Sunday, March 15, 2015

Forbidden Planet (MGM, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When I finally did get to Charles’ place I ran yet another pre-recorded tape we hadn’t got around to watching yet: Forbidden Planet, an MGM production from 1956 that was one of the rare major-studio forays into science-fiction at the time. This was generally considered the most intellectually sophisticated science-fiction movie made to that time (and indeed it retained that reputation until the release of 2001, also an MGM film, 12 years later), though it’s hardly the best sci-fi movie of the 1950’s — The Day the Earth Stood Still and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers both hold up better. I hadn’t seen Forbidden Planet since the early 1970’s (and then only on a black-and-white TV; this for a film whose color design is one of its chief sources of appeal!); Charles had seen it more recently (recently enough that he’d seen it on a color TV); and neither of us had seen it letterboxed (a welcome innovation but, though the film was originally in CinemaScope, it didn’t use the width of the screen as extensively as, say, the 1954 Black Widow or 1955 East of Eden and therefore less was lost in the pan-and-scan version). Afterwards Charles said he hadn’t remembered how great a movie it was or how silly it was, and that about summed up my reaction to it. On the plus side were the special effects — which have dated a bit (the flying saucer commander Leslie Nielsen — with his current reputation it’s hard these days to watch him in anything without laughing! — and his crew fly to meet up with reclusive scientist Walter Pidgeon on planet Altair-IV bobbed up and down on its strings against the painted backdrops of Cedric Gibbons’ and Arthur Lonergan’s spacescapes almost as much as the cigar-shaped ships of Flash Gordon and his adversaries had done in the Universal serials two decades earlier) but some of which remain stunning (particular the tracks of the monster and its appearance in red silhouette as it attacks the crew of the spaceship). Also on the plus side was much of the acting, notably Walter Pidgeon’s — who was surprisingly good as the reclusive Morbius, sole survivor of the previous expedition to Altair-IV, portraying an irascibility somewhat surprising to anyone who thinks of that nice Walter Pidgeon who was married to Greer Garson in so many soppy melodramae. (It’s hardly a slam on Pidgeon to note that, as good as he was, Boris Karloff could have played his part far better — though Karloff’s name on the credits would have “typed” it as a horror film, he was a much subtler and broader-ranging actor who would have made the final scenes, in which he immolates himself and the entire planet to save the universe from the monster his own id has created, truly heartbreaking instead of just conclusive.) Also on the plus side were the production values, the spare-no-expense set designs that reproduced the scientific achievements of the Krell, the long-forgotten indigenous civilization of Altair-IV, who invented self-perpetuating machines and worked out a scientific innovation that allowed them to do without bodies altogether — only to find, too late, that this made them vulnerable to the monsters from their own ids (even in a sci-fi genre piece, Hollywood’s fascination with Freudian psychology couldn’t help but come out!).

On the minus side were some overly campy plot devices — like Robby the Robot, who’s cute and charming but really cuts down this film’s thrill quotient — and another one in which Pidgeon’s daughter (Anne Francis of Bad Day at Black Rock and The Scarlet Coat, here playing an almost impossible role and playing it quite well — judging from the three films of hers I’ve seen she clearly could act and deserved major stardom; what happened?) has been insulated from all other humans for her entire life (her mother died when the daughter was still an infant and all the other humans on Pidgeon’s crew had passed even before that), and so she reacts naïvely when the other humans (all male) attempt to kiss her. It’s the same gag W. C. Fields had done 15 years before with Susan Miller’s character in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, but at least Fields intended it to be funny! Also on the minus side was some clunky dialogue — noting the basis of the plot in Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest (which really incensed Jon Douglas Eames in his entry on this film in The MGM Story — he seemed almost viscerally angry that writers Irving Block and Allen Adler took credit for writing an “original” story Cyril Hume then adapted into a screenplay), a 1977 New Yorker writer said sourly, “It’s a pity they didn’t lift some of Shakespeare’s language.” (At least two of the most interesting works of the 1930’s lifted their titles from The Tempest: Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World and Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rich and Strange.) And the biggest minus was the sluggish direction of Fred McLeod Wilcox (as he was billed — I’ve seen other credits of his list him simply as “Fred M. Wilcox”), who seemed so conscious of the Importance of this production (with a capital “I”) that he moved it along like an historical pageant instead of the crackling-tough action picture it could have been. Oddly, the climax is quite exciting — Wilcox finally gets the lead out of his cameras and turns in an exciting suspense sequence as the monster stalks Pidgeon, Nielsen and Francis through the strongest defenses Krell technology (or at least what little Pidgeon has been able to learn of it) can muster — but the earlier part of the film drags badly. And Carlos Clarens didn’t like the design of the monster; in his Illustrated History of the Horror Film he wrote:

Direction does not count for much that is essential in films of this genre, where themes can be put across successfully by the art director, the special effects department, even by the sensuousness of the color or the quality of the sound track. [Forbidden Planet is especially good in the last department, thanks to Louis and Bebe Barron’s “electronic tonalities” in lieu of a conventional musical score.] Yet, in spite of its electronic tonalities and endearing, well-bred robot, it has to fall back, for its climax, on the most conventional monster fiction. Once materialized, the Monster of the Mind looks like a panther silhouetted in red (the work of cartoon designers from the Walt Disney studios), and this denouement is as incongruous as if Spencer Tracy’s Mr. Hyde had strayed aboard Gemini X.

Oddly, the monster didn’t bother me that much — it looked astonishingly credible (it’s one of the best visual effects in the film!) and its rather prosaic contours can be explained because it’s supposed to be the projection of Morbius’ own “dark side” and therefore would look like a familiar image of terror to a human being. More bothersome was the lack of any external detailing on the flying saucer (one of the most welcome innovations of 2001 was that the spaceships in it looked like real mechanical devices and not child’s toys, and while it undoubtedly made the actual manufacture of the models used to represent them much more difficult and expensive, it also added a lot to the verisimilitude). On the whole, Forbidden Planet holds up as a surprisingly good excursion into science fiction, a bit too conscious of its Shakespearean pedigree in Wilcox’s slow-paced direction and Pidgeon’s performance (no one else in the movie, except Francis as his daughter, really distinguishes himself — non-inclusive pronoun justified because Francis’ character is the only woman in the dramatis personae) and variable in the effects department, but oddly moving, especially in the ending (in which Pidgeon, his monster alter ego and the entire remnants of the Krell super-civilization go up in an atomic explosion he has deliberately set — like the lab in The Bride of Frankenstein, the Krell installation came equipped with a self-destruct mechanism) and distinguished as one of the few big-budget, major-studio excursions into hard-core science-fiction until the successes of 2001 and Star Wars established the genre once and for all. — 11/9/98


I also finished reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which I’d wanted to go through to see if Forbidden Planet is really as similar to it as Jon Douglas Eames and other writers have claimed. Yes and no. The screenwriters of Forbidden Planet (Irving Block, Allen Adler and Cyril Hume) took the basic situation of The Tempest — sort of (their spacecraft didn’t land on the planet by accident after a storm, but went there deliberately) and six of the characters — Prospero, Ariel, Caliban, Miranda, Ferdinand and the drunken butler Stephano — but significantly altered the story. In The Tempest Prospero is a dethroned duke of Milan and he deliberately causes the shipwreck which entraps all his enemies (including Antonio, his brother, who dethroned him; and Alonso, the King of Naples, who put Antonio up to it and recognized him) on his island.

Also, Prospero intends his daughter Miranda and Ferdinand (son of Alonso) to get together from the start — and Caliban isn’t a “monster of the id,” but a genuine person, described in the dramatis personae as “a savage and deformed slave” with a witch, Sycorax, for a mother (we’re never told who his father is, which might lead some enterprising scholar or producer to “read” the play in a way that would make Prospero himself the father, thereby establishing a sibling relationship between the good Miranda and the evil Caliban and also explaining why Prospero feels responsible for Caliban — much the way Schickaneder’s libretto for Mozart’s The Magic Flute is sometimes read to make Sarastro Pamina’s father and the Queen of the Night’s ex-lover), while Ariel commands a whole crew of spirits and puts them at Prospero’s service. What seemed oddest about The Tempest is how undramatic it really is. After that savage shipwreck in the opening act, virtually nothing else happens. Ferdinand and Miranda have a nice pastoral idyll on the island (while Prospero is getting his revenge by carefully leading Alonso, Ferdinand’s father, into thinking his son is dead). Two separate plots are hatched against Prospero’s life (one by Alonso and Antonio and one by Stephano, another servant on the ship, and Caliban), but because Prospero’s network of nymphs, fairies, spirits and whatnot lets him know about them almost as soon as they are planned, they don’t become dramatic issues either. What makes The Tempest a worthy Shakespearean masterwork is the eloquence of the language — perhaps more so than in his earlier plays precisely because it doesn’t have to drive a dramatic plot; and it’s hard, knowing that this is one of Shakespeare’s last works and he was about to retire, not to read something autobiographical in the figure of Prospero in general (an old man whose entire power lay in his books!) and in this great speech from Act IV, scene 1 in particular:

You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismayed. Be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vexed.
Bear with my weakness. My old brain is troubled.
Be not disturbed with my infirmity.
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose. A turn or two I’ll walk
To still my beating mind. — 11/13/98


Last night Charles and I had an interesting experience at the ConDor science-fiction convention in San Diego we’ve just attended for the third (me) and fifth (him) year in a row: we got to see presentations by Robert Welch, grandson of the MGM special-effects head Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie, on the effects work in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Forbidden Planet (1956). Welch was there to give the presentations and also promote a large-format book he just published on his grandfather, The Wizard of MGM, and according to his presentation it seems as if Gillespie coined the term “special effects” when he asked for and received permission to set up a department specifically devoted to them at MGM in the 1930’s. (Before that they had been given the rather dismissive name “trick shots,” and when David O. Selznick tried to get the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to give a special award to Willis O’Brien for the still extraordinary effects shots in the 1933 King Kong, he got the dismissive answer, “We have no intention of giving awards for trick work.” The Academy didn’t inaugurate an award for special effects until 1939.) Welch began both presentations by emphasizing that MGM was a self-contained community that had all the physical facilities to make a movie completely on its own lot — and all the people, divided into an almost militarily precise layout of departments, with all the skills they needed — though the studio system and the guaranteed revenues that had made this possible, coming both from the big studios’ monopolistic control of the largest and most profitable theatres (broken with the consent decree in the U.S. v. Paramount antitrust case in 1948) and their general monopoly on audio-visual entertainment until the development of commercial television after World War II, were on their way out by 1956. Indeed, one “trivia” poster on Forbidden Planet noted that the script required animation effects — and to create them MGM had to borrow animator Joshua Meador from Walt Disney Studios because they had just closed their own animation department and laid off all the people it had employed. (Among them were its heads, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who continued their own careers by forming their own studio and producing crude but incredibly popular cartoons for TV.) Fortunately, Gerry Williams, who runs showings of science-fiction movies in San Diego the third weekend of every month, decided to show Forbidden Planet as the Saturday night movie at ConDor (he actually double-billed it with an atrocious Hammer production called Moon Zero Two, a boring film that basically transposed a standard Western plot to the moon), and it was an extraordinary opportunity to see a film just after we’d watched a live presentation on how some of the effects were achieved. Forbidden Planet was a 1956 science-fiction film from MGM, given a production budget of $1 million (which they actually blew just on building the sets — it cost them another $900,000 on top of that to shoot the movie itself) and a full major-studio production, including wide-screen, color and Perspecta stereo sound (though I’m not sure a Perspecta print still exists). This was at a time when science-fiction movies were mostly cheap “B” productions, shot on black-and-white with low budgets, non-star casts and hack directors (two exceptions to the latter: Robert Wise on the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Howard Hawks on the 1951 version of The Thing — Hawks was credited only as producer, with his long-time editor Christian Nyby listed as director, but according to modern accounts they co-directed), and usually aimed at children.

Forbidden Planet was one of the periodic attempts by a major studio to do a science-fiction film with all the sophistication and intellectual understanding of the best science-fiction writing, and while MGM would do a far better job 12 years later with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (which benefited immensely not only from Kubrick’s own imagination but his use of a “name” sci-fi writer, Arthur C. Clarke, for his basic story and script) Forbidden Planet is quite a good try. I’d seen it at least twice before — in the 1970’s on an over-the-air TV in black-and-white and in the late 1990’s with Charles on a VHS tape I bought at the late, lamented Sam Goody’s downtown one afternoon and we screened that evening — but last night I liked it better than I have before even though it remains a film I respect more than I actually love. (At ConDor there was a brief parlor game in which people were challenged to come up with their five favorite science-fiction films of all time — I left the fifth slot open on my list but my first four would be 2001, Andrei Tarkovsky’s original Solaris, Fritz Lang’s 1928 Woman on the Moon and the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still, in that order.) Forbidden Planet was produced by Nicholas Nayfack, directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox (whose previous claim to fame had been directing most of MGM’s Lassie movies) and written by Cyril Hume from an “original” story by Irving Block and Allen Adler that owed more than a little to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The crew of a spaceship (designed to look like a pristine flying saucer and awfully dated-looking after we’ve become used to the carefully crafted space vehicles of Star Trek, 2001 and Star Wars) led by Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen, whose part is absolutely serious but whose presence, especially his voice, makes the film hopelessly risible to anyone who knows him just from the Police Squad/Naked Gun and Airplane spoofs) receives orders to stop by the planet Altair-4 to see what became of the spacecraft Bellerophon, which went to Altair-4 20 years earlier and was never heard from again. When Adams and his crew (all male, all white — especially noticeable seeing this movie during a science-fiction convention one of whose workshops had dealt with sexism in the genre!) arrive at Altair-4 and start orbiting the planet in preparation for landing, they get a radio message from Professor Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon, top-billed), sole survivor of the Bellerophon expedition. Morbius warns them not to land because everyone else on the Bellerophon was killed by a mysterious force unleashed on the planet — he doesn’t get any more specific than that — and the only survivors were Morbius himself and a female crew member (so they did have at least one woman in space!) whom he married in a ceremony performed on board the Bellerophon by its captain.

The two survived the mysterious catastrophe that killed the rest of the crew (and vaporized the Bellerophon itself when crew members who hadn’t been killed on the planet’s surface tried to escape in it) and conceived a daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis, a wonderful actress wasted, as usual, in a role that didn’t offer her much), only shortly after that Mrs. Morbius died (in childbirth, we get the impression, though that’s not specified in the script itself) and the good doctor has raised Altaira as a single parent and the only other human she has ever known. When he hasn’t been rearing her he’s been exploring the secrets of the Krell, Altair-4’s indigenous inhabitants, who developed both technology and morality far beyond what Earth has been able to achieve — only 20,000 years ago their entire population self-destructed in a single day. Morbius has been trying to figure out why, and also how much of the Krell’s technology can safely be entrusted to Earthlings, and needless to say he doesn’t want those creepy people from Earth invading his technological paradise. In particular he doesn’t want all those horny space sailors invading his daughter and taking away her carefully protected virginity. This plot line is another aspect of Forbidden Planet that comes awfully close to camp; 15 years earlier W. C. Fields had made the comedy Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, in which in order to protect her daughter’s virtue, socialite Mrs. Hemogloben (Margaret Dumont in her best performance in a non-Marx Brothers film) has hidden them both away on a mountaintop and carefully concealed from her the very existence of men — and though the writers and director of Forbidden Planet weren’t trying for comedy, the portrayal of Anne Francis’ total sexual naïveté comes awfully close to unintentional laughs. To run his establishment, including acting as a manservant (though actually carefully specified as not having a gender), Morbius early on used the first bits of Krell technology he could understand to build Robby the Robot (voiced by actor Marvin Miller, though apparently there were various stunt doubles actually in the robot suit, including its creator, Robert Kinoshita), which can duplicate any human foodstuff (there’s a quite amusing comic-relief scene in which the spaceship’s cook asks it to make him some whiskey, and the robot says, “Will 60 gallons suffice?”) and do just about anything, though it draws the line at actually attacking another human being. (I doubt if the writers had heard of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, but they came up with something pretty similar.) So the dramatis personae on Altair-4 include a Prospero, a Miranda and an Ariel (the robot), but the Caliban (Shakespeare’s brooding, brutish villain) isn’t revealed until nearly the end of the movie.

It turns out that the Krell had managed to create a perfect society with no scarcity, no hatred, no conflict and no war, but that wasn’t enough for them; they tried to harness their own mental energies and combine them with their super-computer system (fueled by nuclear reactions deep under their planet so they would never have to worry about running out of energy) to gain the power to materialize anything they wanted out of pure thought. Only the process also unlocked the more sordid aspects of both human and Krell nature — greed, meanness, viciousness, revenge — all associated with the Id, which Morbius denounces as an obsolete term for the human subconscious (ironically, one of the best predictions in Forbidden Planet, made at a time when Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the mind and the formation of human nature were practically a religion, was that eventually virtually the whole apparatus of Freud’s theories would drop out of both public discourse and actual treatment of mental illness!) and which emerges as a lion-like invisible (except when being bombarded by electricity or radiation) creature that was responsible for the destruction of the Bellerophon and most of its crew and is now wreaking havoc on Commander Adams’ crew members as well. Eventually Morbius realizes that he’s created a Krell-like monster out of his own Id and the only way he can spare both his daughter and the rest of the human race from the Krell’s fate is to trick Adams into pushing the self-destruct button on the floor of his laboratory that will cause the Krell reactors to go super-critical and blow up Altair-4 (odd that they would rip off the laboratory self-destruct mechanism from The Bride of Frankenstein!), so he sends his daughter off with Adams and the surviving crew members of Adams’ ship take off while Morbius, his planet and the Krell technology (except for Robby, who ends up aboard the ship with Adams and Altaira) explode in space. The Id creature was created by Joshua Meador and acted by Robert Dix, who also doubled as one of the crew on Adams’ ship — Meador traced over Dix’s actions as filmed on an empty stage, making Dix arguably the first motion-capture actor in film history. Another aspect of Forbidden Planet the film pioneered is in its score, which was made up exclusively of electronic burbles by husband-and-wife composers Louis and Bebe Barron — though since they were not members of the musicians’ union they could not be credited as musicians or composers. So their burbling all-electronic score (which mostly works well even though there are a few cues that sound like computers farting) was credited as “electronic tonalities.” (This is the same kind of treatment one of the great names in movie effects, German cinematographer Eugen Schufftan — who invented the process screen in the 1920’s for Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen and Metropolis — got; when he fled the Nazis and came to the U.S. the cinematographers’ union wouldn’t allow him in, so the only studio that would hire him was the cheap PRC outfit, and instead of crediting him with cinematography or photographic effects they had to give him nebulous credits like “supervisor of production design.”)

Forbidden Planet is a great movie, though there’s still an air of bookishness about it (Jon Douglas Eames’ book The MGM Story said that as long as Cyril Hume was ripping off his plot from Shakespeare’s The Tempest he should have stolen Shakespeare’s dialogue as well), a sense of potentials in the story unrealized in the film we actually have. It was certainly a major influence on later science-fiction film in general and on Star Trek in particular (Gene Roddenberry admitted it); plenty of episodes in the various Star Trek franchises ripped off Forbidden Planet to one extent or another, and the very first Star Trek pilot, “The Cage” (later revamped and aired in a tweaked version as “The Menagerie”), is also about a starship crew that gets into trouble when they land on a planet whose inhabitants have overdeveloped their brain power to a reckless and dangerous extent. Forbidden Planet is beautiful (though all too many of the backdrops look like the matte paintings they were), it benefits from color and a major-studio infrastructure, and it’s quite well acted — though through much of its running time I found myself wishing Boris Karloff had been playing Walter Pidgeon’s role. Not only would it have provided Karloff a career boost in a serious film comparable to what he got from Frankenstein in 1931 and Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher in 1945, and would have likely spared him a good deal of the dreck he had to do in his last 13 years, but Karloff could have made Morbius, torn between his love for his daughter and his intoxicated fascination with the Krell technology, a genuinely pathetic and even tragic figure instead of a man who, for all his super-intelligence (artificially boosted by a Krell education machine), seems all too befuddled by what’s going on around him. At the same time I realize the problems that would have been created by casting Karloff: the audience would have expected him from the get-go to be creating a monster (even if inadvertently) and the appearance of the Id creature wouldn’t have had the surprise and shock the filmmakers wanted. Forbidden Planet (originally shot under the working title Fatal Planet until someone at MGM realized that would make it seem too dire and likely turn off audiences instead of attracting them) is an important milestone in the generally dire history of sci-fi on film, and this time around I enjoyed it more than I have before, but my reactions still come with a lot of “Yes, but … ” — 3/15/15