Film Festival: Science Fiction in the 1950s
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is a gem of the science fiction genre. The serious story has love of peace and Christian overtones. Good acting and a serious cast engage the viewer. A beautiful score by Bernard Herrman incorporates the eerie Theremin. The Day the Earth Stood Still opens with Hawaii, Hong Kong, India, France all tracking an object flying at tremendous speed. Famous newsmen are on the air reporting.
“This is Elmer Davis again. We still don’t know what it is or where it comes from. But there’s something there. It’s been tracked around the earth by radar, traveling at a rate of 4000 miles an hour. This is NOT another flying saucer scare. Scientists and military men are already agreed on that. Whatever it is, it’s something real.” –Elmer Davis
A flying saucer flies over the Capitol, Smithsonian, Archives, and the Washington Monument. The people on the streets are looking up and starting to run. The spaceship lands on baseball fields on the Ellipse in front of White House. The Armed Services police, Army jeeps, and tanks head out from Fort Myer towards the White House. Famous reporter Drew Pearson announces on radio and TV that a spaceship has landed in DC.
I’d like to introduce the characters who deal with this tense situation. First, Klaatu is the humanoid alien, played by Michael Rennie. Klaatu is well-spoken, polite, and intensely serious. He has traveled 250 million miles to bring a message of peace to the Earth’s nations. He gets shot by soldiers twice for his trouble.
“We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill.”
During his escape from Walter Reed hospital, Klaatu steals clothes from a Major Carpenter. He wanders into a boarding house looking for a place to stay, and uses Carpenter as his name as he visits among the humans of DC. Klaatu insists that he has a message that must be delivered to all the nations at once. Mr. Harley, secretary to the President, tries to explain how difficult that is, even with the United Nations.
“Well we could call a special meeting of the General Assembly. But of course the United Nations doesn’t represent all the nations. –Then I suggest a meeting of all the chiefs of state. –Believe me you don’t understand. They wouldn’t sit down to the same table. –I don’t want to resort to threats, Mr. Harley. I merely tell you that the future of your planet is at stake. I urge that you transmit that message to the nations of the Earth.” –Harley and Klaatu
“I’m worried about Gort. I’m afraid of what he might do if anything should happen to me. –Gort? But he’s a robot. Without you what could he do? –There’s no limit to what he could do. He could destroy the earth. If anything should happen to me, you must go to Gort. You must say these words: ‘Klaatu barada nikto'” –Klaatu and Helen
For parts of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Gort is standing motionless in front of the spaceship. Engineers from Fort Belvoir try to move him and eventually encase him in an indestructible plastic. Whenever Klaatu sends a command to Gort, he can overcome all obstacles, melting plastic, brick walls, and more.
The boarding house where Klaatu/Carpenter takes up residence is important to the story. There is a kindly landlady and an older married couple that listen to the radio and read tabloids. The wife is played by Frances Bavier, known to classic TV fans as Andy Taylor’s Aunt Bee. Another resident at the boarding house is Helen Benson, a young war widow, played by Patricia Neal. Helen works in a Federal office to support herself and her young son, Bobby. Helen is a caring person and ends up supporting Klaatu’s mission, and having a few feelings for him. Bobby is played by Billy Gray (famous from his role as Bud in Father Knows Best.) He is a sweet young boy who does his homework, has a gang of neighborhood friends, and loves the movies and his train set. Of all the humans, he gets the closest to Klaatu. He likes him and listens to him. Klaatu enjoys learning about Earth and Washington DC through Bobby’s eyes. They visit the Lincoln Memorial and read Lincoln’s words. Klaatu asks Bobby who is the greatest man living. After Bobby explain Dr. Barnhardt’s work, they decide to go see him.
Sam Jaffe plays Dr. Barnhardt. His part in the story seems a bit like Einstein. Barnhardt is a Nobel prize winner and is connected enough to convene a large meeting of scientists from around the world at the spaceship.
“I would like to explain something of my mission here. –That was my first question. – We know from scientific observation that your planet has discovered a rudimentary kind of atomic energy. We also know that you’re experimenting with rockets. –Yes, that is true. –So long as you were limited to fighting among yourselves with your primitive tanks and aircraft we were unconcerned. But soon one of your nations will apply atomic energy to spaceships. That will create a threat to the peace and security of other planets. That, of course, we cannot tolerate.” –Klaatu and Barnhardt
Barnhardt agrees to help Klaatu with delivering his message, but asks for a demonstration to prove his planet’s power. Klaatu plans it for two days later, the day the earth stood still. (Sam Jaffe was famous for many roles, including Gunga Din, The Asphalt Jungle, Ben-Hur, and Dr. Zorba in Ben Casey.)
Helen’s boyfriend is insurance man Tom Stevens (Hugh Marlowe.) Tom wants to marry Helen, but he and Bobby don’t seem very fond of each other. Tom is very suspicious of Klaatu/Carpenter and his appearance at the boarding house. It turns out that Tom is more interested in being famous than worrying about mankind. (Hugh Marlowe looks similar to the actor Richard Carlson. I loved spotting that Tom’s office door in the movie has Richard Carlson painted on it!)
Do you like Patricia Neal best in this film? Or in Hud, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or The Fountainhead? Do you like Hugh Marlowe or Richard Carlson better in your sci-fi movies? Don’t you think Gort is a great space robot? I hope you will enjoy The Day the Earth Stood Still as much as I do!
Resource links for The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
- The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) from IMDb
- Patricia Neal overview from Turner Classic Movies
- Hugh Marlowe from Hollywood.com
- Golden Age of Science Fiction Films from AMC filmsite
- Michael Rennie from Rotten Tomatoes