ORIGINS OF GODZILLA, Part Four: Godzilla vs Perry Mason - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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ORIGINS OF GODZILLA, Part Four: Godzilla vs Perry Mason

Our lone man in Japan, Gordon Hopkins reports in from the front-line.
“What has happened here was caused by a force, which, up until a few days ago, was entirely beyond the scope of man's imagination.”
Raymond Burr as Steve Martin in Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956)

Gojira, the originally, Japanese title of Godzilla, was released in Japan in November of 1954. It was a huge hit, tapping into atomic anxiety that ran rampant in Japan, and the rest of the world, of the time.

Despite giving the worlds some of the finest cinema ever produced, such as Seven Samurai and Rashomon, in the United States, Japanese films like most foreign films were relegated to art house theaters, visited only by a small handful of cinephiles. They weren't going to make any American studio a boatload of cash.

In stepped Josph E. Levine, a film producer and distributor who did make boatloads of cash with flicks like The Graduate, The Producers, Carnal Knowledge and Marriage Italian Style.

In the fifties, Levin began buying up a bunch of foreign-made films. One of those was Gojira.

What most American moviegoers saw was not the original Gojira but a heavily Americanized version renamed Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

A lot of changes were made. First and foremost, Japanese dialogue was dubbed into English. Prior to Levine's involvement, most foreign-language films of the day were released with subtitles, which further limited their appeal to American audiences.

Concern over how American audiences would react to the blatantly anti-blowing-things-up-with-atom-bombs message, not to mention a rather uncomfortable subplot about an arraigned marriage, the film was heavily edited. All but one reference to hydrogen bombs were eliminated. About 40 minutes altogether were excised.

Additional scenes were filmed and inserted to the movie in order to add an American character for American audiences to related to, not to mention fill in the holes left by all those cuts.

Raymond Burr was hired to be the relatable American, in the form of Steve Martin. No, not the wild and crazy guy. This Steve Martin was a somber and sincere news reporter (he smokes a pipe, which is how you know he is both somber and sincere) who happens to be in Japan when the Big Guy get riled up by those pesky atom bombs and starts stomping Tokyo flat. Honestly, making the guy a reporter was rather clever. It meant he could be reporting the news of Godzilla's destruction, effectively narrating the story to his overseas audience and, thereby narrating the story to the actual audience.

Prior to his stint as the immortal TV lawyer, Perry Mason, Raymond Burr was probably best know as a film noir heavy. (Both figuratively and literally-he was one of the great sinister fat guy villains.) In 1954, while Gojira was setting box offices in Japan on fire, Burr was earning praise as the killer seen from afar in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window.

Scenes with Burr's Martin were shot in a single 24 hours period and inserted into the story using doubles and duplicated sets. Burr's Martin would have conversations with people he had never met, filmed well after their dialogue had been shot in another country. Some folks have criticized these insertions, noting that the “grain” of the Japanese and American film stock were different. This is true but, unless actively looking for it, chances are most viewers aren't going to notice.
As Godzilla and his movies come under a reassessment (and re-reassessment and re-re-reassessment), it has become de rigueur to bash the American release not just as inferior but as somehow subverting the film's message. Conventional wisdom says that crass American interests took a powerful allegory about the nuclear age and turned it into a dumb monster movie. Well conventional wisdom may be conventional, but it isn't very wise.

Despite cries of outrage from modern reviewers who insist the Americanized version is a neutered travesty, using the sort of histrionic language modern, self-important reviewers like myself tend to use, much of the anti-bomb message remains.

Let me put this into no uncertain terms. To paraphrase the Bard, I come to praise Raymond Burr, not to bury him.

Gojira is the superior film. I freely admit that. Yet, the Americanized version manages to do something important that is often overlooked by critics.

Perhaps it would be best to illustrate what the American version did by pointing out what the it didn't do. Godzilla: King of the Monsters was in no way anti-Japanese. Keep in mind, this edit occurred a little over a decade since the war with Japan ended and just 15 years since the attack on Pearl Harbor. Americans had not forgotten and, not unlike Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, Pearl Harbor was still a raw nerve for many. The Americans who put this edit together could easily have suggested Godzilla was a sort of punishment, a divine retribution. Steve Martin, the lone American, could easily have been portrayed as an action here, succeeding in defeating the monster where Japan failed.

Instead, the inserted American is a reporter and, as such, watches events and reports but his actual involvement in the action is minimal. Instead, it left to the Japanese characters to debate the morality of using a weapon that could wipe out all humanity against the monster. It left to the Japanese characters to save the world.
Okay, so the American distributors claimed none of the cuts were political in nature. That's clearly ridiculous. Nevertheless, when Burr's Martin first arrives in Japan, it is in friendship. There is never anything but respect shown between Martin and the Japanese characters he interacts with. Likewise, Burr and the other Americans who put their version together had nothing but respect for the King of the Monsters. Keep this in mind: thirty years later, when Toho decided to resurrect their grandest monster in The Return of Godzilla, American distributors originally wanted to make it a comedy, using funny dubbed lines in the vein of Woody Allen's What's Up Tiger Lily? It was Burr who put the kibosh on that. So remember, it was Raymond Burr who saved Godzilla.

As for the original, it was actually the Americanized version of Godzilla that did boffo box office (as they say) and, later, was sold to television. It was that same Americanized version that was sold to Europe and made even more money. If those at Toho Studios were unhappy with Americans tampering with their baby, I suspect the receipts lessened the sting quite a bit. Boatloads of cash washes away a lot of sins.

Up next: Secret weapons and when to use them...

Gordon Hopkins is an award winning reporter and columnist for The Fairbury Journal-News, a 130-year-old newspaper in Jefferson County, Nebraska (He hasn't been working there that entire time.) He has also written a couple of crime novels (“Fraudsters” and the best-selling “Broken”) and edited a few non-fiction books.

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