The Strange Career of Robby the Robot

I’ve been on something of a 1950s sci-fi kick lately. This post from Mockingbird is probably what started it. After reading it, I filled my Amazon wish list with Mockingbird’s recommendations, and Amazon gleefully took it from there with that whole “people who bought X also bought Y” thing. I’m now pretty well set for a couple of months’ worth of classic sci-fi viewing.

I started with Forbidden Planet (1956), and a terrific starting place it was. Among other things, it introduced me to Robby the Robot. My 50th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition came with lots of bonus Robby the Robot material: Robby’s second film, The Invisible Boy (1957); an episode of The Thin Man (1958) where Nick Charles takes Robby on as a client; and a whole feature just on Robby. This robot has had a long and impressive career, appearing on The Gale Storm Show, Goodyear Theatre, Invasion of the Neptune Men, Hazel, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Twilight Zone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Addams Family, Lost in Space, The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, Columbo, Hollywood Boulevard, Ark II, Space Academy, Project U.F.O., Wonder Woman, Mork & Mindy, Likely Stories, Vol. 3, Gremlins, Earth Girls Are Easy, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and Stacked. In 2004 he was inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame. And for a cool $32,000, you can have a life-size fully animatronic pre-programmed remote-controlled Robby the Robot of your very own.

Something about Robby clearly resonated with 1950s audiences, and the appeal has held steady over time.

Why? Well, for starters, Robby is just cool. He’s powerful, but endearingly awkward-looking, and shaped something like a mid-century washing machine. (Robert Kinoshita, the artist who came up with him, actually used to design washing machines before coming to work for MGM.) At seven feet Robby towers over his human companions, but he’s still close enough to human size to be relatable. He’s dry, but shows glimmers of rudimentary wit and affection.

But Robby isn’t just a swell guy; there’s power and possible menace in that gun-metal Michelin Man body. As Morbius explains in Forbidden Planet, Robby is capable of toppling a house off its foundation, and The Invisible Boy shows his physical structure to be proof against bazookas and flamethrowers. The contrast between his potential for destruction and his constant readiness to be of service is part of what makes him so fascinating. There’s a stark duality about Robby, which reflects how 1950s Americans viewed technology in general.

robby washing machine tub comparison

Nowhere is this duality more evident than in the gap between how Robby actually comes off in movies and TV, and how he’s shown in film posters and teasers. On the one hand you have the helpful, personable robot that people like, and on the other you have this.

forbidden planet poster bigger

See that face grinning malevolently under the transparent dome, sort of like an electronic version of an evil clown? Robby’s face looks nothing like that. And at no time in the movie does he carry an unconscious voluptuous woman in his arms. This is just spurious, sensational stuff on the part of MGM’s marketing department.

Here’s one from The Invisible Boy.

movie poster the invisible boy bigger

The most accurate thing about this poster is the line of missiles encircling the robot. The rest is hogwash. Robby never runs; he has a ponderous, rolling gait, and his legs aren’t all bendy like in the image. See that outstretched claw rendered enormous by foreshortening? And the helpless child writhing in the merciless grip of the other claw? More marketing fabrications. Robby’s hands are actually small for his size, totally incapable of grasping a ten-year-old boy around the waist. Notice the tagline: THE SCIENCE-MONSTER WHO WOULD DESTROY THE WORLD! That’s actually a pretty good description of the film’s real villain, the supercomputer, but Robby looks better on a poster.

Of course it’s not unusual for movie posters to play fast and loose with plot and character integrity, but there is obviously something being tapped into here. People liked Robby; that was one reason MGM made a second movie with him and loaned him out for guest appearances. But at the same time there was something about him, or about robots in general, that made people uneasy.

The nice-robot-or-deadly-menace ambiguity shows up in actual film and TV footage as well. Here’s a screen shot from “Robot Client,” Robby’s episode on The Thin Man.

screen shot the thin man 1.1

Are you beginning to see a pattern here? The robot didn’t kill the guy he’s carrying, but at this point the audience doesn’t know that.

screen shot the thin man 2.2

Here’s another screen shot from “Robot Client.” Nora isn’t being harmed by the robot either. She’s actually helping prove his innocence, though you can see from her face that she’s not real keen on the idea. The whole scene with the robot carrying Nora is drawn out an uncomfortably long time, with lots of edgy shots of Nora and some wobbly-camera ones from her point of view. It’s pretty effective suspense.

screen shot forbidden planet robby doctor 2

That one’s from Forbidden Planet. Again, Robby didn’t hurt this guy; he’s about to set him gently down on the sofa. But there’s a lot of tension to be milked from the sight of the robot carrying a helpless human.

teaser the thin man robot shadow

Here’s the teaser to “Robot Client.” The image of the robot’s shadow looming over the unsuspecting man is terribly evocative—though, again, misleading in terms of plot, as Robby didn’t actually hurt this guy either.

invisible boy robot shadow allerton

Here’s another robot-shadow-over-human shot, this time from The Invisible Boy. Prior to this scene, in an effort to get his robot playmate to lighten up and help him pull off more dangerous stunts, Timmie took Robby to the supercomputer to have his basic directive—the one keeping the robot from harming or permitting harm to humans—overridden. The supercomputer craftily suggested this so it could take control of the robot and use him to implant mind-controlling transistor assemblies into the brains of various scientists and military personnel, which is what Robby’s about to do here. So in this case the robot really is about to harm someone, but not of his own volition, and contrary to his original programming.

invisible boy robot shadow other guy

Another robot shadow shot. This guy is about to get a transistor assembly implant, too.

screen shot the invisible boy robby shadow

And here we have a robot shadow over little Timmie himself. (It’s a bit harder to make out here, but that circle on Timmie’s face is one of Robby’s spinning sensors.) The supercomputer has just ordered Robby to gouge out Timmie’s eyeballs or something, but Robby is resisting. (How did Robby manage to resist? You may well ask. I’m going to address that subject in a later post.)

The Robot Ambiguity Problem might be boiled down to a few questions. Is the robot a tool, or an independent agent? If a tool, then whose, and for what purpose? If independent, then is he good or evil, helpful or harmful?

These questions are variously addressed in Forbidden Planet, The Invisible Boy, and “Robot Client.” FP and TIB should be considered more or less jointly, since Robby plays the same character in both (sometime in between the two films he went from the 24th century to the 1950s through some glossed-over time travel). In FP, Dr. Morbius insists that Robby is just a tool, incapable of emotion or independent action, but we don’t really believe him. Dry as Robby is, he shows hints of emerging personhood in his relationships with humans; he’s playful with Alta, protective of Morbius, and just plain excited to be working astrogation on the deck of the C-57-D. Perhaps most tellingly of all, he lies to the ship’s cook, though intentional deceit is supposed to be impossible for a non-rational being. The human characters either don’t notice or don’t remark on Robby’s nascent personality. Similarly, in TIB Robby is considered a tool—he even describes himself that way—but demonstrates what appears to be a moral will. In fact, after he spends some time in the tool-in-the-wrong-hands category, his moral agency is what saves the day. His personhood actually trumps his toolhood. But, again, nobody notices; Timmie is the only witness to Robby’s moral struggle, and Timmie doesn’t understand what’s happening.

In “Robot Client,” Robby the actor plays a different character, also confusingly named Robby. Like FP/TIB Robby, RC Robby is described as a mere tool; Dr. Nyles calls him “an overgrown instrument panel.” Unlike FP/TIB Robby, who talks and walks around on his own, RC Robby is remotely controlled by human operators, and his “voice” is just the voice of whichever operator happens to be speaking into the mic at the moment. This Robby comes closest to being a genuine mindless tool—though even here, a couple of scenes cast mild doubt on whether the operators are in complete control.

RC Robby was created for the purpose of handling radioactive materials in atomic plants, doing work that would be impossible for humans. But Dr. Nyles’s housekeeper, Mrs. Creavy, doesn’t consider him a tool. She insists that he’s not only independent, but downright evil; she calls him “a monster, a death machine.” Some incidents appear to back her up: one scientist is assaulted, another is killed, and Robby is present both times. But it turns out Robby was being framed. A third scientist, Dr. Hartwick, committed the crimes and made it look like Robby did it. He also planted the seeds of Mrs. Creavy’s distrust. His goal is for Robby to be dismantled forever.

So what did the robot ever do to him? Well, this is where the episode gets interesting. From Dr. Hartwick’s point of view, Robby really is just a tool—a very sophisticated tool—and to him, that’s the horror of the thing. By using a radiation-proof robot, people will be able to carry out tasks in atomic plants far more efficiently than otherwise, leading to arms proliferation and ultimately causing the deaths of millions. In Dr. Hartwick’s mind, a morally independent robot that clubs people to death is less horrible than a true tool of a robot that advances nuclear technology.

Nuclear energy was a touchy subject during the 1950s. Many, like Hartwick, feared that the development of nuclear power would lead to arms proliferation or deadly accidents. In his this-is-what-I-did-and-why-I-did-it monologue near the end, Hartwick comes unglued, ranting maniacally, wide-eyed and shrill. For most of the episode his fear and hysteria have been concealed, which could also be said of the 1950s as a whole, but now the mask is off.

the thin man hartwick

It doesn’t stay off for long, though. Hartwick is apprehended and that’s the end of it. The episode concludes with Robby, remotely controlled, vacuuming the floor while simultaneously walking a dog. Nick goofs around with the mic, pretending to be advertising the robot as a helpful tool for housewives; Nora plays along, eagerly asking to buy one. The dog barks; the robot vacuums; everyone laughs. Hartwick’s concerns, which were legitimate enough in themselves, aren’t addressed at all, even to be refuted.

And there’s that duality again, glossed over and unresolved.

Technology in the 1950s represented security and prosperity but also the potential for large-scale horrific violence. It could make our lives easier one day and wipe us out the next. After the war, with the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brooding in the American subconscious, U.S. scientists had gone to work on a new nuclear weapon. The hydrogen bomb was capable of far worse devastation than the atomic bomb, which was certainly devastating enough. Many scientists who had supported the development of the atomic bomb, including Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, opposed the hydrogen bomb, but the prevailing thinking was that the Soviets would certainly develop one, so we had better do so as well to keep ourselves safe. The U.S. carried out a successful test of a hydrogen bomb in 1952 at Enewetak Atoll; the Soviets followed with a detonation in their very own Siberia in 1953. This episode of The Thin Man aired in 1958. Reading accounts of the decade, there is a real sense of escalation, of reaction triggering more reaction, of spiraling out of control while putting on a brave face.

This duality is neatly contained in the person of the robot. It’s fitting, I think, that so physically strong and imposing a character should have a shape that resembles a household appliance. Just like us, Robby is capable of a wide range of duties, from national defense to flower arrangement. He can clean the house or topple it over, walk the dog or plant a mind-control transistor in your brain, whip up an evening gown or develop nuclear fusion. And because he’s anthropomorphic, he binds fear of technology to fear of ourselves. We have our own dualities; we are capable of good and evil, and the tech is our creation, begotten in our image. The strange career of Robby the Robot is not unlike our own.

robby flower arrangement

One comment on “The Strange Career of Robby the Robot

  1. […] keep coming back to the subject of this robot. I’ve already written about him here, here, and here, and evidently I’m not done yet. There is so much about him that doesn’t quite add up, so many […]

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