Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Day the Earth Stood Still

I might have seen it from the back seat of my parents green '49 Chevy at the Tiger drive -in when it was released in 1951 -- I don't remember, being only three that summer  -- but I definitely saw it in 1957, the year I was nine. It was at the Dalton Theater, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, part of a quadruple Saturday afternoon line-up. Bobby Harrison and I rode our bikes to the Dalton, paid a dime each, walked in laughing -- and came out terrified. 

When the lights went down, and after the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, what we saw was that cool flying saucer, and with it, Bernard Herrmann's extremely creepy music: The deep throb of bass, with piano and harp arpeggios, and that spooky, really spooky, therumin. That baby sent goosebumps crawling all over me in shuddery waves. The score holds up well after almost fifty years -- I'm listening to it on CD as I write this -- and it still brings up chill blains. We are talking serious monster music here, copied ad infinitum in subsequent movies

Edmund North's script for "The Day the Earth Stood Still," based on Harry Bates' 1940 short story, "Farewell to the Master," is a classic study in xenophobia. The humanoid alien, Klaatu, lands his saucer on the mall in Washington D.C. Coming in peace to let us know where we stand in the galactic scheme of things, Klaatu is naturally shot by a nervous soldier within a couple minutes of landing. This was not a smart thing to do when the guy you plink hangs out with a big honkin' robot (Gort) whose death ray gaze can vaporize guns and tanks with ease, and who proceeds to do just that. Had not the wounded Klaatu stopped him, Gort would have no doubt disintegrated Washington, and in Klaatu's place, I would have let him. 

We’d be better off.

Klaatu survives and escapes, but continues to have a real bad vacation. As part of his demonstration of power, the alien brings virtually all electrical activity on the planet to a halt for an hour, save for hospitals and planes in the air and all -- therein the title -- and that gets everybody's attention in a hurry. Along the way, Klaatu deals with politicians, the military, scientists (who are actually portrayed here as good guys) a jealous boyfriend, and a dippy kid who even Mr. Wizard probably couldn't stand.

And from the way he takes it in stride, you know he's seen it all before.

But we humans stupidly persist in our paranoia, and eventually, Klaatu takes another bullet, ending up more or less dead. As the alien visitor fades, he directs the widow Benson, (who has come to know Klaatu as a boarder who fascinates her son,) to fetch Gort. The giant robot snatches the body, returns to the ship, and is able to heal Klaatu. Kinda, sorta, with a politically-correct nod noting that only the Almighty can truly bring back the dead. 

When the mortally-wounded Klaatu miraculously recovers enough to stand up in front of his saucer and finally lay it out for us, you could have heard a piece of stale popcorn hit the Dalton's sticky floor: 

"It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet," he says, "But if you threaten to extend your violence , this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burnt-out cinder."

A burnt-out cinder. Now there is an image.

It was obvious this was no idle threat. Gort could kick ass and take names, and to make things worse, there were others like him out there. We wouldn't have a prayer if we didn't toe the line. By this point, I was rooting for the aliens and feeling like scum for being human anyhow. 

Bobby and I didn't know about the red menace and the cold war and how "The Day the Earth Stood Still" was a metaphor for our turbulent times, complete with Christ-figure undertones. Nope, what we knew after we saw the movie was that Gort was not a robot to screw with.

"Gort -- Klaatu barada nikto . . ." 

They don't make 'em like this any more. Too bad.

They tried a remake, but even Keanu couldn’t give it enough oomph, and it was lame in comparison. 

"The Day the Earth Stood Still," 1951, black and white, running time: 1:32.

Screenplay  - Edmund H. North
Based on the short story "Farewell to the Master," by  Harry Bates.

Director  -  Robert Wise


Michael Rennie -  Klaatu
Patricia Neal -  Helen Benson
Billy Gray  -  Bobby Benson 
Hugh Marlowe  -  Tom Stevens
Sam Jaffe -  Dr. Barnhardt
Cinematography  -  Leo Tover
Editing  -  William Reynolds
Costume Design  -  Perkins Bailey  and Travilla.

Music  -  Bernard Herrmann

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