WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME
FORMAT: Blu-Ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Frustrated from trying to update iTunes before starting the movie. Eating old Halloween candy.
HILL VALLEY’S CINEMATIC OFFERINGS:
In Back to the Future, you have two options for seeing a movie in Hill Valley circa early November, 1955. You can pop in to the Essex and enjoy a showing of Cattle Queen of Montana…
Ooh, mid-autumn air conditioning!
…or you can buy a ticket to The Atomic Kid at the Town theater.
The night before this morning’s viewing of Back to the Future, I watched both of the films on these marquees, in order to ask the tough questions. What’s the significance of these movies to the overall story, and did they directly influence the creators of Back to the Future? Which film is better? And at what point should I be afraid to tell people that I think Hill Valley is real and I’m currently living there?
First up, Cattle Queen of Montana.
Perceived significance in Back to the Future before I saw it: They needed a Ronald Reagan movie that came out in 1955 to pay off the joke about some shitty actor becoming a shitty President of the United States.
Perceived significance in Back to the Future after I saw it: Uh, pretty much the same? There don’t seem to be a whole hell of a lot of Western influences in BTTF 1, and especially none from this particular film, which a) isn’t very good, and b) came out a year earlier in 1954! Yeah, they should have gone with Tennessee’s Partner, which was released in September of 1955 and is still a Western, so if they absolutely insisted on imagery of Reagan in a dumb cowboy movie, they could have kept things historically accurate.
But twist my arm, you say? Come up with at least a few similarities between Cattle Queen of Montana and Back to the Future? Alright, do you want to start with rape or racism?
If you think it’s the most racist thing ever that the white Marty McFly introduces black music to white people like he invented it, welcome to 1950s Hollywood, when movies straight up didn’t even pretend to give a fuck about the not-whites. Yep, every single American Indian in Cattle Queen of Montana is played by the Wonder Breadiest of actors. I honestly can’t even tell if I’m more offended that they talk and act exactly like the cowboy characters while wearing dark makeup and feathers, because “me no trust-um pale face” speak would have also been goddamned horrible.
Still, Cattle Queen deserves a little credit for trying to portray the American Indians in a positive light. The movie revolves around a land dispute between a local tribe (in league with some evil cowboy guy) and Sierra Nevada Jones (Barbara Stanwyck), the titular cattle queen. When she overhears some locals speaking ill of the tribe, she comes to their defense and urges the settlers to try to get along with them.
Cut the shit, ladies.
How does that relate to Back to the Future? Well, it reminded me of the scene in Lou’s Cafe where Marty tells everyone that Goldie Wilson is going to be mayor someday and nobody believes him because they’re all filthy racists. Oh, and even though I’ve proven through my frightening obsession with time travel rules that Marty couldn’t possibly have given Goldie any inspiration that he wouldn’t have had on his own, some people still think that scene is racist too. Well, in Cattle Queen, Sierra is partially steamed because the townsfolk are implying that she’s boning the tribesmen, so, you know, also racist? Agh! Racism.
Hey, here’s a scene where the female protagonist is sexually assaulted!
Well, looky what we have here.
Unlike Back to the Future, however, she just shoots the bastard.
Under Back to the Future rules, she now has to marry herself and have three kids.
Alright, seriously, the absolute last connection I can think of: they both have characters called Jones whose names appear on signs.
Riveting shit, eh? Let’s uncork The Atomic Kid now.
Perceived significance in Back to the Future before I saw it: The movie’s title serves as a nickname of sorts for Marty, the teenager in the nuclear-powered time machine, as he rides off into the temporal sunset under the very marquee displaying it. It’s cinematically romantic as all hell, and come to think of it, The Atomic Kid is a pretty badass cowboy moniker. Yeah, I was wrong, this movie has a fairly Western climax.
Perceived significance in Back to the Future before I saw it: Okay, there are a few parallels between The Atomic Kid and the Back to the Future we know and love today, but I can’t write another sentence until we talk about the original draft of BTTF. And, unfortunately, we also have to talk about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
I know, I know, just stay with me.
That scene with Indy climbing into a fridge in the middle of a nuclear test site? That sequence was originally the ending to Back to the Future. The time machine was not a car, but a refrigerator, and it could only be sent to the future if it were placed in the middle of an atomic blast. They scrapped the whole thing because of budgetary issues, and now the scene lives forever in a terrible fucking tragedy of a late sequel, while Marty rocks his way into the National Film Registry with a huge clock, a bitchin’ sports car, and a kickass lightning bolt.
“Hmm… needs aliens.” – George Lucas.
Welp, guess what? It takes a fairly substantial nerd to know that Indy 4 ripped off Script 1 of Future 1, but if you want to prove yourself the Mechanerdzilla on your block, you should know that Crystal Skull is ripping off Back to the Future‘s initial plans to rip off The Atomic Kid.
Check this out. Mickey Rooney and Robert Strauss are just a-wanderin’ through the desert, when all of a sudden:
House full of plastic people.
I could speculate on if The Atomic Kid‘s inclusion in Back to the Future and its similarity to the original draft’s finale are pure coincidence, but I don’t have to, because screenwriter Bob Gale directly admitted this in the commentary for the nuclear test site ending storyboard sequence featurette on the 25th anniversary trilogy box set. Still, I, uh, forgot that while I was watching The Atomic Kid. Hey, it happens. If I leave my BTTF Trivia subroutine on too long, I forget how to poop and stuff.
But enough about things that never made it to the screen (or me pooping)… here are some other parallels to Back to the Future in The Atomic Kid that make me think this might be one of Bob and/or Bob‘s favorite movies.
1) It opens with two guys desperately looking for uranium. It’s for profit, not time travel, but nevertheless, it’s a radioactive element that isn’t available in every corner drugstore.
Were uranium hunts a thing in the 1950s?
2) Mickey Rooney’s character, Barnaby “Blix” Waterberry, laments that not one Waterberry has been a success in 200 years.
See also: McFly family, history of Hill Valley.
3) At one point, Blix is thrown across a room into an oven, for no reason other than it is supposedly funny to see people thrown across a room.
Come on, there’s nothing this slapsticky in Back to the–
4) After Blix is hit with radiation and becomes The Atomic Kid, a redneck (admittedly dressed nicer than Hill Valley’s Old Man Peabody) accuses him of being a Martian.
“You space bastard!”
5) Faulty robotic contraptions are used as a source of comedy. Doc Brown’s malfunctioning wake-up machines may have been inspired by these… tickling hands.
Doctors dare not enter the room for fear of being contaminated… with laughter!
6) The writers of The Atomic Kid proceed to just make up whatever side effects of radiation they think are the most entertaining. Triggering a bunch of slot machines? Okay!
Now ask yourself if rippling time travel photographs make any more sense.
7) Finally, both films wind down on a couple that, due to scientific tomfoolery, absolutely should not have sex.
Exhibit A: Incest.
Exhibit B: The explosion of surrounding objects due to Mickey Rooney’s radioactive boner.
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, The Atomic Kid also came out in 1954.
SO WHICH TICKET SHOULD YOU PURCHASE?
It’s a bit of a tough call. Cattle Queen of Montana is a mediocre Western, and The Atomic Kid is a mediocre comedy. Still, if you find yourself in Hill Valley on November 5th, 1955 and you only have enough money to see just one movie that was first released roughly a year ago… I’d make it The Atomic Kid. Even without its influences on Back to the Future, it’s a bit of a fascinating time capsule for the kind of bullshit science that writers would actually try to pass off on audiences, especially when the real side effects of radiation poisoning are not nearly as whimsical. Also, how were we joking about stuff like this so soon? As a comedy, it’s a bit like a second-rate Martin and Lewis movie, but it still beats Cattle Queen of Montana, because a substandard comedy can be masochistically fun to hate, while a substandard Western is just boring.
“Neither” is also a sensible option.