World of Giants

‘World of Giants’ Is Cold War Sci-Fi Espionage with a Small Difference

World of Giants is catnip and dog-nip and gopher-nip for connoisseurs of classic sci-fi TV ’50s style, aka, the art of really short half-hour storytelling.

World of Giants
7 November 2023

You know those dreams where you try to perform a simple action and it balloons to tedious proportions as other details get in the way? Or how you feel when dealing with bureaucracy? That’s the experience of watching World of Giants, a 13-episode series from 1959 that’s been something of a lost holy grail for sci-fi fans. Out of the blue, the whole thing is now on DVD and Blu-ray from ClassicFlix, as restored from 16mm prints by the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. It’s fascinating.

World of Giants‘ opening credits blare the acronym WOG (because it sounds mysterious and modern?) while our narrator-hero declares with a reverberant voice: “WOG, World of Giants. You’re about to see one of the most closely guarded secrets and one of the most fantastic series of events ever recorded in the annals of counter-espionage. This is my story, the story of Mel Hunter, who lives in your world, a world of giants.” The camera gazes upward through a glass ceiling at startling images of huge falling scissors and a man’s shoe about to come down on our heads.

As is repeatedly explained in almost every episode of World of Giants, Mel Hunter (Marshall Thompson) and his partner Bill Winters (Arthur Franz) were “on assignment behind the Iron Curtain” for “the Bureau” when they got caught near a rocket explosion using a “new type” experimental fuel. Freakishly, Mel began shrinking until he stopped at six inches in height. This happened six months prior, and now he handles special assignments that only he can pull off by climbing into a woman’s purse or hiding in a drawer.

Perhaps this sounds a little bit like Jack Arnold’s sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and in fact, Arnold was brought in to direct some episodes of World of Giants. Both the movie and the series capitalize on giant props and animal attacks. The series even very, very lightly touches on its tiny hero’s sexual frustration, which is a major theme in the film.

CBS commissioned World of Giants from Ziv Television, a prominent producer of 1950s syndicated and network shows like Highway PatrolI Led Three Lives, and the early science fiction programs Science Fiction Theatre and Men Into Space. Unfortunately, CBS couldn’t drum up a sponsor, so they ceased production after 13 half-hour episodes. World of Giants was eventually offered for syndication instead of being shown on the network. The 13 episodes aren’t much for syndication, and hardly anyone ever saw World of Giants. That’s why the series is a bit of a legend as the lost, missing link between The Incredible Shrinking Man and Irwin Allen’s Land of the Giants (1968-70).

The early episodes of World of Giants were produced by Otto Lang, who also directed the first two. Lang did a lot of television work, and earlier, he produced crime and espionage classics such as Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ Five Fingers (1952) and Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 (1948). He had a serious pedigree.

Lang’s incarnation of World of Giants is technically striking, even original, though some problems are apparent. Two tropes are paramount. First, to increase Hunter’s danger, his partner, Winters, is constantly incapacitated. He’s knocked out more often than a punch-drunk boxer, and he gets shot often, too. Maybe he’d be better at a desk job.

The second trope is danger from the animal kingdom. The early episodes are like a zoological sweepstakes in which we try to guess which animal will threaten Hunter this time. For this reason, World of Giants can seem like an accidental preview of Thompson’s later series Daktari (1966-69), in which he plays a veterinarian in Africa. Some of those animals wanted to eat him, too.

A third trope, or tic, crosses into irritation. While Hunter is faced with surreal, nightmarish tasks like dialing a phone, wrestling with a pencil (how’s that for symbolism), or fleeing a gopher, his voice-over continually belabors what he’s doing and how he’s working out his plans, even though we see this perfectly clearly. It’s as if someone thinks World of Giants is a radio show or magazine story, and the narration is hardly sparkling.

As of the fifth episode or thereabouts, William Alland takes over as producer and makes many significant changes. Alland played the reporter in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), but his more significant career is as the producer of most of the famous 1950s sci-fi films directed by Arnold. Alland brings in veteran genre directors Arnold, Byron Haskin, Eugene Lourie, Nathan Juran, and Harry Horner. These guys are heavyweights.

Alland also hired illustrious effects photographer David S. Horsley as director of photography, replacing the more standard television cinematographer Monroe Askins. Askins, who even directed an early episode, had been good, and he did a lot of slightly warped upward shots from Hunter’s POV, but the installation of Horsley and the sci-fi directors creates a notable leap in visual imagination.

Accordingly, another good decision Alland made was dropping the redundant voice-overs. Hunter still looks into the camera and addresses us once per episode to remind us he knows we’re watching, and this fits World of Giants’ surreal tone, but the action is trusted to play out in its own visual suspense. Winters still gets knocked out constantly, but what can you do?

Alland also made important changes to the setup. Early episodes give us the impression that Hunter literally lives in a suitcase in Winters’ apartment. The case is equipped with a small chair. Maybe somebody thought it was odd that two bachelors share a one-bedroom apartment, and one of them is the size of a penis. Suddenly, Hunter lives in a snazzy dollhouse hidden behind a modern painting and slides out with push-button magic. Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!

Hunter now also rates a pretty secretary-nurse, Miss Dorothy Brown (Marcia Henderson), who works at Winters’ apartment during the day but seems to hang around till all hours. This is where World of Giants‘ sexual tension comes in. She and Hunter snipe at each other like inevitable hook-ups in a screwball comedy. Any physical relationship would be quite smothering, to say the least, as she is full-sized, so she instead frequently dances and flirts with Winters. At any rate, she exists to establish hetero-credentials between these chums, and her presence adds a lot to the episodes.

Before Miss Brown’s arrival, the boys got their assignments from stuffy middle-aged suits who explained the week’s plot while sitting behind a desk. The most frequent explainer is Commissioner H.G. Hall (John Gaullaudet), and seen a couple of times are Assistant Commissioner Wade (Tom Brown) and Larry Gregson (Tom McKee). After Miss Brown shows up, Hall is the only one still around, and we see less and less of him without missing him.

One of World of Giants‘ best episodes is “Off Beat” by the married team of Kay Lenard and Jess Carneol. They wrote many television scripts, especially westerns. By the way, this is the only episode of World of Giants with a woman writer. It gives the wittiest line in the entire series to Winters: “Oh, I never go to museums. I would say culture is dangerous.” Hunter also gets a good line when he responds to a drollery with “I’ll laugh tomorrow.”

“Off Beat” suddenly establishes that Hunter’s a real hep jazzbo, and he beats a tiny drum set! Details like this approach the sublime. Culture is dangerous indeed. Further, this is the only episode with an African-American as jazz musician, Daddy Dean, played by Bill Walker, who gives possibly the most natural and unaffected performance in the series.

Daddy Dean is established as Hunter’s old friend and mentor. In a scene much warmer and more personal than is common on the show, he’s the only civilian who’s let in on The Secret. Daddy says, “I don’t care what kind of shape you’re in. You’re still my boy, son.” It’s an affirmation of acceptance for all types of people in the context of a weird spy-fi show and couched in the language more commonly used by patronizing white characters toward black men. 1959 was a good year for the highly prolific Walker, as he also appeared in two all-black-cast films, Otto Preminger’s Porgy and Bess and Philip Leacock’s Take a Giant Step.

“Off Beat” is one of the two episodes directed by Horner, an Oscar-winning art director turned busy television director. His other episode also has a surprisingly human ethnic touch. That’s “Rainbow of Fire” by A. Sanford Wolf and Irwin Winehouse. It’s set in a fictional South American country called El Porto.

Suspecting that a defensive peasant boy has part of a fallen rocket, and the boy operates on the universal principle of “finders keepers”, Hunter plays on the boy’s conscience by pretending his burro is talking. Winters compliments Hunter with, “Say, old buddy, I didn’t know you were such a good liar.” To prove that Yankees aren’t full of flim-flam, they must make good on Hunter’s promise of a new donkey cart. This episode has especially clever visual ideas as Hunter travels inside a camera and says it’s like watching television.

The same Wolf and Winehouse writing team provides another top episode, the ingenious and even frightening “Panic in 3B”, directed by Arnold. Proving that foreign agents aren’t stupid, two of them lure Winters and Brown away from the apartment and search for the rumored “little monster” who’s been causing them so many headaches. Save for one brief shot, this riveting and imaginative story takes place entirely in the apartment.

The nightmarish climax of “Panic in 3B” has Hunter’s snazzy little pad violated by a giant grasping hand, an image we associate with Juran’s contemporary Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) starring Allison Hayes – who guest stars in another episode! For that matter, World of Giants has a line of sultry femme fatales, as played by Hayes, Peggie Castle, Narda Onyx, Maria Palmer, Ziva Rodann, Pamela Duncan, and Carol Kelly.

Also showing up are such familiar character faces as Gavin MacLeod, Berry Kroeger, John Van Dreelen, Edgar Barrier, Eduardo Noriega, Harry Lauter, Douglas Dick, Nestor Paiva, Johnny Silver, Ivan Triesault and Gregg Palmer. Other writers include Fred Freiberger (who did lots of science fiction), Meyer Dolinsky, Robert C. Dennis, Jack Laird, and Oscar nominee Paul King. The music, including the martial theme, has no credit and might be library tracks.

Robert Kinoshita, famous for designing Robby the Robot and the Lost in Space robot, is World of Giants‘ set designer. He is aided by decorators Lou Hafley and Charles Thompson. Kinoshita was succeeded in the last episodes by Jack T. Collis, who also did plenty of genre work. Audio supervisor Al Lincoln is responsible for the subtle detail of Hunter’s echoing voice and the sound effects that indicate how he hears things differently due to his size.

World of Giants is a direct, absurd, and stylish mix of Cold War paranoia and high-concept science fiction. It often winks at the audience while taking itself seriously enough to get its plots over. Best of all, it has an often seamless cascade of trick shots using models, large props, spiffy sets, superimposition, rear projection, and split screen. World of Giants is catnip for connoisseurs of classic sci-fi television, 1950s style, or the forgotten art of get-in-and-get-out half-hour storytelling. Plus dog-nip and gopher-nip.