Phantom Planet
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Phantom Planet

A trip to the movies is a lot different today than it was in the early sixties. That was the time I first was allowed to make the journey on the subway to the local theater to take in a Saturday afternoon matinee. Unlike today where you take in a flick and perhaps a few trailers in a multiplex featuring staggered starting times so you can be seated just about any time you happen to get there. Back in the day the trip required planning; you had to get to the one theater at the time the film started. The up side back then was you got to spend the entire afternoon being entertained. There was typically the ‘A’ movie that you came to see followed by a fun but less carefully crafted ‘B’ movie separated by a newsreel, some cartoons and the weekly installment of an action serial. Many of the kids back then got a special kick out of those ‘B’ flicks; they were cheap; budgeted on a shoestring and usually in either the horror or Sci-Fi genres. Now I’m not taking about the inexpensive independent movies of this sort we see today. These were in many cases really bad. The thing is it was part of our lives to enjoy such lack of quality and quite often we not only embraced the terrible special effects we relished them. As poorly made as they were they were largely responsible for a lifelong love of such movies. It may also be why a Baby Boomer in general is more tolerant of cheap effects than the current generation who are jaded by growing up in a posted computer graphic world. One movie that perfectly represents the Saturday afternoon ‘B’ movie has enjoyed a recent DVD re-release; ‘Phantom Planet’. It is a low budget flick I actually did initially see in the venue described above and even so many decades later after seeing the marvels science fiction films have achieved it was an incredibly fun time to experience this flick once again.

This film was directed by William Marshall, better known for his numerous credits as a consistently employed character actor whose onscreen career spanned several decades. This was one of only three times he stepped behind the camera in this capacity but he did so with a touch more flair than most men that made directing ‘B’ flicks their livelihood. In this instance Marshall was worked off a script provided by William Telaak and Fred De Gorter. Telaak would go completely over to campy side with scripts used by the sixties ‘Batman’ TV show and ‘Mr. Magoo’ cartoons. De Gorter followed a career path that frequently intersected the cast and crew of Sci-Fi, the staple of this period’s entertainment, the western. Many members of the cast and crew of horse operas did double duty working on science fiction. This is not as strange as it might seem; both genres depend on action often in unchartered lands. ‘Star Trek’ was originally sold to the network as ‘Wagon Train’ in space and Joss Whedon’s ‘Firefly’ made no attempt to disguise how similar the genre’s are.

The film starts off with a bang to grab the attention of the audience, an atomic bang to be precise. The science that created that weapon could launch us into outer space using the now colonized moon as a stepping stone to the stars. Of course this story was suppose to take place in the distant future; 1980. The booming voice of the narrator continues to wax philosophically about man’s place in the greatness of the cosmos musing about the possibility of others out their technologically far superior to us. One little piece of trivia here, the voice of the narrator was provided by voice actor Marvin Miller who, among his many vocal roles, the voice of Robbie the Robot’ in ‘Forbidden Planet’. Typical of space shipped envisioned during this time the control panel are crowded with dials, gauges, buttons, levels and of course a large, circular screen for radar and twin rectangular view plates. There was more in the way of funding and effort in the design of this set than usual making this a higher end product of its time. Speaking into his dashboard mounted reel-to-reel tape recorder the ship’s commander Capt. Leonard (Earl McDaniel) provides the exposition required by explaining the mission, stating the date and introducing his navigator, Lt. Webb (Jimmy Weldon). After a lot of really technical dialogue to impress us kids watching the reconnaissance mission is thrown off course by a mysterious force pulling then to an asteroid which causes them to disappear from the tracking devices back home. The command on Earth send their best man to investigate; the lantern jawed space ace, Capt. Frank Chapman (Dean Fredericks). It is extremely obvious from the first line of his dialogue that looking the part was of greater concern in casting than any actual ability to act. . It turns out that this is the Phantom planet which is inhabited by human looking beings about six inches in height. Not long after exposure to the atmosphere the Earthlings are reduced to a similar size. Before the even get there the audience is given a look at the dangers inherent in space travel. Meteors damage the ship requiring a daring wing walk although little practical matters such as a life line are over looked. Once on the ‘Planet’ a favorite plot device is brought out. The place is full of beautiful scantily clad women with some older guy, Sessom (Francis X. Bushman) ostensibly in charge. It is sort of like an inter-stellar Playboy Mansion. Fortunately for our intrepid crew the ruggedly handsome captain catches the eye of one of the alpha girls, Liara (Coleen Gray). There has to be some sort of creature thrown in for good measure. This flick has The Solarites. These are the usual big guy in a rubber suit variety notable here because that guy was Richard Kiel, who became the steel tooth villain in several James Bond movies. the costumes look like things left-over from some sword and sandal epic with bed sheet the high fashion look of the planet. The movie is corny, with unbelievably bad effects and acting but that was the fun back then and it still works on that level today.

Posted 11/26/2010

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