The spaceship C-57D lands on Altair IV. The crew finds the only survivors of a previous expedition are scientist Morbius and his daughter, Altaira. Morbius has found the technology of a dead alien civilization, and its use releases a creature that springs from Morbius’ id. It’s always mentioned that the story was inspired by Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST so fans can claim they’ve seen a Shakespeare movie.
FORBIDDEN PLANET is the BEN HUR of fifties science fiction movies, a studio picture (MGM) done in color when most SF movies were black and white cheapies. It’s the first big American SF movie to take place entirely away from Earth. The effects are still vivid, Robby the Robot is still entertaining, and Anne Francis is white.
One element of the movie that has kept it in the consciousness of the whatevergeist is the musical score, or, more accurately, the sounds that exist on the soundtrack where a traditional musical score would go.
FORBIDDEN PLANET is the first entirely electronic score for a commercially-released Hollywood movie. That would be monumental on its own, but Bebe and Louis Barron did not use electronics in a way that mimicked traditional instrumentation. The Theremin was already in use in such scores as SPELLBOUND and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, but although it had an unfamiliar sound, it was still playing composed music.
That wasn’t what the Barrons did with the soundtrack to FORBIDDEN PLANET.
The Barrons didn’t perform music or ‘tonalities,’ they created them. They got a tape recorder (ask your parents) for a wedding present and became fascinated with it, moving from recording friends to something truly innovative: building electronic circuits just for the noises they produced when a current was sent through them.
Louis made these circuits and they recorded the results. They edited the tapes and ended up with some crazy-ass stuff. They worked with John Cage (big shock), but that didn’t pay well. They went west and got the FORBIDDEN PLANET job (though they refused to move to L.A. and did the work back in New York).
“In scoring Forbidden Planet – as in all of our work – we created individual cybernetics circuits for particular themes and leit motifs, rather than using standard sound generators. Actually, each circuit has a characteristic activity pattern as well as a ‘voice’.”
The Barrons were so far ahead of their time they were rewarded the Gold Medal all cutting-edge artists lust for: Hatred. This sort of thing wasn’t just strange, it was done without musicians, and the union made a stink. The American Federation of Musicians demanded that they could not be credited in the movie with ‘music.’
That cracks me up. Anyone can make music, no federation or union gets to… But I digress.
Their work was credited as “Electronic Tonalities,” and they were deemed ineligible for Oscar consideration. They never scored another Hollywood film.
Even after decades of advances in electronic instrumentation and the introduction of jazz, world music and other electronic elements, the soundtrack to FORBIDDEN PLANET holds up because it is so effective at evoking a sense of being in an alien environment. Every scene with this bubbling, gurgling electronic sound under it feels odd. It works as the essence of the long-dead Krell, hanging over the conflict between the spaceship crew and the cranky Morbius. It’s like the Krell are just waiting, impatiently, for Morbius to get back to work so the Krell’s spirit can be released.
Bebe Barron used then-modern electronic machinery to create a piece called MIXED EMOTIONS. I find it closer to modern electronic music than FB.