The Invisible Boy: “Boy, what a trip!”

The Invisible Boy directed by Herman HoffmanThe Invisible Boy directed by Herman Hoffman

The Invisible Boy directed by Herman HoffmanIf I were to ask a random group of people what their fondest memory is of MGM’s classic 1956 sci-fi film Forbidden Planet, I would, in all likelihood, receive many different responses. For some, it would be that incredible starship, the C-57D, the first faster-than-light craft to be portrayed on film. For others, it would be the ravening Id Monster, snarling and wailing as it comes in contact with a force field barrier. Some other folks would fondly recall the many underground wonders of the dead Krell race that Prof. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) shows to his visiting guests. Still others will fondly recall the picture’s all-electronic score — the first such for a motion picture — composed by Bebe and Louis Barron.

As for me, the most salient aspect of that landmark film is Altaira Morbius herself, decked out in her famous tan silk minidress dripping with bronze and gold medallions, and indelibly portrayed by Anne Francis in one of her most famous roles (but then again, Anne Francis always stole the show for me in whatever entertainment she appeared in). However, for most people, I have a feeling, the most memorable aspect of Forbidden Planet is the butler/helper/guardian that Prof. Morbius tinkered together in his spare time, forever known afterward as Robby the Robot.

The first mechanical “man” in film history to evince any sort of a unique personality of its own, Robby was one of the most expensive props ever contrived for a film up to that time. Built by the MGM Art Department at a cost of $125,000 (a huge chunk of the film’s near $2 million budget), Robby would prove so very popular that he (I mean “it;” it’s hard not to think of Robby as a “he,” however) went on to have a career for itself in later years. Indeed, Robby not only appeared in other sci-fi films in the years to come, but also made dozens of appearances in various television programs throughout the ’60s. Its very first appearance, however, after scoring big in Forbidden Planet, was the very next year, in MGM’s kiddy sci-fi film The Invisible Boy. Released in October ’57, the film — perhaps on the strength of Robby’s return — was a marginal hit, raking in $840,000 at the box office, after a production cost of $384,000.

In the film, the viewer encounters family man and scientific genius Prof. Tom Merinoe (played by Philip Abbott, whose performance I had recently enjoyed in the classic Outer Limits episode entitled “ZZZZZ”), who works at the Stoneman Institute of Mathematics. Merinoe, 29 years earlier, had designed and built the world’s most advanced computer, which in the present day is the possessor of nearly limitless knowledge. (Oddly enough, the professor does not look nearly old enough to have built anything almost 30 years earlier, and the supercomputer is never given a name, or even, as might be expected, an acronym.) At home, we see that Merinoe also has a pretty wife named Mary (Diane Brewster, who many will recall as Miss Canfield on Leave It To Beaver) and a cute, freckle-faced son named Timmie (Richard Eyer, who some will remember from his roles in 1955’s The Desperate Hours and 1956’s Friendly Persuasion).

Timmie, unlike his dad, has little interest in science or in learning, and is a complete dunce when it comes to math. Thus, the professor plunks him down in front of the supercomputer (apparently, it is not a problem to bring one’s kid into this most highly protected, underground government installation) and hopes that the machine will be able to teach the kid a thing or two. And boy, does it ever! The computer hypnotizes Timmie and gives him the ability to easily beat his father at chess. He also teaches the lad how to put together the pieces of a robot that have been lying around the government installation. It seems that several years earlier, a retired professor at the Institute had built a time machine (!), traveled to the 23rd century (the period in which Forbidden Planet transpires), and brought back these pieces … although nobody seems to give his time travel story much credence.

After Timmie puts the robot together with his newly acquired superknowledge, none of the adults in the installation give it a second look or even comment much on the matter. (For the life of me, I couldn’t figure this part out!) Timmie brings Robby (for the robot is no less a figure than our old Forbidden Planet buddy!) home but soon realizes that the big hulk is not much in the way of fun, its built-in mechanism prohibiting it from endangering humans getting in the way of any roughhousing and hijinks. Timmie thus brings Robby back to the supercomputer, hooks the two together, and has the robot’s “Basic Directive” overridden. But what Timmie and Professor Merinoe do not know is that the computer has a secret agenda of its own, and is now able to control Robby to do its bidding. Later, Timmie has Robby build a superkite for himself: a remote control-guided, boxy affair in which Timmie flies high above the ground. He also has Robby change his own “index of refraction,” effectively turning him invisible and thus able to torment his parents and take vengeance on the neighborhood bully. But trouble eventually looms, as that pesky supercomputer sets its sights on America’s first orbiting spaceship, in its effort to completely take over the Earth…

The Invisible Boy’s director, Herman Hoffman, maintains a light tone during the first half of his film and gradually segues into a more serious feel in its second, as that supercomputer uses Robby to insert metallic control mechanisms into the noggins of the lab officials to effectively turn them into walking puppets. Storywise, the film just barely manages to hang together. I am still a bit unclear as to just how and why the invisible Timmie suddenly appears on that spaceship at the end, and how Robby manages to free himself (darn … I mean “itself”) from the evil computer’s sway at the film’s end. And talk about anticlimaxes! Did I miss something, or was it possible to effectively eliminate the computer’s menace (for a short while, anyway) simply by turning its power off? Just with the flick of a switch?

Anyway, despite these several issues that I had with the film, The Invisible Boy still remains good fun, and is of course a perfect picture to watch with your favorite 8-year-old. Personally, I thought Timmie was a bit on the annoying side, with little in the way of cuteness or redeeming qualities that I could detect. He’s more of a brat here, and Eyer’s annoying vocal delivery surely doesn’t help. But most kids, I have a feeling, will like him and accept him as one of their own. The film does offer one truly awesome moment that even the adults should eat up: the sight of Robby approaching that spaceship and coming up against dozens of armed U.S. troops, who begin to attack it with all the firepower and flamethrowers at their disposal. The supercomputer is also visually impressive, a rather large affair replete with what looks like a disco ball sitting on its top; still, it is not nearly as sinister a contraption as Colossus in Colossus: The Forbin Project or as scary a proposition as HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But The Invisible Boy, again, IS a pleasing affair, a class production from MGM, and a welcome opportunity to say hello again to Robby the Robot. In all, it is a strange little film, but one well worth seeing. Perhaps Timmie, floating in that spaceship in orbit over the Earth, puts it best when he remarks “Boy, what a trip!”


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. I think my favorite memory of Forbidden Planet is discovering that Leslie Nielsen is in it, and that he was just as good of a dramatic actor as he was a comedic actor.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Absolutely! He only became a comedic actor relatively late in his lengthy career….

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