Fifty years ago, it was 1954. (Research is the heart of journalism.) Many important things happened in 1954. Dean Martin sang "That's Amore," and the French surrendered in Vietnam (these two events were probably unrelated). On TV, the new hit was "Lassie," a show about a really smart dog who belonged to a family with the IQ of mushrooms:
"What's Lassie trying to tell us?"
"I don't know, although the last 29 consecutive times she acted like this, it was because Jeff fell into the well!"
"Well, I'm baffled! What's wrong, girl?"
But for lasting cultural significance, the most important event of 1954 was the release, in Japan, of the first "Godzilla" movie, which in the American version was called "Godzilla, King of the Monsters." Although many people -- you, for example -- think of "Godzilla" as a cheesy monster movie, it is in fact a somber metaphor for the Atomic Age, showing what happens when the human race, in its arrogance, tampers with nature and unwittingly unleashes the terrible power of a man in a rubber suit destroying tiny unrealistic props.
Don't get me wrong: I love Godzilla, in a manly, heterosexual way. As a boy growing up in the 1950s, I saw all the Japanese monster movies I could, including "Mothra," "Rodan," "The Mysterians" and "Ben-Hur." But Godzilla, truly, was the king. He was Elvis. This is why, in honor of his 50th birthday, I recently decided to watch the original Godzilla movie again. And if you think that, after all these years, it has lost something, I have news for you: It's funnier than ever.
This is especially true of the American version, which had Raymond Burr edited into it. Burr plays a reporter named Steve Martin, whose primary function is to frown with concern at various scenes that he can't actually be in because he wasn't around when they were filmed. You see Godzilla stomping around in his rubber suit; then you see Japanese people fleeing in panic; then you see Steve looking concerned, as if he's thinking: "How come the sky color is completely different in the scenes that show me?"
After he has spent a while watching Tokyo being obliterated by a 400-foot-tall monster with radioactive breath, Steve's "nose for news" starts twitching, and he takes time out from frowning to write an actual story. This leads to the following telephone exchange between Steve and his editor.
Editor: Now let's have it, Steve. What about this monster story of yours?
Steve: Well, it's big and terrible, more frightening than I ever thought possible.
Editor: You realize your story's front page all over the country. We want to know what's being done about this monster.
Steve: Well, here's your headline: "Security Decides to Use Depth Bomb on Godzilla."
(As a veteran of 30 years in the newspaper business, I can attest that this is a totally accurate depiction of the way reporters and editors talk to each other, the only difference being that, in real life, the editor would have begun by asking Steve about his expense report.) Needless to say, the depth bomb fails to kill Godzilla. So does the Army, which never had any luck against Godzilla. Godzilla is finally killed in Tokyo Harbor by a secret weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer in a dramatic underwater scene that, cinematically, may never be surpassed for sheer murkiness.
Of course it turns out that even death was not permanently fatal to Godzilla, who went on to star in many sequels. In my opinion, the best is "Godzilla vs. Mothra" (1964), which you must rent immediately. It features Mothra, which is -- yes -- a giant moth. The thing about moths is, no matter how big one gets, it never really creates a feeling of awe in the viewer, especially when it's portrayed by a flagrant puppet that looks like a bumblebee wearing a shag carpet. When Mothra fights Godzilla, you can tell Godzilla's thinking: "I'm glad I'm wearing this rubber suit, because I've lost control of my bladder."
The plot involves the arrival in Japan of a giant egg, and two really annoying singing telepathic fairies who have come to Japan to . . . Okay, it's too complicated to explain the plot here. Just rent the movie, okay? Be sure to watch the climactic final battle between Godzilla and -- I am not making this up -- two enormous moth larvae. When you watch this battle, you will understand why moth larvae are so often referred to as "the mighty fierce warriors of the animal kingdom." You will also wish that you, too, were wearing a Godzilla suit.