The unexpected ‘theatrical appearance’ of the beloved radioactive monster from Japan during a largely forgotten 4-minute sequence in the 1975 film Cooley High may be one of the coolest examples of product placement in the history of modern cinema. But then, American International Pictures (AIP), the U.S. distributer of Godzilla films then and the maker of Cooley High, was in no way your average movie studio.
After entering the film business as an independent in 1954, AIP found an unexploited niche and promptly consolidated its fledgling position in the film business by focusing its efforts into making movies that were irresistible to teens. Research conducted by AIP showed that escapism-hungry teenagers attended the movies far more often than adults did.
It also revealed that, along with other proven themes — like fast cars, sex and rock ’n’ roll — teenagers really loved monsters.
And so by the middle of the 1960s, to bolster its decade deep library of American made science fiction and monster flicks, AIP expanded its options for thrills-n-chills seeking teens by very wisely (and cheaply) securing the American distribution rights to a slew of contemporary monster films that were made in Japan. Among those frequently profitable acquisitions were the Godzilla flicks of Toho Studios, the science fiction monster films of Daiei Studios, which featured the Godzilla-like giant turtle Gamera, and the tokusatsu (“special effects”) TV show Giant Robo, a.k.a. Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot.
Altogether, the Japanese motion picture imports of AIP in the mid-1960s helped to feed the growing imagination of a generation. But the times, they were a-changing.
Low Budget Greatness
In the 1970s, AIP would find itself forced to flesh out a very different niche market when the mass migration of white Americans out of major cities nationwide into racially homogeneous suburbs nearly bankrupted the motion picture industry. With attendance bottoming out at larger theaters, mostly located in urban markets, AIP and its competitors began making films that catered to the interests of African-Americans living in the inner city.
AIP’s blaxploitation offerings such as Blacula, Black Caesar, Scream Blacula, Scream, Hell Up in Harlem, and others came to epitomize the low-budget greatness of this once-popular and profitable sub-genre.
Such offerings also gave to American pop culture one of its most enduring cult cinema legends: actress Pam Grier, whose earliest films like Black Mama White Mama, Coffy, and Foxy Brown were all produced by AIP.
In addition to its vast array of sci-fi, Japanese daikaiju (“giant monster”), and blaxploitation genre gems, AIP also made strides in the 1970s to make films that could win the appeal of more mainstream audiences. The 1975 film Cooley High is arguably the very best example of all such offerings.
Frequently dubbed “the black American Graffiti,” albeit with “far more vitality and variety” (The New York Times) than George Lucas’ film, this landmark dramatic comedy starred Glenn Turman, Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs, and Saturday Night Live’s Garrett Morris as a caring history teacher at the film’s namesake vocational high school.
Along with friends Pooter (played by Corin Rogers) and Tyrone (Joseph Carter Wilson), Preach and Cochise cram for exams together, attempt to cheat off each other at test time, chase after their female schoolmates, and ditch class to hang out at their favorite haunts, amongst which are the city zoo and the movie theater. It is while the friends play hooky at the movies one afternoon that one of the film’s most memorable sequences occurs.
Godzilla vs. The Thing
Inside the darkened auditorium of Chicago’s Adelphi Theater, the awesome sights and sounds of a Godzilla flick erupt on screen to the delight of a packed teen audience. Down front, a wide camera shot zooms into a tight close-up of the radioactive dragon’s bumpy brow. The tension of an inevitable rampage by the ginormous lizard intensifies with the trademark trumpet and trombone blares of composer Akira Ifukube’s thunderous orchestral score.
As the super-sized melodrama of Godzilla vs. the Thing plays out on the screen, Cochise, Preach, Tyrone and their dates use the opportunity offered by a darkened balcony for a make-out session. Pooter, the unfortunate odd man out, takes in the creature feature with the rest of the enthusiastic crowd — who loudly cheer on a four-way brawl between Godzilla, the Japanese Self Defense Forces, and the giant silkworm larvae, Mothra and Battra.
Though only midway through the movie, Pooter’s fingers have found the bottom of the red and white striped popcorn carton cradled on his lap. Wanting more of the snack food, he stands and clumsily navigates his way around the feet of Tyrone and his date, whose faces project their annoyance at what must be yet another one of many trips out of the row by Pooter.
Minutes later, Pooter returns with three heaping cartons of popcorn — enough to last until the end of the movie. But this time he has chosen to enter the theater through the doors on the opposite end of his row, where Cochise and his date sit making out. Pooter whispers a request to be let through, but Cochise isn’t budging. Pushing him back with a dismissive left hand, Cochise tells Pooter to go sit someplace else and presses his lips back onto those of his date.
Making his way to an empty seat in the middle of the row a few feet back, Pooter trips and spills popcorn onto the heads of several now irritated young patrons. He apologizes and quickly continues to his destination in the center of the row. But before he can make it there, he accidentally stumbles on the toes of a rough young tough who leaps up to make Pooter frighteningly aware of how pained he is by that misstep.
The threat of a pounding is so palpable that its bland taste wipes the flavor of popcorn from Pooter’s palate.
A flurry of quick apologies tumble from Pooter’s trembling lips, but the tough is inconsolable. He threatens to beat the clumsy intruder up. Before the threat can be carried out, though, a voice from two rows back says that the tough guy should pick on someone his own size. The injured man warns the wannabe hero that he’ll beat him up too.
The second tough replies, “Yeah, you and what army?”
“This army!” shouts the first as he calls out to others in the densely packed balcony that, like he, belong to one of Chicago’s most notorious street gangs. “Disciples!” yells the man, and the semi-illuminated figures of twenty or more young toughs rise up from seats situated throughout the balcony.
“You ain’t said shit!” exclaims the second man, who then makes a rallying call to members of the rival street gang to which he belongs. “Counts!” he shouts, and an equal number of toughs stand up, accounting for nearly the other half of all those seated in the balcony.
The threat of a pounding is so palpable that its bland taste wipes the flavor of popcorn from Pooter’s palate. He offers a final, desperate apology and the injured man angles his ear to listen. Then a sneaker flies forward in the dark, smacking the tough guy in the head and all hell breaks loose in the balcony.
Godzilla vs. Pooter
Popcorn cartons fly into the air as Pooter and his friends make a desperate dash for the exit doors. A menacing mob of thugs follows close behind as a blizzard of punches fly everywhere around those who flee and those who pursue. The raucous cacophony of shouts and screams that rises from the melee commingles with the beastly roars, screeches, and the blasts of militaristic warfare that blare out from the flickering silver screen.
On-screen the earth quakes as Godzilla tumbles to the dirt, rebelling against the restraining hold of an enormous net that was dropped from the sky by a swarm of Self Defense Force helicopters. Then man-made lightning crackles down onto the radioactive monster’s flesh from atop a nearby electrical tower, triggered by soldiers seated at a control panel miles away.
Desperate to be free, Godzilla breathes a cobalt blast of flame and burns an enormous hole in the net. Then he cranes his head back, exhales again and melts the 50ft. tower to the ground. Once the net and the tower have been destroyed, the monster rises to his feet and whips around to engage the tanks of the Japanese Self Defense Force that stalk nearby.
Meanwhile Pooter, unable to make it safely to the outer exit doors, darts back into the theater and runs down to the right side of the stage that holds the screen. With his pursuers close behind, he darts across to the left wing, slips behind the curtain and fades into the fabric.
Shielded by shadows, Pooter is passed by several of his pursuers, but he is soon spotted and dashes further back into the open area behind the movie screen. Seconds later, Godzilla’s battle with Battra and Mothra is preempted by the elongated silhouettes of fighting gang-bangers that fill up the screen like warring shadow play puppets.
Egged on by shouts and whistles from the audience, the melee escalates to a comedic climax when Pooter is hoisted into the air by his pursuers and thrown head first through the screen.
While this geeky factoid may have gone unnoticed by everyone who has ever seen Cooley High from the time of its 1975 release until the present, the giant monster movie screened during the Adelphi Theater free-for-all was a historically accurate reflection of the times.
In April of 1964, the year in which the story of Cooley High was set, Godzilla vs. Mothra made its theatrical debut in Japan. Five months later, the film was distributed by AIP to theaters across America under the decidedly deceptive title “Godzilla vs. the Thing.”
In addition to being a brilliant stroke of licensed product placement, that 4-minute merger of an imported daikaiju flick and a blaxploitation-era tearjerker formed a forgotten time capsule in which is preserved a glimpse of a now bygone time in American popular culture. A time when the now-gone-but-far-from-forgotten AIP was an innovative indie film studio.
One that kept adolescent audiences across the nation entertained with some the most thrilling motion pictures made in America and in Japan.
Paco Taylor is a writer from Chicago. He loves old history books, Japanese giant monster movies, hip-hop, anime, comics, Kit Kats, and kung fu flicks.