Tomorrowsday #1: Mr. Id

I was pontificating about the season of Tuesday sci-fi movies I saw on the BBC as a kid, and Sheldon Hall was good enough to supply the exact schedule, which went as follows: FORBIDDEN PLANET (06/11/1974), THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (13/11/1974), VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (20/11/1974), THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (27/11/1974), VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET (04/12/1974), THEM! (11/12/1974) and THE TIME MACHINE (18/12/1974).

I now intend to blog about all of them.

I already wrote a substantial piece on the last-named, but will revisit it and see what happens. I should see if my Dad is up for watching any of these, since he accompanied the just-turned-seven me last time round, and helped explain some of the more difficult stuff. I might still need his assistance.

Seeing all those films for the first time in such a compact pattern and at such an early age was definitely eye and mind-opening. I was already a Doctor Who fan — that character was about to transform from Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker, which made me if anything an even bigger fan, but what impressed me about these movies was less the higher production values, which didn’t make any direct impression on me, and more the striking imagery and wild concepts. For sure, images like the decomposing Morlock or the invisible Monster from the Id outlined against a force field were made possible by the movies’ bigger budgets, but also by the greater imaginative scope.I can’t recall for sure, but I suspect FP was the first 50s sci-fi movie I ever saw, and I don’t see that I could have done better, even though the film must have been pan-and-scanned and seen on a b&w TV (I recall our first colour TV arriving a little later — I was excited at the prospect of seeing Tom Baker’s scarf in colour). By virtue of being set in deep space and in the far future, it hits the viewer with exciting imagery from the very start — a flying saucer piloted by a crew of staunch earthmen (did they back-engineer the Roswell UFO?), an exotic alien planet, and the first inhabitant we meet is a friendly robot. There wasn’t much chance of me getting bored. (But I was riveted by all the other films in the series, except the one I missed, and which I will be seeing… for the first time… in a few weeks.)

Before Leo the lion has even faded up fully, the beep-beep-bloop of Louis & Bebe Barron’s electronic tonalities adds a sonic strangeness, and the first thing we see after our leonine emcee is not the main title, but a spacecraft. MGM evidently decided to make not only the biggest and most impressive of SF-SFX movies, but one with a hint of the unconventional. The score, like the costumes, would be recycled endlessly in future films, but the composers received no fees for the re-use, since their work wasn’t classed as music.


Four minutes into this upload of a Shirley Clarke experimental film you can hear more of the Barrons’ “tortured circuits” music

Before Robby, we get a bit of backstory setting up man’s hyperdriven expansion into the cosmos, and we meet the crew of Starship C-57D, including Space Commander Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen). The cast also includes Mr. Miniver, Steve Austin’s boss and Honey West, whose affinity for wildcats is first established here. The stuff about hyperdrive demonstrates the film’s seriousness and largesse: it feels the need to make interstellar travel in some way scientifically explainable — or, if it doesn’t really offer an excuse for faster-than-light travel’s existence, it at least acknowledges the need for an excuse, and uses the problem to motivate some neat VFX from Joshua Meador from Disney, and his uncredited team.The set-up is very Star Trek. Though there are no living aliens in this scenario, there’s a benign, American-dominated space force (maybe in the future EVERYONE is American?) and a tough ship’s captain and his chum the doctor. When they were trying to come up with ideas for Star Trek motion pictures, I thought they could do worse than remake FP. And as I recall, James Cameron wanted to. Maybe the scary lost alien civilisation stuff, which is very Lovecraftian, would have informed Del Toro and Cameron’s planned adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness.

Much has been made of the connection to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, though as with William Wellman’s western version, it’s not 100% sure who came up with the notion, or if it was even consciously in place. The story is credited to two special effects artists, Irving Block and Allen Adler, who seem to have made their brief careers as screenwriters by pitching stories based around effects they knew they could provide. Although Roger Corman, director of THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN AND THEIR VOYAGE TO THE LAND OF THE GREAT SEA SERPENT, felt that he was essentially conned into making the movie on the strength of spectacular production art which was then impossible to realise. The smart dialogue (apart from Robby’s weird misuse of the word “monitor” and a few other odd touches) is by novelist Cyril Hume, whose The Wife of the Centaur was filmed by King Vidor in 1924. It has one IMDb review, by our old friend F. Gwyneplaine MacIntyre, which means it’s almost certainly a lost film. Hume sold his talent to MGM and became their go-to guy for TARZAN pics. It seems plausible that he noticed Tempest-like qualities in Block & Adler’s scenario, and emphasised them.Ariel and Caliban are sort of flipped here — Ariel, the good and faithful servant is Robby, the solid, earthly one,  whereas the rebellious native Caliban is the monster from the id, the floating spirit. But Robby is also someone else —

This movie seems to invent the trope of the robot butler. As emotionless as Jeeves, Robby’s lumbering gait prevents him shimmering into existence like Wooster’s manservant, but he seems to have been inspired by the natural associations of butlers and desert islands which dates back to J.M. Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton, first filmed in 1918, again as MALE AND FEMALE by DeMille in 1919, and at various times since. Unofficial adaptations abound, and there have been two actual robot Crichtons on TV — Jeff David’s obnoxious Crichton in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Robert Llywellyn’s timorous Kryten in Red Dwarf. It probably all goes back to Man Friday, though.

Robby is a great robot. If I had to choose a feature of A. Arnold Gillespie and Robert Kinoshita’s design that makes him most wondrous, I would be torn between his little stumpy arms and his big glass bubble head, both of which make him less obviously humanoid, although both are completely compatible with him being a man in a suit. In these dark days of robot rebellion, of T-1000s and EX MACHINAs, Robby reflects the comforting certainty of the fifties. Robby will never let us down.His ability to synthesise anything from bourbon to diamonds on demand anticipates Star Trek too — Gene Roddenberry did acknowledge the influence. The future seems to be without want, like Powell & Pressburger’s heaven, “with all our earthly problems solved and bigger ones worth the solving.” As Robby accompanies the surviving crew of the C-57D home at the end, he’s presumably going to put his awesome powers at the service of humanity. As a product of Morbius’s alien-boosted brain, he may bring some dangers too, but non-sequel THE INVISIBLE BOY fails to explore these promising possibilities.

Of course, he’s a mechanical red herring in this story, as the one visible suspect who could be responsible for the upcoming murders. Does Forbidden Planet fail as a fair-play murder mystery? Perhaps so, as by its science-fictional nature it depends on producing unpredictable elements which alter our understanding of the world we’re in — nobody’s likely to guess the presence of a monster from the id in this one, because the possibility of such things isn’t established at the outset.

Check out the two end ones.

So, now we meet the other inhabitants — Dr. Edward Morbius (great name!) and his comely daughter, Altaira, a very Star Trek female, with her miniskirts and what-is-love? naiveté. She also gets the best deliberately funny line in a fifties sci-ci flick as she admires the sudden influx of male specimens — “The two end ones are unbelievable.” It may not rival “O brave new world, that has such people in’t,” but it’s highly amusing and a touch risqué.

If this is a whodunnit, then everybody immediately guesses that Morbius is the who who done it, though we can’t know how. Attempts to throw suspicion on Robby falter in the face of his portly benevolence, and a brief moment where Altaira seems to have a nightmare depicting the monster’s onslaught only hints vaguely that she might be involved. We know Morbius knows more than he’s telling, and once we learn about the lost Krell civilisation we know those guys figure somehow, but there’s no way to really guess it.

Possible explanation for Altaira’s psychic dream: did Morbius resist the temptation to brain-boost his young daughter? And perhaps the effects will only truly kick in as she attains full adulthood. Is the C-57D starship hosting a Midwich cuckoo in the nest?

Director Fred MacLeod Wilcox was something of a mystery to me — I’ve loved his film for over forty years without ever looking into his career. That ends now!

Charles Butterworth addresses Fred Wilcox’s sister, Ruth Selwyn, in BABY FACE HARRINGTON.

Wilcox was lucky enough to be brother-in-law of Loew’s Inc. chairman Nick Schenck. Actress Ruth Selwyn was one of his several sisters, wife of director Edgar Selwyn. His direction is better than workmanlike here, with a sure touch for generating suspense. No doubt he’s aided greatly by his effects artists, who find neat ways to portray the invisible enemy’s advances, including those subjective camera crane shots.

Wilcox started as an assistant to King Vidor, who gets everywhere, doesn’t he?

His other best-known film is LASSIE COME HOME, and he helmed a couple of later pics with the heroic trans dog, who moved through spacetime as fluidly as Doctor Who, turning up wherever s/he was needed. Wilcox makes a better brother-in-law than he does an auteur, but we can guess that his favourite actors may have been Edmund Gwenn and Ralph Meeker, who each worked with him twice, and Pal, who played that dog for him three times. Themes recurring in his work include the perils of the wayward mind, afflicting Pigeon here and Meeker in SHADOW IN THE SKY, and hydrophobia, afflicting Meeker in that film and Lassie in HILLS OF HOME. As a kid, I was amused by Walter Pidgeon’s name, but thought him a fine actor. Anybody who could play someone called Dr. Morbius HAD to be a fine actor, to my seven-year-old brain. I was probably right, but not in the way I thought. Pidgeon’s stiff manner is fine for producing gravitas, though I find his pausing a little off today — he breaks up sentences not like a man thinking where his next thought is leading, but like an actor trying to remember his lines. It’s skilled subterfuge, but not as invisible as the id-monster. Today I imagine someone like Charles Laughton in the role… William Powell… James Mason…Leslie Nielsen, who joked in later years that his early career all looked like comedy to him now, is perfectly adequate as the starship commander, though he’s no Shatner (the Shat is animated by a WILL TO GREATNESS that he may not be able to make good on, but which makes him kind of exciting and risky). The character is pretty much an asshole, punishing one of his crew for being asleep OFF duty, and slut-shaming Altaira because he simply doesn’t understand how innocent she is. Screw that guy. And when he tries his IQ on the Krell Test-Your-Strength brain machine, his brain fails to ring the bell. (Current reading: Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet, which contains the apt line during a fairground scene, “That bell will never ring again.”)Asides from Robby, Anne Francis gives the best performance — if you get a chance to see the pair reuinited in the documentary The Android Prophecy, it’s really sweet (she asks him for a new dress, translucent, with sequins round the nipples). Her “nude scene” here is a tease, and just as with Amanda Barrie rising from the milk in CARRY ON CLEO, the invention of VHS and the pause button allowed my teenage self to be disappointed at how much she’s actually wearing during her skinny-dip. A lot more than sequins.The Krell subterranean power station is a fantastic setting, a mixture of sets, matte paintings and miniatures (allowing vertiginous roving POV shots. It’s very clean and bright, but still scary because it’s ancient and deserted and we know something bad happened here. While showing a lot of state-of-the-art 50s FX, the movie also enlists the audience’s imagination. We never see a Krell. We see the outlines of an invisible monster from the id, created by Disney animators but looking a little like the bulldog in MGM’s own Tom & Jerry toons, but is this the accurate image of a Krell or merely Morbius’s imagining of one? That middle image is VERY Death Star chic, isn’t it? George Lucas certainly saw and admired this movie too.

The solution to the mystery — Morbius’s id runs amok — the sleep of reason brings forth monsters from the id. The image of him slumped over his desk seems a direct nod to Goya. Fiona and I still love the protective steel panels that appear around Morbius’s pad, slamming into place by jump cut, but Fiona is today unimpressed by the rubbery distortions when they buckle under the force of an id-attack. The wobbly material gives itself away. But I still remember how thrilling it seemed to me at age seven, so I don’t really mind.As a kid, the thing that baffled me was, is Morbius dead at the end? Obviously he is — he’s not on the spaceship, his planet blows up, and Commander Drebin talks about how he’ll be remembered. I think what puzzled me was his CAUSE of death. He isn’t obviously struck down by the monster from his id, so his death doesn’t have the visceral, physical quality of previous victims (even the offscreen ones described as “torn limb from limb” etc). The destruction seems to be mental, the forces of his mind turned against one another — just like Robby’s sparking circuits when he’s given an order that violates his Asimovian programming. That earlier scene works as foreshadowing here.

Another moment anticipating the later developments is when Altaira’s tame tiger pounces at her, apparently failing to recognise her. She can’t understand why, and Drebin expresses a kind of wonderment at her inability to see the reason. It’s because she’s with him, I guess. Either her awakening to womanhood has confused the tiger who genuinely no longer knows who she is, or he’s jealous. (In a deleted scene, the doc equates the cat’s tameness to that of the unicorn who is in thrall to the purity of a maiden — so that must be what the script intended — an implication that Altaira has lost her purity through her association with the commander.) Which is interesting when you think of it in terms of the monster’s motivation. Is Morbius at some deep Krell sub-level of his mind as jealous of his daughter as he is off his planet paradise and his ancient alien knowledge? The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.

“After all, we are not God.” Seems like almost a genre requirement to invoke the deity in the closing words of an sf thriller of this era — see also WAR OF THE WORLDS and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. Let’s see if this holds true in subsequent films. It may be the result of nervousness about drama in which the recognized norms of earthly existence are subverted or vanished — a reminder that, after all, the big beard guy is still in charge, even if our characters are IN the heavens and see no sign of angels. And, well, MGM was the most conservative studio. Jere, the dumb hero triumphs and the alien tech is destroyed — something a man like Morbius would NEVER do. Outside of their musicals, they’re not my favourite dream factory by a long chalk, but still, this is one I love.

19 Responses to “Tomorrowsday #1: Mr. Id”

  1. Krell-inspired noises are terribly important to a lot of synthesizer people, there are well over 5000 videos of people doing their own versions on youtube. It’s sort of like a Smoke On The Water for the bleep skronk fart community.

    I think the tiger may have been attacking out of disgust for Altaira’s newfound sartorial conservatism.

  2. Simon Fraser Says:

    This is certainly the high water mark of sci fi movies before the actual space program stared influencing the esthetics. All that wonderful Chesley Bonestel influenced romantic Technicolor, which Star Trek gamely held on to , was utterly annihilated by Kubrickian austerity.

  3. Eastmancolor!

    Forbidden Planet’s Jetsons cleanness is still present in 2001, in a different form. It’s Star Wars that seems to add grunge to space. As a post-Nam film, it seems like the first space movie not to believe in perfectibility thru tech.

  4. “The Invisible Boy” creeped me out. Not for the sci fi elements per se, but for the scene where the title character spies on his parents about to get intimate (and gives himself away by giggling).

    Wondering if anybody involved in FB’s groundbreaking wonders got ticked off when effect shots, “space music”, costumes, and Robby ended up in B movies and television. Robby’s resume included “Twilight Zone” (with a cheap replacement head), “Lost in Space”, and “The Red Skelton Show” (in a comedy sketch, speaking with the Lost in Space robot’s voice). I’ve seen a lot of toy Robbys over the years; not sure if any of them were licensed.

  5. There’s one authentic Robby, and he’s had a splendid long career. I do think of him as an actor, and am always happy to see him.

    Bebe Barron did a late interview and was indeed a bit peeved that her music was reused without credit or payment. Philosophical about it, but not best pleased.

  6. I believe that Forbidden Planet is the movie that killed science fiction as a subject of big budgeted movies for a couple of decades. If this film had been a success there may have been more “adult” science fiction movies with A level actors and directors, in the same way as the 1950s saw the emergence of the “adult” western.
    You pointed out how improved this film would have been with a better actor in the role of Morbius. Charles Laughton, William Powell, or maybe Clifton Webb, in the role, could have made this movie a sensation. Also, moving Leslie Nielsen to the second in command
    role and putting in either a Dana Andrews, Glenn Ford, Richard Witmark or Rock Hudson as the commander, would have added much to this movie’s appeal. Instead the production, under Dore Schary, mainly spent money on the effects believing that would be enough to bring viewers in. But, no matter how excellent the effects were, without an A list actor or two to sell the movie to audiences not that familiar with the genre, the effects alone proved inadequate to draw enough ticket buyers to pay off the expense of the production.
    The result was that movie production heads, who never really like fantasy and SF subjects for films in the first place, believed that there were only so many people who will come to this type of movie, no matter how much you spend on it. After this, for the next decades, SF movies were always made by independent producers, on limited budgets, with actors of a second level status, and only distributed by the majors. I think that only the Japanese studios , and for a short time the Italian film industry, that regularly produced major science fiction films. The American studio heads would not back this type of film until after 1977 and the success of Star Wars, and even then reluctantly.

  7. Well, though not a blockbuster, the film made 2.765 million USD against a budget of 1.968 million USD. And you did get a few movies like The Time Machine afterwards.

  8. chris schneider Says:

    Only just finished reading this. (Bravo, David!) As far as Altaira is concerned … I always connected her with the ’30s Dorothy Lamour kind of “innocent” maiden, the kind who shows off her cleavage yet needs an American male to teach her how to kiss. And my assumption was that, at some unarticulated level hinted at by Age-of-Freud scribes, the Id Monster represented the Morbius libido compelling itself in directions it shouldn’t oughta go.

    But I wasn’t thinking about that when I was a youthful fan. Back then, I was thinking that FORBIDDEN PLANET seemed to be mentioned whenever people talked about THIS ISLAND EARTH … and I kinda preferred THIS ISLAND EARTH.

  9. TIE has a longer wait before you get the good stuff. And it has (even) less interesting humans. I believe I’m for FP, and always have been. But it has been a while since I saw a version of TIE that wasn’t Mystery Science Theater 3000’s.

  10. And yes, Altaira is a space sarong girl, and daddy’s “protectiveness” may be responsible for some of his id-iocy. The monster was dormant until the starship arrived…

  11. Okay, there was some profit on FP, but it doesn’t seem to have been enough to generate the immediate production of any more major science fiction, interplanetary travel themed movies from MGM or any other studio. The Time Machine was made four years later by independent producers, George Pal and Galaxy Productions, and distributed by MGM. And it is was made more due to the success of Around The World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. With some Cold War warnings thrown in.
    My basic criticism of Forbidden Planet is that the production focused too much on the appearance of the movie and not the substance. Taking the extra effort to get the effects right, but only settling on a mediocre cast and script. Looking at it as more of an experiment in movie effects than as a full on dramatic film. I think that no matter how fancy movie effects get, it still gets down to who is in the film and what are they doing. In Wim Wenders 1982 film The State of Things, the film director in the movie says that his movies need to be aware of the space between the characters. It’s the people in the film that hold an audience’s attention after they’ve gotten over the visual impact of the new movie effects.
    After reading your article on Shadow in the Sky, Ralph Meeker would have been a much better choice to play the ship’s captain in FP.

  12. Agree there. Of course he’d be a great wolfish second-in-command too.

    Meeker for president!

    Still, I think the script is fine, the direction more than decent. And though Doc Ostrow isn’t a colourful character, he’s really nice.

  13. chris schneider Says:

    Afternote: my reaction to THIS ISLAND EARTH is largely that of my early years. I’ve seen portions of it, sans commentary, on tv recently and my attention always wanders. Raymond Durgnat had good things to say about it, in any case. My latest apercu is that it’s a film about bulges — Faith Domergue’s blouse and Jeff Morrow’s forehead.

  14. Matthew Clarke said: “After this, for the next decades, SF movies were always made by independent producers, on limited budgets, with actors of a second level status, and only distributed by the majors.”

    That’s not quite true. The Bond series had elements of sf, especially You Only Live Twice, as did Our Man Flint, In Like Flint and even the Matt Helm films. Fantastic Voyage was a big-budget production from Fox. There came a resurgence of major sf films from the studios beginning in the late ’60s through the mid-’70s, all preceding Star Wars. 2001, Planet of the Apes and its sequels, Marooned, Colossus: The Forbin Project, The Andromeda Strain, Westworld, The Terminal Man, Silent Running, Rollerball, Logan’s Run and post-apocalyptic dramas like Soylent Green and The Omega Man.

  15. Originally, I believe Morbius’ monster from the id was to become briefly visible as it killed him, which is why there’s that reaction shot of Leslie Nielson averting Ann Francis’ eyes from the scene.

    The glaring plot hole is the presence of the conveniently located self-destruct switch in the Krell lab that destroys the planet. Why did they put it there?.

  16. An excess of playful spirit?

  17. I’m inclined to discount Bond: the space piracy is on a par with Goldfinger’s laser and in keeping with the fantasy of Bond wearing his tuxedo under his wetsuit. The audience is supposed to think of this stuff as being possible in a silly version of the modern world, rather than being an extrapolation. But the other examples certainly stand.

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