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The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was one of the first films out of the gate in the long cycle of 1950s American science fiction films and, perhaps along with Forbidden Planet (1956) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), it remains the one against which all of the others are measured.
The Day the Earth Stood Still was preceded at theaters by George Pal's Destination Moon (1950), Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World (1951), and a few other science fiction movies, but the genesis of the project dates to 1949, when 20th Century Fox staff producer Julian Blaustein noted the high sales figures in the U.S. for adult science fiction magazines. Seeing the potential for a strong box office response to such material, he asked assistant story editor Maurice Hanline to search for a filmable science fiction tale. Knowing that it would probably be prohibitively expensive to depict an outer space adventure, he told Hanline that they should confine their search to Earthbound stories. In an anthology, Hanline found a reprinting of "Farewell to the Master," by Harry Bates, which had first appeared in Astounding magazine in October, 1940. Blaustein thought the story was perfect to expand into a feature film; it told of an outer space visitor, Klaatu, landing in Washington, D.C. on a mission to bring peace to the planet. The spaceman is shot by nervous soldiers, but rescued by an enormous humanoid robot called Gnut. In a retrospect article on the film in Cinefantastique magazine, Steve Rubin quoted Blaustein on his reaction to reading the story: "The thing that grabbed my attention was the response of people to the unknown. Klaatu holds his hand up with something that looks unfamiliar to them and he is immediately shot. It was a terribly significant moment for me in terms of story. It really started the whole thing going."
Blaustein's next step in producing a science fiction film was to persuade Fox production chief Darryl F. Zanuck. The executive didn't think much of the Bates story, but gave the go-ahead to purchase the film rights. The Pulp publisher sold the rights to the story for only $1000, half of which was given to Bates. Fox staff writer Edmund H. North was assigned to write the film's script, and completed a 35-page outline by June 25, 1950. Blaustein was nervous because the Korean conflict had just broken out, and he feared that Zanuck would nix the story's message of peace in a time of war. According to North, in a final story conference Zanuck said, "To hell with it! Let's go ahead anyway. It's a good piece of entertainment. I believe in it." Also, Destination Moon had been released in May, and was doing extremely good business at the box office.
Director Robert Wise was under non-exclusive contract to Fox, and was Blaustein's first choice to helm the picture, now announced to the press as being called Journey to the World. By the time North had completed his script, the New York office of Fox had requested another title change, to The Day the Earth Stood Still, a reference to the dramatic show of non-violent power that Klaatu demonstrates to the world. When North's screenplay was submitted to the Production Code Administration, the Breen Office stipulated that Klaatu could not be brought back to life in the film, because "only God can do that." North was flabbergasted. As he told Rubin, "[Klaatu] had to be brought back to life to make the final speech and provide the film's logical conclusion. Julian, Bob [Wise], and I debated this for a long time and we finally came up with a foolish compromise where Klaatu is brought back to life, but only for a limited period and where he mentions that the power of life and death lies not with Gort but with 'the all-mighty spirit.' It was really a nasty confrontation which had us all boiling over."
For the all-important role of Klaatu, name stars such as Spencer Tracy and Claude Rains were initially considered. Blaustein, however, felt that an actor unknown to American audiences would be more easily accepted as "a stranger in a strange land." Zanuck suggested a British actor who had recently made his American film debut in The Black Rose (1950), Michael Rennie. Rennie had just signed a long-term contract with Fox, but was not yet well-known. Fox contract player Patricia Neal was signed to play Helen Benson, the Earthling that Klaatu/ Mr. Carpenter relates to the closest. Her son Bobby was played by long-time child actor Billy Gray. Perfectly cast as Professor Barnhardt (obviously patterned after Albert Einstein), was character actor Sam Jaffe. After being given the part, Jaffe's name appeared in the infamous Red Channels pamphlet listing performers with supposed Communist connections. Jaffe was almost dismissed as the Hollywood Blacklist began, but Blaustein insisted that the actor be allowed to finish shooting. (Following The Day the Earth Stood Still, Jaffe did not appear again in films for several years).
Casting an actor to play the giant robot Gort (changed from "Gnut" in the story) was not an easy task. As quoted by Sergio Leeman in the book, Robert Wise On His Films, the director said, "Somebody remembered that the Grauman's Chinese Theater had in those days a terribly tall doorman. He was 7'7" and we hired him to be in that suit. He was not a strong man, and that suit was heavy. He could only stay in it for about half an hour at a time. He couldn't pick up Pat Neal." The man's name was Lock Martin - he was tall, but indeed quite frail, and many tricks had to be employed to make it appear as if Gort was all-powerful. Cutaways disguised the fact that viewers never see him pick up a person, and that lightweight dummies were substituted for the actors. Gort was designed to have a "fluid metal" appearance; the body of the suit was made of pliable, smooth latex. Seams were hidden by building two suits - one that laced up the back for shots showing the front, and another suit that laced in the front when Gort is seen walking away from the camera. The spare design, not to mention an ominous slit-for-an-eye that emits a deadly ray beam, ensured that Gort would be long remembered as one of the most effective film robots of all time.
Shooting on The Day the Earth Stood Still began on April 9. 1951 - it was budgeted at a generous $960,000, but 20th Century Fox head Zanuck was still insistent on holding down costs. He was particularly concerned with overshooting, and would fire off memos to directors if he felt that he was seeing too many set-ups during a day's rushes. Robert Wise later said, "I shot a sequence around the breakfast table in the boarding house, and I had planned carefully just the angles I needed to make the whole thing go together. Zanuck chose that one to write me a very harsh memo saying. 'I've been warning you about overshooting. ...I think this must stop now. Otherwise, I'm going to take some kind of measure.' I sat down and wrote him a very detailed memo of just what coverage I had and why I felt it was necessary. I never heard another thing from him."
The film wrapped principal photography on May 22, 1951. Wise supervised the post-production, which included several excellent optical effects shots. Department head Fred Sersen and effects artists Ray Kellogg, Emil Kosa, and L. B. Abbott executed shots of Gort's heat rays, and a particularly effective opening scene of Klaatu's ship landing on a baseball diamond in Washington. Also completed during post-production was the music score, composed by Bernard Herrmann. Director Wise and Herrmann had worked together on Orson Welles' first two films, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), when Wise was an editor at RKO. For The Day the Earth Stood Still, Herrmann devised one of his greatest scores. He rearranged the standard film studio orchestra, first by dropping the string section entirely and replacing it with electronic violins and an electric bass. To this he added the exotic electronic instrument, the Theremin. Dr. Samuel Hoffman was brought in to play the instrument, which was double-tracked in most instances and also occasionally run in reverse.
Darryl F. Zanuck was delighted with the completed film, and wanted to send it out without even an audience preview. Blaustein and Wise were not as certain, however, and nervously previewed the film - they needn't have worried; "It worked beautifully," Wise later recalled. The Day the Earth Stood Still opened in Los Angeles on September 18th, and in New York ten days later. By the end of its first release, The Day the Earth Stood Still had racked up a worldwide gross of $1.8 million. The film retains its power to this day, and the movie's message of peace also resonates. Robert Wise later said, "I always want my films to have a comment to make. However, the comment should be made by the story itself, the development of the plot and the interplay of the characters, without having the actors say it in so many words. The Day the Earth Stood Still is an exception to that. The whole purpose of it was for Klaatu to deliver that warning at the end."
Producer: Julian Blaustein
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Edmund H. North, based on the story "Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Film Editing: William Reynolds
Art Direction: Addison Hehr, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Makeup: Ben Nye
Special Effects: Fred Sersen
Cast: Michael Rennie (Klaatu), Patricia Neal (Helen Benson), Hugh Marlowe (Tom Stevens), Sam Jaffe (Prof. Jacob Barnhardt), Billy Gray (Bobby Benson), Frances Bavier (Mrs. Barley), Lock Martin (Gort).
by John M. Miller