8/27/20: Robots

By Fred Muenz

Growing up in the 1950’s, I was privileged to see some of the worst sci-fi movies ever produced. Who can forget such stinkers as IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953), THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), INVADERS FROM MARS (1953) and, of course, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959). These bombs, and countless others, were made in the days before computer graphics, which can now produce entire movies without even the benefit of using real actors or scenery. In the old days, it took actors in costume to represent the beasts or aliens out to destroy the Earth. While most were laughable, remarkably, a few of the old sci-fi films of that period have actually become classics.

Who can forget Patricia Neal’s immortal words “Gort, Klaatu barada nikto” in the thoughtful, and well made, cold war era film, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951). A flying saucer lands in a park in Washington D.C. carrying a humanoid spaceman, Klaatu, and Gort, a large robot. Gort is described as an independent robot created to be a member of an interstellar police force, patrolling the universe, tasked to end aggressive behavior wherever they find it. They have come to bring a warning that the Earth is headed toward destruction unless the planet’s governments change their violent ways.

Gort was portrayed by 7’7” tall actor Lock Martin, wearing one of two thick foam costumes made to make the robot look seamless. For close-ups of the robot firing his laser weapon, a fiberglass model was used. To maximize the robot’s height, the boots contained lifts and the helmet was almost a foot above Martin’s head. Prisms allowed him to see through the robot’s visor and air holes under the chin allowed him to breathe. Despite his size, Martin was not particularly strong and had difficulty managing the costume. In the scenes where he had to carry Patricia Neal, and later Michael Rennie, wires, a hidden dolly, and lightweight dummies were used. Martin appeared in minor roles in many movies and TV shows during his career including, in a major step down, playing a mutant in INVADERS FROM MARS.

Designed in 1955 by Robert Kinoshita and constructed by MGM’s Prop Department for $125,000, Robby the Robot, was built for the 1956 film, FORBIDDEN PLANET. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, the film begins with an Earth spaceship landing on the remote planet, Altair IV, seeking survivors of an earlier mission to that planet. Their arrival is greeted by a 7’6” tall, 300-pound robot, constructed by the mysterious Dr. Morbius, using knowledge gained from his study of an extinct race, called the Krell, who once inhabited the planet. Morbius, and his beautiful daughter, are the only survivors of the earlier mission.

Robby the Robot was operated from the inside by 5’3” actor and stuntman Frank Johnson Jr. aka Frankie Darro. Raised in a circus by his high wire and trapeze artist parents, Frankie had a lifelong fear of heights. He was brought to Hollywood after his parent’s divorce, he appeared in his first movie at the age of six, and worked steadily in character roles through the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. Robby’s voice was provided by actor Marvin Miller, and came from a “mouth”, which was a series of curved tubes located beneath the robot’s cone-shaped head. A blue neon light, synchronized with the voice, was located behind the tubes. Robby quickly became a science fiction icon and, in the years that followed FORBIDDEN PLANET, appeared in several movies and numerous TV shows, as well as making personal appearances at trade shows and conventions.

In 1971, the original Robby was sold in an auction of MGM memorabilia to a small motion picture museum, where he and his vehicle were put on display. Over the years, Robby was vandalized by some museum visitors. A 17-year-old high school student, Fred Barton, had developed a fascination for the movie and especially the robot. Visiting the museum regularly, and sneaking over the rope barrier to take measurements, Barton taught himself all of the necessary skills, through trial and error, and built an exact replica of Robby. When the museum owner saw the replica, he was so impressed that he turned over the original robot to Barton to refurbish, using spare parts found in storage at the MGM Prop Department, while substituting the replica in his display. When the museum closed in 1980, Robby and his vehicle were sold to William Malone, a collector of science fiction memorabilia. Malone then licensed Fred Barton to build another replica of Robby, for a Star Trek convention, using the original blueprints, molds, and templates. Barton continues to build 7’ tall, fiberglass, fully animatronic remote-controlled versions of Robby which can be yours for $34,945, plus shipping. If that’s a little too much for your budget, an 8’ tall version of the robot Gort, can be had for a mere $12,600, plus shipping.

ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK.

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