Thursday, August 2, 2012

Billy Ray Shakespeare, Say Howdy Do to Sig Frood

William Shakespeare met Sigmund Freud on the planet Altair IV in 1956...

This would also be the year that Forbidden Planet reached Earth's movie screens.  Cyril Hume's screenplay tells the story of a scientific wizard who, living marooned on a planet 16 light years from our sun with one other survivor of an expedition to deep space, has unlocked the technological secrets of a long dead alien race.  His fellow human sharing this world of green skies and stark desert landscapes is his daughter...

Hume worked from a story idea jotted down by special effects man Irving Block and Allen Adler.  This being Hollywood, Block had to get his ideas from somewhere else.  Fortunately for the audience, he turned to William Shakespeare and The Tempest...

Irving Block and Allen Adler's original story idea
set Forbidden Planet's take on William Shakespeare's
tale of a wizard and his daughter on the searing
surface of Mercury.  The setting was later changed
to a world sixteen light years distant from Earth.
A rescue expedition arrives from earth to interrupt the solitude of Prospero and Miranda in their guises of Dr Edward Morbius and Altaira Morbius.  The scientist attempts to warn the crew away-- he, his late wife, and his daughter were the only ones to escape death after an unknown alien force slaughtered the rest of the expedition and vaporized the space ship which would have allowed Morbius and his family to attempt the journey back to Earth.  Then, his wife fell sick...

Despite the warning, the expedition lands.  Its crew (and one handsome astronaut in particular) catches the eye of lovely Altaira.  The murderous invisible creature which had left father and daughter in peace returns to destroy the newcomers.  Efforts to stop its rampage fail until a Freudian epiphany shatters the life of Dr Morbius-- he has created the monster from the darkest corners of his mind by tampering with a technology that destroyed its own creators...

Not emphasized in Hume's screenplay or even clearly articulated, since the studio and producers intended to attract a sizeable number of ticket-buying parents and their kids, was the true nature of that dark place in Morbius' soul.  There are desires so horrid that a man will gladly die alone on a distant world, mangled and crippled, thankful that his daughter has escaped truly knowing the monster who gave her life...

[One way to distract an audience from thinking too much about deeper messages of a movie is to give the folks filling the seats something else at which to gawk.  Forbidden Planet did this with Robby the Robot and Anne Francis' costumes.

Robby the Robot and Anne Francis in a publicity still
for Forbidden Planet.  Costume designer Helen Rose's
idea of form-fitting "spray-on" clothes was nixed by
studio bosses leery of creating too much of a stir in
emphasizing Altaira Morbius' sexuality.
Robby is Forbidden Planet's Ariel-- bound to serve Morbius' Prospero... 

Unlike The Tempest character, the mechanical man is no victim of a vengeful witch.  He is a servant hammered into hulking reality by Morbius' delving into the secrets of a race which once inhabited the planet where he lives with his daughter.  He is clearly visible to the rest of the cast, unlike the loyal spirit who creates the title storm in Shakespeare's play.  Almost a half mile's worth of electrical wiring was required to operate the robot's flashing lights and whirring head gears.  Robby reportedly consumed about $125,000 of Forbidden Planet's estimated $1,900,000 budget.

Robby wowed pre-adolescent boys.  Anne Francis wowed the ones who'd discovered girls.  Her mini-skirt, designed by Helen Rose, caused eyes to pop and tongues to wag.  Altaira's daring outfit wasn't Rose's first choice for a costume-- the designer wanted to celebrate female beauty with "spray-on" clothes but the studio nixed the idea.]

Metro Goldwyn Mayer's Forbidden Planet featured a groundbreaking electronic music score.  And, as if that wasn't enough, it was the first movie set entirely on another world.  Its deranged genius wasn't the first mad scientist to hide his wicked secrets.  We have the earlier example of a homicidal Dr Caligari whose 1920 tale introduced the "surprise" or "twist ending" to cinema goers...

Set still from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari: a twisted village
mirrors the deranged mind of the tale's lunatic narrator.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari unfolds in flashbacks told by a young man named Francis who is engaged to a lovely girl named Jane.  He tells us that he traveled with Alan, a good friend, to Holstenwall.  Unfortunately for Alan, a serial murderer stalks the streets of this remote and picturesque mountain village.  He dies within 24 hours of arriving-- exactly as predicted by Cesare, a man entranced by Dr Caligari, a carnival hypnotist... 

Francis and Jane investigate Alan's murder, eventually learning Cesare is a serial killer who slays at the direction of Caligari.  More snooping reveals that the doctor is no mere carnie-- he is the administrator of an insane asylum who has been using patients to commit murder as he attempts to recreate the crimes of another Dr Caligari who lived two hundred years earlier.  Local authorities act on Francis' findings and arrest the mad fiend who is promptly tucked away in his own asylum...

British poster for Caligari
As Francis finishes his narrative, we are "surprised" to learn he is quite loony, a patient at a madhouse where Dr Caligari labors to restore his mental health...

Cabinet is rightly regarded as a masterpiece of German Expressionism, a movement that (like Expressionism in general) presents the world from a subjective perspective, often distorting it radically to evoke moods or ideas.  The Expressionist film maker or painter isn't so much concerned with duplicating the appearance of physical reality as expressing ideas and emotions created or evoked by that reality...

Expressionist cinema in Germany ambled towards "intellectual" subjects like madness and betrayal and shattered lives.  Its directors did not celebrate buffoons who bonked one other on the head nor did they give cowboys fast horses to cut the Dalton Boys off at the pass as they race to get away with the bank loot.  The sets of Cabinet  serve notice the film has a dark and serious theme-- twisted walls, jagged trees with bayonet branches, and slanted streets guide viewers to a startling revelation:  Caligari is a fiend only within poor Francis' deluded psyche, his actions misinterpreted by cracked mirrors of insanity reflected by other cracked mirrors of insanity...

Norwegian artist Edvard Munch created several
versions of The Scream, often pointed to as the
quintessential expression of Expressionism.  In his
notes, Munch commented the title of his painting
refers to an experience he had late one afternoon
as he walked through the countryside, a sudden and
strong sensation that Nature herself was shrieking.
This version dates to 1893.

Lest the reader misunderstand, the expressionists should not be dismissed as a band of misanthropic, morose misfits who broodingly used art as self-therapies for disassociated personality disorders.  What motivated them was a refusal to trivialize life or bow down to rationalist ideals that reject the power of emotion, especially strong ones...

Franz Marc: Deer In Woods, 1914

Ernst Kirchner: Self Portrait as a Soldier, 1915
Horror movie buffs will think me remiss in my duties if I fail to point out that many classics of the genre are products of the German Expressionism movement-- Nosferatu and The Golem: How He Came Into The World being, perhaps, the best known.  The former is an unapproved take on Bram Stoker's famous tale about a vampiric nobleman.  The director (and star) of the latter, Paul Wegener, was inspired (and personally fascinated) by the medieval legend of Rabbi Judah Loew who creates a giant creature from clay and animates it through magic to protect the Jews of Prague's ghetto from murderous neighbors...

Shadow of the Vampire, a 2000 film, explores the making of the
German Expressionist horror classic, Nosferatu.  This telling of
the story postulates actor Max Schreck (who plays Count Orlock)
in the 1922 film) was no mere actor playing a bloodthirsty
vampire and the mysterious deaths on the film set were no mere

Actor/Director Paul Wegener as Der Golem, a creature from Jewish
We have, in our time together this week, touched upon two cinematic milestones: the first film set on another planet and the first surprise movie ending.  There is a third landmark for us to consider--  what may be the first and greatest film in which a man pretending to be a talking monkey falls in love with a pretty French aerialist...

This might be The Monkey Talks, the 1927 saga of two out-of-work circus workers who concoct a scheme in which one dresses up in a monkey suit and pretends to speak.  Its heroine is Dame Olivette, a beautiful Parisian tightrope walker, a role portrayed by Olive Borden.  Tragedy and danger lurk behind what seems to a comic premise.  Fano and Pierre-- our circus workers-- both fall in love with the lovely mistress of the highwires.  If the secret of the act is to be preserved, only Pierre can declare the feelings of his heart while poor Fano hops around like an ape... 

Lobby Card for The Monkey Talks
Alas-- a jealous lion tamer named Bergerin sets a vicious chimpanzee on Olivette under the dubious theory that she would rather be dead if she cannot allow herself to share his bed.  Fano, still in costume, comes to her rescue and valiantly battles the killer ape.  He knows he himself shall die horribly.  And he knows Olivette will find safety in the arms of another, never knowing how deeply he loved her... 

Ah, but how does the song go?  When a man loves a woman, there isn't anything he won't do...   

Actress Anne Francis of Forbidden Planet
later starred as TV private-eye Honey West.
The series lasted one season, unable to
survive the challenge of Gomer Pyle, a sitcom
starring Jim Nabors as a backwoods Marine


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Note: All photographs for this essay were located through Google Images or Wikipedia, without authoritative source or ownership information except as noted: Posters and lobby cards from Graven Images by Ronald V Borst

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