but this one takes the cake. It's positively Dickensian.

Arthur, ever the impetuous youth, tells Pax they've come to talk terms so they'd better get down to business, and Julie pleads that the nations of the Earth will end the war...if only Pax gives them a little more time.

Pax reveals that the war has in fact ended that very morning, but twenty minutes after the armistice was signed Paris was blown off the map, effecting the senseles slaughter of three million people.

It seems this final outrage has sent Pax's egomania over the precipice and into cuckoo land. He's now decided the human race and all of its nations are unworthy of continued existence. He will "rock the earth, freeze the tropics and burn up the poles!" Everything will be destroyed.

As Pax is doing his big Ernst Stavro Blofeld-style sinister plot reveal Julie surreptitiously escapes through the open door and into the interior of Pax's lair.


"I'm outsies! He cray cray, yo!"

Pax leaves to enact his final solution, leaving Arthur and Banks to bang on the door with their fists in futile desperation.

Julie, meanwhile has hidden herself in the shadows of a ladder shaft, waiting for Pax so she can follow him. He slinks into to his utilitarian-looking control room, which consists of several rows of unmarked levers attached to a steel wall.


"So hard to decide! They're all so exquisite!"

Pax climbs up and places his hand on the master switch which will set his diabolical scheme in motion, but just as he's about to pull it Julie steps forward. She pleads with him, trying to appeal to what's left of his humanity. She reasons he can't do it now that the war is already ended, but he dismisses her arguments, claiming there will always be another war and then another, and this is the only way to end the brutal cycle of man's violence and hate.

Julie sadly agrees with him that as long as humanity exists there will be conflict and war, but still implores him to reconsider, declaring "death is too easy a punishment!"


She's my kinda gal.

Just then the base is rocked by a series of explosions. It seems the armed forces have arrived, having traced the stolen plane to the compound and somehow figured out that this is Pax's domain.

In the control room a blast sends the master switch flying from the wall, striking Julie on the forehead and rendering her unconscious. Pax, stunned by the sudden change in his fortunes, kneels by her prostrate form, unsure what to do now that his plans have collapsed and his dream of forced peace is over.

Meanwhile Arthur and Banks are still trying to get through the door to try to reach Julie. Banks tries to convince Arthur they'd better save themselves, or all of them will perish, but Arthur refuses to give up trying to save the girl whose spunk he so admires. Banks has no time to argue nicely, so he just hauls off and punches him.


Concussions for everyone!

Somehow this smack balances out Arthur's earlier head trauma and brings him to his senses. The two climb through the window and scurry away across the besieged compound.

The place is really getting the ever-loving shit bombed out of it by this point and it's clear to Pax that he, too had better cheese it if he doesn't want a concussion or two of his own. He waves away the gathering smoke, picks up Julie and attempts his escape.


"I'd better get rid of this thing before my wife gets home!"

Arthur and Banks make it clear of the base and sit down by a stream to observe the chaos from a safe distance. The compound is pretty much in shambles at this point but Lyford gives some good action value with lots of explosions intercut with Pax struggling mightily against mounting injuries to carry Julie to safety.




Watching shit blow up never ever gets old.

"Jesus, maybe lay off the bon-bons, lady!"

The action fades to black, and Lyford now makes an interesting stylistic choice. When the film fades back in we are now in full color. This was a year before The Wizard of Oz (1939) used the technique so effectively, so Lyford's choice was somewhat radical for the time. This isn't Hollywood Technicolor by a long stretch, and the 80 years the print spent rotting in Lyford's basement have not been kind to its saturation levels, but it's still quite a striking change and adds some emotional punch to this final scene.

The attack is over and the base has been utterly annihilated. Arthur and Banks stare out across the peaceful waters of the little brook, contemplating their personal loss against the salvation of the human race, when suddenly Arthur spots Pax carrying Julie towards the water on the opposite side of the stream. Pax struggles and stumbles against his mortal injuries, but manages to lay her down gently on the gravel of the bank.


"I'd better get out of here before the cops show up."

Assured that Julie is now safe, Pax tries to flee, but his body is battered and his life force is fading. He tries to ford the stream but collapses face-down in the water.

As Arthur revives Julie, Banks drags Pax back to the shore. They gather around as the chastened villain offers his final words of advice for humanity.


"Always flush when you do a number two. Nobody needs to see that stuff floating in there."

Actually he has a little hallucination of an alternate reality where he got to pull his big lever and destroy the world, so he can end his life in the sincere and gratifying belief that he succeeded in committing the most egregious and expansive act of genocide in the history of the human race.


What a dick.

Then he keels over dead.


The End.

So, yeah...maybe it's not the greatest cinematic achievement of its age, but it's still pretty damn entertaining and mighty impressive for being an amateur indie production from a time before amateur indie productions were really even a thing.

I must say, too that being 2020 and something of a global terrorist myself I completely identified with Pax, both in his methods and his motivations. Using violence and death to force you humans to come to terms with how fucked up you are is exactly the point to all of the misery and death I've been inflicting since I took over the planet back on January 1st. You may think I'm some aberrant, soulless monster, a random, luckless convergence of all your nightmares, fears and horrors, but that sort of thinking is the easy way out of facing your own culpability. You made me. The fact is every hundred or so years you all need a wake-up call to show you how complacent and cruel and irresponsible you are. I'm not a coincidence folks. I'm an inflection point. I'm an opportunity to make better choices, to start caring more about your planet and everything and everyone on it.

People, I've got two very different brothers waiting in the wings to see which of them will take over as 2021. One will ratchet you upwards and propel you forward along the moral arc of the Universe, the other will set you on a regressive path of destruction from which you will never recover. You're at the crossroads between the path of hate and fear and the path of hope and compassion. You have to choose, folks, so choose wisely. Or don't. It's no skin off my nose. To be honest the Earth would probably do just fine without you.

********


[Yeah. What he said.]
--Editor Bradley




Byeeeee.



Written by ANNO MMXX in October, 2020.

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