Night at the Portage: Day the Earth Stood Still

The Portage is that theater those friends of mine run movies at every month; but on Wednesday nights, a film society shows a movie every week. Last night it was Day the Earth Stood Still, for $5, so I went. I got street parking too, so that saved me $10.

Things opened with local legend Jay Warren playing the theater’s super-elaborate organ for 20 minutes; Warren is the city’s go-to guy for live organ accompaniment for silent films. That was worth a buck or two right there. Then the program opened with a chapter from the serial Daredevils of the Red Circles, who were three stalwart dudes in suits and ties who get into undercranked fistfights with the bad guys every week. This was pretty comical (they’ve been showing the entire serial, I guess, a chapter a week), although I thought it would be a western since there was a Snowflake (and a Tuffie) in the actor credits. Sadly, Snowflake wasn’t a horse; he was a beaming jovial black manservant also called Snowflake. WINCE!!

There was  Tex Avery cartoon, followed by some cheesy sci-fi trailers. Coincidentally, the first one was for Brain that Wouldn’t Die, our MotD subject for the last two days. As Rock noted, this ran on a double bill with the highly lackluster but putatively comical Invasion of the Star Creatures, and we saw the double bill trailer, and Rock was correct, that is a REALLY weird double bill.

 

The movie was shown via a 35mm print borrowed from the Criterion Collection, and quite awesome. However, for some reason I really found myself really disliking Klattu this time around. That guy is a complete asshole! What a superior, smug bastard. We all know he’s a big fascist in the end, but I never really caught what an unlikeable prick he is; probably because the film presents him as the opposite and it’s a very well made film. Still, up on the big screen his constant patronizing condescension just dripped off the screen.

Of course, one of our cues is that the film’s ‘good’ people love him. On the other hand, the movie’s definition of ‘good people’ is “worships Klattu.” It’s weird how all this never struck me before. But when Sam Jaffe (playing what is basically supposed to be super scientist and wise man Albert Einstein) is told by Klattu that he might destroy the Earth, Jaffe doesn’t react with anger or horror or disgust, but with bewildered awe. “You have such power?” he asks, or somesuch. I half expected him to jump up and high five Klattu at this point, yelling “DUDE!”

Klattu smugly insults anyone who would think of warring on another, and to be fair, his people “eliminated war long ago.” On the other hand, when Klattu has to neutralize two guards, he has the unstoppable giant robot Gort smash them in the head. The camera discretely turns away from this, however, lest we are actually exposed to any unpleasantness on Our Hero’s part. And although certainly hundreds or thousands of people worldwide would have died as a result of Klattu’s demonstration of power, the film never mentions that at all. That would be…untidy.

Still and all, Klattu’s people indeed don’t war; they instead travel to civilizations far less advanced than theirs and utterly destroy their planets if they don’t tow the line. “We have a system, and it works,” he preens. When he says “You won’t lose any freedom, but the freedom to act irresponsibly,”* well, I was hoping Captain Kirk was going to run out and kick him in the balls.

[*"For instance," we imagine him continuing, "Gort will instantly annihilate anyone using incandescent light bulbs, or anyone who gets their kids fries with their Happy Meals. As for smokers..."]

Still a great movie, but the message is pushed hard and sans nuance and rather dishonestly. Lest more people take the tact on Klattu I got last night, they have him mention God (the “Great Spirit,” in his words) and look awed after visiting the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln, of course, was a war president, but I guess the filmmakers didn’t think the audience would take kindly to Klattu sniffing about what a primitive neanderthal Lincoln was, like he does to everyone else who doesn’t comport himself to Klattu’s standards.

There’s this small moment with when Klattu examines a music box, and assumes this purportedly benign little smirk that all be screams, “Oh, look at that, those little wogs can be so clever sometimes.” If you took this exact same movie and recast Klattu as a Victorian British dude visiting a ‘primitive’ African village, people would be tearing the screens down. And for all this vaunted intellect, Klattu is a) outsmarted by a 12 year old boy, and b) very nearly stymied by *gasp* one of our primitive Earth walls, although luckily it has a window in it so he can contact Gort.

Genuine bonus points to director Robert Wise (The Haunting, Sound of Music, West Side Story) for prominently including minorities in the crowd shots. That’s actually progressive in a positive sense. I couldn’t help notice, though, that at the gathering of Super Smart People at the end–the ones who think Klattu is Teh Awesome–the black fellows we see in close-up are ministers, not scientists. I mean, Wise was still ahead of his time a bit, but maybe not quite as much as he thought he was.

Can’t say anything bad about that Bernard Herrmann theremin score, though. And Gort is incredibly cool. But now that I’ve viewed Klattu in this light, I don’t think there’s going back from that.