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DVD SAVANT

Tobor the Great


Tobor the Great
Lionsgate
1954 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame (should be 1:66) / 77 min. / Street Date May 13, 2008 / 14.98
Starring Charles Drake, Karin Booth, Billy Chapin, Taylor Holmes, Steven Geray, Hal Baylor, Alan Reynolds, Peter Brocco, Robert Shayne, Lyle Talbot, William Schallert
Cinematography John L. Russell
Production Design Gabriel Scognamillo
Special Effects Howard and Theodore Lydecker
Film Editor Basil Wrangell
Original Music Howard Jackson
Written by Philip MacDonald, Carl Dudley
Produced by Richard Goldstone
Directed by Lee Sholem

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Tobor the Great is a juvenile Science Fiction picture from Republic, the prolific producer of serials. Like other low budget Republic shows of its day, the film is sturdy, slow and straightforward, taking little advantage of the ideas in its script. Yet it was a kiddie favorite simply because it was about a boy who shared an adventure with a massive metal man. I remember seeing 'robot hand' plastic gloves advertised in a Sears toy catalog right next to the Davy Crockett coonskin caps, and thinking that they must be Tobor's hands.

As can be expected from the conservative Republic Studios, Tobor the Great links its simple story to an elaborate anticommunist diatribe. It's pitched at a juvenile level, yet is numbingly consistent with overall themes in 50s Sci-Fi movies.

Synopsis:

Scientist Dr. Ralph Harrison (Charles Drake) quits the space program over the use of pilots for the first proposed rocket ships. He's hired by Professor Arnold Nordstrom (Taylor Holmes) to help perfect Tobor, a robot controllable by radio or by E.S.P.. If Tobor is successful, he can be the first space pilot. Nordstrom lives with his daughter-in-law Janice Robertson (Karin Booth) and her son Gadge (Billy Chapin of Night of the Hunter) in a secluded mansion protected by high-tech security devices built by Nordstrom's servant, Karl (Franz Roehn). But a nefarious communist spy (Steven Geray) sneaks into Nordstrom's press invitational demonstration, and kidnaps the professor and his grandson to force him to give up Tobor's secrets.

Before the 1950s, robots could be found only in serials and in a few precocious Sci-Fi epics like Metropolis. The early 1950s introduced the brilliantly conceived the alien robot Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still and Ivan Tors' rather credible, tank-like workhorse robots GOG and Magog. Tobor (Robot spelled backwards) is an outgrowth of the old-fashioned serial robot, the kind of tin man costume made from sheet metal and silvered paper. His designer may have been the film's art director Gabriel Scognamillo.

Tobor has a solid metallic appearance, looking somewhat like an angular man in shining armor, but with more nuts 'n' bolts and a domed Plexiglas head with a tilting "face". The professor's basement has an elaborate tube that slides away to reveal Tobor hanging from a crane-like mounting bracket. Once on the floor, Tobor has more freedom of movement than some of his more imaginatively designed kin, like Robby the Robot. Tobor can't talk, but he can climb a spiral stair case.  1

Tobor's purpose is to replace human astronauts in space rockets, and to this end he's been outfitted with "human emotions." The professor tests him in various ways, including placing the robot in front of a space navigation console to see how he handles steering through a simulated swarm of "space meteors". Tobor's gripper hands work two flywheels more or less like an Etch A Sketch, while a flurry of spinning rocks leaps at him on a viewing screen, just like a 1970s arcade game. Tobor has a "nervous breakdown" trying to keep up, and even goes a little crazy. The professor thinks the robot will do just fine as an astronaut, even after he knocks little Gadge halfway across the room. Tobor is equipped with powers of Extra Sensory Perception, by the way. He knows when Gadge's feelings are hurt and atones for his brutality by offering a caress.

We're thinking, "Robot schmobot." If the professor has perfected ESP communication, he's accomplished a miracle far more revolutionary than a mechanical man.

As explained by Bill Warren in his Keep Watching the Skies!, Tobor the Great doesn't quite have the NASA spirit. Charles Drake's hotheaded scientist halts a human centrifuge test because he believes no man should be turned into a guinea pig for the conditions of outer space, a fear that would be compounded in the next year's The Quatermass Xperiment. Tobor ends up operating the rocket (a stock shot of a V-2, naturally) by sitting in a space compartment designed for a human. The movie obviously needs an anthropomorphic robot to make Tobor a character, but for the actual space flight all that would be required is a refined automatic pilot and a lot of instruments to determine what the hazards to humans might be.

Little Gadge is a rather inconsistent boy genius ... he can't be trusted for a second. Gadge talks like an honest, obedient kid, idiotically happy to be dressed up more or less like the boy in the Dr. Seuss fantasy The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. But the moment his elders are gone, Gadge sneaks down to play with Tobor, which basically means furiously pushing buttons on the robot's control device.  2  After Gadge trashes half the house, everybody laughs. Kids will be kids. Gadge's mother Janice is a Korean war widow and a dialogue line tells us that the year is at least 1957. She walks around as if on drugs, holding flowers and staying oblivious to the excitement in the lab. To our displeasure, she never dresses up like the cut-out female figure in the poster, to be carried around by Tobor the Hunk.  3

Naturally, Tobor is of great interest to "potential enemies of the United States". Steven Geray's slimy foreigner wastes no time sneaking into the professor's demo and assembling a pair of swarthy doofi  4  to steal his secrets. As Ralph explains to the very interested Janice, America is only after peaceful scientific progress, while our "potential enemies" would love to put rampaging warrior robots on their factory assembly lines. The bad guys are turned back by the professor's burglar alarm, which plays the battle soundtrack from The Sands of Iwo Jima to frighten them away. The nefarious spies then kidnap Gadge and his father, and even threaten to burn the kid with a blowtorch (Right on!). Just like Lassie, Tobor receives Gadge's direct ESP distress call to guide him to the rescue. He knocks down a few doors, klunks a couple of heads together and America is once again safe.

Director Lee Sholem films most of Tobor the Great in Republic's flat and artless style. When the robot finally goes into action, there are no dynamic shots or really exciting action sequences, just straight coverage little better than average TV work of the time. The film looks very much like the pilot for a TV series, what with the cozy domestic setup, the limited sets and the very Lassie-like story structure. Perhaps its producer wasn't well enough connected to make a TV deal, or no sponsor thought the robot was lovable enough. 5


Lionsgate's DVD of Tobor the Great is a passable but disappointing flat transfer that probably hails from the pre-digital age. The image isn't particularly sharp and the picture looks light and grayed-out overall. The end title appears to have an old-fashioned analog video hit. It'll play perfectly well on a small screen but on a large monitor it looks like a very good store-bought VHS. Should Lionsgate release more of the Republic library, we hope that they'll take extra care with classics like Johnny Guitar (still a glaring no-show), Try and Get Me! and Plunder Road. If those pictures come out looking like this one, Lionsgate will hear a lot of howling from "potential enemies" on the web.

No extras are offered.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Tobor the Great rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Fair +
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 1, 2008

Footnotes:

1. Actually, when Tobor climb the stairs, all we see are his legs. It seems unlikely that the robot would fit on the stairs anyway, seeing that he's easily seven or eight feet tall. Once he's up in the house, he prefers to smash through windows than use doors.
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2. After RoboCop 2 we really wish that Tobor would snatch the control device from Gadge and do what he wants to do ... go on a date with the water heater, maybe.
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3. I suppose that a perverse essay about technology and sex could be concocted from these popular visuals of robots carrying sexy dames in their metallic arms. We just assume that anything strange and powerful wants to rape our womenfolk, whether it be the Creature from the Black Lagoon or an oversexed erector set.
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4. That's plural for Doofus. Aren't obnoxious footnotes annoying?
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5. I've received two emails telling me that a pilot for a TV show was filmed, but never sold. It's called Here Comes Tobor and is reportedly available on a disc from Alpha.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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