Monday, August 15, 2011

Dope Island: Infrequently-Asked Questions of the Planet of the Apes

By Charles Cassady, Jr.

This has been a tough time for members of Ape-aholics Anonymous; yet another big-budget PLANET OF THE APES movie is in theaters, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, a belated followup/prequel/whatever to the lavish 2001 Tim Burton remake of the 1968 original. Tim Burton’s reimagining/reboot/whatever of APES from ten years ago made a few lists among critics in the genre of movies-we-gave-a-good-review-at-the-time-that-we-regret-like-hell-now. But the Mark Wahlberg-starrer did make King Kong-loads of money for Fox, and my review at the time was upbeat as well. Personally I could admire the technique, the soundtrack, the sly humor and baroque Tim Burton-y stuff about it (and Charlton Heston in a simian cameo), but it made my list especially as movie-with-a-so-called-twist-ending-that-gave-new-meaning-to-the-word-lame. Someone should really do a list of useless lists that critics make. I'm sure Entertainment Weekly can step up to the plate on that.Nonetheless, I've had to return to the subject of the APES “cycle” time and time again, so much so that once I fall off the APES wagon it's hard to stop me. Here's a list of Facts About Planet of the Apes Movies You Probably Didn't Know. (Unless you have become acquainted with something called "the internet," because lots of this stuff is on there)

- PLANET OF THE APES is known to its fans as POTA. The President of the United States is known for short as POTUS. I'm waiting for some international crisis in which the two of them get confused with each other. It will be a riot.

- When POTA was first considered as a movie property in the 1960s by 20th-Century Fox, the director whose name was attached was...Blake Edwards. Huh? Sure, he'd done THE PINK PANTHER but also ANATOMY OF A MURDER and DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES and was considered a journeyman in different genres, not the comedy specialist he ultimately became known as. But it was Franklin J. Schaffner who eventually steered the first POTA. Each APES movie ever since has had a different helmer, though the majority of the scripts were written by Paul Dehn (1912-1976), British-born playwright and lyricist and former film critic (we’ll forgive him for that last one) who imposed whatever continuity and quality control the first set of movies enjoyed.

- As every Famous Monsters of Filmland reader knows, the original APES had some radical casting decisions. Edward G. Robinson was Dr. Zaius, and James Brolin was Cornelius the chimp, but the aging Robinson for one just couldn't take the heavy makeup. Run-through footage of them does exist; look it up on YouTube. On the subject of makeup, the original ape faces designed by John Chambers were more humanlike than simian. The final revisions worn by Roddy McDowall, Maurice Evans, etc. were Chambers’ revolutionary makeup “appliances” – not whole-head masks (though extras got to wear those) but bits of masks, pasted strategically on the face, that allowed the thespians a greater range of movement. Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter found the appliances so integral to their chimp incarnations that in cutaway scenes that only required their voices the actors still insisted on being partially made up, to get back into character.

- Unlike later sequelled-to-death science-fiction series like TRANSFORMERS, the original APES cycle made due with stingier and stingier budget outlays for each succeeding installment, thanks partially to a perception by Fox studio brass that these were mere children's entertainment. And even today each of the 1960s and 70s APES still carry a “G” rating via the MPAA, even though the scripts raised issues of thermonuclear war, human/animal rights violations, slavery, violent protests and social revolution and doomsday-genocide. Still, Paul Dehn couldn't push the envelope quite so far – and thus a proposed subplot about a cross-bred human-ape child was dropped because of the bestiality implications.

- PLANET OF THE APES sort of stung Gene Roddenberry. He was fond of telling the tale that when he was trying to sell clueless network executives on a 1970s science-fiction TV series to succeed his Star Trek, the businessmen just didn’t grokk what science fiction was. Then a network airing of the 1968 POTA scored unexpectedly huge ratings. As Roddenberry told it, the executives at the next meeting said, “Well, now we know what science fiction is. It’s apes.” And they tried to persuade Roddenberry to warp his ideas into a property that was as close to PLANET OF THE APES as possible. Miffed, Roddenberry sarcastically improvised a futuristic premise that involved a Spock-like side character who was a mutant part-man, part-turtle. To Roddenberry’s alarm, the execs took this idea seriously. In recent years there have been new TV shows (like “Andromeda”) that did indeed bring to life some of Gene Roddenberry’s shot-down ideas of yore. Maybe producers will even try “Gene Roddenberry’s Turtle-Man” today when the well runs dry.

- PLANET OF THE APES did indeed become a TV series, in 1975, but its ratings failed to justify the bigger-than-usual TV-program budget and the plug was pulled after only a dozen or so episodes. Nonetheless, the material was re-edited together into further “features,” such as LIFE, LIBERTY AND PURSUIT ON THE PLANET OF THE APES, most of which played in heavy rotation on early premium cable.

- There exists on video a way-cool documentary, BEHIND THE PLANET OF THE APES, done in 1998 for American Movie Classics, in which stalwart simian player Roddy McDowall hosts and talks about how producer Arthur Jacobs nursed the first film in 1968, and chronicles the monkeyshines right down to a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon which was actually closest to the original Planet of the Apes Pierre Boulle novel in showing the ape civilization in modern terms, with planes, trains and automobiles. The DVD includes original trailers from the five APES features and, rather remarkably, does not foreshadow or hard-sell the fancied-up 2001 remake.

- Charles Cassady Jr. owned a PLANET OF THE APES action-figure playset as a kid. No, it’s not still in mint condition in the packaging; it saw lots of use indeed. Guess you could say Cornelius was the closest thing I had to an imaginary friend (maybe he still is).

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