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Forbidden Planet (Blu-ray Review)

27 Sep, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$24.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘G.’
Stars Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis.

In a late-1955 ad blitz I’ve never forgotten, MGM promoted two upcoming ’56 releases with the help of Quaker Cereals. Included in each specially marked box was a coupon for a free children’s ticket (this is Google-able if you want to see the art) as long as an accompanying adult paid for his or her regular admission. One of these movies — the disappointing Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz-James Mason fantasy Forever Darling — needed the ballyhoo. The other probably didn’t.

This would be the sci-fi groundbreaker that managed to combine Shakespeare’s The Tempest (though no one using the kiddie ticket would have known this); “Walter Pidgeon’s ‘Id’” (sounds like a good name for a rock group); Robby the Robot (whose boundless talents extended to manufacturing hooch from scratch); and the sight of leggy Anne Francis in and out of a mini-dress precursor and other equally revealing garb. There was also, in his screen debut as a spaceship commander, Leslie Nielsen — but no one knew at the time that this would be a selling point for posterity.

More than one has said that TV’s “Star Trek” would be all but unimaginable without its Planet predecessor, and it’s tough to disagree. I’ve never seen a budget breakdown, but even today it looks as if the studio spent the money where it counted, beginning with an all-electronic score by Louis and Beebe Barron that we hear at once, along with Leo the Lion’s MGM roar. Then there were special effects served up by a techno-crew borrowed from Disney — obviously primitive now after 54 years yet forever burned in the memory of anyone who’s seen them due to the way they still play on the imagination.

I’m talking about the elaborate mechanical enclave on plot-central planet “Altair-4” (which Pidgeon’s Dr. Morbius doesn’t divulge until well into the movie); also the scene where Nielsen is forced to vaporize Francis’s normally docile but suddenly carnivorous companion tiger; and the final attack sequence where Pidgeon’s carefully constructed mini-universe at home starts to fall apart due to the demons in his own mind.   

Just by virtue of it being in CinemaScope and color, Planet was more or less unique for its day — in the way that the employment of color for the George Pal/Byron Haskin Destination Moon was an eye-opener in 1950 (the latter was a special effects Oscar winner in addition). As a result, one senses today that the filmmakers may not have been fully confident of the material and were inclined to hedge their bets by trying a little of everything. Thus, we not only have crew member Earl Holliman getting sloshed in the river of booze that industrious Robby concocts — but booze for comedy relief at a point when there are some dramatically heavy things going on in the rest of the picture. There’s also the love angle that some regard as distracting, though I personally think that Francis’s sexiness and its accentuating garb — especially given that her developmentally shielded character has no awareness of sex — substantially adds to the general unhealthiness of a planet whose other Earthling settlers were mysteriously wiped out a couple decades earlier by (to borrow a term that Alexander Haig once employed during the Watergate days) “a sinister force.”

Strictly from the viewpoint of all those under-12s who shoveled down Quaker Puffed Wheat or Rice to get their free tickets, the Anne-Earl side trips likely helped the word-of-mouth. I can tell you from first hand experience that Francis’s swim in a backyard pool — when, at first, it looks as if she’s nude — was a Very Big Deal with my fellow third-graders when we saw Planet (a March premiere) at our second-run neighborhood theater in May or June. And Holliman’s drunkenness seemed funny at the time (as it no longer really does) because the mere idea of robot that could transform itself into a distillery seemed pretty cheeky. By the way: No one I know has ever called Holliman a significant footnote in terms of supernatural entertainment, but he is. In addition to this movie, he starred in the very first episode of TV’s “The Twilight Zone” (1959’s “Where Is Everybody?”), which Image Entertainment has just brought out on Blu-ray.

Though it hasn’t the lobby card miniatures that offered a sweet nostalgic touch for fans who were around during the movie’s original release, Forbidden Planet’s Blu-ray pretty well replicates the standard two-DVD “50th Anniversary Edition” that Warner brought out in 2006. This version’s soundtrack has more muscle, but visually, the quality is very close. If the pigmentations sometimes differ slightly, one version is generally as vibrant as the other — or as vibrant as any {inferior} Eastman Color movie with a predominantly desert setting and crew members in gray spacesuits can be.  

Just some of the prodigious extras — and this time, they’re all packed comfortably on a single disc — include a Turner Classic Movies documentary on 1950s outer space cinema; an episode from TV’s “The Thin Man” in which Robby guest-appeared; plus Robby’s follow-up 1957 feature The Invisible Boy. The last (1.85:1 and black-and-white) advances some interesting ideas about childrearing: just take your kid to work and leave him unattended to play with gazillion-dollar, high-security equipment. What’s more, we see a mom played by Diane Brewster slap her young son across the face — and the same Diane Brewster who played Jerry Mathers’ reserved teacher/crush Miss Canfield on a few episodes of “Leave It to Beaver.”

Of course, mom has to be feeling the pressure when her son is on the verge of becoming a you-know-what.

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