August 9, 2013 at 12:29 PM

7-Year-Old George R.R. Martin Goes to the Movies

'This little boy, the son of a longshoreman whose family lives nearby in the projects, will turn eight come September 20, and he is very, very ready for the movie.'

By Casey St. Charnez

Media Rare

Casey St. Charnez has been video editor for Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide since 1986 and buyer for Lisa Harris' Video Library since 1981. He likes Lisa, cats, crosswords, and the Metropolitan Opera, probably in that order.

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It is Thursday, May 3, 1956, the nationwide opening date for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s science-fiction epic “Forbidden Planet.” Right now, Mary Jane Donohue School has dismissed for the day, and, not surprisingly, George Raymond Richard Martin is waiting in line at the DeWitt Theater in downtown Bayonne, New Jersey.  

A 2,736-seat behemoth at the corner of Broadway and 25th St., the DeWitt--named for prominent attorney DeWitt Van Buskirk—had opened 33 years before as a silent moviehouse, complete with the requisite mighty Wurlitzer organ. Bayonne would tear it down 17 years later. A McDonald’s now sits on the site.  

But back in 1956, admission is still a mere 35 cents (and only a quarter for the weekend kiddie matinees). This little boy, the son of a longshoreman whose family lives nearby in the projects, will turn eight come September 20, and he is very, very ready for the movie. 

“I was always into science-fiction movies,” a somewhat older George told me earlier this week, as he prepared for the grand opening of his re-invented Jean Cocteau Cinema. “They were usually films with giant insects. But Forbidden Planet just blew me away.” 

Last April, when Martin and theater manager Jon Bowman announced their plans to re-open the Cocteau, which had been dark for seven years, the “Game of Thrones” author and producer said he hoped that  “Forbidden Planet” would be the Cocteau’s first presentation.

That’s exactly what is happening, and, moreover, it’s free. As I couldn’t agree more with George that “this is the best science-fiction movie ever made,” and of course I will be there. 

Conceived in 1954 as a screen original inspired by Shakespeare’s fantasy “The Tempest,” it began production under the shooting title “Fatal Planet” in 1955. Incredibly, it was MGM’s first foray into the hard space genre. Full 98,000 square feet of soundstages were dedicated to the massive alien sets. MGM mounted it as a ground-breaker, a major A-picture, rather than the B- and C-level time-killers and programmers they had long been. 

Certainly, other major films had trod the same ground recently. “Destination Moon” (1950) and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) had been serious, adult works. But they lacked three things: MGM’s gotrox production values, glorious CinemaScope and... Robby the Robot. 

Despite Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, and Leslie Nielsen, Robby is the real star of the movie. An icon of 50s sci-fi, he was designed by Metro’s prop department, with diminutive actor Frankie Darro (the lead in 1933’s “Wild Boys of the Road”) inside. In post-production, Robby’s voice was supplied by Marvin Miller (John Beresford Tipton’s amanuensis on TV’s “The Millionaire” from 1955-60). Neither received screen credit. But Robby became a star, and is the element of “Forbidden Planet” best remembered today. 

The studio budgeted nearly $2 million, unprecedented for SF, but the investment eventually brought in about $3.25m in worldwide grosses. So it was considered a decent moneymaker, but not a hit. Subsequently, it received only a single Oscar nomination, predictably for special effects. But it lost to the only other nominee, Paramount’s “The Ten Commandments.” That seems wrong. Again, here I have to agree with George, for as he says, “The effects were beyond state-of-the art for its time. And the influence of the movie is tremendous.”  

George says he’s seen it maybe a hundred times over the decades. I’ve probably seen it a dozen. Though I don’t remember my own childhood introduction to the movie, I, too, long have adored the movie, and must confess to having acquired some memorabilia over the years, like the 1979 issue of  “Cinefantastique” fanzine, with cover-to-cover coverage of the moviemaking, and Innovation’s 1993 graphic novel version. George admits he has a few things, too. 

I do still recall, however, that when Video Library opened in 1981, “Forbidden Planet” was among its first 300 rental titles, and that I raced home with it that evening to watch it as the first VHS cassette I’d ever seen. Full-framed instead of widescreen, and with washed-out color that nobody yet knew how to remaster digitally, it was still a thrill. Later, I got a collector’s edition DVD with a miniature Robby. I’ve got a Blu-Ray on order.

Oh, yes, and eBay has an auction coming up, offering one of the original ray gun blaster props that the crew of the C57-D carried as sidearms. There’s no reserve, but the last time one sold at auction, it went for $40,000.

Your move, George.

 

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