Monday, June 8, 2015

Cult Movie Project #12 (of 200) :: Attention: Something's Wrong on Altair-4 and It Doesn't Quite Compute in Fred Wilcox's Forbidden Planet (1956).

From concept to execution, I freely admit Forbidden Planet (1956) was a little over my head when first encountered on VHS tape back in junior high (-- though it might've been on one of those LP-sized laser discs, if faulty memory serves). I hadn't been introduced to Shakespeare yet, and was just as unfamiliar with the theories of Sigmund Freud. Still, the robot was cool -- hell, it even belched!, the electronica soundtrack all kinds of eerie, and the monster (and the mystery around it) was super-creepy and its brutal assault on the crew of the C-57D left a lasting favorable impression; even though 11-year old me felt it was a little corny and the film squandered too much time on all that "mush" between Commander Adams (Neilson) and Alta (Francis); and, man, that Dr. Morbius (Pidgeon) sure liked to hear himself regurgitate a metric-ton of sci-babble, didn't he?

Yeah. I was/am/and ever shall be a huge fan of sci-fi flicks from the 1950s but usually gravitated more toward the high-octane and hair-brained and cheaper product churned out by American International and Allied Artists or other independents rather than this seemingly stodgy and sanitized first shot at genre legitimacy, courtesy of a grandaddy studio like MGM.

The film began as a treatment by Irving Block and Allen Adler called Fatal Planet, a re-imagining of The Tempest with a healthy sprinkling of psycho-analysis to give it some pep, which begins in the far flung future of 1976, when an expeditionary force is sent to Mercury to retrieve a scientist and his daughter, who have been marooned there for over two decades, currently being stalked by an invisible monster. When Allied Artists rejected it, Block took a shot and pitched it to Dore Schary at MGM (-- which hadn't produced a this kind of F/X-laden film since The Wizard of Oz (1939)), who, serendipitously enough, was looking for a sci-fi property in his efforts to reinvent and reinvigorate the moribund studio.

It should be noted that even though Schary liked the highbrow concept enough to give it a green-light, it was originally budgeted as a B-picture. However, during the pre-production phase the project picked up some much needed steam when art directors Arthur Lonegran and Cedric Gibbons and head F/X-man Arnold Gillespie basically said, screw it, and designed the film how they thought it should be done, budget be damned. Liking what he saw on paper and, perhaps to also answer rival Universal International own mega-budgeted out-of-this-world blowout, This Island Earth (1955), Schary doubled-down on the rechristened Forbidden Planet, raising the budget to over one million dollars, which eventually doubled again before the production was completed.

As we all know a good chunk of that money was spent on one prop, nearly one-quarter of the original budget, but Robby the Robot proved worth it. Designed by Robert Kinoshita and voiced by Marvin Millar, the man-in-the-suit machinations were a closely guarded secret, hoping to sell it as an actual automaton. To realize the deadly Id Monster, the F/X had to be farmed out since MGM's own fabled animation department had been dismantled by 1955. Thus, Schary arranged the loan of Joshua Meador from Walt Disney, who also animated in all the laser beams, landing rays, and other energy discharges (like whenever Robby throws a rod).

Schary also made another fateful decision for Forbidden Planet after he attended the performance of two "avant-garde electronic musicians" at a nightclub in Greenwich Village, and was so mesmerized by the ethereal and eerie sounds produced by Louis and Bebe Barron that he hired them on the spot to re-score the film, trashing all of David Rose's original music except for the main title theme. Receiving a work-print of the film, the Barrons spent nearly three months in their home studio, creating all the "tonalities" for the film, including the Id Monster's signature roar.

As the release date loomed, an incomplete rough cut of the film was previewed and the audience reaction was so favorable Schary, feeling the heat from the studio brass, spent no more money and ordered the film to be released as is. Alas, audiences back in 1956 agreed with my initial assessment. And while the film didn't exactly tank at the box-office it failed to make back its production costs, making it another in a long string of flops for MGM, which, according to most sources, also cost Schary his job, who was ousted from the studio shortly after. Released the year before, This Island Earth also failed to meet box-office expectations, thus, these two massive swings and misses essentially relegated this kind of genre picture back to the B-unit minor leagues, where it languished until Kubrick's 2001: A Space Oddysey (1968) showed its viability as a big-ticket item, launching a decade long surge that culminated in 1977 with the blockbuster release of Star Wars and things have never been the same since.

I saw Star Wars (and The Empire Strikes Back (1980)) before I saw Forbidden Planet, which also might explain my initial cool reaction to it. However, as I've gotten older, I've aged into this flick considerably and appreciate it as a true classic of the era. What I used to find wasteful I now find endearing. And the Shakespearean nod on the plot and the Freudian twist on the monster are kinda trippy. The film still has some glaring faults, though; namely the ending, when Alta chooses Adams over her father, which felt a little trite and truncated; and the ultimate climax really needed to show the Id monster and Morbius finally coming to (fatal) terms with each other. Also, when you have the world's coolest cinematic robot, why waste him as the odious comedy relief? And you spent all that money realizing Altair-4, how come we only get to see so very little of it?

Perhaps Schary's biggest mistake was that even though Forbidden Planet has the sheen of an A-picture, it was still shot and executed like a B. Perhaps some of that expanded budget should've been leeched away from the production design and F/X and spread around on an upgrade behind the camera (director Fred Wilcox biggest films to date were two Lassie sequels) and aim a little higher on the cast, who are all perfunctory enough, to inject some more life into it. (Aside from Walter Pidgeon, the cast was filled out from the lower end of the MGM stable. And, holy Krell crap, does Francis look smashing in those myriad outfits, too bad her role is strictly eye-candy.)

Think how good the film is during the (all too few) action set-pieces, or the exploration of the mammoth underground Krell laboratory and reactor and power plant, and how much it drags everywhere else.

Still, the film does look fantastic -- especially on BluRay and a TV big enough to appreciate the true impact of the Eastman Color and CinemaScope and the work that was put in behind the scenes to make this flick click and stick. And as this cinematic equation reaches a solution, the pluses are just enough to negate the minuses. Add it all up and you got a flawed film I used to like but now legitimately love and champion. 

Other Points of Interest:

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"While there are marvelous things about Forbidden Planet -- the electronic music, special effects (including the Id Monster and Robby the Robot), and scenic design -- they are all of a cosmetic nature ... In my opinion, there are numerous science fiction films that are more intelligent, clever, suspenseful, economical, witty ... you name it. But while I consider Forbidden Planet to be grossly overrated, I do not underestimate the film's importance to its genre. A seminal work, the only [sci-fi] movie of the fifties to succeed in giving the [sci-fi] genre a long-denied tag of respectability."

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The Fine Print: Forbidden Planet was watched via Warner Home Video's Special Edition BluRay. Screened as a sci-fi/fantasy double-feature with Jason and the Argonauts (1963). What's the Cult Movie Project? That's twelve down, with 188 to go.

Forbidden Planet (1956) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) / P: Nicholas Nayfack / D: Fred M. Wilcox / W: Cyril Hume, Irving Block, Allen Adler, William Shakespeare (play) / C: George J. Folsey / E: Ferris Webster / M: Bebe Barron, Louis Barron / S: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly, Earl Holliman, Robby the Robot


captainhot said...

Anne Francis never looked more beautiful than she does here in Forbidden Planet, absolutely gorgeous. I loved this movie as a kid, and I watch it pretty much whenever TCM plays it. (I also own a VCR copy, but I actually don't have a working VCR anymore.) I love Leslie Nielsen and Jack Kelly in here, but what's really great is the comedy scenes between Earl Holliman and Robby the Robot. Third best 50's Sci-fi Movie IMHO, only behind the great duo of The Thing from Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

W.B. Kelso said...

Randy! Good to hear from you. You know, after publishing this and rereading through it, for a movie I genuinely like, a lot, I sure have a funny way of putting it. *yeesh*

And I do like this movie, a whole lot, and the scenes with Anne Francis and Robby are even funnier than his scenes with the cook. (I wonder how many takes it took Millar to get that magnificent belch. Apparently, there was an unfilmed interlude where Robby brought the *ahem* lonely cook a monkey for some companionship.) And if not Leslie Nielson it probably would have been Van Johnson.

I also forgot MGMs efforts to recoup some of the cost by renting the costumes and props and even Robby to countless other productions.

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