A rare collection of props, costumes, and other materials from the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet will go on auction at Bonhams in Los Angeles this week. Following on the heels of the auction house's sale of the original Robby the Robot in 2017, it's part of a larger collection of fantasy of general memorabilia from the estate of collector Wes Shank, who passed away in 2018.
As artifacts of popular culture, cinema memorabilia is always interesting, but there's something special about items from science fiction and fantasy films because in addition to giving us insights into well-known stories, they also reveal the art and ingenuity that went into their creation. What at first seems like just an eye-catching bit of set dressing or costumery is often the tip of a much larger and more interesting story.
One example of this is Forbidden Planet, which was released in 1956. It was MGM's first venture into science fiction and it was given the full A- list film treatment when it came to production. With similarities to Shakespeare's The Tempest, the story takes place on the fictional planet Altair 4 sometime in the 23rd century and revolves around the arrival of Commander JJ Adams (Leslie Nielsen) and his crew in the space cruiser C-57D. There they meet mad scientist Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), who are guarding a terrible secret from a long-dead race, and must battle a murderous, invisible "id" monster of growing power and malevolence.
The sale includes an impressive array of items that reveal a lot about the work that had to be put into a sci-fi epic in the days before CGI and other high-tech aids. These include six detailed blueprints for the elaborate sets and the "co-star" Robby the Robot made by unit art director Arthur Lonergan. There's also an animation drawing from the sequence where the id monster attacks the space travelers that discarded traditional cartoon cels in favor of photographing drawings directly onto film to create a suitably sketchy monster that wasn't all there.
Other items up for sale are an elaborate lock mechanism used by the alien Krell to control their doors; the silk costume worn by Morbius; a "force field" post used to protect the space cruiser; and a cap, shirt, trousers, belt, and jacket from the military uniforms worn by the crew. The jacket is fascinating because it's now chocolate brown rather than the original gray after being dyed for a later movie, highlighting one reason why science fiction costumes and props are often hard to find – studios tended to reuse them for years or even decades after they were made.
Another interesting pair is a blaster pistol and rifle used by the crew. Made of metal and plastic, they are two of, if not the earliest examples of prop ray guns that light up. The purpose of this isn't just aesthetic. It also has a very practical function of telling the effects team when the actor is pulling the trigger, so they know when to add in the rays.
But the centerpiece of the sale must be the prop United Planets Cruiser C-57D. The smallest of three models of the film's spaceship, it was one of the main inspirations for Star Trek's USS Enterprise starship and includes a Plexiglas base and the electrics that were used to run the cruiser's lights and the hyper-drive engine cupola on the underside of the saucer.
The Forbidden Planet memorabilia is part of the TCM Presents – Wonders of the Galaxy sale that starts on May 14 at 1:00 pm PDT.
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