Standout SF from the 1950s: movies and TV

FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) is a frustrating film. It is definitely one of the SF classics, but that makes the flaws more frustrating. Some are due to execution (bad comic relief, and the acting is mostly average), some due to MGM. According to Keep Watching the Skies, MGM was so nervous about releasing an SF film as something other than a B-movie that it arranged a sneak preview. Fans were so blown away, MGM didn’t see any reason to wait for the edits to finish.

The story is set several centuries ahead, a Star Trek-like future in which Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) leads a spaceship crew heading out to find what happened to the colony on Altair IV since it stopped communicating with Earth. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) tells them he and his daughter Alta (Anne Francis) are the sole survivors of a mysterious force that wiped out the other colonists just as they were about to return home (over his objections). Morbius wants to be left alone but Alta is intrigued by the first strangers she’s seen since childhood (““The lieutenant and I were just trying to get a little healthy stimulation from hugging and kissing.”), particularly Adams. “Robbie” the Robot is a little something Morbius has put together, despite not being a robotics expert. As she and Adams get closer, the invisible force awakens, and it’s angry …

The film was something radical for its day, a movie that took SF as seriously as the best print stories did (despite the gratuitous presence of comic-relief Earl Holliman as the ship’s cook). As it didn’t make much money, it didn’t have much influence on subsequent films, but the film can’t be blamed for that. We have the casual use of tech as just a part of the characters’ world and the mind-blowing machinery of the Krell, the planet’s former inhabitants. Robbie was the most memorable robot of the era’s films, possibly the most memorable until Star Wars.

But the acting is pretty routine, though Anne Francis is charming in her role; Pidgeon, as Morbius, seems to be coasting on his sonorous voice rather than putting anything into the role (the amount of exposition he has to give doesn’t help). And I wish they’d kept some of the deleted scenes, such as one where the ship’s scientist explains how Alta is able to pacify the wildlife. It’s also slow in the first hour, which wouldn’t have bothered me as much when it came out, I suspect; they’re showing off the technology and the science and back then it would have been like nothing filmgoers had seen before.

Despite the flaws, it’s well worth watching. The DVD I got includes deleted scenes, Pidgeon promoting the show on ABC’s MGM Parade show, and Robbie appearing in an episode of TV’s The Thin Man (an uninspired spinoff of the classic films).

Another great bit of 1950s SF is the TV series QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (the source of the same-name film). As in the film, Quatermass is struggling against the government militarizing his rocket research when a downed spaceship turns up buried below a London street. Quatermass discovers it’s a Martian ship and that humanity itself has been genengineered by the aliens. And they’re not done with us yet … Despite adding more than an hour to the film’s running time, this isn’t at all draggy or slow, and Andre Morrell makes a great Professor Quatermass, as steely as Andrew Keir in the movie but hiding it more in an affable velvet glove. This explains some things that the movie had to just touch on, such as the Martians’ agenda on Earth and what causes the final outburst of violence; I still love the movie, but I like this version a lot too. “A funny word, Martian — we wore it out before anyone turned up to claim it.”
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