The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Film Title: The Day the Earth Stood Stillearth-stood-still-21

Year: 1951

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Silent or Talkie: Talkie

Genre: Science Fiction

Starring:

  • Michael Rennie
  • Patricia Neal
  • Billy Gray
  • Hugh Marlowe
  • Sam Jaffe

Review

In 1949, Twentieth Century Fox producer Julian Blaustein approached Head of Production for the studio Darryl F. Zanuck and proposed a science fiction film about the flying saucer craze that was sweeping the country in the years immediately following World War II. He was not looking to make a movie for the kiddy market, but rather a realistic documentary-style film about what would happen if a flying saucer landed on Earth. How would people react? How would governments react? How would the military react? How would the media react? Zanuck was intrigued and gave Blaustein the go-ahead. Thus began a months-long search through the Twentieth Century Fox library for an appropriate screenplay source. Finding nothing that interested him, he finally stumbled across a short story by Harry Bates titled “Farewell the Master.” He didn’t much like the story. But he was caught by the beginning of it in which an alien vessel lands on the Mall in Washington and, when at last a man and a huge robot emerge from the ship, a crazed spectator kills the man. Blaustein engaged writer Edmund H. North to write a screenplay. Not much of the original short story found its way into the screenplay. The alien’s name, Klaatu, was retained and the giant robot called Gnut in the original story became Gort. The initial description of the ship’s landing was altered but the location retained, as was the impenetrable nature of both ship and robot. North’s finished screenplay incorporated Blaustein’s initial concept of a documentary-style story and Bates’ description of the ship, Klaatu and the re-christened Gort.

Blaustein knew that The Day the Earth Stood Still was going to sink or swim in the editing room. His concept of a realistic film was going to require establishing an everyday feeling and would also demand the ability to seamlessly put together second unit footage shot in Washington D.C. and primary footage shot on the Fox soundstages and backlot. He turned to director Robert Wise, who had begun his career in the late thirties as an editor. He received sole editing credit on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1941 and had worked extensively with legendary Val Lewton in R.K.O.’s horror unit, eventual directing three pictures there Mademoiselle Fifi (1944), The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatchers (1945). Wise read the script and immediately liked it. He was also tired of contract directing assignments, jobs where he filmed what he was given and had virtually no input in pre or post production. Wise signed on as director. And he brought aboard someone who arguably was most responsible for the film’s ultimate success, composer Bernard Herrman whom Wise had known from his Orson Welles days a decade earlier.

Casting began. Initially Claude Raines was considered for the part of Klaatu, but he had scheduling conflicts. Zanuck then gave the script to Spencer Tracy who loved it. But Zanuck acceded to Blaustein’s opinion that a big name actor in the role of Klaatu would destroy any attempt to create an illusion of reality in the film. Zanuck then saw Michael Rennie in a play in London and told Blaustein that maybe he would be perfect in the role. Blaustein and Wise agreed and 42-year-old Michael Rennie, who had appeared in a number of films in England but was not well known (and who conveniently was under contract to Fox), won the role. Patricia Neal had come to Hollywood after establishing herself on the New York stage. Her appearances in John Loves Mary (with Ronald Reagan) and The Fountainhead (with Gary Cooper), both in 1949, had catapulted her to the top of the Hollywood heap, and the 25-year-old star agreed to take the pivotal role of Helen Benson. Fox stalwart Hugh Marlowe took the role of Helen’s love interest Tom Stevens and 13-year-old Billy Gray would play her son, Bobby. Sam Jaffe, who had appeared in several high profile pictures in his career, was secured to play the part of Professor Barnhardt, the Einstein-like figure who was central to the story. Soon after his signing for the part, Blaustein was told by Fox head office executives to recast the part since Jaffe had been implicated as a communist sympathizer and the McCarthy committee would not be pleased. Zanuck overruled the blacklist; however, upon completing his role in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Jaffe would not make another American film for seven years. 7 foot 7 inch Loch Martin, discovered working as a doorman at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, was signed to play Gort. Fans of The Andy Griffith Show will also recognize Aunt Bea, Frances Bavier, in the role of Mrs. Barley.

The plot of this iconic film is well known. But in a nutshell here it is: Klaatu (Michael Rennie) a visitor from a planet 250 million miles from Earth arrives in a spaceship with a giant robot, Gort (Loch Martin), and lands on the Mall in Washington DC. He comes in peace, but before he can deliver his message a trigger-happy military guy shoots him and Gort melts down guns, cannons and tanks into piles of ash with his deadly ray. Klaatu is taken to Walter Reed Hospital and doctors are amazed at his recuperative powers. Doctor: “I don’t know whether to get drunk or just give up the practice of medicine.” Klaatu meets with Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy), secretary to the President, but gets nowhere in his request to meet with the leaders of all nations to present his message. Mr. Harley: “Your impatience is quite understandable.” Klaatu: “I’m impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.” Mr. Harley: “I’m afraid my people haven’t. I’m very sorry…I wish it were otherwise.” Klaatu decides he needs to get out and mingle with the average citizenry.

He adopts the Earth name Carpenter an lands at Mrs. Crockett’s (Edith Evanson) boarding house where he fits right in. Mrs. Crockett: “You’re a long way from home, aren’t you Mr. Carpenter?” Klaatu: “How did you know?” Mrs. Crockett: “I can tell a New England accent a mile away.” There he also meets war-widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray) among other borders. Klaatu gets to know Bobby (and subsequently the American way of life) when Bobby takes him to the movies, the zoo, Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, and out for ice cream. When Bobby tells Klaatu that the smartest man in the world is Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), the two take off to meet the Professor. He’s not home, but Klaatu corrects an equation written on a blackboard in Barnhardt’s office. Later that night when Klaatu is summoned back, Barnhardt inquires, “Have you tested this theory?” Klaatu: “I find it works well enough to get me from one planet to another.” The jig is up. Klaatu convinces Barnhardt to convene a meeting of the world’s greatest scientists in two-day’s time. In the meantime Barnhardt asks Klaatu to arrange some demonstration of the powers his race possess, something dramatic but not destructive.

That night Bobby follows Klaatu when he leaves the boarding house. After signaling Gort with Bobby’s borrowed flashlight, Gort opens the ship and Klaatu steps inside, not aware that Bobby is watching. Back at the boarding house, Helen and Tom (Hugh Marlowe) return from a date. Helen can’t make up her mind about Tom who has proposed marriage. Bobby tells them what he’s seen, but of course they don’t believe him. Helen asks Tom to go up to Klaatu/Carpenter’s room so they can settle this. He’s not there, but Tom discovers a diamond-like gem on the floor. When he shows it to Helen, Bobby admits that Mr. Carpenter gave him two stones as well. As she sends Bobby up to bed, Helen comments on his soaking wet shoes. “I guess the grass was wet,” Bobby tells her. Hmmm . . . Bobby may not have been dreaming after all! Tom pockets the stone, planning to take it to a jeweler the following day and get to the bottom of everything.

The next afternoon Klaatu comes to Helen’s workplace in the Department of Commerce. She’s hesitant, but agrees to talk to him. As they step into an elevator and the door closes, the elevator stops. This is the day the Earth stood still. As Klaatu comes clean about his identity and solicits Helen’s help, we see a montage of all electricity throughout the planet (accept for hospitals, planes in flight, things like that) going off. We also see Tom at the jewelers discovering that Klaatu’s diamond came from no place on this Earth! When power is restored exactly thirty minutes later, Helen rushes to intercept Tom. When she finally finds him that evening, Tom is on the phone to the Pentagon, but on hold. The cat’s not out of the bag yet. Helen tries to persuade him to hang up. Tom: “You realize, of course, what this could mean to us. I could write my own ticket. I could be the biggest man in the country!” Helen: “Is that what you’re thinking about?” Tom: “Why not? Somebody’s got to get rid of him.” Helen: “Tom, you mustn’t! It isn’t just you and Mr. Carpenter. The rest of the world is involved!” Tom: “I don’t care about the rest of the world. You’ll feel different when you see my picture in the papers.” Helen: “I feel different right now.”

Helen and Klaatu reconnect, but Tom’s dirty work is already in motion. Police are following their every move. In a taxi, as they realize they may not make it back to the spaceship, Klaatu tells Helen, “I’m worried about Gort. I’m afraid of what he might do if anything should happen to me.” Helen: “Gort? But he’s a robot. Without you, what could he do?” Klaatu: “There’s no limit to what he could do. He could destroy the Earth.” When they make a mad dash on foot, Klaatu is gunned down. Helen must now make it to the spaceship and deliver a message to Gort that Klaatu gave her. Gort activates just as Helen arrives and she says, “Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!” Gort cuts short his presumably destructive path and then delivers an understandably uneasy Helen into the ship. He then goes to retrieve Klaatu’s body, resurrects him, and Klaatu gives his farewell address to Earth. Its essence is that Earth must get its act together. If there should come a time when Earth becomes a threat to other inhabited planets, it will be destroyed. “The decision rests with you.” (the complete text of the speech can be found in several places on the Internet.) Helen, Bobby and Barnhardt then watch as Klaatu and Gort lift off and fly away home.

In writing out the plot, it occurs to me that relating it just doesn’t do the film justice. What sets this film apart from so many that followed it? Why should we care about a 1951 parable of a close encounter of the third kind after Close Encounters of the Third Kind and so many others? Why does this film continue to find new audiences nearly sixty years after its initial release, and why has it retained the affection and admiration of so many who’ve seen it? If you haven’t done so yet, why should you see it? It is never easy to pin this kind of thing down, but I’ll take a crack at it.

Initial credit goes to Darryl F. Zanuck and Julian Blaustein. Blaustein had the idea of making a realistic film about flying saucers. Zanuck trusted his judgment and gave him the time he needed to develop the concept. When casting commenced, again Zanuck deferred to his producer at a critical moment. Then Blaustein hired the best possible talent to create a film out of his initial idea. Edmund H. North’s script is masterful in a way not evident from a quick retelling of the plot. He places ordinary people in the midst of an extraordinary event. His characters are grounded in reality and never step outside the bounds of that reality. One believes that Helen Benson is a working mom and a war-widow doing the best she can to bring her son up right. She balances work, motherhood, and has doubts about bringing a new father figure into her son’s life. Bobby may be a little precocious in the way that movie kids can often be, but still there’s a nice believable relationship between Bobby and his Mom; and when he befriends Mr. Carpenter, the admiration he feels for him lets us know that this is the kind of man Bobby needs in his life, not Tom. In fact North sets up an emotional dichotomy between Klaatu/Helen/Bobby and Tom and all the people who, as Klaatu says, substitute fear for reason. His depiction of the military authorities and the media do not ring false either. The media has and always will play on the public’s easily aroused fears. Military authority is not above arousing fear in the public when it seems the most expedient way to achieve what they want. But not all authority figures are bad guys in North’s vision. Professor Barnhardt represents the best in us. And how would anyone really react to a space ship landing on the Mall in Washington DC anyway? Complacently? I don’t think so.

Robert Wise also must be applauded. He and Editor William Reynolds achieve a mounting tension throughout the film. In two sequences, montages are used to fill in the global aspects of the story. The first is used as Klaatu’s spaceship approaches Earth. Inter-cut with five different news reporters are nineteen individual shots of how the news is playing out around the world. More than half of these shots are tableaus of how everyday people in various pursuits are reacting to the news. Each looks realistic and is peopled by average folk. And the broadcast journalists seen on the screen were real well-known broadcast journalists of their day: H. V. Kaltenborn, Elmer Davis, Drew Pearson and Gabriel Heatter. The second montage takes place as Klaatu’s demonstration of power occurs. There are twenty-three separate shots of what is happening: from the streets of Washington DC and New York to London and the Champs-Élysées. But among the shots of industry frozen are also comical shots of everyday people and how this is affecting them: a woman unloading wet clothes from her stalled washer, a milk shake that will never be completed, a dairy farmer and his milking machine, a traffic cop on his motorcycle, a gardener in front of the White House whose mower has stopped. These approximately forty-two camera set-ups brilliantly bring the story home to everyday people’s lives. And they’re not stock shots! They are staged and shot specifically for this film. Wise, like Capra, had an ability to populate his crowd shots with actors who believably look ordinary and engaged in real lives. This is not a crowd of pretty Hollywood people but a crowd of Average Joes and Janes just like the Average Joe and Jane munching on their popcorn, looking up at the movie screen watching The Day the Earth Stood Still. All of this attention to detail and pacing sets up the illusion of the real world. The characters behave in real world fashion and are placed in real world scenes. Modern audiences respond favorably to the 1951 setting because, besides the trappings of clothes and hairstyles and cars, this still seems like a believable world not so very different than our own when you come down to it.

Bernard Herrman’s score for The Day the Earth Stood Still is now considered a classic of the science fiction genre (and much imitated subsequently) and cannot be overlooked as an important element of the film. The theremin (an electronic instrument and the only instrument, according to Peter Pringle in a documentary included on the Blu-ray release of the film, that is played by not touching the instrument) had been used before in film but never as effectively. Herrman used not one, but two theremins in his score, a treble and a bass. He also included electric strings, bass, prepared piano, and guitar together with various pianos and harps, electronic organs, brass, and percussion to produce a score unlike any heard previously. I’m a huge fan of Herrman’s film scores; and though this may not be my absolute favorite, it’s pretty darn close. His score here evocatively creates an otherworldly musical milieu that is perfect for the tone of the film.

The care taken in pre-production by a talented team of producer, writer, director, designers, and even studio executives was paramount to producing this classic film. The film was brilliantly realized by Robert Wise and his talented team of actors and crew. And it stands today as a classic of the science fiction genre and a classic of Hollywood studio filmmaking. It remains an incredibly enjoyable film to this day. “Klaatu barada nikto” has become as famous a movie line as “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”, “Play it again, Sam”, or “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” And the film was referenced in perhaps the biggest cult film of all time, 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which opens with a song that begins, “Michael Rennie was ill the day the earth stood still, but he told us where to stand…”

On Video

Perhaps the only thing we have to thank for the disastrously conceived 2008 remake is that the 1951 original had some more attention paid to it, as evidenced by this new Blu-ray release. I was pretty impressed with the original 2002 Fox Studio Classic release of the film on DVD. It is still available, and at a bargain price. If you haven’t made the jump to Blu-ray, the regular DVD includes an acceptable transfer of the film. But it just can’t compare to the new Blu-ray release. The film is rendered with excellent contrast and a pristine image. Herrman’s score has been remixed in DTS-HD and sounds spectacular and adds a new dimension to the modern viewing experience. There are tons of extras included on this disc as well.
1. The disc includes two commentaries, one by Robert Wise and Nicholas Meyer, and a new one by film and music historians John Morgan, Steven Smith, William Stomberg, and Nick Redman.
2. The World of the Theremin includes three selections: The Mysterious, Melodious Theremin (5 ½ minutes) which includes a history of the instrument and a practical demonstration on how it is played, Main Title Live Performance By Peter Pringle (2 ¼ minutes) and Interactive Theremin: Create Your Own Score.
3. Gort Command! Interactive Game
4. The Making of The Day the Earth Stood Still (24 minutes) a new documentary created for this release. It’s not as comprehensive as the 70-minute documentary included with the regular DVD release, but it gets the job done.
5. Decoding “Klaatu Barada Nikto”: Science Fiction as Metaphor (16 minutes) a new documentary created for this release. An analysis of metaphor in the film including a discussion of the Carpenter/Klaatu/Christ metaphor many have discovered in the film.
6. A Brief History of Flying Saucers (34 minutes)
7. The Astounding Harry Bates (11 minutes) a profile of the author of “Farewell the Master”.
8. Edmund North: The Man Who Made The Day the Earth Stood Still (15 minutes) a profile of the screenwriter.
9. Race to Oblivion: a short film conceived and produced by Edmund H. North.
10. Farewell the Master: a reading of the short story by Jamieson K. Price
11. Fox Movietone News
12. Teaser Trailer
13. Theatrical Trailer
14. Trailer for the 2008 Film
15. Galleries lots of them, Pressbook and Stills

Conclusion

The Day the Earth Stood Still is inarguably a classic of American film. In 1995, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It was voted as the fifth best science-fiction film ever made as part of the AFI’s 10 Top 10 in 2008. Famed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke ranked it seventh on his list of the best science fiction films of all time, placing it just above 2001: A Space Odyssey for which he himself wrote the screenplay. Even if science fiction is not a genre you are usually drawn to, the film works equally well as a political and social commentary, and it is just incredibly entertaining to boot.

Click HERE to purchase this DVD!