Robot Monster

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(5/10) In a nutshell: Often named as one of the worst movies ever made, this 1953 cult gem is actually better than its reputation, despite the super-low budget, the sloppy direction, the non-existent sets, the complete lack of logic and the truly bewildering script. It makes up for this with ambition, imagination and soul, and a huge amount of talent both in front and behind the camera. And an obese robot gorilla in a diving helmet that gets an existential crisis while trying to eliminate the last seven people on Earth with a death ray that shoots soap bubbles.

Robot Monster (1953). Directed by Phil Tucker. Written by Wyatt Ordung (and a shady furniture salesman). Starring: George Nader, Claudia Barrett, Selena Royle, John Mylong, Gregory Moffett, Pamela Paulson, George Barrows, John Brown. Produced by Phil Tucker for Three Dimension Pictures. Tomatometer: 31 %. IMDb score: 2.9

Robot Monster in all his poetic beauty.

Robot Monster in all his poetic beauty.

There are bad movies and then there is Robot Monster – a film nearly as bad and nearly as loved as Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). It is often cited as a ripoff of standard fifties sci-fi films regarding aliens coming to Earth to wreak havoc, but it isn’t all that simple. In 1953 there simply hadn’t been many of these movies made. There was a string of such films released in short succession during the spring and early summer of 1953, but with its release date of June 10, 1953, Robot Monster was definately a forerunner.

Poster.

Poster.

I will not go into a detailed description of the plot of this film, partly because I think my brain would explode, but partly because there are so many of them on the web that is seems superflous to add yet another. If I may recommend one for your convenience, then please read Elizabeth A. Kingsley’s text on And You Call Yorself A Scientist! It is an artwork in itself and a pure joy to read! But beware, it is long.

If you want the short version, it is this: A mother (Selena Royle) and her three children are out picnicking in what looks like a rock quarry. The children are 26 year-old Alice (Claudia Barrett) and juvenile Johnny and Carla (Gregory Moffett and Pamela Paulson). Johnny stumbles across two archaeologists in a cave – the elderly Professor (John Mylong) and the buff Roy (George Nader). When he later visits the cave again, Roy is zapped to the ground by lightning and when he wakes up the world has changed, and he encounters Ro-man, a monster with the body of a gorilla and a space helmet hiding a faceless head.

Isn't this the most wonderful place for a picnic you can imagine?

Isn’t this the most wonderful place for a picnic you can imagine?

When he returns to his ”home”, a roof-less bunker in the wasteland, everything is different – he even wears different clothes – but seems perfectly in tune with it all. The Professor is suddenly his father, who is no longer an archaeologist, but a scientist who has come up with a serum that cures all illness AND makes the inoculated person immune to Ro-man’s calcinator death ray (just go with it). Roy is now his father’s assistant and the boyfriend of his big sister who is an electrical engineer. The women also wear futuristic clothes through which you can see their knickers in the right light.

George Barrows, George Nader and Claudia Barrett.

George Barrows, George Nader and Claudia Barrett.

Ro-man (George Barrows, voiced by John Brown) has wiped out all of humanity save the little family and is now looking for them. Ro-man is commanded by the Great Guidance (George Barrows in the same suit), and is anticipating the invasion of Earth by the rest of his kind. He communicates via a view-screen, and operates his death ray from what looks like an old WWII radio unit and The Billion Bubble Machine (it blows soap bubbles) that was advertised in the opening titles.

What then commences is a bizarre concoction of cat-and-mouse game between the family (who are protected from Ro-man’s sradar by an electrical grid in the bunker) and Ro-man, some light romance, family banter, a discussion about two characters we never meet who are going up with a rocketship to a space station, the destruction of said rocket and space station, the death of a little girl, a kidnapping of Alice and a robot monster who gets existential and philosphical doubts as he falls in love with his kidnapping victim and ultimately rebels against his master, but not before killing off the rest of the Hu-mans. And there’s a lot of shots of an obese gorilla with a fishbowl on its head waddling up and down Los Angeles’ Bronson Canyon, stock footage of dinosaurs fighting and cities being destroyed. And soap bubbles. And the most wonderfully bad dialogue you will ever hear. When all are dead, Johnny wakes up at the entrance of the cave with a bump on his head, flanked by the very much living archaelogists and his family. Ah, it was all a dream, you see.

Pamela Paulson, George Nader, Gregory Moffett and John Mylong.

Pamela Paulson, George Nader, Gregory Moffett and John Mylong.

Director-producer Phil Tucker shot this film over four days, entirely outside in the Bronson Canyon and the Chavez Ravine by Los Angeles – in 3-D – for just 16 000 dollars. The absence of any kind of set makes the film look just as cheap as it is – 16 000 dollars was pocket money for any serious studio production. Counted as a historic opportunity cost with project-based inflation, this would equal about 115 000 dollars today. This may sound like much to a normal consumer, but it must be taken into consideration that things like camera equipment, 3-D film and labour costs very quickly would eat up that money, whereas today the possibilities to make a really cheap film are completely different thanks to digital photography. Back then, making any kind of film was always an investment because of film and equipment costs. Especially if you intended to make a film for theatrical distribution.

3-D was something that filmmakers usually refrained from, because it was expensive and the camera was big and cumbersome. It was also tricky to use, and many 3-D films ended up out of sync or blurry. From accounts of people that have seen this film, the 3-D in Robot Monster actually appears to have been surprisingly good. This was thanks to the fact that Tucker was able to enlist seasoned cameraman Jack Greenhalgh, not the choice for an A-list director, mind you, but an efficient and reliable B movie cinematographer. Greenhalgh had over 200 films under his belt, and was responsible for filming bad movie classics like The Mad Monster (1942, review) and The Lost Continent (1951). This was the beginning of the first 3-D fad, kicked off by the film Bwana Devil in 1952, made by Arch Oboler, one of the people behind the TV show Lights Out (1949, review), and the films Five (1951, review), and The Twonky (1953, review). Incidentally, Greenhalgh filmed another one of the really bad films on this blog, Ghost Patrol (1936, review), as well as Torture Ship (1939). With Ghost Patrol, The Mad Monster and Robot Monster all filmed by him, Greenhalgh is bad movie royalty on Scifist.

Ro-man killing little George Moffett.

Ro-man killing little George Moffett.

The film was apparently shot extremely fast, it looks as if there was perhaps only one shot per scene, apparent from scenes where actors talk with their backs to the camera, flub their lines or when someone even knocks the camera. In one shot you can see a random woman in the background, without anyone bothering to re-do the scene, which is especially jarring since the seven people on set are supposed to be the last people on Earth. Some have speculated that the woman might have been Tucker’s mystery-enshrouded wife Francine, whose name has turned up in various interviews. The quick shooting, bad composition and framing also make the performances seem worse than what they actually are. This isn’t helped by the wonderfully clunky, bad, bad dialogue, all which makes this stand out as one of the most amateurish films ever released in a theatre.

The kid actors are horrendously bad, like the worst kind of kiddie acting you have ever seen on a screen. Naturally this has less to do with the actors themselves, than with the lack of direction and the one-shot approach. But most of the other actors are pretty seasoned and fairly good actors.

George Nade as Roy and Claudia Barrett as Alice, geting married. Because thats what you do during an apocalypse.

George Nade as Roy and Claudia Barrett as Alice, geting married. Because thats what you do during an apocalypse.

George Nader had a theatrical background when he entered Hollywood, and with his athletic frame and good looks, he was leading man material. After a few years in mostly uncredited bit-parts, Robot Monster was his first leading role. Despite the ridicule of the film, the role won him a contract with Universal. Unfortunately for him, Universal was already stocked with buff leading men, such as Rock Hudson, Jeff Chandler and Tony Curtis, so he was relegated to supporting roles and bit-parts. However, he did win a Golden Globe as ”Most promising newcomer” in Four Guns to the Border (1954), and got his first big studio leading role in The Unguarded Moment in 1956, opposite Esther Williams. That same year he had the role as ”second man” in the successful Away All Boats opposite Jeff Chandler, Lex Barker and Julie Adams. In 1959-1960 he starred in the action/sci-fi series The Man and the Challenge, created by Ivan Tors of Flipper fame.

George Nader as Jerry Cotton) and Daniela Surina in the German 1968 film Der Tod im Roten Haguar, or Death in a Red Jaguar.

George Nader (as Jerry Cotton) and Daniela Surina in the German 1968 film Der Tod im Roten Haguar, or Death in a Red Jaguar.

However, in the mid-fifties rumours about his homosexuality had started to spread in Hollywood, as he was in a relationship with a man called Mark Miller. This led to problems getting good roles, as he gradually moved into television, where he had a reasonably stable career, and also had time to star in the sci-fi movies The Great Space Adventure (1963) and The Human Duplicators (1965). However, by 1965 his job opportunities in Hollywood had all but dried up, and he and Miller followed other American actors who had a hard time getting roles in Hollywood to Europe. Nader and Miller followed Nader’s former co-star and former Tarzan actor Lex Barker to Germany. The market for good-looking American actors was big, especially in countries like Germany and Italy, to some extent in Spain, Sweden and France, at the time, even behind the Iron Curtain, for those who had the guts to venture there.

A 1972 Jerry Cotton mag from Finland with Nader on the cover.

A 1972 Jerry Cotton mag from Finland with Nader on the cover.

Lex Barker was at this time one of the biggest movie stars in the German-speaking world, and Nader would quickly find a niche for himself. He was hardly off the plane in 1965 when he was cast as detective Jerry Cotton in the kid-friendly crime thriller The Violin Case Murders (Schüsse aus dem Geigenkasten), which proved a moderate success, especially with a young audience. Although more or less unknown in the States, Jerry Cotton was another one of those Euro-detectives modelled on American detective stories, often featuring an American main character. In the early 20th century such a character was Nat Pinkerton, a pulp fiction franchise that was immensely popular in Germany and the Soviet Union, among other countries. Jerry Cotton was a similar character for the fifties and sixties, especially in Germany and my home country Finland. The franchise proved so popular that new stories about Cotton are still produced today, and in 2010 a new Jerry Cotton film was made in Germany.

All in all, Nader starred in nine Jerry Cotton films in Germany between 1965 and 1969, turning him into one of Germany’s biggest film stars. In 1966 he was voted as the country’s second most popular foreign actor, after Lex Barker, who received the Bambi Award that year. In the early seventies he returned with Miller to the United States, where he appeared in a few films, including the science fiction movie Beyond Atlantis (1973), and did a couple of TV appearances. Attitudes towards gays in Hollywood was slowly changing in the seventies, and even though stars like Rock Hudson never officially ”came out”, Hudson’s homosexuality was a well-known secret – even Mad Magazine riffed on it in the early seventies.

Hollywood beefcakes: Rock Hudson and George Nader.

Hollywood beefcakes: Rock Hudson and George Nader.

Nader and Miller were close friends of Hudson, who counted them part of his ”family”. However, it wasn’t Nader’s homosexuality that put an end to his film career, but an eye injury which resulted in glaucoma and made him sensitive to the bright lights on movie sets. According to the German fanzine Splatting Image he suffered an accident filming the never released movie Zigzag in the Philippines in 1973. A blank round supposedly accidentally went off close to his eyes. However, this may have been an excuse made up the filmmakers for never releasing the film, since obituaries in both The Independent and The Guardian name a 1974 car accident as the cause for his injury, which would make sense, since Nader still appeared on TV in 1974. Nader then became a science fiction writer, and wrote for magazines and published a novel called Chrome in 1978, that revolved around the love between two men. When Rock Hudson passed away in 1985, Nader inherited the interest on his estate.

Selena Royle and Cary Grant in Night Day from 1946.

Selena Royle and Cary Grant in Night & Day from 1946.

Although never a star actress, Selena Royle (as the mother) was a very well regarded actress with a long and successful career on stage and in radio. She appeared in heavy roles in a number of high-profile movies in the forties, often as maternal characters. She played mother Sullivan in the war film The Fighting Sullivans (1944) and the mother of Ingrid Bergman’s title character in Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc (1948), among others. In Robot Monster her character is reduced to standing around and fretting, and she must have wondered what on Earth she was doing in the production. What she was doing was trying to pay the rent: after refusing to testify before the House Committee on Unamerican Activities in 1951, she was blacklisted, and her film career hit a brick wall. She and her husband later relocated to Mexico, where her home became an ”artistic salon”, and she wrote a number of fairly popular cookbooks and books on Mexico.

John Mylong in His Kind of Woman from 1951.

John Mylong in His Kind of Woman from 1951.

John Mylong who plays the ”father” isn’t any better at carving a good performance out of the silliness, although he does give it his best – and one should consider that the Austrian also had to struggle with getting his lines right in one take. Mylong was born Adolf Heinrich Münz, but took the artist name of Jack Mylong-Münz early on, when he started stage career in Germany in 1912. At one point he almost gave up acting to become a writer, but after some short stories returned to the stage and then began his film career in the early twenties, mainly in supporting roles and bit-parts, a pattern that continued when he started his Hollywood. Tinseltown naturally took in the German-speaking actor with open arms in 1941, when demand was high for people to play Nazis in war and propaganda films, of which he made a whole bunch, including For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) with Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. Other noteworthy, but small, appearances were in, for example Magnificent Obsessions (1954) and The Eddie Duchin Story (1956).

Claudia Barrett as seen on Ro-mans view-screen.

Claudia Barrett as seen on Ro-mans view-screen.

Claudia Barrett, born Imogene Williams, as Alice, had acted in around two dozen films or TV series in bit-parts prior to Robot Monster, a film which provided her with her one noteworthy role. She quit acting in the early sixties after failing to break through from guest spots on TV. Instead she started working for the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, and later as an artist.

As said earlier, the seven ”human” actors should be applauded for their efforts in what must have been impossible circumstances. But the big star of the film is of course Robot Monster himself. This is certainly one of the most bizarre monsters ever depicted on film – on par with some other fifties creatures we’ll get to later in the blog. The story of how Ro-man came to be is quite well known. Initially Tucker had planned for it to be an actual robot, but stated that he couldn’t rent a robot suit or build one of his own due to the cost. However, he knew bit-part player and gorilla performer George Barrows, who owned a gorilla suit, and thought that if one put some sort of a space helmet on instead of the gorilla head, it would make a functioning monster. The helmet looks like a hand-me-down from the film serial King of the Rocket Men (1949), but I have no confirmation on that. Actually Barrows claims that the man in charge of wardrobe, Henry West, ”devised” it, but in that case he must have used the King of the Rocket Men helmets as a blueprint, so striking are the similarities.

George Barrett carrying off Claudia Barrett.

George Barrett carrying off Claudia Barrett.

This choice of ”robot” costume is, of course, one of the aspects of the film that has been heavily criticised over the years as a use-whatever’s-available solution, but there may have been more thought put into it. It’s important to remember that in 1952 King Kong (1933, review) was re-released and there was a huge demand for more giant ape and gorilla films. Tucker knew that a poster of a giant ape in a space helmet carrying off a dame in distress would be enough to sell the film to an army of pre-teen boys with a hunger for more monkey business. And – it had never been done before. A robot would have been a bit old hat, when you think about it. Robots had been a staple of serials and TV series since the mid-thirties, and it was difficult to make a good robot suit without a serious budget. By hiring Barrows for 40 dollars a day and throwing in an old space helmet prop, he got the actor plus the suit for 160 bucks, saving money for marketing. It is also worth noting that this is one of the few films where the poster image of a monster carrying away a woman is actually present in the film.

George Barrows had started as a bit-part player back in the thirties, but it wasn’t until the mid-forties that the amateur carpenter and sculptor entered the monkey business himself. I have previously written about people like Charles Gemora, Crash Corrigan, and especially Emil van Horn, members of that strange breed of men who carved out their careers as gorilla actors. The central premise here was that these guys didn’t just like monkeying around, but they actually made their own suits, which made them hot stuff with casting agents and producers alike.

Gorilla men have all the fun: Barrows with Anne Bancroft and Charlotte Austin for Gorilla at Large in 1954.

Gorilla men have all the fun: Barrows with Anne Bancroft and Charlotte Austin for Gorilla at Large in 1954.

Today of course film budgets have ballooned and manufacturing techniques improved, but back in the old days of Hollywood, especially the thirties and forties and to some extent into the fifties, an actor with an ape suit could count on getting work. This was not so much because of the cost of the suit (Barrows said his cost around 500 dollars to make), but because it was a painstaking, time-consuming work that required both artistic and mechanical skills. The best gorilla suits had mechanical jaws and hands, and the work included multiple plaster casts and rubber coatings for heads, hands, chest and feet, and most importantly: the arduous work of punching the individual hairs of the fur into the suit itself. Most gorilla actors only made one single suit during their careers, and then patched and repaired it as well as they could. The wear and tear often clearly shows by the latter part of their careers.

Barrows claimed to have worked for three years on his gorilla suit before starting off by performing in night clubs, like Emil van Horn, and may have appeared on TV before his first confirmed gorilla performance in Abbott and Costello’s TV show in 1952. Robot Monster was his second (credited) feature film in suit, and it does look nice and shiny, covered as it is in yak hair and actual human hair from China. He later recalled the work on the film as extremely hard and unrewarding. The film is filled with never-ending shots of the gorilla monster in the fish-bowl helmet trekking up and down ridges and mountains of the Bronson Canyon, a slow, awkward, lumbering beast walking and walking and walking, sometimes carrying other actors for long stretches. Anders Runestad has graciously shared excerpts from his very recently published book I Cannot. Yet I Must. The True Story of the Best Mad Monster Movie of All Time: Robot Monster, where Barrows recalls that on other arduous ape films he often lost up to ten pounds in weight during a day through dehydration: ”It’s terribly hot in that suit. It’s a very, very enervating, difficult thing to wear, believe me. Not only that, but I had that helmet on my head. With a gorilla head, you can breathe through the mouth, you have air coming in and out of it, and under the neck, which doesn’t show of course, due to the hair and all that. But with that thing, you have the helmet.” In the book he also reveals that it was his own idea to cover his face with a nylon stocking to hide his features, which made matters even worse. (I’ll be checking in with updates to this post as soon as I get my hands on the book.)

Robert Vaughn with Barrows in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in 1966.

Robert Vaughn with Barrows in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in 1966.

Barrows worked his gorilla suit in a whole number of films, including Gorilla at Large (1954) and Black Zoo (1963), but even more often in TV series, as the apes of the big screen were increasingly manufactured specifically for the films as time went on. His more memorable TV appearances were in Adventures of Superman (1957), The Addams Family (1964), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1966), The Wild Wild West (1968) and The Incredible Hulk (1978). His suit seems to have been in surprisingly good shape in 1978, despite the fact that it was already once ruined when Barrows rented it to the British production of Konga (1961), where the British actor cut holes in it and bent and broke the jaw and lip mechanisms. With the seventies, the time of the travelling professional gorilla man was all but over, as Daz Lawrence puts it in Horrorpedia: ”it would be almost disrespectful to both parties to mention the Planet of the Apes cycle of films in the same breath”.

Voice actor John Brown with Marie Wilson in a promo shot for the radio show My Friend Irma sometime between 1947 and 1954.

Voice actor John Brown with Marie Wilson in a promo shot for the radio show My Friend Irma sometime between 1947 and 1954.

But Barrows’ was only half of the performance of Ro-man, and just as memorable as the suit and Barrows’ hard work are the dialogues and monologues of Ro-man, and the voice, for that matter. The voice belonged to popular radio actor John Brown, best known for his comedic roles in radio, and part of the genius of the film is the wonderful way in which he delivers the corny lines of Ro-man, and one wonders if much of it wasn’t ad-libbed. The conversations between Ro-man and Great Guidance are pure bad movie gold. Brown finds the perfect balance between the serious tone of the film and the inherent comedy of the lines, and adds brilliant flourishes to lines like ”I will re-calculate. Your deaths will be – INDESCRIBABLE! Fool Hu-mans!”, ”I am ordered to kill you. I must do it with my hands”, and ”Calculate your chances! Negative! Negative! Negative! Is there a choice between a painless-surrender-death, and the horror-of-resistance-death?”

One of the great joys of the movie is watching George Barrows inside his fish tank gesticulating wildly and trying in vain to somehow sync Brown’s dialogue with the flailing and the gestures, and giving up halfway because nothing makes any sense.

Ro-man rips open Alices dress. Then gets existential doubts.

Ro-man rips open Alices dress. Then gets existential doubts.

But most wonderful of all is the scene where Ro-man has captured Alice and battles with his mechanical brain over these newfound ”feels” that are rushing inside him. ”Suppose I was Hu-man? Would you treat me like man?” he tentatively asks Alice, but is angered when she is more interested in trying to coerce him into revealing the location of his power-station. ”Silence, girl!” he demands and rips open the top of her dress, and then adds in bewilderment of his predicament ”We are not built to feel emotion. Please do not hate me”. When speaking to the Great Guidance he spills his frustration and even finds a poetic, existential vein: ”“Yes! To be like the Hu-man! To laugh! Feel! Want! Why are these things not in the plan?” When Great Guidance tells him to shut his pie-hole and get on with the killing of the Hu-mans Ro-man utters what has become the most iconic line of the film, worthy of any Hamlet: ”I must, yet I cannot! How do you calculate that?! At what point on the graph do ‘must’ and ‘cannot’ meet? Yet I cannot … but I must!”

All the while, the Billion Bubble Machine blows soap bubbles.

Great Guidance.

Great Guidance.

Brown’s voice work is nothing short of genius, and adds tremendously to a film that might have gone unnoticed down the drain-pipe of forgotten Z films. It hits just the right spot between serious and ironic, satisfying both the kids in the audience and the adults who can laugh along with the spectacle. But it is not Brown alone which makes the performance memorable: Ro-man’s voice is slightly distorted and perhaps even lowered, and given a certain canned ring – and as strange as it may seem, it is suddenly clear as day where George Lucas got the inspiration for Darth Vader’s speech pattern and mechanical voice. Kudos for this goes to sound engineer Lyle Willey, who had the honour of working on two other classic bad sci-fi films: Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, review) and Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster (1955, review).

John Brown was born in Britain, but became a master of the New York accent while working in radio in the States, where he became a comedy star in the forties and fifties, working on hit shows like Allen’s Alley, My Friend Irma, The Life of Riley, The Damon Runley Theatre and The Life of Ozzie and Harriet. He mostly had bit-parts in movies, like The Stranger (1946), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review), Strangers on a Train (1951), Hans Christian Andersen (1952) and The Wild One (1953). Unfortunately, Brown was also blacklisted in 1952, and passed away in 1957.

Jack Rabins effects work. Crude but effective.

Jack Rabins effects work. Crude but effective.

Adding to the talent involved in this film was Jack Rabin, one of the masters of low-budget special effects, this time without his brother in arms, Irving Block, but instead with David Commons. Commons didn’t have a very long career, but scored a jackpot of bad films in 1953 with Robot Monster, Cat-Women on the Moon and The Neanderthal Man (review). Rabin was already an old war-horse, having done effects for Rocketship X-M (1950, review), The Man from Planet X (1951, review), Unknown World (1951, review), Flight to Mars (1951, review), Invasion U.S.A. (1952, review), Invaders from Mars (1953, review) and Port Sinister (1953), as well as co-written and produced Unknown World and Cat-Women on the Moon. And these were just his sci-fi films.

Jack Rabin was used to making effects on the cheaper side, but in this film he had to cope with no-budget, rather than low-budget. But Rabin and Commons, along with Tucker and editor Merrill G. White, went out in search of all the re-usable stock footage they could find, some from their own films, and cut them together to create a post-apocalyptic landscape, a New York in ruins, explosions and bombardment, upheavals in time, the fabric of space ripping and bringing back fighting dinosaurs, cataclysmic earthquakes and thunderstorms, all accompanied by brilliant sound effects by Willey. There’s some footage of a V-2 rocket taking off from Destination Moon (1950, review), some other rocket shots from Flight to Mars, background images of the cockpit from Rocketship X-M, stop-motion animation of dinosaurs from One Million B.C (1940), lizards with fins attached clashing in The Lost Continent (1951), a destroyed New York and and war stock footage from Invasion U.S.A, and probably a few others that I can’t spot. Over this the effects men put smoke and lightning bolts, flashing negative film to represent the calcinator death ray and with some clever editing you have your apocalypse ready. The lightning bolts and the negative flashes occur throughout the film when Ro-man uses his death ray, to the extent that it becomes hilarious. But to Rabin’s defence, it is a surprisingly effective effect, considering that you have a zero-dollar budget.

Elmer Bernstein winning his one and only Oscar.

Elmer Bernstein winning his one and only Oscar.

And we’re not finished with the brilliance of this film yet: composer for the film was none other than Elmer Bernstein, a man who won an Oscar and was nominated for a whopping ten more, won two Golden Globes and was nominated for five more, won an Emmy, three Laurel Awards, was nominated for two Grammys and won a couple of dozen more awards for his music. To complete it all, he also won a Razzie and a Stinker Award. Bernstein said that he often liked to help out struggling films, and was happy to compose the score for a fraction of his normal fee. It surely isn’t his best score, but very effective and occasionally beautiful, especially when he brings in the doom-laden brass and strings along with pounding percussion and glockenspiel. KC at A Classic Movie Blog sums it up well: ”It’s pretty good, though it can get a bit too cutesy during the scenes with the children. There are some effective themes and an overall feeling of dark grandeur. Unfortunately, all this pomp sounds a bit goofy when paired with a gorilla in a diving helmet waddling up and down the sides of a canyon.”

This was one of Bernstein’s early scores, but he caught the eye of big studios with his jazzy soundtrack for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), and got his final breakthrough with Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments (1956). Among his best known scores are those for The Magnificent Seven (1970), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The Great Escape (1963), Hawaii (1966), the Oscar-winner Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), True Grit (1969), Heavy Metal (1981), Ghostbusters (1984) and Cape Fear (1991). But he also provided the music for sci-fi films like Cat-Women on the Moon, Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959), The Silencers (1966), Saturn 3 (1980), Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983), Slipstream (1989) and Wild Wild West (1999).

Gregory Moffett and George Barrows.

Gregory Moffett and George Barrows.

The script was penned by Wyatt Ordung, a sort of wannabe character bouncing around B-Hollywood in the fifties, acting, writing and serving as ”technical adviser” up until 1954, when he ran into a young producer called Roger Corman, and expressed an interest in directing. Corman asked Ordung to cough up the remaining 2 000 dollars that was needed to finance his current film, and the gig was his. Ordung, who had received exactly 2 000 dollars for his work on Robot Monster, was game. Thus he became the director of Monster from the Ocean Floor, Corman’s second film (review), in which, in typical Corman fashion, he also acted. He wrote for a handful of films, including Target Earth (1954, review) and First Man into Space (1959), directed and produced another movie in the fifties, worked on a couple of small films as assistant director in the sixties and seventies, including The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966) and then sort of disappeared. Some sources give him credit for co-writing The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues (1955, review). Internet seems to know almost nothing about this man, and the only press reference I can google up is an ad from Valley News from Van Nuys, California, September 30, 1977, in an ad for ”’Sunday Get-Together,’ sponsored by One to One Clubs, Sunday 1 to 11 p.m., swimming, eating and sharing during the day, Master Kabbalist Wyatt Ordung in evening”. Go figure.

Executive producer Al Zimbalist.

Executive producer Al Zimbalist.

There is, however, mentions here and there of an interview with Ordung in the magazine Fangoria, in which he claims that the premise of Robot Monster was completely Phil Tucker’s idea, and that he protested vigorously against the idea of making a comedy following the last people on Earth after a nuclear annihilation, to which Tucker’s wife Francine is supposed to have replied: ”That’s what I tried to tell him last night!” The original title was supposed to be Googie-Eyes, and the monster was supposed to have protruding google-eyes. Anyway, Ordung goes on to explain that ever since the film came out he had been trying to explain that he ”didn’t write that piece of garbage”. In fact, said Ordung, executive producer Al Zimbalist owed a furniture dealer 500 dollars, and the furniture dealer had hopes of becoming a screenwriter, and agreed to forget the 500 dollars if he could work on a script. According to Ordung this shady furniture dealer actually wrote 60 percent of the movie, for example adding Great Guidance and the whole dream frame, which wasn’t in Ordung’s script. An excerpt of the interview can be found here, in Italian.

Director Phil Tucker’s career follows much of the same pattern as Ordung’s, although it was nearly over almost as soon as it had begun. Tucker reportedly had directed a few porn films prior to Robot Monster. Robot Monster was produced on Tucker’s own Three Dimension Pictures, but distributed in the US by Astor Pictures Corporation. The film was a huge commercial success, and brought in over one million dollars at the box office, but Astor refused to pay out Tucker’s part of the profits, and legend has it that they wouldn’t even let him in to see the film without a ticket. This dispute and financial problems led him to attempt suicide by shooting himself later that year – he missed. That same year he did, however, also direct the comedy Dance Hall Racket, starring his friend Lenny Bruce.

The family gathered.

The family gathered.

Tucker directed a few other, now forgotten, films in the first half of the fifties and was then allegedly blacklisted, although he returned in 1960 with the sci-fi schlocker The Cape Canaveral Monsters, which he also wrote. He allegedly briefly returned to making porn, but re-established himself in Hollywood as a producer in the seventies. He worked as an assistant editor on TV in the sixties, for National Geographic, among others, then as editor and producer of the stunt-driver documentary Death Riders (1976), and worked as post-production supervisor on the very successful big-budget movies King Kong (1976) and Orca (1977). Among others he edited some episodes of the TV series Wonder Woman (1979), the Maxwell Smart movie The Nude Bomb (1980) and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Red Dragon (1981).

Robot Monster is by all technical standards a lousy film. But this mostly has to do with lack of time and money, and, yes, a pretty lousy script. However, it doesn’t by any means have anything to do on my list of bad movies. As I wrote in the beginning – there are bad movies, and then there are bad movies. Reviewers love to hail this as ”one of the worst movies ever made”, and most of them add that they love it. But what people often forget when lovingly nitpicking films like Robot Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space, is that these are films that they keep coming back to, keep watching, keep laughing at and keep loving. Isn’t that – in fact – the definite description of a good movie? There are bad films out there – like Ghost Patrol, Boom in the Moon (1949, review) and Invasion U.S.A, that I found so painful to watch that I never ever want to return to them after writing the reviews. These are films that lack imagination, heart and soul, something that Robot Monster has in abundance. I have watched Robot Monster close to ten times, and I always find it just as wonderful to view, and I’m sure I will return to it in the future.

Excerpt from The Lost Continent from 1951.

Excerpt from The Lost Continent from 1951.

Partly this has to do with the fact that Phil Tucker really wanted to make a good movie, despite his minuscule budget. He sold the film with the poster alone, and could have been satisfied with making the sort of uninspired exploitation fare that William Beaudine and Sam Newfield were churning out by the dozen every year. But instead he wanted to make an entertaining, dramatic, post-apocalyptic epic with an obese gorilla in a fishbowl who gets an existential crisis when he falls in love with his kidnappee, and a calcinator death ray that produces a billion soap bubbles. In 3-D. How can you not love that? This also led to him going after the best talent he could afford, and probably used quite some social skills to convince them to help him out for peanuts. For a film like this to have effects by Jack Rabin and music by Elmer Bernstein, starring a bunch of seasoned, talented actors and made with a whole slew of respected industry veterans is quite unprecedented, and if you get over the first shock and bewilderment it actually shows.

Janne Wass

Robot Monster (1953). Directed by Phil Tucker. Written by Wyatt Ordung (and a shady furniture salesman). Starring: George Nader, Claudia Barrett, Selena Royle, John Mylong, Gregory Moffett, Pamela Paulson, George Barrows, John Brown. Music: Elmer Bernstein. Cinematography: Jack Greenhalgh. Editing: Merrill G. White. Makeup artist: Stanley E. Campbell. Production Supervisor: Clarence Eurist. Props: John Orlando. Sound director: Lyle Willey. Special photographic effects: Jack Rabin, David Commons. Wardrobe: Henry West. Produced by Phil Tucker for Three Dimension Pictures.

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16 thoughts on “Robot Monster

  1. An amazing film, and even more amazing book. Congrats on on one of the best and most keenly-anticipated volumes in my bookcase. It is likely to be often-read, so I’ll buy another copy soon!

    Liked by 1 person

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