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50 Years of ‘Forbidden Planet’

Today, most movies don’t last two weeks at the box office, so for a film to remain acclaimed and popular for 50 years says a lot. Forbidden Planet first wowed audiences in 1956 when Robbie the Robot protected the nubile and naive Alteria (Anne Francis) while astronauts discovered monsters unleashed by Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon).

With a two-disc DVD set hitting stores Tuesday, Nov. 14, Warner Brothers screened the newly restored high definition print at the American Cinemateque Egyptian Theater. Robbie the Robot hawked Cinemateque memberships before the screening, and the film’s Anne Francis, Earl Holliman, Warren Stevens and Richard Anderson reflected on their legacy after the screening ended.

With light speed travel and beaming teleporters, it’s no secret that the long-running Star Trek owes a lot to this film. “What’s Star Trek?” joked Stevens. “I’ve always felt that this picture you saw tonight laid the groundwork for Star Trek. I’m glad we were able to do something like that. Star Trek is going on and on and so is Forbidden Planet. I’m very grateful for all of that.”

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Trek creator Gene Roddenberry owned up to it, according to Francis. “I talked with Gene Roddenberry quite some years ago,” she said. “We were both up for receiving honorary doctorates at a university here in California. Anyway, we were talking about Star Trek and Forbidden Planet and he said, ‘Oh, yes. I borrowed a lot from Forbidden Planet.’

In its time, Forbidden Planet’s metaphysical themes were groundbreaking. On the planet, Morbius has a mind machine that actually creates monsters from his subconscious. It blew their minds in the ‘50s and still holds our interest today.

“I was amazed sitting there how this audience just was absolutely on it,” said Anderson. “And there was some very, very heavy discussion as you said, very heavy metaphysics, very heavy dialogue. But I found you were all very much with it.”

In Forbidden Planet, all of the visual effects were animated by the Walt Disney Studios, but the actors’ experience sounds the same as today’s kids who complain about their CGI/green screen films. “It’s certainly different from doing a western,” said Stevens. “We’d point these plastic pistols and there’s nothing there. So it’s like talking to a carrot. You had to talk to the carrot. We had to manufacture it all and we didn’t know what was going to happen until we saw it in the picture.”

Francis added, “We were just improvising. To see all those wonderful special effects that Disney did made all the difference in the world. We were being as sincere as we possibly could with our performances but still, the vibe on the set was fun. It was fun to see what they did.”

Hollywood’s first artificial intelligence, Robbie the Robot, became the film’s scene stealer. Making him work on the set was a different story. “I gotta tell you also, working with Robbie was not easy,” said Holliman. “It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do because Robbie couldn’t do anything. There was a very nice elderly lady, script clerk, script supervisor, it was like she wasn’t even there. I guess she had other things on her mind. I’d say my line and then I wouldn’t get Robbie[‘s reply] and she’s talking [to somebody else]. It really was tough. It really was tough to make those things come alive.”

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Some of the actors inside the Robbie costume had some close calls on the set. “One day at lunch, this one young man who was working in the suit went to lunch and it turned out to be I guess close to a three martini lunch,” recalled Francis. “Came back and in the first scene where Robbie comes out of the vehicle, when you first see him, we were shooting it that day after lunch. He started to step off and it was like his feet took him this way and the top of him started to go that way. You have to remember that this film I think was two million dollars. Robbie cost a million. We were just along for the ride. You never saw 20 grips run so fast.”

Forbidden Planet also turned on a generation of teenage boys with Francis’ skimpy wardrobe. Space aged miniskirts showed the entire length of her bare legs. “It was funny, the one costume that they would not allow in the picture was one that was extremely modest,” said Francis. “It was silver lamee up to here, long sleeves, coat/tunic and clinging I guess you’d call them leggings, and then boots. All in silver lamee. And I think it even covered my hips and [producer] Dore Schary’s wife saw the wardrobe tests and she said, ‘We can’t do that. It’s just too vulgar. It’s too sexy.’ They let me run around with the little [skirts].”

Those outfits inadvertently brought Francis closer to Pidgeon than she ever expected. “This was a take where he landed in my lap,” she said. “And I leaned down saying, ‘Oh, no.’ My left breast goes right to his face. Oh my God.”

With the film back in the public spotlight, inevitably conversation turns towards potential remakes. All the originals hope new Hollywood doesn’t try to mess with another classic.

“Remakes don’t work too well,” said Anderson. “The only movie that I saw that was good or better than the first one was The Godfather. The second Godfather was right up there with the first one. And then they did three and that didn’t work. There’s something about an original. I don’t know the answer to it. It just doesn’t seem to work. We’ve seen a lot of it with TV shows for example. TV series and also motion pictures and I think it has to do with that old saying, chemistry. Chemistry between people.”

Stevens believes that a new Forbidden Planet would necessarily be too complicated by modern technology. “If they did a retake, the plot would be the same but imagine all the new discoveries, scientific discoveries they would have to incorporate now that they’ve discovered since,” he said. “They’d have to put in all that.”

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See the original Forbidden Planet on DVD Nov. 14.

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