September Film Series Quarantine: FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)
My pick for this month is Forbidden Planet from 1956.
Where is it available? This is a popular title, so public libraries have it (Orem and Provo are confirmed), the BYU library has a copy for those who have privileges, and for streaming rental on iTunes, and Amazon.
Come join the space crew of commander John J. Adams, played by Leslie Nielsen and get far far away from the recent strangeness and enjoy some intergalactic strangeness. The setting is the 23rd century, and our starship is nearing a distant planet where an Earth expedition was sent over 20 years ago. Here they must solve the mysteries of the planet and the beings who live and had lived there.
This feels to me like the seedling of the original Star Trek series. I love it. A starship crew exploring uncharted regions of the universe that takes its cues from the nautical explorations of the 1700s. The atmosphere and intrigue rivets me still today.
One element I particularly enjoy is the music. It is a fantastical soundscape that abandons the symphonic orchestration that had been established as the Hollywood studio sound (which was based in late 19th century Viennese styles, thanks to Max Steiner – whose scores we have in the BYU Film Music Archive!). But the music works wonderfully because this is outer space and we can certainly push things into the unfamiliar. Electronic soundscapes transport us to worlds only dreamed of. Yet it still follows established film music syntax to raise the suspense when the onscreen action calls for it. Please pay attention to the music/sound.
Cast: Leslie Nielsen’s captain is strong and bold, making and delivering decisive orders to his crew. This is very early in his career, and he does well as the take-charge leading man. Although, in retrospect of his subsequent career as a comedic actor, it is hard not to be looking for a joke when he delivers some of his lines. Walter Pidgeon is great, and this is the time in his career where he started doing more and more on stage and less in the cinema. and Anne Francis does well as the innocent. This would be her most famous role in cinema, though she had a decent television acting career.
Technical data: an MGM production. Released in theaters March 3, 1956. Presented in color and Cinemascope to stretch that screen wider than those tiny screens at home that Hollywood was afraid would steal away too many viewers. And those fears weren’t totally unfounded as just the prior year some very popular television programs had debuted. The $64,000 Question premiered and really marked the beginning of the dramatic television quiz show format. Also in September, Gunsmoke had debuted which was VERY popular and would become a television standard for 20 seasons. In 1955 and 1956, the popularity of rock and roll music increased: Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and the Comets, and Chuck Berry and The Platters were the rising stars. In 1955, consumerism takes off in a big way, record car sales increase in the US so that 7 out of 10 families now own a motor car, and new auto safety laws were put in place requiring seat belts to be installed on all new cars (but do they have them on the starship?).
What was going on in cinema history when this was produced?
Forbidden Planet was released in March of 1956 so it was widely competing with popular big budget musicals such as Oklahoma!, Picnic, Guys and Dolls, and Carousel. Other notables in the theaters at this time demonstrate the country’s lingering processing of the war: Battle Cry and Mister Roberts. Forbidden Planet was great counter programming for the kids and adults alike, with its mysterious science fiction offering. The rest of 1956 would overshadow Forbidden Planet with some large spectacular films: best picture winner Around the World in 80 Days, the popular musical The King and I, and possibly the grandest movie of all time: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.
But Forbidden Planet is hardly forgotten and is much loved among science fiction fans today. Now sit back and enjoy the movie. The next section is for after you have seen it.
AFTERTHOUGHTS (for after the movie. SPOILERS!)
I hope you had a good time enjoying the film. As you could tell, the entire film was filmed on sets. Entirely shot on the MGM soundstage in Culver City, it allowed the creators a great deal of control in the atmosphere and became the pattern for cinematic space scenes into the late 1960s. For this film they built their set in a cyclorama, a curved backdrop to give the impression of a 360 -degree set. It is interesting to see repeating patterns in science fiction film production, as the recent star wars production The Mandalorian returns to a digital cyclorama-like set for the 21st century.
Following up with special effects, it is interesting to note that Robby the Robot was a very expensive film prop: at a cost of roughly $125,000 its construction represents about 7% of the film’s entire $1.9 million budget. The creature was created by Joshua Meador, an animator loaned to MGM from Walt Disney Animation. According to a “Behind the Scenes” featurette on the film’s DVD, a close look at the creature shows it to have a small goatee beard, suggesting its connection to Dr. Morbius, the only character with this physical feature, as it was a physical manifestation of his primitive mind.
- The story in this film has been compared as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest set in space. Which might give meat for pondering if you are familiar with the play.
- It is interesting that the beast our earth-folk encounter deep in space is only the beast they bring with them.
I hope you experienced a little bit of that childhood thrill of exploration, of uncovering something ancient or even untouched by human hands. I hope you enjoyed the film and found some delight in traveling with this film.
Ben Harry, Curator
BYU Motion Picture Archive