heavyweights Columbia and Universal produced as many serials as Republic
Pictures from 1929-1956, the latter studio is generally best known for its
exciting sound-era chapter-plays.
Universal and the less widely known Mascot Pictures were in the game the
earliest; both studios began releasing their sound serials in 1929. Mascot would only last six years or so.
Universal – choosing to concentrate exclusively on the production of feature
films – effectively got out of the serial business in 1946. Republic and Columbia hung on to the production
of chapter-plays the longest; they released their final serials in 1955 and
wasn’t only a serials factory. The
studio was in the low budget feature filmmaking business as well, busily
churning out a dizzying array of westerns, adventure pictures, and mysteries. They would test the box-office potentials of
the horror film market during the 1940s with limited success. As a second-tier “Poverty Row” studio,
Republic would enjoy a less distinguished track record in the horror film realm
than, say, Monogram Pictures. The latter
studio would occasionally tap the talents of such moonlighting film ghouls as
Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, George Zucco, and Lionel Atwill. Dutifully exploiting the popular culture
trends of the day, Republic would soon move into the production sci-fi serials
beginning with King of the Rocket Men
(1949). In the next five years the
studio would knock out a number of similar themed serials with The Invisible Monster (1950), Flying Disc Man from Mars (1951), Radar Men from the Moon (1952), and Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952).
Sholem’s Tobor The Great (1954), now
out on Blu Ray from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics, was one of Republic’s earliest
non-serial feature films of the “Silver Age” of Sci-Fi. Though more of a timepiece curiosity than a
great film, old-school sci-fi fans – at least those with long memories - will
welcome Tobor The Great as a valuable
addition to their private collection. The year 1954 was, to be sure, a good one for devotees of sci-fi
cinema. Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea managed to garner the studio two
Academy Awards. Universal unleashed The Creature from the Black Lagoon in
glorious 3-D and, not to be outdone, Warner Bros. released a swarm of giant
radioactive ants collectively known as Them!
on the city of Los Angeles. Tobor The Great is not even remotely as
entertaining nor well crafted as the three above mentioned films, but it’s
arguably no better or worse than such other 1954 efforts as Devil Girl from Mars or Roger Corman’s Monster from the Ocean Floor.
obvious that Republic’s target audience for Tobor
The Great was the juvenile market. We’re introduced early on to Brian “Gadge” Roberts (Billy Chapin), a ten
year old whiz kid who is a prodigal student of mathematics and the sciences. We soon learn that young Brian’s proclivities
for the disciplines are at least partly inherited. The boy and his mother Janice (Karen Booth) have
been living comfortably in the home of his maternal grandfather ever since the
boy’s father had been killed while serving in Korea.
grandfather happens to be the kindly Professor Arnold Nordstrom (Taylor
Holmes), a research scientist working for the C.I.F.C., an acronym for the Civil
Interplanetary Flight Commission. The commission’s principal concern is with helping guarantee America’s front-runner
status in space travel, rocketry, and guided missile launches. The professor, an expert in astrophysics and
aerodynamics, studiously labors away in a secreted wine cellar repurposed as a modern
subterranean experimental laboratory.
Nordstrom’s work is top secret for a reason. His ground breaking research in the study of fusible materials and non-fusible alloys is of great interest to America’s enemies – specifically unnamed but definitely of Eastern European origin if their tortured attempts at Slavic accents are considered. The professor’s material is so confidential in nature that he must burn the contents of his wastebasket at the end of each and every work day. The commission is interested in sending a man into outer space, but every time they strap a hearty candidate into a whirling test-centrifuge (think of Roger Moore’s nasty turn in Moonraker), the budding intergalactic space traveler passes out from the G-force. The perpetually beleaguered and angry Dr. Ralph Harrison (Charles Drake) is disgusted with seeing these brave, potential space explorers used as experimental lab animals. He has an ally in Dr. Nordstrom who suggests it might be a better idea to rocket his top secret creation, Tobor, into the extra-terrestrials.
It must be said that for a project shrouded in secrecy and mystery, the professor’s leaking of sensitive information and his poor security practices are legion. Dr. Nordstrom reveals bits and pieces of top secret info about his work in the unsecure environment of an airport lounge… as a foreign spy at an adjoining table listens in. Though his grandson is forbidden to visit the subterranean laboratory secreted behind a faux bookcase, the math whiz kid can easily work out the logo-rhythms that password-protect the entry controls. And while the doting Grandpa is adamant that his grandson not enter the laboratory for safety reasons, he doesn’t seem to have any trouble with young Gadge listening in to the top-secret discussions via headset and microphones.
More worriedly, Dr. Nordstrom also suggests that his home security system is impregnable. Not really, as one bad guy ultimately gains entrance by passing through a sleepy guard’s gate by providing a fake credential while others use an extended hinge ladder to scramble over a mundane chain-link fence. Nordstrom and Harrison are so lax in matters of security that it’s only following the reveal of the mighty Tobor to a specially invited panel of egghead scientists, that they realize a spy might have infiltrated their gathering. It seems that while twelve prominent scientists were invited, the dozen folding chairs provided them now numbered thirteen. Who actually was that in that thirteenth chair? Could it have been a foreign spy who brought along his own folding chair?
Lucky for those of us who have been patiently waiting for something interesting to happen, young Gadge sneaks into the basement for a look at Tobor and accidentally activates it. The robot causes all sorts of mild mayhem – like accidentally knocking the boy to the floor - but is soon brought under control. In one scene the temperamental robot suffers a “nervous breakdown” of sorts when he’s put before a monitor and is asked to fend off a ferocious but simulated video meteor shower. Alas, with the video meteors rocketing at him with maddening speed, the simulated deluge proves all too much for Tobor. He goes berserk once again, but this time the scientist needs only to distend his antenna pole to render him totally incapacitated.
Tobor the Great is partly a standard 1950s sci-fi film, partly a Cold War espionage drama, and partly a film conceived to entertain a young, mostly undiscerning audience at a Saturday afternoon matinee. Though not of the imaginative design that brought us the fabulous Robby in Forbidden Planet or the Lost in Space television robot, Tobor is still a pretty nifty creation. He has cool metallic articulated joints mimicking the armor of medieval knights.
One thing is for certain. Tobor The Great is certainly not an exciting Republic serial thinly-disguised as a feature film – in fact there’s surprisingly very little on screen “chapter action” throughout. Director Lee Sholem’s pedestrian pacing and Philip MacDonald’s too talkative script combine to keep the on screen thrills to the barest of minimums. Having said that, I imagine if you were a kid sitting wide-eyed in a darkened theater in 1954 and cool looking robots were your thing… Well, you likely got your money’s worth for the seventy-seven minutes of your time.
In recent years an increasing number of Republic’s serials and features have been welcomingly issued on Blu-Ray by such outfits as Olive Films and Kino. This is a trend I hope to see continue as there’s several of Republic’s feature horror films from the 1940s that are simply begging for revival – I’m thinking it would be nice to have High Definition copies of such rarities as The Vampire’s Ghost (1945) and The Catman of Paris (1946) for starters.
While we wait, we can enjoy this Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-Ray BD-Rom edition of Tobor The Great, offered here in its original black and white presentation and with an aspect ratio of 1:85:1. Supplements include an audio commentary by film historian and Video Watchdog critic Richard Harland Smith, a gallery of trailers from five other vintage sci-fi films issued in recent years by Kino Lorber, an optional English language sub-title option, and a ten-chapter selection screen.