Thursday, January 6, 2022

Day the Earth Stood Still, The (1951)

20th Century-Fox
Director: Robert Wise
Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe

#82 on AFI 100 Thrills
#67 on AFI 100 Cheers
#5 on AFI Top Science Fiction
National Film Registry

A clear metaphor for mankind’s tendency at misunderstanding as well as a thinly veiled modern notion of a messiah story, Robert Wise’s 1951 Science Fiction feature The Day the Earth Stood Still is a timeless classic of the science fiction genre. Perhaps the first A-movie sized budgeted sci-fi production, the film relies less on creepy creatures, screwy science, and a rise in special effects and more upon a message that continues to speak to audiences of today. Sci-fi was making the large jump from pulp magazines to major motion pictures leaving an impression on the business and popular culture that remains through contemporary features.


The Day the Earth Stood Still is a science fiction drama of an interplanetary visitor on earth and the immediate hostilities it encounters. Mankind is surprised when a flying saucer lands in Washington DC and a messenger, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), with a large robot, named Gort, step out asking to speak to world leaders of an important communication. Immediately met with nervous hostility Klaatu is wounded by a gunshot and kept locked in a hospital. Yearning to gather a better understanding of man, Klaatu escapes locked room disguising himself as an average man known as Mr. Carpenter. Along his way he finds new faith in mankind befriending a young woman named Helen (Patricia Neal), her energetic her young son Bobby (Billy Gray), as well with renowned scientist, Professor Bernhardt (Sam Jaffe), while evading the US government’s search for him. The mistrust of Helen’s boyfriend Tom (Hugh Marlowe) uncovers Carpenter as Klaatu, fingering the spaceman to authorities. The fugitive hunt ends with Klaatu shot dead before being resurrected by Gort at the spacecraft and finally delivering his message to Earth. His words are an urge for peace or threat of destruction as a why to protect the universe, an ominous message as he in the flying saucer ascends back into the stars.


In what is overall a thinly veiled modern day Jesus story The Day the Earth Stood Still is a science fiction film that uses metaphor remarkably well and remains a picture that is very enjoyable and impactful today. For 1951 standards the special effects are very well done, the acting is well performed on most parts, the production quality is above reproach compared to other like movies, and the writing is engaging so long as one does not go into it looking to nitpick. It is a science fiction picture that does not rely the of usual tropes of the genre, instead focusing more on the message, and that message is still very relevant today.


With roots as an adaption of a 1940 short story “Farewell to the Master,” The Day that the Earth Stood Still was a reaction to the increasing popularity of science fiction and pulp magazines in culture, giving the genre one of the very first big budget productions that it may be taken seriously by Hollywood. The story highlights the suspicions and fears that clouded American society with rise of the Cold War and threat communism eating through the subconsciousness of patriotism. For Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, the production became one he gambled on, having a positive feeling it would work out despite this style of movie being the usual product of small, independent studios and B-pictures at best.


To man the helm of the feature was editor turned director Robert Wise, who was best known to this point for editing Citizen Kane (1941) before flexing his filmmaking skills with some of more clever and well received and economical horror pictures of the 1940s. Given a meaningful budget Wise was trusted with the resources that made this story as realistic and earnest as possible. Primary filming with the cast would take place at the Fox studio lot in California, but plenty of vast establishing shots were gathered by a secondary crew in Washington DC, making it feel as if production was based in the nation’s capital. Armed vehicles and soldiers from Fort Meade in Maryland to flesh out the large presence in the picture despite the Department of Defense unwilling to aid production after viewing the script which perceived the military as irrational.


The special effects are remarkable at the time, setting a new benchmark for science fiction style and execution. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was consulted on the style of the flying saucer, a major set piece of the movie. The need to make the craft look seamless created on unworldly feel to it. To create the illusion that the all-smoothed craft suddenly opening the seams were covered with a putty and painting to hide the lines as the craft opened. To make the doors close as seamlessly the doors opening was played in reverse to complete the magic of cinema. Likewise, Gort the robot was made to look similarly seamless despite being a suit. Portrayed by seven-foot Lock Martin, discovered as an usher at Grauman’s Chinese theater and cast for his size height, he was sewn into the costume each day he was use on set. Depending on how he was to be shot there were, multiple forms of the suit were made where the seams were on the different sides of the suit, allowing that side to be opposite from the camera to create the illusion he was a fully smooth robot. In many cases a fiberglass statue stood in for towering robotic figure when not needed for movement, freeing up the need for the actor as well as delivering the unearthly stillness to Gort.


British actor Michael Rennie had the dubious task to portraying Klaatu for the picture, a casting choice made after Claude Rains turned down the part for Broadway commitments. He would follow the instruction of Robert Wise to play the role “with dignity, but not with superiority” delivering a character that is likable and sympathetic as he learns to both like and fear the human race. A soft-spoken character, Rennie’ Klaatu would be a positive character on screen and for the actor’s career until being typecasted years later to his frustration. His even demeanor and earnestness by which he plays a humanoid visitor to the planet would be an icon of science fiction on the silver screen.


Luckily this science fiction story avoids the easily overused plot pf a romantic story shimmied into the drama. Case in point the use of Patricia Neal as Helen, the character by which Klaatu learns the positives of the human race. The 25-yar-old actress brings a dignity to the human characters as a war widow that initially hesitancy towards Carpenter before finding compassion in the being that is Klaatu, helping to bring him back to his ship. Billy Gray, the child actor that portrays her son Bobby, delivers innocence to the picture. Veteran actor Sam Jaffe plays an Einstein inspired role of Professor Barnhart, the academic that makes an intellectual connection with Klaatu and efforts to reassure the world his message must be heard.


Hugh Marlowe is somehow more difficult to swallow as a performer in the picture as Tom. His role as Helen’s boyfriend never sits well as he immediately dislikes Carpenter despite never getting to know the man, making him the representation of the paranoia of man. The performance is a bit too flat and the character overall unlikable. Fans of “The Andy Griffith Show” will note the appearance of Frances Bavier as a boardinghouse proprietor, a very similar delivery that would find her success in many television shows in the future.


From the beginning, the film was meant to be nothing more than a well-made science fiction tale by Fox, but viewers would come to observe the metaphors it made to a modern Jesus story. Like Jesus, Klaatu comes to earth to share a message only to be met with hostility, killed, and resurrected before delivering a final message of peace or damnation before rising back up into the sky. Klaatu even takes upon himself the name of Carpenter, Jesus’ trade before delivering his divine message to the world. To many this thinly veiled story would be perfectly symbolic or laughable.


When the picture opened in September of 1951 audiences responded positively to the film, as did critics for the most parts.  The special effects and story captivated viewers as the film was easy to understand for a world caught up in its own hysteria. The message, however, would be lost in the simplicity of just being a good story as the 1950s remained on age of the “red scare” and mankind continued to share a general distrust for all things it does not understand.


Beyond its generous box office returns The Day the Earth Stood Still easily became one the highest regarded early science fiction films, and perhaps the finest of the 1950s. The film continued as a favorite, viewed through numerous airings in the age of television as new generations absorbed its storytelling and message delivery. It inspired future filmmakers who paid tribute to it in various way through the decades sense in hints and homages. The film found itself remade in the 21st century starring Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, but it paled in the impact the original. The Day the Earth Stood Still remains one the finest Sci-Fi pictures of all time and pertinent for even the casual viewer, remaining ever present in cinema history.

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