Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Here Comes Tobor (Dudley/Guild, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended the evening by watching a rather odd item he had downloaded from Here Comes Tobor, a 30-minute unsold pilot for a TV series pretty obviously based on Tobor the Great, a 1954 film from Republic I remember watching on TCM ages ago but not sharing with Charles — mercifully, considering what I had to say about it the one time I watched it:

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a masterpiece compared to the movie I was watching today, a 1954 non-epic from Republic (it figures) called Tobor the Great — the title, in case you couldn’t tell, is “Robot” spelled backwards — all about a dissident space scientist (Charles Drake, giving a far better performance than this silly script deserves) and his older colleague (another dotty older colleague?) who invents a super-robot to pilot a spaceship before anyone dares to send living human beings up there. The film is stolen by Billy Chapin, an incredibly obnoxious child “actor” (that last word definitely needs to be in quotes) who plays the dotty old scientist’s 11-year-old genius grandson. Tobor the Great has it all — a silly story, inept direction, great John L. Russell photography and (except for Charles Drake) absolutely horrible acting; also the Red-baiting overtones one might expect for the time and the studio (with the possible exception of Walt Disney, Republic president Herbert Yates was the most diehard opponent of organized labor and anything even remotely progressive in Hollywood’s upper echelons), though it’s hard to work up much hatred against a group of Russian agents who all sound like S. Z. Sakall. — 2/18/97

I haven’t seen Tobor the Great since I wrote that, but I suspect Here Comes Tobor uses the same basic inspiration as well as the same prop to play the title character (a surprisingly elaborate robot suit for TV, though obviously with a human actor inside working it), and the story is similar: an atomic submarine in the South Pacific has been hijacked by a renegade admiral and his associate, “dream-builder” scientist Dr. Ohm (Franz Roehn), and only Tobor the Great and his pre-pubescent handler, Tommy Adams (Tommy Terrell, once again an obnoxiously cute kid — well after the height of Shirley Temple’s career, her example conditioned the treatment of children in movies and forced both girls and boys in films into the horrible cutesy-poo mold of la Temple’s characters), can save the day. The film’s coolest scene comes at the beginning, when two people from the U.S. military come to the secret lab of Prof. Adams (Arthur Space), a wheelchair-bound scientist who’s either Tommy’s father or his grandfather (it’s not clear which), and when they approach the gate in their car, an electronic voice announces that their motor has been disabled by an immobilizing ray and only once their credentials are cleared through electronic security will their car be restored to functionality and the gate opened so they can drive in. From that it turned out to be an attempt at a suspense show without much suspense; the baddies have invented the same sort of immobilizing ray but have made theirs effective over such long distances that they’ve been able to shoot down four jet planes launched from an aircraft carrier (cue the stock footage!). Prof. Adams realizes the only way to stage an effective counter-attack is to send Tobor the robot there inside a guided missile, which can fly in out of the range of Dr. Ohm’s ray, but Tommy Adams gets locked in the spaceship by mistake and it’s touch-and-go whether he’s going to survive, first the impact of the missile landing and then the Army’s decision to take out the renegade sub with a hydrogen-bomb attack. There are nice scenes of the gizmos in Tobor’s face going haywire as he’s being subjected to two control streams — one from a radio in Prof. Adams’ lab and one from Tommy, who supposedly communicates with Tobor through ESP but also speaks all the lines he’s allegedly aiming at the robot telepathically — but for the most part Here Comes Tobor is a bore that outstays its half-hour welcome, slovenly directed by Duke Goldstone (the producer is Richard Goldstone, which probably explains how Duke got the directorial job) from a dumb script by Arnold Belgard, a writer I’ve heard of with some much more respectable credits on his résumé (including the Laurel and Hardy film Block-Heads — though the gags that made that movie great were mostly the work of Stan Laurel and Harry Langdon). It’s not clear who the intended audience for this was — I suspect it was intended as a children’s show — and it’s pretty obvious from this dull half-hour why the show wasn’t picked up as a series.