Based on Shakespeare, MGM’s 1956 epic starring Anne Francis & Leslie Nielsen is a landmark SF movie. The pulpy premise of space explorers saving a virgin from an alien monster hides surprisingly serious and adult themes. 9/10
Forbidden Planet. 1956, USA. Directed by Fred Wilcox. Written by Cyril Hume. Based on stories by Allen Adler & Irving Block and William Shakespeare. Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly, Marvin Miller. Produced by Nicholas Nayfack. IMDb: 7.6/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 8.2/10. Metacritic: 80/100.
Forbidden Planet is a watershed moment in science fiction movies. Simply the fact that it was a big-budget science fiction film by a major Hollywood studio made it an anomaly in itself. MGM also chose to make it in colour, which was a highly unusual splash-out for an SF movie at the time. But what really makes Forbidden Planet special is that it was the first feature film that depicted a future where mankind had mastered faster-than-light-speed, and the first that took place entirely on a planet outside our solar system. Complete with human colonists on other planets, intergalactic exploration, ray guns and mysterious, incorporeal alien threats and cute robots, the movie was a major influence on TV shows like Lost in Space, Star Trek and Doctor Who, the Star Wars franchise and many other films and TV series.
In the 23d century, a United Planets starship commanded by Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) arrives at the planet Altair IV to determine the fate of a scientific expedition that was sent there 20 years ago, but was never heard of again. On the planet, they meet the last survivor of the expedition, the well-mannered but secretive scientist Dr. Morbius (Walter Pideon), who seems to view the first visit from Earth in 20 years as a great inconvenience. He has built himself a mansion filled with technological marvels far beyond anything known to man without any prior expertise in technology or mechanics, which surprise Adams and his two lieutenants, Ostrow and Farman (Warren Stevens and Jack Kelly, the latter of Maverick fame). The greatest of all technological marvels is Robby the Robot (Frankie Darro), a mechanical servant that can produce anything from nothing (he’s both family cook and seamstress) and also functions as the house’s sentry. Morbius explains that the rest of his crew was killed by a mysterious “planetary force”, which only he and his wife seemed to be immune to (the wife later died of natural causes). His only companion now, beside Robby, is his beautiful daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), who was born shortly after the expedition landed. A naive child of nature, Altaira has seen no man (or woman) except her father in her entire life, and is unashamed of such things as nudity or kissing, especially as some of the crew are more than eager to teach her.
Morbius has no intention of returning home, and won’t let his daughter leave either, and insists he needs no assistance or interference in his work, and is eager to help Adams and his men be on their way. But it’s not just the allure of Altaira that keeps Adams from leaving — Morbius’ eagerness to be left alone also seems suspicious, and Adams is determined to get to the bottom of the fate of the previous expedition and the mystery of Altair IV.
In the night an invisible intruder sabotages part of the spaceship, and in the morning Adams and Ostrow are determined to find out what Morbius is hiding in his secretive mansion. Morbius catches them snooping around, and decides to show them around the facilities. It seems his house is built on top of a huge underground city filled with wonders of technology, abandoned by the planet’s original inhabitants, the Krell. He shows them a remarkable device, which can be used to enhance one’s mental capabilities, but can also kill one in the process, and tells them that it is with the help of this machine that he has been able to build Robby and the other technological wonders of his house. When Adams says that he should share all this knowledge with Earth, Morbius replies that humans are not yet ready for such knowledge, which is why he has been so secretive. Regarding the unseen menace, Morbius is vague, but still blames the mysterious “planetary force” that killed his former colleagues and destroyed their space ship.
In the evening, Adams and his crew build an electric fence around their space ship to defend themselves from their mysterious intruder, and keep guard. The invisible monster appears, and its outlines are revealed when it steps into the electrical current. In a ferocious battle between sheer force of nature and blasters, one crew member is killed, but the creature suddenly disappears, just as, back on the base, Morbius is awakened from his dream by Altaira’s screams. Adams and Ostrow speed over to the base and Ostrow sneaks off to use the intelligence enhancer, and when Adams and Morbius find him, he is on the brink of death, but being a genius himself, has been able to crack the secret of the sudden disappearance of the Krell and the mysterious monster. The Krell reached a level of mental ability that they were able to use their machines to create things with the power of their mind. But, reveals, Ostrow, the Krell didn’t count on “monsters … monster from the id”. When asleep, the monsters from their subconscious mind would be materialised — and that’s what killed them. Morbius, having spent 20 years hooked up to the Krell machines have now created a monster of his own. Now, he sees the crew from Earth as a threat to his work and to his daughter, the monster does his unconscious bidding to destroy them. And with that, the monster arrives at the door of his house, burning through his blast doors, getting ever closer and closer. How do you kill a monster made up of your unconscious fears and desires?
It is an often stated fact today that Forbidden Planet is a reworking of William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. In the play, the rightful Duke of Milan, Prospero, has been stranded on an island after a coup with his daughter Miranda. To survive, he uses “white magic” founded in nature, while battling the chaotic “dark magic” of the evil creature Caliban, which Caliban has learned from his mother Sycorax, a powerful sorceress who is never seen but often named in the play, all the while plotting his revenge. When the people who have usurped him, along with the King of Naples, his son and entourage, sail past twelve years later, Prospero causes their ship to go under in a tempest, and they float ashore at the island, where Prospero arranges a sort of play or “masque” in order to regain his rightful position, defeat his enemies and marry his daughter to the “romantic hero” of the play, Prince Ferdinand of Naples, thus making her a queen to be. It’s not hard to see the parallels to Forbidden Planet. The island is Altair IV, Morbius and Altaira are Prospero and Miranda, and Commander Adams is Prince Ferdinand. Sycorax is represented by the unseen but disturbingly ever-present Krell, whose “dark science” is pitted against the “white science” of Morbius. The id monster is Caliban, and Robby the Robot represents the helpful spirit Ariel. Like Prospero, Morbius is a complex and contradictory character, proud, prone to fits of anger and ruthlessness, but at the same time a man of honour and principles, and completely devoted to his daughter.
At the heart of Forbidden Planet’s story is the relationship, not so much between Altaira and Commander Adams, but between Altaira and Morbius. Morbius has kept her daughter, literally, as a prisoner in her home, shielding her from the evil of the outside world. Refusing to accept that she has grown into a woman, he dotes on her, giving her “imaginary” pets as friends, conjured up through the Krell machinery; birds, deer and even a pet tiger, but has prevented her from exploring her sexuality and womanhood. The id monster is a manifestation of Morbius’ fear of Altaira growing up and becoming a woman, leaving the asexual safety of her home to explore the world, herself and the dangers that lie withing both. But it can also be interpreted as a reflection of jealousy toward the young, handsome men coming to steal his daughter away from her — lending the film to a far darker interpretation of the relationship between Morbius and Altaira as an incestuous one, if not physically, then at least mentally. The plot is a journey of discovery, growth and sacrifice. Not just for Altaira, who must transition from childhood to adulthood, sacrificing luxurious, magical cocoon her father has built for her, partly for her comfort, but also to shield her from any outside influence. But as Altaira must sacrifice her safety, comfort and luxury in a world where her every childish wish is a command, so must also Morbius go on a journey of self-discovery in order to realise how harmful and possessive his relationship with Altaira is, and that it is time to break the walls of the prison he has built for her. A realisation for which he must ultimately pay a huge personal sacrifice.
This is heavy stuff for a mainstream science fiction film, and even more so in Hollywood in the fifties. And it is easy to miss the serious themes in the film today, as we as modern viewers are distracted by its seemingly innocent, glossy Eastmancolor sheen, the child-friendly retro robot and the comic relief ship’s cook played by Earl Holliman as the “aw shucks” character of the movie. Neither is the film helped by its dated sexual politics — the crew members’ leering glances and objectifying comments about the young, innocent girl are intended as comedy, but come across as quite creepy today. Especially a scene where Lt. Farman “teaches Altaira to kiss” is cringy. He does receive a fair scalding from Adams for the incident, but it plays out more as a way to portray Adams as an uptight commander than as to throw a shadow on Farman’s actions. Then again, these scenes are also ambiguous, as Anne Francis plays Altaira as a girl who understands more about her own sexual allure than she lets on, and ultimately the film does seem to strike a blow, or a least a nudge, for a woman’s own control of her sexuality and independence. One thing that makes the film ambiguous is that we never learn, at least as far as I can remember, just how old Altaira is. Depending on which, Altaira can be seen either as a Lolita figure being taken advantage of, or as an adult woman finally freed from the bonds of a sexually repressive culture. Francis was 25 when she did the role, which does tilt the scales in the latter direction. But the way the story is set up does make for some occasionally uncomfortable viewing.
According to film historian Bill Warren’s book Keep Watching the Skies!, Forbidden Planet was the brainchild of writer and stage producer Allen Adler, whose only other movie credit is a story credit for The Giant Behemoth (1959). Adler took the story to his friend Irving Block, an artist, special effects wizard, screenwriter and producer, who helped rework the story. They first thought to bring it to a low-budget studio like Allied Artists, but their agent convinced them to take a crack at MGM, not generally associated with SF at the time. The two took their pitch to producer Nicholas Nayfack, who initially thought little of the project, but apparently Block’s energetic retelling of the story, including a pantomime the invisible monster, won him over. However, at this point the story was not yet in script form. According to Warren, the story was “relatively simple, straightforward and not very imaginative. It was set on Mercury in 1976, and does not yet contain any references to The Tempest. It is basically a “go to the planet, kill the monster and save the girl” movie. And while this may seem quite dull and standard by today’s standards, one should remember that, actually, no film with this particular plot had yet been done in 1955. The story contained no reference of the Krell or an ancient civilisation, it had no Robby and the monster was apparently just a native of Mercury.
MGM hired novelist and screenwriter Cyril Hume to rework and flesh out the story, and it from his hand that all that is noteworthy about the movie comes. Hume had no previous experience with SF, but either he was a fan, or he did his research well. The idea to use The Tempest as a frame was apparently present in his very first story outline, which was fairly close to the finished movie, but the work took several drafts, with details changed and the tone, characters and dialogue tweaked. Hume came up with the famous scene in which Commander Adams catches Altaira swimming in the nude. When Adams says he can’t join her because he doesn’t have a swimming suit, she asks “What’s a swimming suit?” In the film, Anne Francis wasn’t actually nude, but wore a “nude suit” for the scene. Another classic scene from Hume’s pen is the one where Morbius demonstrates that Robby is programmed with the three universal laws of robotics. Developed by Isaac Asimov, the three laws of robotics had appeared in the fixup novel I, Robot in 1950, and their inclusion is one of the signs that Hume was well-versed in contemporary literary SF, as opposed to many SF screenwriters of the time. And the inclusion of the laws is not just fun trivia, but they also play a significant role in the finale — another point scored by the screenplay.
SF writers of the forties and fifties were extremely fascinated by possibilities of human evolution in regards to mental powers. Scores and scores of novels and short stories were written by the likes of Ray Bradbury, Henry Kuttner, Alfred Bester, C.L. Moore, Clifford Simak, Olaf Stapledon, Asimov and many others on the subject of telepathy, super-intelligence, hive minds, far sight and telekinesis. Once again, Hume taps into the literary currents of the era and makes the idea of super-intelligence and mind-over-matter evolution one of the central themes of the story. There’s even a suggestion that Hume draws parallels to H.P. Lovecraft in his creation of the Krell, the ancient, terrifying civilisation that died out 200,000 years ago, but whose giant, awe-inspiring and terrifying underground machinery still makes it feel like they are present, like the id monster, lurking in the shadows of our mind, waiting to return. There’s more than one reference one can draw to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. And of course, the Krell machines are powered by nuclear reactors, a comment on contemporary cold war issues: Morbius argues that humans are not yet ready to wield the potentially destructive power of Krell science — and as it turns out, neither is he.
One could spend hours recounting all the references, influences, themes and ideas crammed into Forbidden Planet. And one could be forgiven for suspecting that loading all of this meta material into what is essentially a lighthearted space entertainment movie would make the whole thing implode under its own weight. But the remarkable thing is that it doesn’t. This is a huge testament to Hume’s skill as a screenwriter: despite the many serious and sometimes heavy ideas, a couple of philosophical monologues that sometimes keep going a bit too long and the Easter egg references, the focus is always on the characters and the adventure plot. Robby and the comic relief cook would have been enough to keep the kids happy, but Hume doesn’t pander to the juvenile audience. He does, however, come dangerously close to ruining the film by making the same mistake as so many other space films of the decade did, which was to copy the jargon and characters from the American WWII pictures. It was the downfall of many potentially good SF movies of the time that they portrayed the astronauts as bored and untrained soldiers who had no desire whatsoever to explore space, and often did little but complain throughout the movies. While the idea was well executed in later films like Alien, it just rang extremely false in pictures where epic adventures were undertaken, with crews that seemed to be picked straight out the nearest unemployment office and consisted mostly of Brooklynite comic reliefs complaining “what’s the use of going to the moon anyway, there ain’t no cheeseburgers on the moon”. According to Bill Warren, some of Hume’s earlier drafts this exact problem, and traces of it can still be seen in the finished film, but Hume manages, for the most part, to stay on the right side of good taste, even if some of the jarhead dialogue is painfully jarring.
The film was assigned to MGM’s B-movie unit, under the production of Nayfack and direction of Fred Wilcox, an MGM stalwart who had worked at the studio in numerous capacities since the thirties. Wilcox had a reputation of working will with child actors, and was best known for having directed Lassie Come Home (1943) and its two sequels, and there was little in his resume that would have made him a first pick for a science fiction epic. Not that MGM planned much of an epic, with a budget of around one million dollars. However, both Nayfack and Wilcox saw the strength of the script, and were determined to make a good movie, not just for the kids in the audience, but one which spoke to adults as well. According to the DVD-tie-in documentary, the key to the quality of the film lay in two decisions made early on. One was that MGM’s supervising art director Cedric Gibbons gave art designer Arthur Lonergan and his team free reins, working from concepts by Irving Block and illustrator Mentor Huebner. The other was to commission the soundtrack from electronic music pioneers Louis and Bebe Barron. The designs of Forbidden Planet are stunning, from the epic, barren landscapes of Altair IV to the groundbreaking design of Robby the Robot and the slick, massive saucer-shaped spacecraft — and most of all, the imposing majesty of the underground Krell city. Lonergan’s background in architecture and interior design shows in his unique vision of the city, but there’s also clear fingerprints of Huebner, whose resumé reads like a history of science fiction movies, including The Thing (1982), Blade Runner (1982) and Dune (1984). Lonergan built a 51-metre spaceship prop to be used as a backdrop, and according to Anne Francis, it immediately set the standard for the film when the actors arrived. MGM, too, took notice of the work being done during pre-production, as a filming commenced, the studio poured more and more money into the project, ending up with a total budget of two million dollars, making it one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive science fiction movie made in the US a that date.
Bleeps and bloops and shrill, piercing sounds, as well as mysterious theremins were already staple soundtracks for SF movies in 1955, but Nayfack went a step further and commissioned a soundtrack from Louis and Bebe Barron, who were pioneers in creating sounds from electronic oscillators, the precursors of the synthesiser. The work was painstaking, and took 8 months to complete. One of the most famous sounds was the “electronic breathing” or pulsating of he id monster as it approaches the spaceship, unseen, a sound which would haunt the nightmares of a generation of children. Nayfack and Wilcox realised that in many cases, the soundtrack functioned almost like a musical score, and so they decided to give the task of scoring the music to the Barrons as well, resulting in the first entirely electronical musical score in film history.
The direction of the film is, in truth, not particularly spectacular. Wilcox is a steady hand behind the camera, but shoots in a rather traditional style with alternating wide, medium and close-up shots and even lighting, as was the norm with colour pictures at the time. There’s also a few places where it looks as if the editor has dozed off, and shots continue for much longer than they have any business doing, particularly during monologues. According to Bill Warren, the reason for this was that three-time Oscar nominee Ferris Webster was never allowed to actually finish his job. MGM wanted a rough cut to test the experimental soundtrack on a test audience. The audience ended up liking the film so much, that the studio decided that no more editing was needed, and decided to print the film as it was. Webster is said to have been bothered for years about the fact that he never had the chance to cut it like he wanted to. On the other hand, the effects shots are absolutely stunning, especially those from the underground city, showing enormous cavern-like shafts of strange, alien machinery stretching out into infinity. In shots quite clearly inspired by Metropolis, the actors are dropped into the shots, their ant-like appearance creating an awe-inspiring effect. The credit must partly go to the designers, miniature makers and matte painters, but most of all to uncredited visual effects photographer Max Fabian, who had previously worked as the special effects DP on The Wizard of Oz (1939). The id monster is, of course, one of the most lasting images of the movie. According to the making-of documentary, the design team worked long on developing the monster, with concept drawings that were truly terrifying even for an adult audience. Some looked like the stuff out of The Thing (1982), and one idea was to give the monster a giant head on legs, resembling Morbius’ face. What they eventually went for was a bit more child-friendly, and most of all resembles the front part of a lion or a dog from a Disney movie — that is, to the extent that it is seen. As it was invisible, the filmmakers had the idea of revealing it as a partial, fluctuating silhouette and outlines in the crossfire of the ray guns and the electric fence. We never really see what it looks like in whole, we only get a hint — which was a brilliant decision. Even though a modern audience don’t find it particularly frightening, it scared the bejeezus out of kids at the time — and probably adults as well. This was a completely novel way of creating monsters on film.
The id monster, as well as all the blaster rays, the electric fence, and a number of other effects were animated by Joshua Meador, one of Disney’s top animators and effects creators, who had been responsible for some of the most creative effects in Fantasia (1940) and worked on most of Disney’s major films in the 40’s and 50’s, and also created effects for movies like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1955, review), The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Nutty Professor (1961). Of course, at no time is the id monster more scary than when it is unseen, and at those times it is created by the special effects team, the sound designers and the cameramen. Giant footprints emerging in the sand, the metal stairs of the space ship buckling under its enormous weight, the ominous “pulsating” of its breathing. The special effects team, led by A. Arnold Gillespie, shares between them five Oscar wins, and was rightly one of only two nominees for the 1957 Academy Award — the statue went, perhaps deservedly, to The Ten Commandments.
Between the script, the effects, the music, the soundtrack and the design, the actors have a stiff challenge to make themselves relevant. Although not an A movie per se, MGM still decided to stick to of its biggest stars on the marquee, Walter Pidgeon and Anne Francis. Pidgeon was major star from serious drama pictures, and gave the film gravitas and credibility lacking from most of its contemporary science fiction rivals. And Francis, already a veteran of the screen, had just had two major hits as leading lady in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Blackboard Jungle (1955), and was one of the studio’s hottest actresses (in several ways). Of course, what modern audiences take away from the casting is Leslie Nielsen in a serious role as the male lead. Of course, the world knows Nielsen as the king of deadpan comedy from projects like Airlplane, Police Squad and the Naked Gun films in the eighties and nineties, but this stage-trained Canadian actor had a 30-year career before that as a serious actor, often leading man, in both film and TV, even though much of his early work was quite undistinguished. Forbidden Planet was his first major picture, and it secured him a long-time contract with MGM. Nielsen has no problem conjuring up the authority required for his part as the stern but fatherly commander of the space crew, and he has good rapport with his right-hand-man Warren Stevens, who gives a more nuanced performance as Doc Ostrow, the real hero of the movie, who sacrifices himself in order to learn the mystery of the Krell. Pidgeon brings class and authority to his Nemo-like portrayal of Dr. Morbius, but it is the beguiling Anne Francis who steals the show acting-wise. Although actor Frankie Darro is famous for donning the suit for Robby the Robot, it is character actor Marvin Miller whose voice brings the mechanical wonder to life and makes it such a memorable character. 27-year old Earl Holliman as the cook is the resident “kid” on the crew, and does his role with the wide-eyed innocense required. All in all, the acting is fair enough, but not even Francis or Pidgeon really do anything with their roles that couldn’t have been done by at least a dozen other actors. This film belongs to the screenwriters and the design team.
Despite being made by MGM’s B-movie unit, the film wasn’t released as a B-movie, but released on its own, as an “A-” film. It took in slightly less than 3 million dollars worldwide at the box office, making a small profit. As such, it was around the 30th-highest grossing American film in 1956, a year which was dominated by such blockbusters as Around the World in 80 Days, The Ten Commandments and Giant. In other words, it wasn’t quite the instant classic that MGM had hoped for, and at the time quickly drowned among other Technicolor spectacles of the decade. It wasn’t until it was re-released in 1973 as part of a kiddie matinee program that its reputation as a classic started building. As mentioned, the picture did get an Academy Award nod for its special effects. Quite possibly, it might also have been nominated for its groundbreaking soundtrack, but as has sometimes been the case, the nomination stumbled on a dumb technicality. For a composer to be eligible for a soundtrack nomination, they had to compose music played by musicians on instruments. As the oscillators Bebe and Louis Barron used did not count as “instruments”, neither did the music they composed and performed with them count as “music”. Therefore, they were credited for “electronic tonalities”, and were ineligible for an Oscar nomination.
If Forbidden Planet wasn’t an instant hit with audiences, it at least received very positive reviews from critics at the time of its release. A tongue-in-cheek review by Bosley Crowther at the New York Times promised “a wonderful trip to outer space”; “And we suggest you extend an invitation to Mom and Dad to go along. For this fanciful interstellar planet, which has been dreamed up at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and put on the screen in Eastman color and properly spacious CinemaScope, is the gaudiest layout of gadgets this side of a Florida hotel.” Crowther continued: “Don’t ask us who deserves top credit for the creation of this film—whether it be Irving Block and Allen Adler, who wrote the story, or director Fred McLeod Wilcox or screen-playwright Cyril Hume. The people who built the vast arrangements of queer machinery and multicolored lights that constitute the flying saucer and the fabulous ranch-house of Dr. Morbius did their share. So did Louis and Bebe Barron, who developed the “tonalities”—the accompaniment of interstellar gulps and burbles—that take the place of a musical score. And so did Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Morbius, the counterpart of the old “mad scientists,” and Leslie Nielsen as the captain of the spaceship and Miss Francis and all the crew. Also, a mention is merited by whoever is inside Robby, the Rover Boyish robot, and whoever speaks his courteous words. Certainly, every one of them had a barrel of fun with this film. And, if you’ve got an ounce of taste for crazy humor, you’ll have a barrel of fun, too.”
Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film was “more than another science-fiction movie, with the emphasis on fiction; it is a genuinely thought-through concept of the future, and the production MGM has bestowed on it gives new breadth and dimension to that time-worn phrase, ‘out of this world.'”Jack Eden at Motion Picture Daily wrote: “While it is as far-fetched as the imagination can go, it nevertheless treats the theme of 23rd Century life with imaginative exactness and supports the fantastic with a predictable sense of realism”. Variety called the film “a Space Patrol for adults”, and “a top offering in the space travel category”, while Modern Screen named it “one of the best science fiction movies to date”. Harrison’s Reports labelled Forbidden Planet “a weird but fascinating and exciting science-fiction melodrama”, and continued: “While there is no question that it will go over big with the science-fiction fans, it should prove impressive also to others”.
As of writing, Forbidden Planet has a good 7.6/10 rating on IMDb, based on close to 48,000 audience votes and an 8.2/10 average rating and a 96 percent Fresh verdict on Rotten Tomatoes. Metacritic gives it 80/100 points. While few name it among the very best of the best, the film is a staple on lists of the best SF films ever made. Both Starburst Magazine and Time Out Magazine has it at 20th spot, with the latter writing: “So much snarky fun is made of the high-minded parallels between this pastel-shaded, slightly campy sci-fi classic and the plot of Shakespeare’s The Tempest that it’s easy to overlook the film’s many original ideas. No other sci-fi film up to this point had dealt with such powerful concepts: an entire race of alien telepaths brought low by their own vaulting ambition; a man so consumed by Freudian passion that he can’t bear to let his daughter out of his sight”. IGN ranks the film as the 18th best SF movie ever made, and Movieweb as the 14th best, calling it “pulp fiction at its finest”.
AllMovie gives Forbidden Planet 4.5/5 stars, with Bruce Eder writing: “At the time, people mostly noticed the special effects […] Forbidden Planet’s real importance, however, lay in respecting its audience, including the kids, enough to steep its plot in psychology and to make some statements about human nature that were pretty strong stuff in the midst of the Cold War […] The movie walks an even more precarious tightrope with its subplot about nubile Anne Francis’ relationship with her father and the officers of the starship that has just landed in their two-person paradise.” Ben Cosgrove at TIME magazine includes the movie on hist list of the 10 best Shakespeare films ever made, and Alan Jones at Radio Times gives Forbidden Planet a full 5/5 stars. Keith Phipps at the Onion A.V. Club rates it A-, writing: “By the time Forbidden Planet hit theaters in 1956, aliens, robots, and strange worlds had become commonplace, thanks to B-movies, pulps, and comic books. So how did it become the touchstone science-fiction film of its decade? It thought big. Here was outer space as only the lavish production values of MGM could imagine it, a journey to an alien landscape painted in bold Eastmancolor and stretched across a CinemaScope frame. But it also thought small. Forbidden Planet‘s characters travel to the far reaches of space to discover boundaries that remain in place no matter where you go. The mind may climb to the stars, but it’s hard to shake the beast within.” Even the New Yorker’s hardnose critic Pauline Kael gave the film a tentative thumbs up in 1981, calling it “the best of the science-fiction interstellar productions of the fifties” — although, with Kael’s general loathing of the genre, that doesn’t necessarily mean much. She also wrote: “It’s a pity the film […] didn’t lift some of Shakespeare’s dialogue: it’s hard to believe you’re in the heavens when the diction of the hero and his spaceshipmates flattens you down to Kansas.”
Unsurprisingly, my go-to online critics all love the film. The late, great Gary Loggins at Cracked Rear Viewer had nothing but praise for the movie, and Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings calls it “one of the classiest, most intelligent, most well-written and most audacious science fiction movies of its time”. Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant writes: “Forbidden Planet is the lone fifties effort that embraces the genre’s potential for speculative ideas, backed by the committed production resources of a major studio. The futuristic science is more than an excuse for a monster; entire sequences are dedicated to the exploration of abstract, wondrous concepts. It is also perhaps the first “out of this world” film that really shows what special effects can accomplish when a sizeable budget is allocated.” And in his 4.5/5-star review at Moria, Richard Scheib praises the movie’s daring intellectual content, as well as its visuals: “While one might debate about whether Forbidden Planet is the best, it is certainly the most gorgeously produced of all 1950s science-fiction films.”
So, with all this praise, is Forbidden Planet the best science fiction movie of the fifties. In my opinion — no. It certainly belongs in the Top 10 and possibly in the Top 5, but I’d be hard pressed to put it in the Top 3 — if you think there’s any merit to these kinds of rankings. All of the above praise is spot on and in many departments Forbidden Planet does better than any other SF movie of its era. But my problem with the film, I think, is that it never quite follows through on its bold ideas to the very end. It’s as if the glossy colour photography and the studio’s hope to cater for children and adults alike made MGM just ever so slightly put their foot on the break, and steer onto safer roads when things started getting really interesting. The id monster is a case in point: despite some of the truly frightening pre-production ideas on the table, the film settles for a cartoonish Disneyesque solution. There is a clear opening in the setup for Freudian horrors of Hitchcockian or Lovecraftian magnitude, but the movie never goes there. The Krellian underground/subconscious remains as a backdrop, rather than being used as the obvious locale for the finale. Altaira remains the chaste virgin under her father’s protection for the entirety of the film, never going further than an innocent kiss. The film balances precariously on the borderland between a kiddie matinee and an adult movie. And while it is a beautiful balance act, there’s a constant nagging feeling that it could have been so much more interesting if the screenwriters had been allowed to make a science fiction horror film strictly for adults. Now it feels like the filmmakers are deliberately dipping their toes in a dark pool, just enough to feel that tingling sensation of fear and excitement of imaging what might lurk underneath the surface, but never muster up the courage to let go of the railing and plunge in.
This, of course, does not take away from the fact that Forbidden Planet is, on all accounts, wonderful movie on its own merits. And perhaps my critique is unfair, inasmuch as I am giving it a hard time not so much for any flaws but rather because it’s not the movie I want it to be. To be sure, other classics like The Day the World Stood Still (1951, review), The Thing from Another World (1951, review) and The War of the Worlds (1953, review) also revised their content according to commercial taste, political correctness and mainstream appeal. But with these films, you don’t really get the feeling that they left much left in the tank — they deliberately chose a path to walk and walked it pretty much to its logical conclusion. They were also limited by their budgets and the technology of the time. On the other hand, there were films that did go there, so to speak, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955, review), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and On the Beach (1959). I have a lingering feeling that Forbidden Planet could have gone there, as well; deeper, darker, more adult, more disturbing, more intelligent.
The movie got a novelisation, written by mystery writer Philip MacDonald under the pseudonym W.J. Stuart, which was released shortly prior to the premiere of the film. Despite Forbidden Planet’s less-than-stellar box office performance, there was talk about a 1958 sequel called Robot Planet, also to be directed by Wilcox and produced by his nephew-in-law Nayfack, but Nayfack died suddenly in 1958, and the project fell through. Like most SF classics, Forbidden Planet has been up for a remake several times, at one point with James Cameron involved, but nothing has ever come of it. However, SF history is riddled with films, books, TV shows and games inspired by the movie. One of the most obvious is Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry noted that the film was an influence, and in many ways Forbidden Planet resembles a Star Trek episode. The Rocky Horror Show (1973) and its movie version The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) incorporate the line “Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet” in the theme song “Science Fiction Double Feature”, and Meatloaf’s character Eddie, the id turned loose, can be seen as a version of the id monster. The 1975 Doctor Who serial “Planet of Evil” was deliberately based on Forbidden Planet. A 1983 rock musical called Return to the Forbidden Planet was supposedly an adaptation of the film, but reads more like a “Rocky Horror” version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In 2006 DAW Books released an SF anthology containing 12 stories inspired by the movie, by authors such as Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter and Michael Moorcock. The Fallout: New Vegas add-on pack Old World Blues (2011) was also highly inspired by Forbidden Planet. Some have seen the 1997 SF horror movie Event Horizon as a cloaked Forbidden Planet remake. “Monsters from the Id” is also a phrase that has entered our vocabulary, and horror films are rife with monsters from our unconscious. Also any film that has its heroes travel to a weird planet or nebula where they must face their fears or the dark parts of themselves (another common Star Trek motif) is a direct descendant of Forbidden Planet, at least if their dark sides manifest in any kind of monster or villain. The most obvious, albeit tongue-in-cheek reference probably comes from Ghostbusters (1984), when Dan Aykroyd chooses Stay Puft the Marshmallow Man as the form in which Gozer will return to destroy New York.
There are too many interesting figures connected to this movie for me to give a comprehensive overview, but let’s at least have a brief look at at few of them.
Director Fred Wilcox, as stated, had little other connection to science fiction than Forbidden Planet, which, along with Lassie Come Home, remains his best remembered film. Wilcox made one other movie, which he also produced and co-wrote, a low-budget drama called I Passed for White (1960). The movie, based on Reba Lee’s novel, follows a mixed-race woman’s struggle with prejudice, who decides to cover up her black ethnicity. The film was picked up for distribution by Allied Artists, probably because of the success of John Cassavetes’ 1959 movie Shadows, dealing with a similar theme. Taking away from their impact somewhat is the fact that both Cassavetes and Wilcox used non-mulatto actresses in the central roles. However, I Passed for White has a bit of a cult following today. Wilcox died suddenly in 1964, only 58 years old.
Allen Adler, the originator of the story of Forbidden Planet, as “Fatal Planet”, was born in 1916 into a New York theatre family, and spent much of his youth as a theatre manager. He was half brother to renowned stage actor Luther Adler and his sister, famous acting teacher Stella Adler, coach to such luminaries as Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. Like his siblings, Allen also contemplated a career in acting, but was hampered by a birth defect causing a speech impediment. Instead he studied writing and was one of the first students at the University of New York’s film program, with his sights set on screenwriting. After serving in WWII, he became a talent agent, representing at one time such stars as Ethel Waters and Harry Belafonte, while continuing his work as a theatre manager. Adler made a three-picture deal with Columbia in the early fifties, but before it came into fruition, he was singled out as a suspected communist and was blacklisted, and the deal fell through. For some reason, MGM ignored his blacklisting (which was already being seen as slightly absurd in the mid-fifties, when Oscar-winning films were being ghost-written by blacklisted writers), and gave him story credit on Forbidden Planet. According to film historian Bruce Eder he also provided the story for another monster movie, The Giant Behemoth/Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959). Eder cites an interview with Adler’s daughter Allison Jo Adler, who says the story was based in New York, but because the movie was filmed in England, the locale was changed to London. IMDb gives him no story credit for The Giant Behemoth, and have locked the writing credits for the movie, arguing that the complete writers credits have been provided by the Writers Guild of America — despite the fact that WGA includes Adler in their credits for the movie. So despite my efforts, I have not been able to update the IMDb credits for the movie. In 1957 Adler published his only novel, another science fiction monster story, Mach 1, about an alien monster who follows a team of astronauts to Earth. According to Eder, it may well have had its origin as an unproduced screenplay. Adler passed away in 1964 due to a botched treatment of a longtime illness.
Speaking of missing IMDb credits, low-budget visual effects wizard Irving Block doesn’t even have a mini-bio on the site. It was most certainly Block who championed Adler’s story for The Giant Behemoth, just as he had “Fatal Planet”. Block worked uncredited as the designer and creator of the special effects on the movie, but by then, 1959, he was on the last leg of his journey through the world of cinema. According, once again, to Bruce Eder, Block, born in 1910, was one of the many artists who suffered during the Great Depression of the 30’s, and got involved became active in groups organising unemployed artists. Writes Eder: “Following the advent of Roosevelt’s presidency, Block became one of numerous artists employed across the country by the Works Progress Administration, and it was during this period that his talent to social-realist painting manifested itself, in various works — including many celebrated murals — done as public projects across America.” He soon became highly respected for his paintings, but his career was halted by WWII, during which he was enlisted to work as a map maker for the US army.
Following the war, Irving Block tried his luck in the movie business, and turned out to be a supremely multi-talented operative. During his decade-long stint in Hollywood and beyond, he worked as writer, producer, matte painter, special and visual effects creator, art director and production designer. Despite a couple of sidesteps with major studios, Block primarily thrived in low-budget end of Hollywood, where his knack for producing impressive effects on the cheap, often acting as a sort of co-producer even without producer credit. His first movie credit was for the “ill-fated” 1949 UK/French/US production Alice in Wonderland, a remarkably good production combining live action with stop-motion puppetry. The puppetry was realised by famous puppeteer Lou Bunin and his team, and Block was credited as art director and for special effects. However, the film was banned in the UK due to its satirical portrayal of Queen Victoria, and Walt Disney, whose animated blockbuster version of the same story was released in 1951, took the movie to court and prevented it from getting a general US release.
While Alice in Wonderland was a commercial flop, the involvement in such an elaborate production surely gave Block all the experience and tools he needed when he embarked on his pioneering but unsung decade-long journey through science fiction. In 1950 he struck up a career-defining partnership with the small but daring Lippert Pictures. In 1949, George Pal and Irving Pichel announced their groundbreaking Technicolor spectacle Destination Moon (1950, review), the first US film to give a realistic depiction of a trip to the moon. With all the media hubbub surrounding the film, Lippert Pictures saw their chance to ride its coattails, and quickly cobbled together their own “first” picture, but about a trip to Mars. Co-written by Oscar winner Dalton Trumbo, directed by Hollywood veteran Kurt Neumann, filmed by Oscar winner Karl Struss, Rocketship X-M (1950, review) beat Destination Moon to cinemas with a month and took full advantage of the free advertisement drummed up by Pal and his marketing team. Not only that — Rocketship X-M may not have had the glossy sheen and the astronomic art by Chesley Bonestell, nor the name recognition of Robert Heinlein, but it was in many ways a better film than the stodgy Destination Moon. Irving Block was hired for the film as a matte painter, and it is not his best work. However, the film was momentous inasmuch as it brought together the dynamic duo of Irving Block and Jack Rabin, one of the greatest low-budget visual effects teams of Hollywood.
Together, Block and Rabin went on to either write, produce, design or create the effects for films like Unknown World (1951, review), Flight to Mars (1951, review), Captive Women (1952, review), Invaders from Mars (1953, review), World Without End (1956), War of the Satellites (1958), The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959), The Atomic Submarine (1959) and many others. Often they would work together with the third piece of their ragtag team of designer-driven workshop, Louis Dewitt. A prestige project for the three was Kronos (1957), for which they teamed up with much of the team from Rocketship X-M. While the film, shot in impressive CinemaScope, tried to bite off a little bit more than it could chew, it is nonetheless, as Bruce Eder puts it, “unusually handsome”. In his review of Kronos, DVD Savant Glenn Erickson writes: “The notices of Kronos were all positive — contemporary reviewers were impressed by its special effects and thought the film the equal of many a much higher budgeted effort. By 1957 the A-picture high-class Science Fiction film was a fading dream, and Kronos‘ immediate competition were groaners like The Unknown Terror. Interestingly enough, the same men who made Kronos had previously written the script for one of the last A-budget Sci-fi classics. Irving Block and Jack Rabin ran an all-purpose optical service in the 50s that thrived on the slew of independent productions without access to studio optical departments. Their work is everywhere, from awful $50 visuals in things like Monster from Green Hell to brilliant work in Night of the Hunter. Creative and ambitious, the duo made a big sale to Dory Schary at MGM – their Fatal Planet treatment eventually became Forbidden Planet, one of the few Science Fiction films with a bona fide abstract Science Fiction concept at its center.
As public interest in science fiction faltered toward the end of the 50’s, the trio of Block, Rabin and DeWitt did their last work together on the ambitious TV show Men Into Space, with William Lundigan as a top astronaut taking on a number of important missions, such as the first missions to moon and Mars. The trio produced the visual effects for all 38 episodes of the show, which ran 1959–1960. The trio then more or less called it quits, although Rabin made a comeback in 1975. Block, however, left Hollywood behind him and and embarked on the third stage of his career, as a successful painter. He joined the faculty of California State University at Northridge in 1964 and was a professor emeritus at the time of his death in 1986. By then, his paintings were being given retrospectives at top galleries and the Smithsonian Institution was preparing to honor him.
Robby the Robot turned up in another movie in 1957, The Invisible Boy, a children’s comedy from MGM written by Cyril Hume, produced by Nicholas Nayfack and with effects by Block, Rabin and DeWitt. While the robot suit was the same as in Forbidden Planet, the scripts of the two film had nothing in common, and The Invisible Boy made no reference to Forbidden Planet. Robby is easily the most memorable character from Forbidden Planet, and one of the most famous robots in movie history. The suit differed from the clunky box-shaped robots in many previous films, and was one of the first to be designed as a fully-rounded character. The suit was developed from original sketches by the three art directors on the film, Arnold Gillespie, Arthur Lonergan and Irving Block. These sketches were refined by production illustrator Mentor Huebner and the suit was finalised and built by MGM staff production draughtsman and mechanical designer Robert Kinoshita. The suit, complete with working machinery, moving parts and lights, cost an astounding 125,000 dollars to make, or around 7 percent of the entire budget for the film. The robot became the face of the movie in the marketing and went on to become a pop culture icon. After The Invisible Boy, Robby started popping up in numerous TV shows in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, including The Gale Storm Show, Columbo, The Addams Family, Lost in Space, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Twilight Zone, Mork & Mindy, Project U.F.O. and Space Academy, as well as in the films Phantom Empire (1988) and Gremlins (1984), as well as in an AT&T commercial in 2006. Over the years, the suit was augmented, damaged and repaired, until it was restored in the 80’s with spare parts left over from the original movie production. In 2017, the suit was sold at Bonham’s for over 5 million dollars, making it the most expensive movie prop ever sold at an auction.
No actor gets on-screen credit for playing Robby the Robot, even if he, for most of the time, is played by a man in a suit. Of course, this was partly a way for the producers to preserve the mystery around the robot. However, officially and in press junkets, press images and magazine stories, the person credited for playing the role was diminutive actor Frankie Darro. Darro was a 5’3 or 160 cm tall former child actor and Monogram comedy action star, whose small and athletic frame made him ill-suited for leading man roles but perfect for stunt work. In he early forties he did, however, play the lead in a string of action melodramas with a comedy edge for Monogram, which were so popular that Monogram started writing them explicitly for him. After WWII he continued as a perennially youthful marquee name at Monogram, however, producers and directors were becoming increasingly tired of his behaviour on set. Darro had contracted malaria while in the service, and the symptoms stayed with him for the rest of his life, causing him to self-medicate with alcohol. He accepted smaller roles and stunt work, which is how he became Robby the Robot. However, this was not the plan originally. Originally, Robby was supposed to have been played by a short props man on the production of Forbidden Planet called Frankie Carpenter. However, the production team had not taken into consideration, that as opposed to the lates monster that jumps out and says “BOO!” in The War of the Worlds, or the giant ants in Them (1954, review), Robby was actually a character, which had to be played by an actor giving a dramatic performance. And because of union regulations, one could not just grab anyone on set and have him do an actor’s work. No, as one of the main characters of the movie, Robby had to be played by a union-affiliated actor. Hence: Frankie Darro. The only problem was that Darro, self-medicating, had the bad habit of turning up drunk on set. This was not a good thing for a man operating a 125,000 dollar suit, and after he almost toppled over and ruined Robby, he was quietly put aside, and Frankie Carpenter played Robby for the rest of the movie. And someone seems to have forgotten to inform the Screen Actors Guild.
Robby was voiced by character actor Marvin Miller, a Chicago radio legend and one of the most sought-after voices in Hollywood during the fifties. From 1955 to 1960 he played the titular lead in the TV series The Millionaire and in 1965 and 1966 won Grammy awards for his recordings of the children’s stories by Dr. Seuss. He appeared in a number of science fiction films and TV shows. He had small roles in Red Planet Mars (1952, review) and The Story of Mankind (1957), and narrated King Dinosaur (1955, review) The Deadly Mantis (1957), The Phantom Planet (1961) and Empire of the Ants (1977). He appeared as voice actor in several foreign SF movies that were dubbed to English, including many Godzilla movies, as well as the French animation Le planète sauvage (1971) and Tidal Wave/Submersion of Japan (1973). He also had roles in over half a dozen science fiction TV shows. Miller also narrated the English version of the Finnish-Soviet co-production Sampo (1959) or The Day the Earth Froze (1964), based on the folk tales of Kalevala. He voiced Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet, The Invisible Boy and Gremlins. Ironically, he never received an on-screen credit for his most iconic character.
Walter Pidgeon was born in Canada, but moved to Boston at an early age, where he studied voice, and began appearing on stage, mainly in musicals. In the late twenties, the tall, dark and handsome actor started appearing in silent films and had roles in movie musicals in the early days of the talkies. In 1937 MGM put him under contract, where he built up a reputation as a reliable and talented “second man”, and it wasn’t until in loan to Fox for How Green Was My Valley in 1941 that he received his first top billing, and after that MGM started giving him leading roles, most often opposite Greer Garson. The two played together in three of Pidgeon’s biggest hits, Blossoms in the Dust (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Madame Curie (1943), and despite being nominated for leading man Oscars for the two latter, it was Garson who stole the shows. During his 21 years at MGM Pidgeon was a household name and a respected and well-known actor, but never one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He himself said: “Maybe it was better never to become red hot. I’d seen performers like that and they never lasted long. Maybe a long glow is the best way. At Metro I was never considered big enough to squire around Norma Shearer or Joan Crawford or Greta Garbo. Well, I outlasted them all at MGM, didn’t I?” He left MGM in 1956 to work on stage, but returned to film in 1961. He retired in 1977 and passed away in 1984. Apart from his Oscar nominations, Pidgeon won a Lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild, for which he served as president for several years in the fifties, and a star on the Walk of Fame. In 1944 he was also awarded a Sour Apple Award as the least cooperative actor in Hollywood. Apart from Forbidden Planet, Pidgeon also starred in the SF movies Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), The Neptune Factor (1963) and the TV movie Live Again, Die Again (1964).
Leading lady Anne Francis began her career as a child model and actress on stage, in early TV shows and radio, making a move for Hollywood in the ate 40’s, where she frowned on being treated like eye-candy rather than a serious actress, and went back to the New York stage. She made a second attempt at the movies in the early fifties, and after a short stint at Fox, she was put under contract at MGM, where she scored her thee biggest hits, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956). Finding she was still mostly being offered uninteresting ingenue roles in movies, she made the risky decision to transition into television in the late fifties. She had a good run of guest spots in several high-profile TV shows, including The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Columbo, Rawhide and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., before hitting gold in her own show, Honey West, in 1965. A ground-breaking detective show, it was the first of its kind to feature a female lead, and showcased Francis as a female James Bond character, as sexy as she was deadly. Francis trained martial arts for the role, and while the more difficult moves were performed by a stuntwoman, she was good enough to appear credible in close-ups. The role earned Francis a Golden Globe Win and an Emmy nomination, and one of the show’s episodes was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award. Despite the success of the 30-episode first season, the ABC network decided to cancel the show over budgetary reasons, and chose instead to import the British hit show The Avengers, a similar series. However, Honey West made a huge impact on how women were portrayed in spy and action shows and has a legacy that has far superseded its short TV run. Francis continued her successful career as a guest star on numerous top TV shows up until 2004, when she made her last role on the missing persons crime drama Without a Trace. Francis’ only SF movies outside Forbidden Planet were the kiddie film Rocket Man (1954) and John Sturges’ biological warfare mystery drama The Satan Bug (1965). She also appeared on the TV shows Lights Out (review), The Twilight Zone, The Invaders, The Name of the Game and Wonder Woman.
Leslie Nielsen is, of course, no stranger to any of our readers. One of the most celebrated comedy stars of the 20th century, Nielsen made a splash as the stone-faced physician in the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker movie Airplane! (1980) who doesn’t like to be called Shirley. He became a cult phenomenon through his role as the hard-boiled police detective Frank Drebin in the TV show Police Squad (1982) and and a superstar thanks to the the three Naked Gun films (1988, 1991 and 1994). For many a modern viewer, it is difficult to see Nielsen in a straight role, no less so than in the type of stone-faced heroic lead that he spent so much of his career spoofing. But it’s easy to forget, this was his bread and butter for just as long as he was a comedy icon, from the late forties throughout the seventies. Born to a strict, disciplinarian Danish immigrant mountie father in Canada, Nielsen studied acting in Toronto before heading to the New York on a scholarship to the Neighbourhood Playhouse. He made in television debut in 1950, in which year he appeared on a whopping 46 programs. His break in Forbidden Planet scored him a contract with MGM and he was for a few years considered a decent romantic leading man, although in the words of film historian Hal Erickson at AllMovie, “merely a handsome leading man in an industry overstocked with handsome leading men”, playing first and second leads in B-films like Ransom (1956), Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) and The Sheepman (1958). Nielsen was dissatisfied with the quality of MGM’s movies in general, and left the studio to go freelance. After leaving the studio, Nielsen landed the lead role in the Disney miniseries The Swamp Fox, as American Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion. Eight episodes were made, and Nielsen considered this one of his career highlights. He eked out a decent career in TV and occasional appearances in fairly successful films like Beau Geste (1966) and Counterpoint (1967). Outside Forbidden Planet, his best remembered straight role came in 1972, when he was cast in the small but memorable role as Captain Harrison in the naval disaster film The Poseidon Adventure. Other appearances worthy of note were the lead in the B-action movie Project: Kill (1976), the co-lead in the SF/horror film Day of the Animals (1977) and the large supporting role as the mayor in another disaster movie, City on Fire (1979). He also played the lead in two short-lived crime dramas on TV, the ABC show The New Breed (1961-1962) and the ITC mini-series The Bold Ones: The Protectors (1969-1970).
1980’s Airplane! changed Nielsen’s life, although his status as a comedy-only actor wasn’t established overnight. Airplane! led to the cult series Police Squad, for which Nielsen was nominated for an Emmy. However, during most of the eighties, he still soldiered on in largely forgettable straight roles as men of authority, such as in the TV movie Cave In! and the action film The Patriot. Neither were his comedies always home runs: the Alien spoof The Creature Wasn’t Nice (1981) and the teen comedy Dangerous Curves (1988) are generally considered terrible. The Naked Gun, when released in 1988, brought Leslie Nielsen such fame and fortune that that he could choose his projects, and he chose comedy — according to himself he had been miscast during his whole career, and what he really wanted to do all along was comedy. On the other hand, his fame as Frank Drebin also meant that he was almost uncastable in any serious roles. One can argue that the first film in the series stands in a league of its own, but the two sequels were generally well received by audiences and critics alike.
However, his work outside the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker productions revealed Nielsen’s limits as a comedic actor — or rather the fact that he had little knack for comedy outside the deadpan variety. Best-regarded of his post-Naked Gun comedies is Pat Proft’s Wrongfully Accused (1998), basically a Naked Gun-ish spoof on The Fugitive. The team-up between Mel Brooks and Leslie Nielsen in Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) was highly anticipated, but both a commercial and critical dud. The film has become a cult favourite on video, and still has its defenders, even if it is fair to say that the styles of Nielsen and Brooks didn’t mesh well. Nielsen’s attempt at children’s comedies, like Mr. Magoo (1997) were disasters, and along with Spy Hard (1996) it was one of the last pictures Nielsen headlined to get a major marketing campaign and budget. Wrongfully Accused, while fairly well received, was a low-budget movie, but even more so 2001: A Space Travesty (2000), which didn’t even get a theatrical release in the US. Nielsen’s post-2000 involvement in major movies amounted to little more than extended cameos, such as in David Zucker’s Scary Movie 3 and 4 (2003, 2005). One exception was the Zucker-produced Superhero Movie (2008), a film that escaped universal panning simply because it was slightly better than groaners like Date Movie and Epic Movie. A low-point in both Zucker’s and Nielsen’s careers was the ill-conceived attempt at conservative satire An American Carol (2008), which took a stab at liberal documentarist Michael Moore, a film that pandered to those who think the pinnacle of political debate is calling your opponent fat, smelly and stupid. But clearly, Nielsen loved acting, even if the quality of the productions he was involved with wasn’t always top-notch. He could have enjoyed a well-earned retirement at the age of 74 in the year 2000, but in the following 10 years he appeared in 16 movies, had a handful of TV guest spots, voiced an animated series and hosted a medical documentary on Discovery Channel. He literally kept working until he finally dropped in 2010 from complications with pneumonia. His last film appearance was a cameo on the super-low-budget indie comedy Stonerville (2011), where he delivered the film’s opening monologue as the “producer”.
As stated, Forbidden Planet wasn’t Nielsen’s only brush with science fiction. In fact, he was a mainstay on the early, pioneering SF and mystery anthology shows on American TV. He appeared in several episodes of Lights Out (review), Tales of Tomorrow (review) and Out There in the early 50’s. In the 70’s and 80’s he also appeared in shows like Night Gallery, Touch of Evil and The Ray Bradbury Theatre. In 1967 he co-starred with Don Knotts in The Reluctant Astronaut, an SF comedy about a janitor sent into space, and in 1969 in the intriguing low-budget SF drama Change of Mind, in which a white man’s brain is transplanted into a black man’s body. He appeared in two TV movies in 1970: the zombie film Night Slaves and Hauser’s Memory, based on Curt Siodmak’s “sequel” to his bestselling novel Donovan’s Brain. In 1971 he starred in the intriguing super-low-budget medical mystery thriller The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler, and, as stated, co-starred in the 1977 SF horror jungle film Day of the Animals. Nielsen’s straight-up SF spoofs include the above-mentioned The Creature Wasn’t Nice, 2001: A Space Travesty and Superhero Movie. One could, of course, also count the Naked Gun films and Spy Hard as spy-fi comedies.
Another actor with considerable SF pedigree is Warren Stevens, playing the heroic Doc Ostrow. Stevens was a prolific stage, TV and film actor never quite able to break it into the A-list. He co-starred in a couple of minor TV series, but spent most of his career as a journeyman actor on numerous TV series. His only other SF movie was the Michael Rennie vehicle Cyborg 2087 (1966), in which he had a prominent supporting role. He also had a minor role in Irvin Allen’s TV movie The Return of Captain Nemo (1978). However, he racked up an impressive science fiction resumé on TV. He appeared in two episodes of Science Fiction Theatre in 1955, including the Jack Arnold-directed “Time is Just a Place”, and in the late 50’s and 60’s in One Step Beyond, Men Into Space , The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (in a recurring role), The Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, and not least Star Trek. In the second season episode “By Any Other Name”, Stevens played the main villain Rojan, leader of a group of alien scouts who take on human form and capture the Enterprise. In the 70’s he also appeared in The Name of the Game, Wonder Woman, and in 1986 in the star-studded The Twilight Zone reboot episode “A Day in Beaumont”, opposite SF legends John Agar, Jeff Morrow and Kenneth Tobey, as well as Stacey Nelkin (Halloween III) and later character actor extraordinaire Victor Garber.
Jack Kelly who rounds upp he hero trio in Forbidden Planet had somewhat similar beginnings in his career as Stevens, but when Stevens wound up as the eternal journeyman, Jack Kelly rose to international fame in 1957, thanks to being cast as James Garner’s brother Bart Maverick in the massively popular (and influential) western/gambler comedy/drama TV show Maverick. Garner and Kelly would alternate as each episode’s lead (due to the hectic production schedule) until Garner left the show in 1960 and was replaced by Roger Moore. Kelly later reprised his role as a cameo in a number of other TV shows and a couple of TV movies. He was never quite able to reprise his Maverick success, although he had a few leads in minor films, including the infamous short propaganda movie Red Nightmare (1962), depicting a USA invaded by the Soviet Union. He also played the lead in Kurt Neumann’s SF horror movie She Devil (1957) and appeared as a radio voice in Stephen Traxler’s low-budget SF horror Spawn of the Slithis (1978). He played gossip columnist Jack O’Shea in two episodes of the TV show Batman (1966), and appeared in the shows The Name of the Game (1969), The Bionic Woman (1976-1978) and in The Incredible Hulk (1978).
Richard Anderson, playing one of the crewmen in Forbidden Planet, had a long and successful career as a character actor on TV, even though he started out on stage and later segued into film, where he became known as reliable character actor in movies like Scaramouche (1952), Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and Paths of Glory (1957). But in the late fifties he transitioned to TV, where he became a sought-after character player, often playing either authorities or villains. Among his numerous appearances were recurring roles in series like Zorro, Perry Mason, The Fugitive and The F.B.I. However, the role he will always be remembered for is the one of Oscar Goldman, the boss of the “enhanced” heroes, first in the SF series The Six Million Dollar Man ( 1973-1978), and then in its spin-off Bionic Woman (1976-1978). He also played the lead in the low-budget Edward L. Cahn-directed SF horror movie The Curse of the Faceless Man (1958), had a small role in the Rock Hudson vehicle Seconds (1966) and appeared in TV shows like Captain Midnight, The Green Hornet, The Invaders, Land of the Giants, Darkroom, Knight Rider and Automan. Between 1976 and 1982 Anderson worked as the “Shell Answer Man”, a role which his predecessor Vince O’Brien described like “winning the state lottery”. The Shell Answer Man appeared in TV commercials, print ads and gas station hand-out booklets, and gave advice on driving, car maintenance, road safety and how to get the most out of your heating oil.
Earl Holliman, who plays the comic relief cook, is better known for his serious roles in films and TV. An occasional lead actor, he earned most accolades as a character player. Like almost all of cast of Forbidden Planet, Holliman had a theatrical background, and used to joke that his ticket into the movie business was a visit to Paramount’s studio barber, who gave him the bangs the casting directors were looking for. Among his many roles, he is remembered for playing the youngest brother in the 1956 film The Rainmaker, for which he won a Golden Globe and Lt. Bill Crowley opposite Angie Dickinson in the TV series Police Woman (1974-1978). SF fans remember him from playing the one-man tour-de-force in the pilot episode of The Twilight Zone in 1959, which led to him getting the lead in a couple of minor western shows. In his later career he had co-starring roles in short-lived shows like P.S.I. Luv U (1991-1992), Delta (1992-1993) and the science fiction show Night Man (1997-199) Holliman also appeared in the SF comedy Visit to a Small Planet (1960), with Jerry Lewis, and Byron Haskin’s The Power (1968), co-starring SF legend Richard Carlson. Holliman retired in the year 2000, and as of writing in January, 2022, is still with us at 93 years of age, as the last living crew member of the spaceship in Forbidden Planet. In his private life, Holliman was an animal rights activist and vegetarian, and was heavily involved in charities for the American poor.
Now, I’d like to wind down this long list of interesting actors on the film, but I can’t, because there is also George Wallace, playing another crew member. Wallace is best known for playing the original Commando Cody in the hugely popular film serial Radar Men from the Moon in 1952. Later in life, he appeared in minor roles in the SF movies Multiplicity (1996), Bicentennial Man (1999) and Minority Report (2002). He also appeared in a number of SF TV shows, including Star Trek: The Next Generation (1992), in the episode “Man of the People” and The X Files episode “Hellbound” in season 9 (2002). Then there’s Robert Dix (crewman), character actor and occasional western lead, who is more of a horror than SF staple, with roles in Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958), Blood of Dracula’s Castle (1969), Satan’s Sadists (1969), Horror of the Blood Monsters (1970) and The Last Frankenstein (2021), a slick-looking low-budget movie released 4 years after Dix’ death in 2017. Dix plays plays the grandfather(?) of the protagonist who is hell-bent on carrying out the old family experiment. Another space ship crewman is James Drury, best known for playing the titular lead in the western series The Virginian (1962-1971). Morgan Jones (crewman) is probably best known for playing the lead in Roger Corman’s Not of This Earth (1957) opposite Beverly Garland. He also appeared in Untamed Women (1952, review), The Giant Claw (1957), and as a guest star in a number of SF TV shows, including The Twilight Zone, Star Trek and Knight Rider.
I have barely touched upon the careers of some of the amazing people in the art and technical departments on Forbidden Planet, many of whom wound up shaping and reshaping the look of science fiction movies in the decades to come. But this post is long as it is, and we’ll get chances to get acquainted with them in entries to come – so follow this blog on WordPress, or continue to follow my journey in the history of science fiction movies by liking and following Scifist on Facebook and/or Instagram.
Forbidden Planet. 1956, USA. Directed by Fred Wilcox. Written by Cyril Hume. Based on the story Fatal Planet by Allen Adler & Irving Block, and on the play The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly, Richard Anderson, Earl Holliman, George Wallace, Robert Dix, Jimmy Thompson, James Drury, Harry Harvey, Jr., Roger McGee, Peter Miller, Morgan Jones, Richard Grant, Frankie Darro, Frankie Carpenter, Marvin Miller, Les Tremayne. Music: Bebe & Louis Barron. Cinematography: George Folsey. Editing: Ferris Webster. Production design: Irving Block, Mentor Huebner. Art direction: Arthur Lonergan. Makeup: John Truwe, William Tuttle. Sound: Wesley Miller. Special effects: A. Arnold Gillespie, Robert Kinoshita, et.al. Visual effects: Max Fabian, Joshua Meador, et.al. Wardrobe: Walter Plunkett, Helen Rose. Produced by Nicholas Nayfack for MGM.