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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Visit To A Small Planet

Sci-fi comedy is a rare commodity. Jerry Lewis helped kick off the 60s with a fine example in Visit to a Small Planet (VtaSP). The premise is a bumbling alien (with amazing powers) comes to earth to study us. He wants to experience things as humans do, but comes to regret it. As one would expect, there are ample close-ups of Lewis making funny faces, and many physical humor gags.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Kreton (Lewis) is an errant student on planet K-19. He regularly exasperates his instructor, Mr. Delton, with his obsession with planet Earth. Mr. Delton decides to let Kreton go to Earth to teach him a lesson and get it out of his system. Kreton arrives in his saucer. He shows up at the Spielding home, dressed as a Confederate officer, expecting to watch the Civil War. His calculations were off by 99 years. Conrad (Earl Holliman) is forever trying to make out with Ellen Spielding, so Kreton decides to study human romance instead. Many sight gags hinge off of Kreton having an invisible force field that no one can penetrate. No one is permitted to tell anyone else that he's there. More gags stem from this. Ellen takes Kreton to a beatnik club. More gags flow at the expense of the beatniks. On the way home, they pass a lover's lane. Ellen coaxes Kreton to kiss her, but his forcefield stops it. He makes it go away and is swept away by passion. Mr. Delton makes it rain on them to cool Kreton off. Conrad, jealous of Kreton, convinces Ellen to elope with him that night. Mr. Delton allows Kreton to feel pain too. Conrad punches Kreton, chases him, and locks him in a barn. The state police are called in, but the tear gas blows back into the crowd. Kreton escapes in Mr. Delton's saucer. He's learned his lesson and won't visit Earth ever again. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
It's a comedy. It's supposed to be fun. Lewis still a young man, so many of the gags feature very physical humor. The pacing is brisk and the supporting cast good.

Cold War Angle
This is background material, but Mr. Mayberry as the ever vigilant Civil Defense spotter (complete with white CD helmet), always watching the skies with his binoculars, was an everyday part of Cold War culture.

Prop Watch -- Conrad comes in dressed in a Destination Moon space suit instead of an 1860 costume as everyone else was for the Civil War party. The clear spherical helmet was from somewhere else, but the old DM suit still looked good.

Adapted Play -- Writer Gore Vidal wrote the stage play upon which the screenplay was adapted. This gives VtaSP wittier writing and social satire beyond the usual B movies. The actors are veteran comedy actors, so the farce takes on a life of its own.

The Power of Love -- A familiar trope shines again. Earth women teach alien men about love. Here, it's comical, but the trope shows up in earlier 50s sci-fi in a more serious form. We earth men think our women are pretty special.

Pre-Carrey -- Modern viewers (born after 1980 or so) will see a lot of similarity between Jerry Lewis's style, facial expressions and mannerisms, with comedian Jim Carrey. But, Lewis came first. Carrey wasn't born until two years after this movie.

Pre-Hippies -- Seems each era has its mainstream and counter-culture. The 90s and 00s had their hiphop gangs, Goths and Emo. The 60s and 70s had their Hippies. The 50s had their Beatniks. The beatniks portrayed in the "Hungry Brain" scene in VtaSP are exaggerations of the stereotype, but interesting nonetheless.

Bottom line? VtaSP is a "lite" diversion for a sci-fi fan. Nothing too deep, though the writing is a cut above the usual B screenplay. If you're a Jerry Lewis fan, this is more of his usual gags and schtick.


Mike Scott said...

Vidal wrote this for television (Goodyear Television Playhouse) in 1955. Cyril Ritchard (best remembered as "Captian Hook" in the Mary Martin "Peter Pan") played "Kreton" in that production. I read the published script many years ago. Same basic premise, but very different from the movie version (which was rewritten as a Lewis vehicle).

Mike Scott said...

Checked the IBDb for the stage version. It ran for about a year starting in Feb. 1957. Ritchard played "Kreton", again, as well as directing the play.