Last night I was channel surfing, and I came across The Day the Earth Stood Still, a classic science-fiction movie that was made in 1951. I had seen it before, but that was a couple years after it was made, and I saw it as one-half of a Double Feature, Saturday Matinee (with a couple cartoons thrown in) in the local theater.
I couldn’t bring myself to change the channel.
The plot is simple. A humanoid alien (who is urbane and frankly charming), accompanied only by a large robot identified as “Gort”, lands his flying saucer in Washington D.C. His mission is to explain to the people of Earth that he comes in peace, but the prospects of Earthlings’ using recently acquired nuclear technology to make war among themselves will disrupt the peace among other planets, which will necessarily lead to the annihilation of Earth by those planets. Predictably, our Earth peeps immediately react with fear and aggression, causing the alien, Klaatu, to assume the identity of an Earthling as he seeks a means of getting his message out.
The movie provides a fascinating look at the American psyche in 1951, which was only four years after unidentified flying objects were spotted and called “flying saucers” and at a time when Americans lived with air-raid drills and dug fallout shelters, all as a result of fear of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Some have suggested that the glut of flying saucer sightings and Man-From-Space movies during the early fifties was some sort of psychological manifestation of fear of attacks from Russia. I don’t know about that, as I was only a boy at the time. Back then, I suppose I thought that The Day the Earth Stood Still and its message were pretty heavy duty, (not to mention Gort’s laser-beam eye(s) that would appear from under the visor-like thing and, while theremin music played, disintegrate things).
What kept my attention now was how different everyday things were then, or, at least how they were depicted..
Strange Stuff, Some Accurate, Some Not
Smoking: In one scene, three doctors were standing and talking in the hospital, and all were smoking cigarettes (unfiltered, of course). Lots of other people in the movie smoked, including one guy who smoked with a cigarette holder. That’s the way it was.
Men’s clothing: Men seemed to be always wearing suits, even when hanging around inside, and most often with a snap-brim hat when outside. All cab drivers wore the same kind of cap. Cops rode motorcycles without helmets. Back then, while working people didn’t wear suits during the week, one would always get dressed up when going out. Hell, one put on a jacket and tie even for things like a trip to Yankee Stadium. I also definitely remember cops riding motorcycles sans helmets.
Women’s clothing: In every scene, the female lead (Patricia Neal) always wore a dress. No skirts and blouses, and, heaven forbid, no slacks – a dress. And, when outdoors, she wore white gloves. This is pure Donna Reed stuff.
Kissing: Men and women kissed with their mouths closed. Looks sorta funny. But, remember, this movie was made before the censors forbade the writers on the “I Love Lucy” show to use the word “pregnant”.
Paperboys: In one scene, paperboys rush into a crowd yelling “Extra! Extra!” and immediately sell out their papers. I only saw one paperboy, one time, yelling “Extra!”, and that was the day that President Kennedy was assassinated.
The flying saucer remained in the same spot in Washington D.C. for at least a day or so, with Gort the laser-eyed, giant robot standing stock still in front of it. No fence was built around it to keep away what would expected to be millions of people wanting to see an alien spacecraft. In fact, at night, the site was devoid of people except for two soldiers guarding the damned thing.
The Army did, however, encase Gort in something that resembled a giant plexiglass cube, which he made short work of when he learned that Klaatu (the urbane alien, lest you have already forgotten) might have been harmed.
As a demonstration of awesome coercive power that could be wielded by the alien (but a demonstration that was calculate to “hurt no one”), the alien disabled all forms of electricity, even electricity powered by generators, as cars and trains all over the world stopped (hence, the earth “stood still”). I wondered why the planes didn’t fall from the sky and why didn’t people on respirators (called “iron lungs” back then) die. When all those automobile motors stopped running at the same time, there were no traffic accidents? I probably wondered about that when I was 8 years old, proving that some things never change. I’m jus’ SAY-in’.
The Famous Line
C’mon. You know the line. I know you know it. Remember? It was the line that Patricia Neal was supposed to speak to Gort if something were to happen to Klaatu. Speaking this line would stop Gort from destroying the farookin’ planet.
Remember it now?
It was “Klaatu barada nikto.”
Two funny things about the line.
1. As Klaatu and Patricia Neal are fleeing the Army guys who want to kill Klaatu, he worries aloud to Patricia Neal about what terrible destruction Gort might visit on the planet if anything happens to him (Klaatu). He explains that Patricia Neal must say exactly the following words to Gort, should anything happen to him (Klaatu): “Klaatu barada niktu”. Yes, he pronounced it “Klaatu barada nik-too.
He said, “repeat those words”.
She immediately responded “Klaatu barada niktow.
I was thinking, ”That should have been an outtake. He told her the Goddamned survival of the Earth depended on her repeating exactly what he said, and she said it WRONG.”
Turns out, Klaatu must have screwed up, because, as noted below, her pronunciation ultimately carried the day with the seriously pissed off Gort.
2. When Klaatu is apparently mortally wounded, Patricia Neal goes to where the flying saucer is parked and sees that Gort somehow already knows what has happened and is pissed. He has melted his way out of the plexiglass cube and has disintegrated the two GI’s on guard duty. Gort, the giant robot, corners Patricia Neal. The robot’s giant shadow looms over her. The shield on his head opens, exposing the laser-zapper eye(s). You think, ”Jesus Christ! Say it! Say it, dammit!” Say ‘Klaatu barada nikto’. Just freakin’ SAY it!”
Of course, she doesn’t say it, but rather screams. (Ack!) and falls down. (double Ack!)
Just as she is about to be roasted, she says, “Klaatu barada nikto” and everything is cool.
Watching too much television leads to long and rather pointless blogs.