When you hear about Plan 9 from Outer Space, the first thing you think of is a silent movie, right?
No? Well, keep reading!
To be honest, I hesitated to write this. Folks have been snickering at bad movies ever since images flickered on the silver screen but the activity has lately been dubbed “hate-watching” online and elsewhere. I have a problem with the term since it does not really encompass what cheesy watching is all about.
First, a bit of background. My family loves bad sci-fi and general schlock, preferably vintage 50’s-60’s. Roger Corman, Bert I. Gordon and Ed Wood are the favorites, although I also have wonderful childhood memories of watching Phil Tucker’s The Robot Monster. Mystery Science Theater is a universal favorite (we are evenly divided between Team Mike and Team Joel).
This is where I disagree with the “hate-watching” moniker. I don’t hate these films, I love them! Every cheesy second. Yes, I laugh when the “alien” is a guy in a gorilla suit and a diving helmet. And of course, I cackle madly at the crazy dialogue. And those cardboard sets… I watch them for a good laugh but there is no malice.
I am going to be covering a film that some have dubbed The Worst Movie Ever, Plan 9 from Outer Space, schlockmeister Ed Wood’s magnum opus. It also makes use of the talents (rather loosely in one case) of two former silent film actors: Bela Lugosi and Tom Keene. Before I start, I want to emphasize that I do not wish to diminish the careers of these two hard-working men. I chose to cover Plan 9 because it is a cultural touchstone (albeit for all the wrong reasons) and it remains widely viewed.
But enough preamble! Let’s talk about the movie!
Plan 9’s famous quality issues are known even to people who have never seen it: The strings on the UFOs! The doubling of the late Lugosi by a younger, taller man! “Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!”
The plot is as follows: Aliens want to secretly raise corpses in order to force Earth governments to acknowledge extraterrestrial life. A cop, a pilot, an army man and an adenoidal housewife must stop them. The script is all over the place (why can’t the aliens just land their UFOs in the middle of New York city if they want people to believe in them) and the dialogue is, frankly, hilarious. But is this really a bad movie?
It depends on your definition of bad. If you want to talk about actual craft (script, dialogue, acting, direction, effects) then this is indeed a bad film. But if you judge a film by how entertaining it is, Plan 9 comes off a champ. It’s pace is snappy, not a boring moment in the entire runtime. It is immensely quotable, there is always something new to see and it is an ideal party movie. Everyone has their favorite part. I am particularly partial to the marvelously wacky performance of Bunny Breckinridge as the sardonic alien ruler who is surrounded by fools.
This film is an exuberant bit of entertainment. It proves that if you want something enough and try your hardest… it can be unintentionally hilarious.
Bela Lugosi was almost fifty years old when he found screen immortality as Dracula in 1931. He had made his screen debut in his native Hungary in 1917 (under the name Arisztid Olt) but had been forced to flee to Germany due to his pro-union activities (he would later help form the Screen Actors Guild). Much of Lugosi’s work in Germany is unavailable for viewing in the U.S. (and the few films that are available are of shocking print quality) but one lost film is of particular interest: Der Januskopf (1920), which starred Conrad Veidt in a Jekyll and Hyde plot. Lugosi played a supporting role.
Lugosi emigrated to America in 1920, where he supplemented his work on the stage with B-pictures, supporting roles and extra work. Lugosi’s big break, of course, came when Universal was looking for the perfect vampire. Lugosi had been chewing up the scenery in a stage version of the tale and he brought his intensity to the role, carrying the entire picture. The role of Dracula was an enormous success but Lugosi was typecast as a horror actor and would remain so for the rest of his career.
By the time Lugosi began his collaboration with director Ed Wood, his career was in freefall but his strong work ethic remained. The generally accepted tale of Plan 9 is as follows: Lugosi’s death left Wood with some footage but no star to complete the planned film. As a tribute to the late actor and as a way to keep his biggest star in the credits, Wood used and reused and re-reused the Lugosi footage, employed his wife’s chiropractor as Lugosi’s double to pad the role and added narration to (sort of) fill the story gaps.
In the end, Bela Lugosi’s career may not have been what his great talent deserved but his charisma and star power are undeniable. Even in his later low-budget appearances, he throws his all in.
Tom Keene never made a silent movie. His brief silent career was achieved entirely under his birth name, George Duryea. Duryea had made his film debut in 1923 but no one seemed to take notice of him until 1928. In the waning months of the silent era, Duryea had significant roles in two notable “lasts”: Cecil B. DeMille’s last silent film, The Godless Girl (she’s an atheist! he’s a Christian! they both get sent to a brutal reform school! … love?), and Lon Chaney’s last silent film, Thunder.
Duryea was over thirty when he played a teen in The Godless Girl but his youthful good looks meant he could play far younger than he was. In spite of a promising start, however, his career began to sputter and he signed on with RKO. B-Westerns were cheap and popular and the newly-christened (there is no consensus as to when the name change occurred) Tom Keene quickly began to churn out these films at a rapid rate.
Tom Keene was popular enough but he did not have the following of, say, William Boyd, Gene Autry, Buck Jones or Hoot Gibson. This can be partially blamed on the fact that Keene did not have a signature persona that he could carry from film to film. Keene got one more big break, however, starring in director King Vidor’s 1934 populist drama Our Daily Bread. The gritty realism did not appeal to Depression-era audiences and he was soon back on the B-Western treadmill.
Hoping for another career jumpstart, Keene changed his name again in 1944, this time to Richard Powers. As Powers, he played numerous supporting roles in serials, B-films and television. The Tom Keene name was occasionally dusted off and used in the credits, as it was in Plan 9.
The cast of Plan 9 can be divided into two categories: the overly-enthused and the shell-shocked. Keene can be comfortably counted as shell-shocked. His Colonel Edwards is called upon to deliver on of the more, um, memorable lines in the film:
“For a time we tried to contact them by radio but no response. Then they attacked a town, a small town I’ll admit, but never the less a town of people, people who died.”
It is a tribute to Tom Keene’s acting ability that he managed to deliver this with a straight face.
In the end, Tom Keene represents an often forgotten segment of classic Hollywood: an actor who is popular enough to carry a B-film but not a major star. Of the dozens and dozens of roles he performed, Plan 9 is by far the most popular title for modern audiences.
Plan 9 is a great example of how you can find lots of silent stars in the talkies– if you know where to look!