The Genesis of Ro-Man

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The more or less $16,000 budget that Tucker, Zimbalist and Mosk agreed to was about as cheap as a film budget could possibly be.  Republic’s bottom tier of cheap Westerns averaged a cost of $30,000-$50,000, which shows how cheap a small studio was able to get and have a releasable product.  But in a demonstration of inexcusable incompetence, a young Ed Wood managed the independent cowboy movie The Outlaw Marshal, allowing the budget to balloon from $20,000 to a ludicrous $57,000.  Besides shedding light on Wood’s career-long difficulty in trying to survive in Hollywood, the production resulted in a heavily litigated film and an angry pool of investors who had to be persuaded to let the film be released for it to have any prayer of earning its money back.  Tucker clearly understood these budget subtleties far better than his contemporary Wood to have completed Robot Monster for as little as $16,000, and to have then understood the negative impression that could be created by the bald-faced truth of that budget.

For by the early fifties, there was really only one type of film regularly made for Robot Monster’s budget, one with which Tucker was well-acquainted.  Exploitation films—with their threadbare sets, static camerawork, and often amateur acting—had nearly 100% of their value in their over-the-top advertising and could afford to be as cheap as $16,000.  The films were in themselves worthless, only viewed in the hope of illicit thrills, and were the ultimate in the bait-and-switch business technique.  But to push a slightly better type of film into that rock bottom level was to risk making a movie that would be truly un-releasable.  No audience would tolerate a science fiction movie without a spaceship, a monster, or at least a ray gun.  No audience would patiently sit through seventy minutes of stilted actors talking about nothing on cheap sets, in the hope of glimpsing a quick shot of a spaceship.  Society did not prohibit the display of robots and space creatures, and a filmmaker promising them had to deliver and not merely tease.

Tucker had to figure out how he was going to pull off his robot invader on a budget like that of the exploitation films he had trained on.  His free location for a destroyed Earth awaited him, but he had to somehow create the monster that would inhabit it and terrorize the survivors.

. . . I talked to several people I knew who had robot suits—I originally envisioned a kind of a robot—but it was just out-of-the-way, money-wise, just no possible way to  do it.

Reinforcing Tucker’s point, there seem to have been no regular robot suit guys in early fifties Hollywood, in contrast to the gorilla performers.  Republic had a robot costume that appeared in multiple adventure serials, including Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940).  Tucker theoretically could have rented this suit, and likely tried, but it must have been unavailable or “just out-of-the-way, money-wise.”  (A more recognizable recycled robot only appeared years after Robot Monster, when Robby the Robot debuted in MGM’sForbidden Planet [1956] and was thereafter loaned out for several appearances in TV and movies.)  So with the conventional option of making or borrowing a suitable costume out of reach, Tucker did what any clever exploitation man would do: He made the best substitute he could manage for as little money as possible.

So I thought, “Okay.  I know George Barrows.  He’s got a gorilla suit.  I know George will work for me for [nothing].  I’ll get a diving helmet, put it on him, and it’ll work!”  So that’s how it came to be.

It is easy from the vantage point of hindsight to laugh at Tucker’s solution, and the results onscreen were of course absurd.  But to make a non-exploitation movie on an exploitation movie budget, he had to be brave enough to pursue whatever insane solution would get the film made.  Perhaps someone with great design sense could have creatively combined cardboard and paint in some effective way, but Tucker’s robot-gorilla concept is still less crazy than has been acknowledged.  In summer 1952, RKO successfully reissued King Kong (1933) and Tucker must have noticed a re-release so fantastic that it was featured in Time and far out-grossed its initial release.  The return ofKing Kong was packing in audiences right about when Tucker was pulling the Lucky Luciano stunt and when he discovered the ruins of Chavez Ravine.  His use of a gorilla suit as part of the monster costume was therefore not a random, casually chosen substitute for a true robot.  With a conventional robot impossible, Tucker chose an alternative that had true audience appeal.  With King Kong a hot property, it is clear why Tucker used a robot-gorilla (and in the opinion of Mark F. Berry, Robot Monster is essentially “a King Kongremake”).  If he could not provide a robot or a giant gorilla, he could at least manage a gorilla wearing a diving helmet.  Little wonder that with it featured in gigantic proportions on the poster, Kong-crazed audiences made the film successful.

But according to Barrows:

It wasn’t Phil Tucker’s idea.  Zimbalist, it was more or less his brain child, I understand.  Because I was interviewed before the thing, and he asked me about it. “What do you think?” he says.  “You have this gorilla suit, and it’s a terrific suit and all that,” and I said, “Yeah, yeah, it is; wonderful suit.”  “What do you think of creatures from outer space being gorillas?”  I said, “I guess it would be the same as if they were green monsters.  Who knows?  We’ve never seen ’em.  Your imagination is as good as anyone’s.”  So they went with that.

But while Barrows’ account reinforces Zimbalist’s central role in guiding the production—clearly on display in trade papers up to the film’s release—it does not contradict Tucker. Zimbalist is not depicted with coming up with the idea, and his inquiry to Barrows suggests that he was as skeptical of the robot-gorilla concept as anyone who would later see the film.  Zimbalist was in charge, but what Barrows says makes it seem less likely that he created the idea.  But he may have had input in refining the costume to be as good as circumstances allowed.  Barrows said,

They were going to first use the head, and have horns or something, antennae, and all that sort of thing.

So how did they get to the diving helmet?

They didn’t want the gorilla head, they thought it would look more “out of this world” if it were some kind of space helmet, where they actually couldn’t breathe our atmosphere so they had this special thing on where they had to breathe their own atmosphere.

This ambiguity about how to make the monster seem alien extended all the way to the film’s release.  The poster famously shows Ro-Man with a detailed skull face within the faceplate of the helmet, which fits in with the varying ideas thrown around in the planning stages.  It may have been the case that Zimbalist decided to go for broke and advertise Ro-Man in all his stunning, surreal glory.  The audience thereby knew what it was in for and might even be intrigued; there was not much else to put on the film’s poster anyway, and undiscriminating ten-year-old boys might make an association between the gorilla monster and the still popular King Kong.  Whether the artist came up with the skull or Zimbalist ordered it, the onscreen face was murky enough to plausibly make such an embellishment on the artwork.

Tucker would began filming Robot Monster the very day after the film was announced in the Wednesday, March 18 Reporter.  By the Friday issue, when the film was listed in the weekly “Pictures Now Shooting” section, the film’s second day of shooting may have found it half completed:

How many days did it take to film?

Four.

A copy of the script has survived, consisting of 56 pages (nearly matching the old screenwriter’s rule that one page of script equals one minute of screen time) plus three additional pages of production schedule and a cover page.  Among other details, the pages specify three days of shooting.  The Reporter announced on Wednesday the 25th—exactly one week after initially announcing the project—that “Robot Monster 3-D Film Brought in for $50,000,” and that the film had finished shooting the day before.  Sunday may have been a day of rest for cast and crew, and filming may or may not have taken place on Monday.  The film was therefore completed in a delirious six days at most, and Tucker’s memory of four days could be exactly right.  This very brief schedule is in proportion for a movie made for far less $50,000, on a budget more like that of an exploitation film.  According to James King in the anthology Hollywood Corral, “The shooting schedule for the B Western of the ’30s and early ’40s was often no more than ten days.”

The script further listed locations for the planned three-day shoot, with three schedule pages at the end.  Thursday and Friday were scheduled for “Shooting at 8 A.M.,” specifying “Location at Chavez Ravine – Effie and Bishop Road,” and that cast and crew “Leave from parking lot Formosa Grill – Santa Monica and Formosa – 7:00 A.M.”  After these two pages with thirty-five-and-a-half script pages scheduled for shooting during the two days at Chavez Ravine, the final page itemized fourteen-and-three-quarters script pages for shooting at “Location Bronson Canyon” on Saturday the 21st.  While likely no one watched Robot Monster and knew with certainty that Chavez Ravine was the location for the onscreen ruins, many recognized the film’s other location, Bronson Canyon.

**********

. . . Barrows had a keen mind and a strong work ethic, by which the experience became a little more difficult still:

There are several shots in the film of the robot monster just walking up the hill and then walking back down, and it seems like, under the hot, blazing California sun that it would have been very sweaty.  How sweaty were you in the suit?

Well, let me put it this way, Harold, in that suit—now that particular show, I never particularly measured it—but when I did Gorilla at Large I would lose ten pounds a night.  Next day you’d pick it up by drinking water, fluids, anything, but you could lose, ten, twelve pounds a night.  Now that’s a lot of fluid content and I’m sure on that show, I lost that much.  Then, not only that—

You mean, just by sweating?

Sure, dehydration.  It’s terribly hot in that suit.  It’s a very, very enervating, difficult thing to wear, believe me.  Not only that, but I had that helmet on my head.  With a gorilla head, you can breathe through the mouth, you have air coming in and out of it, and under the neck, which doesn’t show of course, due to the hair and all that.  But with that thing, you have the helmet.  Then—which was my idea, like an idiot—I said, “How are we going to cover up his face inside it?”

Right, because the helmet you just see right through.

So I said, “Why don’t you just put a stocking over it?”  So all it showed was the nose projection, but you couldn’t see the eyes, you couldn’t see what it was, it didn’t look human.  And it did give a hell of an effect.  They were going to put some kind of a mask over me, and I said, “That’ll be hokey.”  You know, like a Halloween mask, or some kind of monster thing.  I said, “This way it looks like nothing, it looks like nothing human or animal.”  But I suffered for it, believe me.

And this “Halloween mask” detail further hints at why the poster version of Ro-Man had a skull face.  This idea of taking a cheap shortcut of a masked face for a monster effect must have stayed with the filmmakers even after they had dropped it from the film itself.  The poster would not have been painted until postproduction, and likely the skull-face effect was reinstated because the open and faceless quality of the onscreen Ro-Man was too abstract for movie publicity.

And, to settle an important point for all time:

Was it a real diving helmet, a real deep-sea diving helmet, because those are pretty weighty?

No, it was aluminum, some kind of aluminum ball that they constructed, cut a hole in the bottom, then built some kind of thing on the outside of it that fit down over my shoulders.  It was a costume, strictly a piece of costume work and [Zimbalist], and Henry West—who was a good friend of mine, who was the wardrobe man on it—devised it.  Henry I’d met years ago on [The Adventures ofRobin Hood, he handled all the wardrobe on Robin Hood with [Errol] Flynn. Old Henry West, he worked on it with me, says, “George, you’re going to die in this thing.”  I said, “I know.  But, in the long shots we can leave this plastic thing off the head up here, take it off, so I could breathe through it.”  But in the close-ups, you had the round plate in it, like a diving helmet.  But I made it so you could take it off in the long shots where you saw me walking, carrying her.

The Ro-Men “diving helmets” are of course very similar to other spaceman helmets of the era, such as those seen in Destination Moon (1950) and Radar Men from the Moon(1952).  (This brings to mind one of Robot Monster’s alternate titles, Monsters from the Moon.)  But most importantly, Medved referred to a single helmet, and Barrows continued in that vein, never remembering plural helmets.  This implies that both Ro-Men were perhaps portrayed with the same helmet along with the same gorilla suit, despite some cosmetic differences in the look of each.  Great Guidance’s helmet has some kind of suction cup attachments in place of Earth Ro-Man’s more traditional antennae, and lacks the front disc and gear attached to the back.  Most notably, Guidance’s helmet is dented on the left edge of its opening.  The Guidance helmet could have been a re-dress of the same helmet or (less likely because it would have meant more trouble) a hastily made second helmet.  But in any case, it is unfortunate that Guidance has the dented helmet, because the damage would have been a good externalization of Earth Ro-Man’s unbalanced nature.  The more perfectly un-dented, round opening of Earth Ro-Man’s helmet would have better presented the unsympathetic and unyielding nature of Guidance and the tight, closed, circular logic of “the Plan.”

And as for the director who had first thought up the gorilla diving helmet scheme, Barrows had no affection:

This director was a madman, and he had a wife who was a madwoman.  The minute you stopped shooting, she says, “Don’t take anything off, I want to sketch you.”  And when she first sprang that on me, I said, “Wait a minute, what are you talking about, sketching me?”  I’m taking the helmet off by this time.  I said, “You want to take a photograph, go ahead, be my guest.”  “No, no, I want to sketch you.”  I said, “Forget it, honey, you’re going to have to do that on the wing, while I’m working.”  And he got mad at me, said [inaudible]—I said, “I don’t give a—I have to breathe.  You want me to go in the next scene, you better let me get some air, right now.”  Yeah, Phil Tucker, or whatever his first name was, he was a nut. . . . He was a madman.  He could [not] care less for anyone or anything, just get the scene.  And I said, “Come on, Tucker, I’ve been in the business too long for this, you’ve got to give the actors a break somewhere.”

Tucker’s mysterious wife, mentioned by Ordung as “Francine,” reappears here, making her existence undeniable if her identity still elusive.  (She is a good candidate for the mysterious woman visible at the top of a hill in the background, when Johnny meets Ro-Man halfway through the film.)  Regarding the way Barrows remembered Tucker, it is notable that most people who knew Tucker found him likable, and Barrows is the major exception, perhaps because of the circumstances in which Robot Monster was shot.

Copyright 2015, Anders Runestad

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