Forbidden Planet & Bad Day at Black Rock @ the Castro

Friday night I attended the Ann Francis memorial double bill at the Castro. Always fun to see a couple of old favorites on the big screen.

Not that it was a perfect presentation. Both films were originally released in the mid-50s with 4-track magnetic stereo soundtracks, but the Castro presented them with mono sound. I’m guessing that Warner Brothers, which owns both of these old MGM titles, hasn’t bothered to create stereo 35mm prints. Both films are available in stereo on DVD.

Also, I was surprised at how grainy they look on the big screen. Early Eastman Color Cinemascope didn’t look as good as we remember it.

Still, between the giant screen and the enthusiastic audience, the experience was immensely more entertaining than watching the films at home.

Since I arrived in time for the 7:00 show, I started the evening with Forbidden Planet. I realized immediately that this was more than just a tribute to Ann Francis. Her co-star, Leslie Neilson, had also passed away recently. It’s easy to forget the Neilson wasn’t always a comedian.

Here’s what I say in my newsletter about Forbidden Planet when it plays locally:

B Nothing dates faster than futuristic fiction, and with its corny dialog and spaceship crewed entirely by white males, Forbidden Planet is very dated. But MGM’s 1956 sci-fi extravaganza still holds considerable pleasures. The Cinemascope/Eastman Color art direction pleases to the eye, Robby the Robot wins your heart, and the story—involving a long-dead mystery race of super-beings—still packs some genuine thrills. It’s also an interesting precursor to Star Trek.

Two other comments I should add:

  • The image quality really plummets every time there’s an optical, like a special effect or even a dissolve. This is a common problem for early Eastman Color, but for some reason it’s always annoyed me more on this particular movie.
  • This may be the only movie ever made with a robot that actually follows Asimov’s Laws of Robotics.

But the real treat for me was Bad Day at Black Rock. Until Friday, I had only seen it on Laserdisc and Turner Classic Movies. On the big screen, it’s a whole other experience, and a far more suspenseful and entertaining one.

Friday night was only the second time Bad Day played in a Bay Area theater since I’ve been writing this blog. The other time, back in 2006, was also an Ann Francis tribute (although not a memorial one, obviously–she was there in person) at the Castro. My description of it for that screening:

A- While everyone else was working hard to fill the giant Cinemascope screen, director John Sturges and cinematographer William C. Mellor saw how effective it was to keep it empty. Spencer Tracy stars as a one-armed stranger who comes to a small desert town after World War II and discovers how far people will go to keep a secret. One of the few post-war films to deal with anti-Japanese bigotry.

One thing that struck me on this viewing is that the town of Black Rock is really an abstraction, apparently populated by about ten men and one woman (Francis). It’s the classic Western one-horse town, pared down to the extreme, and updated to 1945.

This just may be the best very early (pre-1957) Cinemascope film, both as a story and for its use of the new medium. Sturges blocked his actors as if he’d been working with a widescreen all his life, and never lets you forget the remoteness of the setting.

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One Response

  1. i totally agree with your assessment that this is one of the best films of the era…the writing and performances are outstanding throughout, and it’s one of those rare movies that i’d happily watch over again each time it’s featured on TCM or other classic film channels…i got to know the writer, Millard Kaufman, through a mutual friend, a few years before he passed away, and he was a really nice and multi-talented guy…

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