Monday, August 11, 2008

A Boy and His Robot

The movie poster--which has pretty
much nothing to do with the movie--
and its stars demonstrating a toy. Looks
a little like the one I got for Christmas--
even though I asked for Robby.Posted by Picasa

Robby the Robot, from
The Invisible Boy. Next
to maybe Gort in The Day
the Earth Stood Still
, he
was the coolest looking robot of
the 50s, and when you add
in his voice and dry sense of humor
in Forbidden Planet, he was the best.Posted by Picasa

Two Robot Movies of the 50s

Among the 1950s sci-fi movies featuring robots, two had protagonists to match the expected audience for the movie: boys. Tobor the Great was released in 1954 by Republic Pictures. I don't remember seeing it. I do remember seeing The Invisible Boy, released in 1957 by MGM. I saw them both recently--the DVD of Tobor showed up at one of the video stores, with its typically 1950s lurid cover of a woman being carried by the robot/monster/space creature. In this case, as in others, nothing remotely like that happens in the film. It reminded me that I had The Invisible Boy on tape, so I watched that as well.

They had roughly the same plot: a robot, meant for good purposes, is controlled to do evil for awhile, but returns to the good through its friendship with a pre-teen boy. Both also feature a family, in which the principal male is an eminent scientist.

In Tobor the Great, a young scientist is upset over the dangers that potential astronauts must face in space, and even in training tests. Because he makes waves about it and is fired, he meets an older scientist who agrees with him, and has a solution. He brings the young scientist to his remote and electronically guarded home, to meet his daughter (recently widowed--her husband killed in the war in Korea), his inquisitive grandson, and his invention--a robot, designed to pilot a spacecraft so that dangers to humans will be known before men themselves go into space.

The space program stuff is futuristic for 1954, but the villain is very much of the time: foreign spies (Russians obviously, though I'm not sure they're named as such), one of whom poses as a reporter when Tobor is introduced to the press. The sci-fi wrinkle here is that Tobor can be controlled telepathically. The boy and the robot bond, so when bad guys eventually kidnap the scientist, the robot responds to the boy's calls for help.

"Tobor" is the name of television's first famous robot, in the Captain Video series. I don't think this is the same one, but it could be. In any case, it was meant to be a toy from the beginning--the publicity includes shots of the toy robot along with the life-size one (although they don't look very much alike.)

This movie has a lot of charm, due a good deal to Billy Chapin (brother of Lauren Chapin, Princess on Father Knows Best) as the boy, and director Lee Sholem. The family is a bit wooden but nice, and I really enjoyed seeing the early 1950s cars. When I watched it, it struck me that what Tobor did--stopping a car, disarming bad guys, rescuing humans and enforcing justice, etc.--was a lot like what Superman did in the early 50s TV show. This may say something about how we see both robots and Superman, or it may have something to do with the fact that director Lee Sholem directed a lot of Superman episodes the year before. (He also directed the very first George Reeves Superman--the movie Superman and the Mole Men.)

The robot in The Invisible Boy is not only called Robby, as in Forbidden Planet (1956), this time it is the same robot--MGM wanted it in another film. Robby was the star of robots then, but that didn't seem to be enough for this movie. There is a sense that either the writers had to find a way to use him in an existing story, or they didn't trust that the robot would interest the audience enough to carry the film, because they also included a megalomaniac super-computer (with the neat ability to hypnotise people with its banks of flashing lights) and some re-tread effects from The Invisible Man as the boy does become invisible for awhile.

I don't know what Robby saw in this kid, because he is whiny, selfish, brainless and thoroughly unappealing. His parents aren't much better, especially his 1950s alpha dad, the computer scientist. Anyway, the computer also takes control of Robby to further his plans for world domination. Subversives are also involved in this one--it's still the 50s. Also a space ship, slightly more plausible in 1957, the year of Sputnik.

The Invisible Boy tries to do too much, and too much of the story is too hard to swallow, but in ideas it may be a bit more adventurous. Still, I liked Tobor the Great a lot more. Both films do deal with the fear of a robot's power, but also see it as capable of great good, and perhaps even of some kind of relationship with humans. There is a sense in The Invisible Boy, as there would be in other TV and movies, of the robot as a kind of pet. Do robots relate to boys because they're both curious, smart but lacking in social skills and experience, and innocent?

Robots from Robby (in Forbidden Planet at least) to the android Data seem to show that behavior based on intelligence, logic and guiding principle turns out to be behavior that is fair, compassionate and courageous.