Hollywood Gothique
The Vault

Friday Cat Blogging: Forbidden Planet (and did Robby the Robot really get drunk?)

The 1956 sci-fi classic FORBIDDEN PLANET – starring Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, and Anne Francis – will be screening tomorrow, July 7, at 2:00 and 8:00pm in the wonderful Alex Theatre.

Why FORBIDDEN PLANET – and why now? I haven no idea – the film’s 50th anniversary was last year, but better late than never, I say.

In any case, in honor of this auspcious event, we’re devoting this week’s edition of Friday Cat Blogging to the film, which features a quite lovely cat of the larger variety, to whit: a tiger…

This elaborately produced science-fiction update of Shakespeare’s The Tempest features the big cat in a small but symbolic role. The story has a space crew landing on Altair IV, a planet inhabited only by Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). Although some mysterious, lethal force lurks on the planet, Morbius and Altair seem immune – Morbius because of his love for the planet, Altaira because of her innocence (i.e.., virginity).

The point is made early on, when the wild tiger (descendant of zoo specimens captured by the planet’s long-dead indigenous population) reacts like a tame house cat in the presence Altaira – signaling her special status. However, after she falls in love with the ship’s Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen, playing it straight decades before Airplane), she symbolically loses her innocence – and along with it, her immunity from the dangers on the planet. This becomes apparent when her embrace with Adams is interrupted by the reappearance of the tiger. Far from greeting her like a loving pet, the beast reverts to its predatory nature and makes a leaping attack. Although Altaira is slow to recognize the new danger to herself, Adams is quick witted enough to get his blaster out and destroy the beast before it can carry out its lethal intentions.

Leaving Cat Blogging behind, I would like to add one small note regarding FORBIDDEN PLANET. The film screened a few years back as part of the Last Remaining Seats festival, which shows classic movies in classic movie theatres in downtown Los Angeles. The evening was hosted by STAR TREK’s George Takei, and most of the surviving cast (minus Nielsen) was on hand to answer his questions after the film.

Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, while someone else was answering a question about Robby the Robot (the film’s elegantly designed and drolly humorous robot, who clearly inspired the later C-3PO and RD-D2), Anne Francis interrupted with excited enthusiasm, asking “Don’t you remember the time that…?” and she proceeded to tell an amusing story about how the man wearing the robot suit got falling down drunk one day – and literally fell down while filming a scene of the robot descending the exit ramp from the Bellerophon flying saucer that brings the rescue team to “Forbidden Planet” of the title, Altair IV.

There was only one problem with the story: It never happened – at least not on the set of FORBIDDEN PLANET.

Fans of the film will recal that Robby is not a member of the crew on the Bellerophon; he is already on the planet when the flying saucer arrives, so he has no reason to walk down the exit ramp. He only ends up on the ship at the very end, as the survivors make their escape before the planet explodes.

So where did the story come from? It turns out that the questions George Takei asked during the Q&A session were written by a friend of mine. Before the actual event, he ran through the questions with the cast to weed out any that didn’t prompt interesting answers. He asked about a rumor that Robby the Robot had fallen off the ramp because the actor was drunk, and got blank stares from all concerned – no one remembered anything like that happening. So it was with considerable surprise that he heard Anne Francis use the story in front of the audience.

As for the source of the rumor that prompted the question, I don’t know. Another famous 1950s sci-fi film, DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, does feature a shot of an ominous robot walking down a ramp from a flying saucer; perhaps that is where the story got started. Also, Robby the Robot went on to make other apperances, in the low-budget film THE INVISIBLE BOY and in television episodes of THE THIN MAN and LOST IN SPACE. Perhaps Robby took a tumble in the latter, which featured a flying saucer, or possibly in THE INVISIBLE BOY (which I have not seen in so long that I cannot remember whether any scene presented an opportunity for the robot to loose his footing while exiting a space ship).

Whatever the explanation, I write this here because I imagine those hundreds of fans who sold out the screening of FORBIDDEN PLANET, eager to watch the film and hear behind-the-scenes stories. Now, all of them believe – falsely – that Robby got loaded and careened off the ramp while filming a scene that does not actually exist. I guess you can get away with a story like that because the face of the actor inside the suit(Frankie Darro) was not invisible, so it feels as if you’re slandering a mechanical object, not a real person. But it isn’t really fair to suggest that the actor was fired for being drunk on the job.

For what it’s worth, I just wanted to set the record straight.

UPDATE: According to this article, the problem was the Robby was doing a 180-degree spin while trying to exit a futuristic car, and the crew had to catch him before he fell. The article cites no source. Although this suggests it’s possible that concerns about the actor led to his being replaced, it’s safe to say that Robby never fell down drunk, based on the fact that none of the surviving cast members recalls the incident.

  • Location: ALEX THEATRE – 216 N. Brand Blvd. (818) 243-2539.