Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Planet of the Apes (1968) Turns 50

Planet of the Apes (1968) premiered in New York City on February 8 1968. It was fifty years ago today that Planet of the Apes went into wide release. The film would prove highly successful, producing four sequels, two television series, a remake, and then a rebooted series of movies. Arguably Planet of the Apes (1968) would spark one of the most successful film franchises of all time.

Planet of the Apes (1968) was based on the novel La planète des singes by Pierre Boulle, published in France in January 1963. According to legendary writer Rod Serling, the trip of Pierre Boulle's novel to the screen began with King Brothers Productions, who had bought the film rights to the novel and commissioned him to write the screenplay. Agent turned producer Arthur P. Jacobs's account contradicts that of Rod Serling, as he claimed that he bought the screen rights before La planète des singes was even published in France. Regardless of whether King Brothers Productions ever had the rights to the novel, they did not keep them for long. At some point in 1963 Arthur P. Jacobs acquired the movie rights to the book. It would be the beginning of the novel's long odyssey to the big screen.

Indeed, Arthur P. Jacobs had some difficulty getting Planet of the Apes (1968) to the screen.  He brought director J. Lee Thompson (then perhaps best known for The Guns of Navarone) onto the project. He also tried to interest MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and United Artists in Planet of the Apes by sending them copies of the novel (which was published in the United States in June 1963). Vice President of United Artists David D. Picker reportedly expressed some interest in the film, but could not persuade his fellow executives that the studio should produce the film. For the lead role, Arthur P. Jacobs wanted Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, or Burt Lancaster.

It was in December 1963 that 20th Century Fox bought the film rights to the book from Arthur P. Jacobs. Unfortunately for 20th Century Fox, their big budget blockbuster Cleopatra (1963) bombed at the box office. Nearly bankrupt, 20th Century Fox then simply offered the rights to Planet of the Apes to other studios in exchange for the cost of development. In the meantime, J. Lee Thompson decided he had no more time to devote the project and sold his share in Planet of the Apes back to Arthur P. Jacobs. Mr. Jacobs then sought a director to replace J. Lee Thompson.

It was in February 1964 that Mr. Jacobs's APJAC Productions made a tentative deal with Warner Bros. to produce Planet of the Apes. Blake Edwards was set to direct the film. Shirley MacLaine would play the chimpanzee scientist Zira (the role played by Kim Hunter in the film). Rock Hudson was briefly considered for the role of the chimpanzee Cornelius. For the human lead Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, and Rock Hudson were considered. Rod Serling was still employed to adapt the novel, reporting to both Blake Edwards and Arthur P. Jacobs.

Rod Serling would write two drafts of the screenplay and then make several revisions. His original screenplay remained more faithful to the original novel than the eventual movie would be, with the apes possessing 20th Century technology (including cars, television, and so on).

As of January 1965 Warner Bros. was still planning on producing Planet of the Apes. Its budget was estimated at $7, 478, 750, which was extremely high for a movie budget in the mid-Sixties. Blake Edwards was still set to direct the film. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. was unable to find anyone to back the film and ultimately dropped out of the project. Blake Edwards left the project not long afterwards.

Arthur P. Jacobs was undeterred and set about searching for a new director. He tried to interest directors Sydney Pollack and Irvin Kershner in the project. He also tried to recruit Peter Ustinov for the role of Dr. Zaius. Eventually Mr. Jacobs was able to get Charlton Heston as the male lead for the film. It was Mr. Heston who recommended director Franklin J. Schaffner to Arthur P. Jacobs. Arthur P. Jacobs also tried shopping the project around to various studios. Despite having a big name star, every one of them rejected Planet of the Apes.

Eventually Arthur P. Jacobs was able to bring legendary actor Edward G. Robinson onto the project. They then produced a ten minute screen test with Mr. Robinson as Dr. Zaius and Charlton Heston in the lead role. Edward G. Robinson's makeup for the screen test was created by legendary makeup artist Ben Nye, who had worked on films from Gone with the Wind (1939) to The Fly (1958). The screen test was shown to 20th Century Fox's head, Richard F. Zanuck. The screen test convinced Mr. Zanuck that Planet of the Apes was viable, although it would take several months before he could convince the studio's board that it was. It was largely the success of the science fiction film Fantastic Voyage (1966) that led 20th Century Fox to produce Planet of the Apes (1968). It was on September 26 1966 that the studio's decision to produce the film was announced.

Of course, the makeup used to turn most of the film's actors into apes would be central to it success. While Ben Nye developed the makeup used for the screen test, it would be John Chambers who would create the makeup for the feature film. Mr. Chambers had previously worked on the TV shows The Munsters and The Outer Limits, and also developed the pointed ears worn by Mr. Spock and other Vulcans on Star Trek. The makeup worn by the actors playing apes in Planet of the Apes took several hours to apply. Because of just how many actors would be playing apes in the film, John Chambers actually had to train people as makeup artists so that they would have enough makeup artists on the film. In the end 25 makeup artists worked on Planet of the Apes (1968).  By some estimates, about one-third of the budget of Planet of the Apes was devoted to its makeup effects.

While much of the film's success would depend upon makeup, like any other film much of its success would also depend upon its script. Charles Eastman was brought onto the project to improve the script's dialogue in the spring of March 1966. Mr. Eastman submitted his treatment in December 1966. Ultimately he would be dismissed from the project because he made too many changes to Rod Serling's original script.

It was then that Michael Wilson, who had worked on films from It's a Wonderful Life (1946) to A Place in the Sun (1951) before falling victim to the Hollywood blacklist, was hired to rework the script. Michael Wilson remained largely faithful to Rod Serling's script, although he would make one major change. While Rod Serling portrayed the apes as living in a relatively modern society, Michael Wilson placed them in a more primitive society. Other changes would come yet later. Originally named "Thomas", the lead character would be renamed "Taylor" apparently at the time shooting began. A more major change was the film's ending. In Rod Serling's original ending, the character of Thomas dies. It was rather late that the film received the twist ending for which it is now famous today.

Although he took part in the screen test, ultimately Edward G. Robinson would not play Dr. Zaius because of the extensive makeup involved. In the end Maurice Evans, now best known for playing Samantha's father Maurice on Bewitched, was cast as Dr. Zaius. Makeup would also be the concern of an actress cast as Zira. Julie Harris had been cast in the role, but backed out due to the makeup involved. Kim Hunter was then cast in the role. Roddy McDowall was cast in the role of Cornelius and would remain a constant in the film series. He appeared in every one of the original Planet of the Apes films except Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and appeared in the 1974 TV series as well.

Planet of the Apes premiered in New York City on February 8 1968. It opened in London on March 21 and then in Los Angeles on March 27. It was on April 3 that it opened in theatres across the United States. Reviews of the film were for the most part positive. In Variety A.D. Murphy referred to Planet of the Apes as "...an amazing film." Roger Ebert gave the film a good review, saying it was "...quickly paced, completely entertaining, and its philosophical pretensions don't get in the way." John Mahoney in The Hollywood Reporter and Pauline Kael of The New Yorker both gave Planet of the Apes good reviews. While there were exceptions (notably Renata Adler in The New York Times), most critics gave the film positive notices.

Audiences were also taken with Planet of the Apes. It proved to be one of the highest grossing films of 1968. In fact, the film did so well that by 1968 20th Century Fox requested a sequel to Planet of the Apes from APJAC. In the end it would produce four sequels . When the first three movies aired on CBS in late 1973, it created an "apes" craze that would result in a prime time TV series and a Saturday morning cartoon. Since then there has been a remake and a reboot of the series consisting of three movies so far. The film has also been parodied many times, notably in an episode of The Simpsons.

Ultimately Planet of the Apes would not only be one of the most successful films of 1968, but perhaps of the Sixties as well. While there are films that made more money during the decade, there are very few that have had the impact on popular culture that Planet of the Apes has. Indeed, it was one of the earliest science fiction franchises, pre-dating such franchises as Star Wars and Alien. The Planet of the Apes craze of 1973-1975 would result in merchandising on a level that had rarely been seen before and to a degree set a precedent for movies to come.  In the end Planet of the Apes is arguably one of the most influential films of all time.

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