The Incredible Shrinking Man Saw Beyond the Material Façade of Post-War Prosperity

And so, through massive sacrifice and tremendous acts of courage (plus a buttload of military might and the nightmarish transition of theoretical physics into devastating reality), the Great Evil of the Axis had been vanquished. The United States, the scrappy little experiment in self-governance not two centuries old, now stood astride the globe as a legitimate world power. But down on the ground, the citizens who had given up so much, and the soldiers who had given up even more, were tired of worldwide adventuring: They wanted comfort, they wanted safety, they wanted security.

Government and industry were ready to answer the call. For a country ravaged first by depression and then traumatized by war, they not only Built Back Better, they Built Back Awesome. Super-highways; suburbs; G.I. plans for returning soldiers to access college educations and buy those assembly-line, suburban abodes. Plus, a wealth of consumer goods: all-electric kitchens, TV Dinners, Frisbees for the kids and a backyard barbecue for Dad. The cornucopia of prosperity rained down upon the American citizen, and no one would ever be hungry, sad, or frightened, ever again.

Do I have to tell you that that was horseshit? No, of course I don’t.

A digression: In 1956, General Motors released a short film, Design for Dreaming. Regular viewers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will know it well, it’s a looney little musical delusion in which a lithe and fashionably attired woman (dubbed Nuveena by MSTies but actually performed by Broadway choreographer and dancer Tad Tadlock) tours GM’s Motorama, an auto show “where tomorrow meets today.” In addition to salivating over the latest automotive models—all of which our hyper-acquisitive protagonist craves (to which her handsome, masked tour guide responds with the suitably suburban-boom, “Okay, we’ll have the usual two-car garage!”)—she’s given a glimpse of an improbable future of automated kitchens turning out fully-decorated birthday cakes (complete with candles), and glistening, jet-propelled concept cars speeding along electric highways (whatever the hell that meant).

But midway through, just before the woman is about to go into an abstract—and oddly tribalistic—“Dance of Tomorrow,” she delivers via voice-over the following couplet: “Everybody says the future is strange,/But I have the feeling some things won’t change.”

Wait… what? To talk about the future is to talk about change—be it good or bad—so that’s a clear oxymoron. And it’s not just a matter of a lyricist struggling to meet the meter or fulfill a rhyme; toward the end of the film, the woman sings, “Strange shapes arise out of the night,/But our love will not change, dear.” And there it is again: “Strange;” “Not gonna change.” To the bored housewives of suburbia, leafing through their fashion magazines and dreaming of being swept away to a carefree, housework-free future on chrome and steel chariots, Detroit was clearly beaming a message. But what was it?

Looking at it through the distance of time, Design for Dreaming may represent a key marker in the moment when the bloom was falling off the rose of postwar prosperity. After the horrors and ravages of war, a bright, glistening future was promised—there would be change: resulting in comfortable homes and fridges stocked with food and cars to suit every whim. But—to keep in the automotive vein—change can be a two-way street. For every shiny, corporate-approved advance, there loomed an ominous specter: There was the H-bomb; and creeping Communism; and venal politicians unafraid to leverage the threat of creeping Communism for their own advantage. And for the white, largely middle-class portion of the populace, there were other threats as well—the worry that women who had labored in the factories and other jobs while their men were off fighting Hitler and Tojo wouldn’t necessarily be satisfied with returning home to dish up steak dinners and squeeze out a buncha babies; that their kids might look at all that pre-fab conformity and decide to find role-models in a country boy embracing the raw sexuality of rhythm and blues, or in anti-materialistic beatniks with their weird poetry and even weirder cigarettes; that minorities might well want a piece of that prosperity for themselves, sharing classrooms at school, or even—gasp!—moving in next door. The future could indeed be strange and—rhyming, balletic sibyls notwithstanding—the promise that things would not change could not be guaranteed. If you defined your life, yourself, and your worth by the glistening baubles of consumer culture, you were growing aware of how flimsy a foundation that was.

Screenshot: Universal Pictures

And into this milieu, in 1957, came Universal’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. Written by Richard Matheson and directed by Universal’s house genre-meister Jack Arnold, the film tells the story of Scott Carey (Grant Williams) an ordinary—albeit hunky—dude who has the misfortune of wandering into a radiation cloud during a boating vacation and as a result begins slowly shrinking, like the title says. It’s widely regarded as a standout entry in Universal’s roster of ’50s genre efforts, and rightly so: The film’s second half, in which an inch-tall Scott becomes trapped in his home’s basement and struggles to survive—scaling wooden crates like mountains, surviving the flooding of a ruptured water heater, fighting off a vicious, implacable tarantula—is a textbook example of B-movie thrills. The grievously underappreciated Arnold—among his other titles were The Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space—knew his way around SF action, and orchestrates the largely dialogue-free sequence with a for-the-time-impressive combination of gripping editing, lavish production design—this is no paint-a-label-on-an-oil-drum-and-call-it-a-soup-can exercise—and excellently conceived practical and visual effects.

For those who justifiably hail the film as a genre classic, this second half is the stuff that they’re largely extolling, the thrilling, movie-poster-worthy life-and-death adventure in a world at once so familiar yet turned absolutely threatening. But there’s another film in Shrinking Man as well, one that largely occupies the movie’s first half, and through which the latter half’s adventure acquires an even more evocative perspective. The film begins on a note of serene complacency, with Scott and his wife, Louise (Randy Stuart) sunning themselves on the deck of his brother’s boat. This is the halcyon vision of the American Dream in its post-war fulfillment (in Matheson’s original novel, Scott is looking forward to the G.I. loan that will allow him to buy his first house, and it’s implied that Scott’s brother made his fortune through military contracts). But then, the nuclear cloud looms—as literally in the film as it did figuratively in the minds of its audience—casting an ominous shadow over the illusion of comfort and security.

And here’s where The Incredible Shrinking Man strikes at the fears of its contemporary viewers. Once Scott’s body no longer fits his clothes and his lovely wife starts looking down on him (in a literal sense only; for better or worse, she always remains devoted), that golden dream of a loving wife, good job, comfortable home—in other words, the stuff Scott considers his due and by which he measures his worth—is slowly pulled beyond his grasp. It would be an understatement to say he does not take it well—in fact, he becomes something of a dick: hostile to the doctors attempting to treat him, whiny and self-pitying to himself, and abusive to Lou—to the point where, the film implies, he carries on an affair with Clarice, a little person (played by April Kent, who is not a little person) who works at the local carnival.

Screenshot: Universal Pictures

While Matheson’s original novel draws a clear line between Scott’s ever-decreasing stature and his sense of emasculation—dwelling frequently on his frustration over no longer being the lover Lou needs—the film settles for a disturbing reveal of the man nearly submerged into an easy chair (complete with shock sting on the soundtrack); sequences featuring a media circus all too eager to whittle Scott’s entire identity down to his affliction; and the repeated invocation of a book Scott struggles to write about his experiences (a surrogate for the act of creation of which he’s no longer capable). Everything Scott had—that wonderful, postwar future that he conflated with his own self-worth—is pulled away. (It might also be noted that Scott’s brief dalliance among little people could be read as the moment when he becomes cognizant of the marginalized communities seeking the same benefits he felt were owed to him.)

And maybe, for the audience, the fear there was that their lives weren’t so much different from Scott’s… That they, suffused in the prosperous glow of postwar America, were willfully distracting themselves from darknesses and needs—both within and without—that must be confronted if they were to be overcome. You can try to define yourself with a new Chevrolet, or a two-bed, two-bath split-level, or the most powerful Hoover on the market, but strip the luxuries away and what’s left? What becomes of us?

Shrinking Man provides two answers, one pessimistic, one hopeful. The first comes in Scott’s struggle for survival in the basement. Shorn of the benefits of the consumer culture, his life devolves into a minute-by-minute struggle for survival. To stay alive, ingenuity must still be employed, using the humble implements at Scott’s disposal: rope-like twine; giant pins; a matchstick the thickness of a tree trunk (with an impressive practical effect upon ignition). But instinct and pure damn luck also come into play, and it’s made manifest that who Scott is becomes less important than how he will endure over the next few seconds. (The novel makes the primal, repetitive battle more excruciating by establishing that Scott has been trapped in the cellar for months, whereas the film implies that his struggle goes on for, maximum, a few days.)

Screenshot: Universal Pictures

This hellish vision culminates with Scott’s vanquishing of the tarantula—again as much by accident as by design. Once that threat is overcome, the film then turns to the hopeful, with Scott realizing he must navigate away from the world he knew and embrace his journey beyond the tangible plane. Frankly, the shift in tone is rather abrupt—probably due to an obligation to keep the film’s running time below ninety minutes—but it does follow a logical progression. The future that Scott thought he knew, the one he aspired to, was, he realizes, always built on a flimsy foundation of false confidence and willful ignorance. In the crucible of the basement, he had no choice but to live in the now, to acknowledge the dangers and opportunities immediately before him, and deal with them as he could. When you cannot see beyond the mousetrap, the mousetrap is the thing you must contend with.

And having emerged from that final circle of hell, there’s the acceptance that, in actuality, it’s all now, that there may be dangers, yes, in the dimensions to which he is being dispatched, but wonders as well, if he leaves himself open to them. “…to nature, there was no zero,” Matheson wrote in his novel. (Director Arnold substituted “God” for “nature” in the film’s narration, because, y’know, Fifties.) And with the realization that the worth of something—including one’s own self—is what one brings to it, Scott is ready to abandon the false pantomime of prosperity, and to behold and treasure those things of genuine worth, including his own, ongoing adventure, and his own personal growth.

There is a lot we must confront in our world: disease and war; hunger; hatred; greed and fear. It is natural that we protect our integrity in whatever ways we can, through hard work, acts of creativity, secure shelter and the pleasure of physical goods. But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to become so attached to those things that we lose sight of what really matters; our connection to others; and our ability to make the world better overall. The Incredible Shrinking Man, the movie, glosses over a point the novel makes manifest: That Scott—having foolishly burned the bridges of his past life—now relishes the potential of connecting with others in whatever new realms he discovers. In a way, he has the good fortune of having Richard Matheson’s science fiction machinations to compel him to his life-altering realization. We, surrounded by our tools and toys, are left to our own wills if we are to grow beyond our comforts, and to treasure the true value of human experience.

* * *

For the record: I am more than happy with my beautiful apartment, my collection of Star Trek prop replicas, my ‘fridge stocked with Coke Zero Sugar and Lean Cuisines, and, most importantly, the love of my S.O. of forty-two years. But it is important to look beyond the things we have to the miracle of our very existence, and the value of living beyond the markers of physical goods. Maybe you don’t agree, or maybe you don’t feel The Incredible Shrinking Man is quite the right conduit for this lesson, or maybe another film or novel brought you to that conclusion. Whatever your feelings, the comment section is open for your thoughts. Keep it friendly and polite, and let’s hear from you.

Dan Persons has been knocking about the genre media beat for, oh, a good handful of years, now. He’s presently house critic for the radio show Hour of the Wolf on WBAI 99.5FM in New York, and previously was editor of Cinefantastique and Animefantastique, as well as producer of news updates for The Monster Channel. He is also founder of Anime Philadelphia, a program to encourage theatrical screenings of Japanese animation. And you should taste his One Alarm Chili! Wow!

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