The Day the Earth Stood Still - 1951
Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal & Gort
Patricia Neal (as Helen Benson) has a serious problem trying to help visiting alien Klaatu to understand the human race, she also has another serious issue which is her Judas-like boyfriend Tom (played by Hugh Marlowe) who is dead set on selling out the space visitor to the authorities.
Michael Rennie (as Klaatu) is from outer space, sent to Earth by an unseen intergalactic bureaucratic "we". This group has noticed the humans now have atomic weapons (The Day the Earth Stood Still came out 1951, six years after Hiroshima & Nagasaki) and this is bothering them, fearing that once space travel is achieved, the humans will soon be traversing the universe and (presumably) blowing it all up. Klaatu is their ambassador, sent to earth with their message for the earthlings to settle down and cooperate with each other and no more wars, or else.
Michael Rennie's alien visitor gets rifle-shot almost from the start by an edgy infantryman sent to watch over Klaatu's flying saucer (it lands right onto a softball field next to the Lincoln Memorial. Incidentally, games are still played at that location to this day).
Once in the hospital, Klaatu is amused by the guards put around him (which he easily evades) and he gets out into the city (Washington DC, which is apparently the Capitol of at least this universe) and he wants to get a better sense of what humans are like. He is soon living at a boarding house with various folks, among them Patricia Neal (as Helen) and her son Bobby (played by Billie Gray.) Little do they realize but they play a pivotal role in convincing Klaatu that the earthlings are worth saving (from themselves).
In 1950s Sci-Fi movies, giant bugs, monsters and aliens are all threats that warrant an obvious (usually violent) response from the beleaguered humans on the screen, and who can blame them? They had developed the reflex coming out of World War II in which the Nazi/Imperial Japan onslaught had wrecked whatever peace there was following the previous mass slaughter of World War I (called the 'war to end war' in complete seriousness for awhile), and with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Stalin grabbing chunks of europe, anxiety about the future and technology went hand in hand.
In this 1951 film, though, theoretically all humans are the "monsters" who have got to get their mutual house in order or else Klaatu's intergalactic bosses will solve the issue of out-of-control technology with an even greater violence, deleting humanity from whatever vague cosmic order sent actor Michael Rennie to earth aboard a silver saucer.
In principal, this movie is the perfect tale for anyone who believes that humanity is its own worst enemy and (maybe) shouldn't exist at all, if you work out the logic the peaceable Klaatu lays out before them early on in the tale when confronted by the bureaucracy and thick-headedness of the world leaders.
But then Klaatu takes the risk to save mankind (from itself, though they have been shooting at him from time to time) because after meeting Patricia Neal it's obvious to him it would be just wrong to kill off a race this pretty.
All this human self-hate could make for a condescending, pretentious set piece easily enough, but director Robert Wise and writer Edmund North steer clear of message heavy-handedness, letting the characters be short-sighted, petty, heroic and soulful in a Hollywood kind of way, all powering a steadily moving story that is more about the curiosity and genius of Klaatu, his efforts to not get caught by searching police, nicely rendered special effects, and Patricia Neal as widowed mother Helen Benson.
There's a Messianic twist, with Klaatu as Savior (and the vague cosmic order as God) and it makes the movie's underlying threat easy to understand. Will Klaatu become Judge? and with robot servant Gort as an annihilating angel will they go across the planet rendering judgment day?
No chance: we're supposed to like Klaatu in standard Hollywood terms, so the earthlings will hurt his feelings (and ours) as they stupidly refuse to listen (and shoot at Klaatu time and again).
But this galactic herald will put up with it with stoic humanity, and won't do anything to disturb our affections. Even his "day in which the earth stood still" trick is an outsized carnival show. It's meant to scare the people of earth (which it does onscreen) but it just amazes we humans in the audience, as it is a spectacular circus stunt worthy of admiration, and though he is British and very reserved, Michael Rennie/Klaatu could give the Great and Powerful Oz a run for his money.
Director Robert Wise, who did his directing apprenticeship under Producer Val Lewton at RKO (Wise, incidentally, was also an Oscar-nominated film editor for Citizen Kane) has skills at making this movie a science fiction tale when needed, a horror film toward the end in which darkness and the threat of world annihilation is at its greatest, and a quasi-family/romance film as we sort out the emotional troubles of the residences of the boarding house where Klaatu hides from the paranoid U.S. government (and so we can add government to the list of anxieties cooking on the stove of this film's imagination).
Watching the tale, we don't want these people to die (with the possible exception of the greedy, Judas-ish Ted Stevens, played by actor Hugh Marlowe), and Klaatu doesn't want everyone to die either, and since this isn't a pure science fiction exercise in nihilism, in the end Hollywood will save the planet.
Original Page March 2014 | Updated Sept 2018
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From former screen legends who have faded into obscurity to new revelations about the biggest movie stars, Valderrama unearths the most fascinating little-known tales from the birth of Hollywood through its Golden Age.
Winner of the 2020 Peter C. Rollins Book Award
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