Thursday, August 16, 2012

FORBIDDEN MEMORIES



I just got word that tonight's double feature of FORBIDDEN PLANET/METROPOLIS at the Stateside has been cancelled due to problems with the digital projector. I've been informed that an effort is being made to reschedule the films but nothing is confirmed at this time.

So, since I won't be introducing these films tonight (and fans won't be seeing them), here's the next best thing: my notes on FORBIDDEN PLANET and a couple of stories about my experiences with that film.

Seen in retrospect, “Forbidden Planet” looks for all the world like a blueprint for Gene Roddenberry’s classic “Star Trek” television series. There’s a futuristic spacecraft, cruiser C-57D, which belongs to the United Planets. The captain and crew wear distinctive uniforms, carry communicators on their belts and use ray-guns as the sidearm of choice. Upon landing on the planet Altair IV, they encounter a mad scientist, Morbeus (Pidgeon) and his beautiful daughter, Alta (Francis) and their faithful robot companion Robby. And something else, something…deadly.

Produced in wide-screen Technicolor by MGM, “Forbidden Planet” was the first science fiction film to depict an interstellar journey outside of our solar system. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” all of the action occurs on a series of spectacularly designed sound stages including the cycloramic background depicting the planetary landscape and the jaw-dropping vistas of the immense and utterly alien Krell machinery.

Other impressive visual effects include the immortal Robby the Robot (another genre icon), the Id Monster (vividly brought to life by animation provided by the Walt Disney Studios) and Ann Francis as Alta. The electronic score by Louis and Bebe Barron is one of the first synthesized soundtracks ever recorded and adds immensely to the otherworldly and alien feel of the film. Veteran actor Walter Pidgeon delivers a memorable performance as Morbeus while the remainder of the cast is composed of young actors, most of whom would gain fame on various television shows in the 1960s.

While Leslie Nielsen may be better known to modern audiences for the tomfoolery of the “Naked Gun” films and others, please bear in mind that his appearance here is not intended to provoke laughter. While there is plenty of comic relief in the film, mostly courtesy of Robby and Earl Holliman, this is not some cheap-jack production to be held up for ridicule by those who admire “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” “Forbidden Planet” is a genre classic, a colorful, widescreen extravaganza full of that “golly-gee-whiz” sense of wonder, that, if you’ll let it, will make you feel like an awestruck kid of ten again.

The first time I saw FORBIDDEN PLANET was on the big screen at the Paramount Theatre. No, it wasn't on first release (I'm old, but I'm not quite that old). It was the summer of 1977 as I recall. The Paramont had shut its' doors as a first run movie theatre in 1974 (the year I graduated from Austin High). The last first run movie I saw there was THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges.

The extensive restoration and renovation work on the theatre had yet to occur but in order to raise funds for that effort, the Paramount would occassionally show vintage films. It was far removed from the well-run and fully programmed Summer Classic Film Series we all know and love but nonetheless, it was a chance to see some good old movies on the big screen.

STAR WARS had been released earlier that summer. I loved it and saw it several times at the old Capitol Plaza Cinema. I had never seen FORBIDDEN PLANET but its' reputation as a genre landmark was well known and I knew that it was something I needed to see. 

In many ways, that first viewing of FORBIDDEN PLANET was as revelatory and transformative as the first time I saw STAR WARS, just a few weeks earlier. I was totally blown away by the special effects (remarkably sophisticated for 1956), the story, the sets, Anne Francis and Robby the Robot. What a terrrific film! It quickly became one of my all-time favorites and I've seen it many times since over the years, both at the Paramount and at home. I never get tired of it.

I attended the first Wizard World Austin comic book convention in the fall of 2010. One of the featured guests was Richard Anderson who, in addition to appearing as Oscar Goldman on both THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and THE BIONIC WOMAN on television, was in FORBIDDEN PLANET.

I was walking around the dealer's room when I spotted Mr. Anderson. He was sitting by himself at his booth where he had stacks of photos to sign and sell. There was no one around him at the time so I walked over, stuck out my hand and said, "Mr. Anderson, it's a pleasure to meet you. Forbidden Planet is one of my all-time favorite movies. Thanks for the memories."

He shook my hand and thanked me. "I hear that a lot from guys your age," he replied. And then, totally unprompted, he started telling me an anecdote about the film (which I believe he's probably told many, many times).

"You know, when we first started shooting the film at the MGM studios, we all thought we were just doing another B-movie, since most science fiction films at the time were low budget affairs. But after the first week, the studio heads saw the dailies and were so impressed with what they saw that they told the producer to increase the budget and lengthen the shooting schedule. They were confident that they had a hit. And they did."

I'm not quite sure I totally believe that story. MGM was the crown jewel of movie studios and they didn't throw money around lightly nor go into any production in a half-assed manner. By the time the cameras were rolling, they pretty much knew exactly what they had and the best way to get it onto the screen. They wouldn't greenlight a sizable budget for a major science fiction film and then change it so soon after production started.

But then again, what do I know? I've just read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies. Mr. Anderson was there. He set foot upon the surface of Altair IV, not me. He should know.

That's his story and out of respect for a very dear and kind man, I'm sticking with it.

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