Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Day the Earth Stood Still: Do You Remember the Three Words to Save the World?

If there were a Hall of Fame for Timeless Movies, then one of its founding members would be The Day the Earth Stood Still. I've probably watched it at least once every decade since I first saw it on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies in the 1960s. When I was a youngster, the film's fantastic elements--and Gort, the coolest robot on celluloid--appealed to me. When I was a teen, its stern warning about the perils of nuclear war resonated with me. With each subsequent viewing, The Day the Earth Stood Still has revealed something new: presenting itself as a Biblical analogy, an editorial on the influence of media on public opinion, a portrait of fear of the unknown, etc.

The films opens with Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a visitor from another planet, and his robot Gort making an unannounced spaceship landing in Washington, DC. When Klaatu exits from his ship and reaches into his space suit, a nervous soldier shoots him. While recovering in Walter Reed Army Hospital, Klaatu meets with the President’s secretary, Harley. The alien explains he must deliver a critical message to all the leaders of the world. Harley explains that’s impossible because of global political tensions. Klaatu confesses that he does not understand human conflict. He decides he needs to learn more about Earthlings from living among them. He escapes discreetly from the hospital and, as “Mr. Carpenter,” takes a room in a boarding house.

The success of The Day the Earth Stood Still hinges, in large part, on the casting of Klaatu. Producer Julian Blaustein and director Robert Wise originally considered Claude Rains, but his stage schedule made him unavailable. 20th Century-Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck suggested Spencer Tracy, but Blaustein worried that a well-known star would be a distraction (interestingly, that concern didn't apply to Rains). It was Zanuck who eventually "discovered" Michael Rennie, who was peforming in the British theatre. The tall, low-key Rennie brought conviction to the role, but his greatest accomplishment was making the alien visitor seem human. This is no small feat, as evidenced by a scene in which Klaatu reads the words of Lincoln and wants to meet him. This sequence could easily have come across as hokey, but Rennie makes it quietly effective and even heartfelt (since Klaatu has finally found someone who gives him hope about the human race).

With a human-like alien, it was left to the robot Gort to bring an eerie, other-worldly quality to the film. To make the robot as physically imposing as possible, the producers hired Lock Martin, a 7' 7" doorman at Grauman's Chinese Theater. To make Gort even taller, Martin wore 4-6" platform shoes. Walking in the heavy rubber suit in high heels was physically exhausting. There were two suits, one that laced on the front and the other in back. Martin changed suits depending on the camera angle, so that it looked like Gort had no "seams." In some shots, a static model of the robot was used. That Gort model was later bought by Larry Harmon, overhauled so it didn't look much like Gort, and used in Harmon's Bozo the Clown television show.

In addition to its visual impact, The Day the Earth Still even sounds other-worldly thanks to composer Bernard Herrmann's innovative use of a theremin (shown on right). One of the first electronic instruments, the theremin is "played" by moving one's hands in front of it to change sound frequencies. Its distinctive sound became almost a cliche through repeated use in other sci fi films of the 1950s. Still, Herrmann' score remains an impressive achievement today.

Loosely based on the Harry Bates story "Farewell to the Master," The Day the Earth Stood Still features strong religious undercurrents. Klaatu becomes a Carpenter (if in name only). He performs a "miracle" of global proportions. He brings a message of peace, but is largely misunderstood. And, of course, he is murdered and resurrected. Producer Blaustein credits screenwriter Edmund H. North for adding these provocative layers on top of a traditional science fiction tale.

The cast, music, and richness of themes contribute mightily to the film's timeless quality. But it's the story--along with that awesome robot Gort--that makes The Day the Earth Stood Still popular with viewers of all ages. I love to watch it with young people and tell them that they will need to memorize the film's classic phrase and repeat it at the appropriate point in the film...or the Earth will be destroyed. You'd be amazed at how many different variations I've heard of: "Klaatu barada nikto!"


  1. A wonderful movie and a deserved sci-fi classic. This film is a nice change from aliens attacking Earth with the possible intent of global domination, since here we have aliens who yearn to understand humans. Michael Rennie is terrific as Klaatu, and I cannot imagine anyone else in that role, not even a seasoned vet. I know the film's three famous words by heart but mostly because of Sam Raimi's ARMY OF DARKNESS, which pokes fun at the phrase (required words for retrieving an evil book) by having it repeated several times, only to have our hero, at the most inopportune moment, forget the final word. Rick, a superbly written review, filled with interesting facts and great pictures. As a footnote, I think this movie has one of the best titles of all time!

  2. One of your very best articles, Rick. I have seen this movie countless times, like you, and found something new in it with every point of maturity I reach. The religious symbolism is subtly marvelous and Rennie was the perfect actor for the film. I must say it makes me want to retch when I think of fantastic Gort being used in the Bozo the Clown show! What a falling off was there, to quote Shakespeare. And like Sark, I got a good laugh out of Raimi's Army of Darkness, especially when the hero tries Klaatu barada necktie! Seriously, this was a great film superbly scored by Hermann, and withstands passage of time. The remake, on the other hand, well, what can I say -- P U !!

  3. nice salute to a great movie..because of his "stiff" acting style, MICHAEL RENNIE was perfect as "the martian"..your quote is the correct one in my opinions..."GORT! KLAATU BARADA NIKTO" klaatu is not dead..the seen with GORT and MS. NEAL..the visor slowly rising..the THEREMIN scoring blaring..scared the beejeezus outa me!!!

  4. Rick, I have not seen many science fiction movies. But.. I did enjoy reading your wonderful review, with many interesting facts, along with some awesome pictures!

  5. I was thrilled to see your informative and well thought out essay on "The Day the Earth Stood Still." I love this classic on so many levels. Michael Rennie has a commanding presence, not only because of his height but because of his certain, heartfelt dialogue. A scene that I especially enjoy is the one where Mr. Carpenter/Klaatu completes the complex math equation for the brilliant professor, as if it were the most basic of problems. I thought it quite clever to bring the world to a halt for a short period of time. It was a great way to get the attention of everyone everywhere.

    Prior to the sequel, I showed this movie to two young fellows who truly enjoyed it. We then saw the sequel together and they were both seriously disappointed in it. Big budget special effects will never take the place of a well written and performed story.

    Remarkable work, Rick. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  6. Rick, I love this movie and own it on DVD. I watch it every October. It is one of my all time favorite sci-fi movies. I think it is Michael Rennie's best performance. I couldn't imagine Claude Raines in the role of Klaatu. I agree that Gort is the coolest robot in the movies. Hey, no seams, he looks cold and he's a machine. You got to love his laser a way he is a space Jedi without the saber and he keeps the peace in the galaxy just like a Jedi Knight. I agree with Toto that the remake was totally worthless. Enjoyed your review.

  7. Superb article Rick on one of the greatest of SF films ever. Robert Wise may not have been an auteur, but he was class Hollywood filmmaker versatile in many genres, and his background as an editor certainly added to the mix. I should watch this again, have not seen it in a few years.

  8. Claude Rains or Spencer Tracy as Klaatu? They would've been good too, but I agree that it would've been difficult to look past either of them and see only the character. They both have very distinctive faces, especially Tracy, when what was needed was someone who looks more like an everyman.

  9. Michael Rennie - an everyman? Oh, nay, nay, Rich. Not so. Those chiseled cheek bones, that sculpted head. He definitely had an 'other wordly' look to him.

    I agree with Rick's comment that he was able to make the alien visitor 'seem human'. I can't imagine anyone else in the role.

    My mom and I always had the biggest crush on Michael Rennie. I think he was her favorite actor. He was certainly one of mine. For me, part of the film's mystic (or do I mean 'mythic'?) quality is Michael Rennie's exceptional 'look'. He was always a stand out whatever film he was in.

    Some of us were watching this just the other day and as usual we got caught up in the story and wondering what sort of power Gort might have to enable him to destroy a planet. All sorts of theories were put forth.

    I love a movie that catches up its audience and makes the watching of it kind of an 'event'.

    Eveything about this film works well. I loved Patricia Neal in it - there's just something so vibrant in her scenes with Rennie. And Sam Jaffe as the 'Einstein'-like scientist and the little boy Billy Gray and that awful Hugh Marlowe as the slimy publicity seeking boyfriend. It all worked.

    Thanks for a wonderful tribute, Rick.

  10. Rick, I already commented when this first came out, but just had to come back and say that this was a wonderful contribution to Nate's Monster Mash blogathon. I've been having fun reading all the articles, and this has to be right up there in quality.

  11. Coming over here from the Monster Mash Blogathon. I'd never heard that about the casting of Claude Rains and even though I love him as an actor, I can't help thinking that it wouldn't have worked at all to have him as the alien visitor. He's too...worldly-wise.

    Great post that does justice to a classic film.

  12. This is one of those rare science fiction films that transcend its genre and becomes lauded as a masterpiece among professional film circles. Not many other sci-fi films can do that (i.e. 2001: A Space Odyssey).

    One of the great things about this film is how well-paced it is. Many monster movies from the 50s have serious pacing issues...but this film keeps rolling along at a great speed the entire time!

    Thanks for participating! I'm thrilled that you were able to join us!

  13. I can see Claude Rains as Klaatu...but Spencer Tracy? Don't think it would work. Relieved to hear that idea was shot down.

    And I didn't know about the Bozo trivia, which sort of make me snort my iced tea the wrong way because I had this mental picture of someone saying "And remember what your old pal Gort says: keep laughin'!"

    The Day the Earth Stood Still is deservedly thought of a classic, and this review only reinforces that. Nicely done, Rick.

    Oh...and this is definitely off-topic, but my favorite Montgomery Clift performance is in Wild River, not the red one.

    1. Not so off-topic. I read once that he was actually considered for the part of Klaatu, but turned it down.

  14. Awesome review, I love this film! I never knew that Claude Rains and Spencer Tracy were considered for the role of Klaatu. I have actually seen the Keanu Reeves remake and while it isn't awful, it doesn't hold a candle to the original!

  15. Rick, you captured THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (TDtESS) perfectly in your excellent blog post about one of our favorite films! I can't imagine anyone but Michael Rennie as Klaatu, not only because there always seems to be something slightly unworldly about Rennie anyway (SPOILER his role in THE POWER, another fun yet thought-provoking science fiction thriller I'd like to blog about one of these days...END SPOILER ALERT), but also because while Claude Rains and Spencer Tracy would undoubtedly have given excellent performances, I agree that their star power might have been more distracting than compelling. Bernard Herrmann's music fits this suspenseful yet moving story beautifully; in fact, at times TDtESS brings tears to my eyes (in a good way). Boy, theremins sure got a workout in the 1950s, didn't they (not that I'm complaining :-))? Great post, Rick!

  16. Rick... Fantastic review of another one of my all time favorites! I especially liked all of the bits of trivia.

    The Day the Earth Stood Still is a true classic in every sense of the word. And the theremin music was so integral to the picture, that it almost deserved billing alongside Michael Rennie.

  17. Great post.It's always fun to read about what other actors were up for the part in a classic.

  18. Nice post Rick. I heard that Blaustein said that "if that spaceship opens up, and Spencer Tracy comes walking out, the film is going to lose all it's credibility". Going with Rennie who was not as well known was a much better choice ...

  19. I made a promess to myself to never watch the remake because this original version is near-perfect! Nice review!

  20. I thoroughly enjoyed reading all the comments. I'm not surprised that this classic sci fi film is beloved by so many. It's exceptionally well-made, features a great cast, and--most importantly--is timeless in its treatment of the human race and its challenges.

  21. I enjoyed your great, insightful post, as usual! I'm with everyone else on casting; it's impossible to see Rains or Tracy in the lead role (can you see either of them living in a spaceship?). I remember Michael Rennie from the old 'Lost in Space' show in the famous 'Keeper' episode; and he was quite eerie and otherworldly there. It's interesting to think what is the 'monster' in this film. Many viewers might say Gort, but he's a robot under the control of others. I think the idea of 'monsters' applies here in the notion of point of view - Klaatu is seen as a 'monster' by the Earthlings, although he comes on a peace mission; and Klaatu sees human behavior as 'monstrous' because of the creation of the nuclear bomb and the threat of total annihilation. Thanks again for your terrific review!

  22. A friend's teenage son said Gort looked fake because there was once scene showing the back of Gort and you can see creases on the back of his legs. The kid said if the guy is suppose to be metal how come there are creases?

    To placate the brat, I mean kid, I said they were from an advanced civilization and had developed a metal alloy that was bendable and flexible. I don't think he believed me but at least he let it go.

    One of my all-time favorites and really can't add anything else except I enjoyed the article very much.

  23. Great post. All I can say is Klaatu Barada Nikto!!

  24. I'm with the other commenters about Spencer Tracy; I just can't see it. Claude Rains could have pulled it off and if we never had Michael Rennie, his performance would have been satisfactory. It is lucky that they did use Rennie though, because his understated manner fit the part so well. Nice background!

  25. My favorite sci-fi movie of all time. Enjoyed your review! Now, if we only had a real life Gort to keep earth's troublemakers in line!

  26. Welcome once again to Better Late Than Never!:

    What I still love to watch is the opening scenes of The Day The Earth Stood Still, as the newscasters of the world cover the landing.

    Apparently, few remember (or even know) the American commentators:

    - First up: Elmer Davis, who a few years before had been the Director of the US Government's Office of War Information. He came to that job after years as a CBS Radio news commentator; post-war, he went to ABC Radio (and later TV), where he appeared for the rest of his life.

    - Next is H.V. Kaltenborn, then still trying to live down his on-air certainty that Thomas Dewey was going to beat Harry Truman in the '48 presidential election.
    This wasn't Kaltenborn's first movie appearance:
    He covered Jimmy Stewart's filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

    - Covering the actual landing (for ABC-TV) is columnist Drew Pearson of "Washington Merry-Go-Round" fame, not long before he starting tangling with that Senator from Wisconsin.

    - Later in the movie, we get to hear Mutual Radio's Gabriel Heatter, who significantly doesn't use his catch phrase "Ah yes, there's good news tonight!" as he tries to scare the whey out of DC radio listeners with the story of Klaatu's "escape".

    Back in the Day, these kinds of appearances were not uncommon.
    But That Was Then, and This Is Now ...