Tag Archive for Planet of the Apes

Voices from the Planet of the Apes

Roddy McDowall, the man with the voice of vulnerability

This past weekend, I re-watched The Legend of Hell House, the 1973 horror film based on Richard Matheson’s novel, Hell House (Matheson wrote the script for the film). I hadn’t seen it in a number of years. Roddy McDowall is featured as Ben Fischer, a physical medium who, as a teenager, was the only survivor of a previous scientific expedition to the titular haunted house. He barely escaped with his life fifteen years earlier and is only convinced to join the present expedition by a promised $100,000 payment from a dying millionaire who wants to obtain proof of life after death. Ben is determined to keep his head low through the week he is instructed to spend inside the Belasco House, cutting himself off psychically from the house’s poltergeists; but he is forced into a more active role by the deaths of two of his compatriots and ultimately emerges triumphant over the malign spirit of Emeric Belasco, the perverted, evil former owner of the house.

What really struck me about McDowall’s performance was the compelling power and finesse of his voice. McDowall was gifted with an extraordinary vocal instrument. During much of his career, he, along with Montgomery Clift, exemplified the vulnerable, sensitive, often wounded male – Clift with his face, and McDowall with his voice. In The Legend of Hell House, McDowall was called upon to present an extraordinary range of emotions, from meek, fearful passivity to scornful, mocking sarcasm; from desperate cowardice to determined self-sacrifice; and from near-helpless terror to a vengeful, furious, nearly megalomaniacal triumph. And at least seventy percent of his performance came through his voice. He would have been a superb radio drama actor during the Golden Age of Radio.

Cornelius, father of Caesar

Roddy McDowall’s best-remembered roles were as Cornelius and Caesar in four of the original five Planet of the Apes films. He is as closely identified with POTA: The Original Series as William Shatner is with Star Trek: The Original Series (McDowall and Shatner made opposite migrations with their best-known properties: Shatner from the small screen to the big screen, and McDowall from the big screen to the small screen, but very briefly). McDowall would have appeared in all five films had not a job directing a film in Scotland kept him away from the production of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Apart from the John Chambers simian makeup (ground-breaking for its day) and their convoluted, time-bending plots, the films are probably best remembered for the sound of Roddy McDowall’s voice: as Cornelius begging his wife Zira to be more sensible, and as Caesar pointing out the hypocrisies and injustices of human treatment of apes or leading battles against human oppressors.

Yet Roddy McDowall’s is far from the only memorable voice talent employed by the makers of the original Planet of the Apes films. The series is replete with them. The casting directors pursued the very wise strategy of selecting actors with strong, unique, memorable voices, realizing that the John Chambers makeup and the bulky costumes would cloak most of the actors’ subtle facial expressions and body language. Also, although Chambers made great efforts to physically differentiate his various chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan major characters, ensuring that each character had a very distinctive voice would help audiences keep the characters straight, so they would not confuse Cornelius with Milo or Dr. Zaius with Dr. Honorious. No casting director was listed in the credits for the original Planet of the Apes, but the Internet Movie Database credits Joe Scully with unit casting and Carl Joy with atmosphere casting (I presume the latter means casting the extras, of which there were many in each of the films). I suspect that producer Arthur P. Jacobs had a major hand in making casting decisions (his wife, Natalie Trundy, appears in four of the films, as the mutant Albina in Beneath, as Dr. Stevie Branton in Escape, and as chimpanzee Lisa in Conquest and Battle).

To whomever the credit goes, casting certainly proved to be a major strength of the original series. Many lines of dialogue from the films have entered the shared cultural lexicon (to be endlessly parodied on shows like The Simpsons). I’m sure you remember these:

“Get your stinking paws off me, you damned, dirty ape!”

“Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn…”

“You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

“The only good human… is a dead human!”

“He bleeds! The Lawgiver bleeds!”

“I reveal my Inmost Self unto my God.”

“So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight, we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!”

“Then God in his wrath sent the world a savior, miraculously born of two apes who descended on Earth from Earth’s own future. And man was afraid, for both parent apes possessed the power of speech.”

“Ape has killed ape! Ape has killed ape!”

Maurice Evans/Dr. Zaius

If you’ve seen the films, and if those lines are at all familiar, I’m sure you remember them in the distinct voices of the actors who spoke them: Charlton Heston (as George Taylor), Roddy McDowall (as Cornelius and Caesar), James Gregory (as General Ursus), Don Pedro Colley (as the mutant Ongaro), and John Huston (as the Lawgiver). None of their voices could be confused with any other voices in the films. Each voice lingers in the memory like a familiar pop tune.
Originally, the part of Dr. Zaius in the first film was to have been filled by Edward G. Robinson, who actually did a screen test in an early version of the ape makeup. He ultimately backed out due to concerns about the amount of time he would need to spend in the make-up chair. His role was eventually filled by an actor with an equally distinctive voice, Maurice Evans. Still, it’s amusing to think of Dr. Zaius being voiced by the inimitable Edward G. Robinson, he of Little Caesar and Scarlett Street fame:

“I’m Little Zaius, see?”

“Mother of mercy… is this the end of Zaius?”

Lou Wagner/Lucius

Lou Wagner is no household name, but he also has a voice more than capable of slicing through layers of heavy makeup. Fans of Star Trek: the Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine will immediately recognize his voice as belonging to DaiMon Solok and Krax, respectively. In the first Apes film, he played Lucius, a chimpanzee, Zira’s nerdy, socially conscious student nephew. His high-pitched, reedy voice fit the character perfectly and made him a suitable comedic foil for the dignified, austere Charlton Heston.

Claude Akins/Aldo

Claude Akins also has a voice with which most TV viewers of a certain age will be very familiar. He played Sheriff Lobo in the 1970s TV series B. J. and the Bear and trucker Sonny Pruitt in Movin’ On from the same decade. Prior to his TV work, he was a supporting actor in many prominent films of the latter portion of Hollywood’s Golden Age, including From Here to Eternity (1953), The Caine Mutiny (1954), and The Killers (1964). During the early days of television, he was a frequent guest star in popular westerns, including Wagon Train, Laramie, The Rifleman, and Gunsmoke. Horror fans will likely remember his wonderfully funny portrayal of Kolchak’s editor boss in The Night Stalker (1972). Akins played the gorilla Aldo in the final original Apes film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Supposedly he was chosen for the role because, apart from the facial prostheses, he didn’t require the body portion of the ape costume – he already looked like an ape. I’m certain the real reason he was selected, though, was for his voice, perfect for Aldo, capable of expressing brutishness and a childlike naiveté simultaneously.

John Huston

One of Akins’ costars in Battle was veteran director/actor John Huston, possessed of one of the most distinctive and memorable voices of the American stage or screen. Huston’s career is awe-inspiring in its scope, longevity, and enduring aesthetic quality. Not many other filmmakers can list on their resumes having directed such classics as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, and Fat City, as well as turning in unforgettable performances in films such as Chinatown. He was perfectly cast as the wise, gentle, saintly Lawgiver, his gravelly voice lending its gravitas to ape scripture mumbo-jumbo that probably would’ve sounded silly coming out of most other actors’ mouths.

James Gregory/General Ursus

In casting about for other memorable American or British voices which could have been lent to an ape, I thought of Orson Welles. Turns out I wasn’t the first to do so. According to the documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes, Welles was offered the role of gorilla General Ursus in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but he turned it down. Perhaps by that time in his career, he had grown (sideways) beyond the capability of mounting a horse. Or maybe, like Edward G. Robinson, he didn’t relish the thought of being cooped up in a make-up chair for three or four hours a day. However, the casting director didn’t miss a beat in finding a replacement. At this point in time, I cannot imagine anyone but James Gregory mouthing the line, “The only good human… is a dead human!” Gregory was capable of embodying arrogant swagger with his voice, and he certainly did so as General Ursus. Another wonderful aspect of his performance is that he was so obviously having a grand old time going ape; his enthusiasm is infectious. Genre fans will recognize Gregory from two episodes of the original The Twilight Zone, The Manchurian Candidate, and an episode of the original Star Trek, “Dagger of the Mind.” TV comedy fans will remember him from his many seasons as Inspector Luger on Barney Miller.

Another well-known TV comedy/science fiction actor, Jonathan Smith, best known as the sniveling, always scheming Dr. Smith of Lost in Space, was offered a role in the first Apes film; John Chambers had tested out an early version of his ape make-up in an episode of that series. But Smith, having seen up close what was involved in the application of the make-up, took a pass. A shame… with that superior sneer of his, he would have made a wonderful orangutan.

Kim Hunter/Zira

One prominent actress from the series, although possessed of a wonderful, highly emotive voice, was cast, I believe, for her unique ability to act right through her chimpanzee make-up, to project her facial expressions, particularly those of her eyes, right through all the layers of latex and spirit gum. This was Kim Hunter, who portrayed Zira in the first three films. Here’s a prescription for a fun evening: rent/download A Streetcar Named Desire and Escape From the Planet of the Apes and watch them back to back. I guarantee that, while watching the latter, you’ll exclaim while watching Zira, “Good lord, it’s Stella Kowalski!” and while watching Stella in the former movie, you’ll blurt out, “My God, it’s Zira!” Kim Hunter’s electric persona leaps off the screen in both films, make-up be damned (in Escape). I’ve got a feeling they could have dressed her up as the Elephant (Wo)Man and viewers would still think to themselves, “Good lord, it’s Stella Kowalski!” That’s how strong her screen personality was.

I honestly don’t remember much about the vocal talents on display in the Tim Burton remake (although I suppose I would have to give Helena Bonham Carter kudos in that regard). For me, all the energy that film might have possessed was swallowed up by the black hole of Mark Wahlberg’s sleepwalking performance as the film’s astronaut protagonist. I don’t know whether he made a conscious decision to portray the anti-Charlton Heston, dialing his own charisma down to zero, or whether he just decided to collect his paycheck, but he sank that film as surely as a Japanese Long Lance torpedo sank the USS Indianapolis.

I haven’t yet seen the 2011 reboot of the series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (apparently a very loose remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). It marks a departure from tradition in that all of the apes are computer generated. It received much better reviews than its Burton-helmed predecessor, and its producers would like it to be the start of a new series of Apes films. If I may give them one bit of unsolicited advice? Listen to the original five films with the picture turned off, concentrating on just the voices; and choose your ape vocal actors with care. For the voices will make or break your films, lingering in audiences’ minds long after the visual novelty of the CGI gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans has faded.

Movie Images That Sear Your Childhood

I suspect that every American childhood of the past seventy years has been indelibly marked by at least one unforgettable image from a movie. The rating system devised by the Motion Picture Association of America and the National Association of Theater Owners is meant, in part, to shield our youngsters from having their brains seared by sights and sounds they aren’t mature enough to process. But then those same organizations turn around and allow films that are marketed primarily to children (i.e.: super-hero movies, heavily advertised on Cartoon Network and through McDonalds Happy Meal toys) to hit the theaters with a rating of PG-13. Which leaves parents in a quandary: do we take the kids to see Iron Man 2 or Green Lantern or X-Men: First Class, or not? The kids want to see those films. I want to see those films. I know I won’t have any opportunity to see those movies unless I take the kids. So am I a bad parent if I expose my 7, 6, and 4 year-old sons to a little dose of the ol’ ultra-violence?

Of course, it very much depends on the kids and their capacities to be disturbed. Asher, my middle son, is terrified by loud noises. No fireworks displays for him. I know this. I recognize that one sure way to have a miserable family outing is to drag Asher to see fireworks. Asher is also my son most prone to getting scared during an intense action film or monster movie. But he handles it much better than he does fireworks — he hides his eyes or buries his face in my shoulder, melodramatically squeals or whimpers, then looks back at the screen when whatever was frightening him has gone away, and goes on having a good time. The other two boys, his older and younger brothers, pretty much take PG-13 rated monsters and suspense in their stride. So, generally I’m not too worried when I take them to see a PG-13 rated super-hero film, unless I’ve read that a particular one is notable for very intense violence, excessive bad language, or other material not appropriate for the under-12 set (I personally think the very black take on Batman in The Dark Knight films is beyond my kids and wouldn’t be enjoyed by them).

However… no matter how careful you think you’re being as a parent, there’s always that chance that some truly horrific image that you hadn’t heard about is going to sear itself into your young offspring’s receptive brain. And they’re never going to forget what they saw. And they’ll probably be talking about it with their friends and family members for the rest of their life.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? As in, “bad for their development?” I don’t think so. At least it doesn’t have to be. A genuinely frightening or disturbing image from a movie can be a springboard to learning, exploration, and greater self-knowledge. Or at least give your child something to grin about as a grown-up.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes: Albina with mask on

My personal experience with the “movie image you’ll never forget” came in 1970, when I was five, a year older than Judah and a year younger than Asher. My father took me to see Beneath the Planet of the Apes, easily the most weird and disturbing of the original five Apes films. Could this film actually have been rated G by the MPAA? The notion astounds me, given how big an impact the movie’s violence (check out Charleton Heston’s bloody fingers at the end, pushing the levers that activate the cobalt bomb) and horrific content had on me. Yet when I look it up to be sure, there it is. Rated G, just like Herbie the Love Bug or The Sword in the Stone. So, in retrospect, my father was much, much less to blame for any trauma I suffered at the age of five than I am for any trauma my littlest son may have recently absorbed.

Albina with mask off = freaked out 5 year-old

The scene that sort of traumatized me (but which definitely fascinated me and continues to be a source of weird fascination) is the scene where beautiful Natalie Trudy (who would portray a much more sympathetic character in the next film in the franchise, Escape from the Planet of the Apes), playing the telepathic, subterranean mutant Albina, strips off her mask as part of a religious ceremony exalting a cobalt bomb, revealing herself as a bald, hideously scarred monstrosity. She isn’t the only character to unmask during this scene, but since she was the only woman, her unveiling was the one most indelibly seared into my consciousness. (Beautiful women aren’t supposed to turn into monsters, at least according to my logic at the age of five.)

I couldn’t stop asking my father about the radioactive mutants when the movie was over. What had made them that way? What was an atomic bomb? My father did his best to explain about the Manhattan Project in World War Two and how the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was fascinated. I tried to learn more (mostly by watching 1950s H-bomb giant bug movies, a swell source for reliable scientific information). A few years later, in the club house in my back yard, I had arguments with my best friend over which was stronger: the A-bomb or the H-bomb? Sort of like, who is stronger: Superman or Thor? I said the atom bomb was stronger, because it had actually been used in a real war, whereas the H-bomb had only been used in tests. My friend insisted the hydrogen bomb was stronger. He was right, of course; it takes the explosion of a small atom bomb to set off a hydrogen bomb. Anyway, that climactic scene from Beneath the Planet of the Apes still has the power, more than forty years later, to pull me back to the awe, revulsion, and horror my five year-old self experienced.

Last weekend, seeing that X-Men: First Class had arrived at our closest “cheapie” movie house, I decided I would have a Saturday night out with the boys. (Dara wasn’t interested in Marvel’s Merry Mutants.) They were thoroughly stoked to see the movie, having absorbed a couple of months’ worth of advertising. We went out for dinner first, at Dennie’s (two free kids’ meals for every adult meal purchased!), then drove over to the University Mall Theaters, a small, 1970s quad-plex cinema tucked away into a bi-level strip mall not far from George Mason University. I’d heard good things about X-Men: First Class, and I liked the fact that the scriptwriters had set the picture during the years the first X-Men comics had come out. It easily ended up being my favorite of Marvel’s mutant films. The major characters (Xavier, Eric/Magneto, and the young Raven/Mystique) were very well cast. The script, especially for a super-hero adventure film, was exemplary in its attention to character building. I actually cared about Eric and Raven and some of the others (particularly poor Hank McCoy), rather than simply being dazzled by the special effects and battle scenes. The only other super-hero movies I can recall feeling that way about are Christopher Reeves’ second Superman film, The Dark Knight Returns, and the first Iron Man. (Maybe the second Spider-Man, too, if I’m feeling especially sentimental about New York City.) The writers did an especially good job with fleshing out Magneto. I’d certainly pay to see another Magneto film set during the 1960s. Cool beans.

If you haven’t yet seen the film (it’s now been out for a while), read no further. I’m going to reveal the scene that transfixed two of my sons, and it gives away the ending.

X-Men: First Class: the coin-through-the-head scene Judah can't stop talking about

It’s rather a brilliant scene, I think. Well worth the moderate gore it subjects viewers to. The film begins with young Eric being separated from his mother in a concentration camp in Poland, a trauma which causes Eric to reveal his powers over magnetism. The mutant we later come to know as Sebastian Shaw serves as Eric’s chief tormentor and mentor in the camp and, in an effort to force Eric to magnetically levitate a Nazi coin, shoots Eric’s mother in front of him. After Eric goes momentarily crazy and deforms every piece of metal in the room, Shaw “rewards” him by giving him the coin. Eric retains the coin throughout the film. At the film’s climax, aboard a crippled nuclear submarine, Eric uses the coin to murder Shaw. In very graphic fashion–while Shaw is immobilized by an unwitting Charles Xavier, Eric slowly and deliberately propels the coin straight through Shaw’s skull and brain. It goes in through his forehead and emerges, dripping blood, from the back of his head.

The scene is so effective emotionally because it both humanizes Magneto–his chosen murder/vengeance weapon is the possession which reminds him most searingly of his mother’s death–and it viscerally illustrates how ruthless and savage his experiences have made him. Had Charles Xavier been present in the submarine’s nuclear engine chamber with Shaw and Eric, there would have been no way he would have countenanced what his friend did. Yet we, the audience, having seen things that Xavier did not (or perhaps Xavier had seen all that we had in that camp in Poland, having explored Eric’s mind earlier in the film), and having witnessed how murderously strong the nuclear energy had made Shaw, give the anti-hero a moral pass to carry out his vengeance. It feels necessary. It feels right, perhaps even righteous.

Which is all fine and good for me, a 46 year-old man. I’m emotionally equipped to handle emotional and moral nuance. Judah, Asher, and, to a lesser extent, Levi are a different story. I don’t think the coin-through-the-head scene made much of an impression on Levi, who was captivated by the overall “coolness” of the movie, its characters, and its effects. Asher, to his credit, was able to make the connection between the Nazi coin’s roles at the beginning of the movie and at its end. Judah simply absorbed the image without much understanding. “How come he put a penny through his head?” he asked. I did my best to explain. “Eric killed the man who killed his mommy. He used the coin because he controls things made out of metal.”

We had a bit of a mishap on the ride home. Judah gets car sick sometimes. I made the minor mistake of taking Old Bridge Road, very curvy with lots of ups and downs mixed in, and I took some of the curves a little fast. Not long afterward, I heard the sound of retching, followed by choruses of “EWWW” and “Oh, gross!” from Levi and Asher. I pulled over at the nearest drug store, which I discovered to my dismay had just closed, then ran the boys across the street to a Mexican restaurant so I could clean Judah up in their bathroom.

I have no idea whether the coin-through-the-head scene had anything at all to do with Judah’s throwing up. He is definitely prone to car sickness, and he ate a decent amount of candy in the movie, and I took those curves too darned fast. Still, I’m sure his memory of that movie scene will be indelibly mingled with his memory of upchucking in the car.

I’ll be very interested to ask him about it fifteen years from now and hear just what his memory dredges up.

Dental Blogging

The doctor gave me three choices: Novocaine, Novocaine and laughing gas, or Novocaine and total anesthesia. I picked the middle option. I had good memories of laughing gas from some procedure I’d had done as a teenager. I remembered an initially bad smell that faded quickly, then the room spinning around like the old Time Tunnel TV series, hearing lots and lots of people laughing, and then realizing, before blackness, that all those people were me. The doctor said for most people, the effect of laughing gas was to make the patient simply not care what was being done to them, but that different folks had different reactions, and differing reactions at different ages.

At first, breathing in the laughing gas through my nose made me about 400% more nervous than I’d been. Which of course made me fear it wasn’t working the way it should. The doctor inserted the Novocaine needle in my mouth, and I felt it. I almost freaked. I said, “Laughing gas isn’t working. Felt that!” She reminded me that the laughing gas wasn’t meant to numb me; the Novocaine would do that, and it hadn’t had a chance to work yet. She also reminded me to stop breathing through my mouth and to breathe the laughing gas in deeply.

I found myself becoming more nonchalant. The room didn’t spin around me. I didn’t hear any laughter, not my own or anyone else’s. This was somewhat disappointing. But it wasn’t that disappointing, because I was feeling so nonchalant.

Then the doctor and her assistant began doing things inside my mouth. Serious things. Violent things. Violence involving an electric saw and a drill and at least one pair of pliers. I found this rather fascinating. Also horrifying, but in a distanced way, as though I were watching a film of some imagined person being subjected to violence. I thought to myself, If these women wanted to kill me, there would be nothing to stop them. They could do absolutely anything they want to me. I could make no real protest and offer exceedingly little in the way of resistance. All I can do at this point is trust them. It’s all I can do.

The violence being done inside my mouth grew more intense. More brutal. One likes to think that when one is being operated on, when one’s precious body (the only body one has) is being subjected to a procedure, that one’s substance will be treated with great delicacy and respect, like a damaged piece of crystal. In fact, one’s body is treated by surgeons about as roughly as mechanics treat the underparts of a car. I sensed my right bottom wisdom tooth being wrenched from my jaw like a recalcitrant bolt being unscrewed from the cover of an engine air filter. The amount of torque being applied inside my mouth was terrifying, or would be terrifying if I weren’t ten miles above it all. This is really brutal, I thought. Extremely violent. And yet my hands did not clench the arms of the chair. It was as though I was an observer on a bomber soaring at thirty thousand feet, seeing bombs being dropped from the bay and watching the explosions blossom like quick-time flowers on the terrain so far below. Huge violence was being done. Tears streamed from my eyes down the sides of my face. But I was so very far away. This is definitely the way to go, I thought. This is flying first class. I wondered who in their vaguely right mind would opt for Novocaine alone. If I hadn’t been given laughing gas, I’d be crapping my pants.

After they finished working on the right tooth, I began choking. This wasn’t terribly distressing. It was interesting, in a crude way, like watching the vomiting scene in Trainspotters. Hello, I thought. I’m choking. I’m choking here. My own voice in my head sounded like HAL’s voice in 2001: A Space Odyssey. You know the voice. Dave. . . Dave, I’m losing my memories. . . my mind. . . Dave, I’m scared. . . Daisy, daisy. . . The doctor told me to breathe through my nose. I obeyed and stopped choking.

They moved on to my left bottom wisdom tooth. I counted the freckles on the right cheek of the surgical assistant. I thought to myself, I am having teeth brutally wrenched from my jaw, and I am counting freckles on the assistant’s face, and I am consciously noting that I am counting freckles because I want to be able to remember this later and write it down. After a while, I noted that they had been taking what seemed to be a very long time working on that left tooth, perhaps three times as long as they’d worked on the right one. I asked myself, Has something gone dreadfully wrong? I searched for signs of panic in the face of the assistant. I saw none, and so I figured no catastrophe was occurring, at least no catastrophe out of the ordinary.

Then, at last, they either sewed me up or flossed my gums to get fragments of bone out. I couldn’t be sure. But they told me it was over. They stuffed gauze into the sides of mouth and told me to bite down. My lower jaw felt like a prosthesis, a glued-on piece of ape makeup, as though I were an extra in the original Planet of the Apes. Or, if I were one of the featured players, I realized with a slight shudder of surprise that I would be Dr. Zaius. Not Cornelius, the idealistic young chimpanzee whom I’d always imagined myself as when I was a young boy. But Dr. Zaius, the ornery old conservative, the protector of his civilization’s most sacred traditions, willing to sacrifice even truth and friendships if that’s what it took to do his job. I might not completely agree with the distinguished old orangutan, but I could definitely sympathize. I wasn’t the same person I’d been when I’d been ten years old, at least not fully. My skin had completely replaced itself five times since then. Laughing gas affected me differently now.

My wife helped me out to the van. Dr. Zaius climbed into the van. Dr. Zaius, minus his two bottom wisdom teeth.

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