Classic Television Thursday #015 – The Thin Man: Robot Client (1958)

thin1It’s the same theory as that behind Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups: Chocolate and Peanut Butter are great separately, so why not put them together and have two great things in one?

Here, though, we’re not talking about chocolate and peanut butter, we’re talking about detectives and science fiction.

One of the true classic detective film series is the Thin Man series, a set of six movies based on the characters Nick and Nora Charles who were originally created in 1934 by crime fiction writer Dashiell Hammett for his novel The Thin Man. Nick and Nora are a married couple who booze and banter their way through a mystery they are brought into when the daughter of a friend of retired detective Nick calls upon them to find her missing father who is the prime suspect in a murder.  Though Hammett never wrote any follow-up stories featuring the characters, the film version of the novel, which was also released in 1934 by MGM, proved so popular  – largely based on the chemistry between stars Myrna Loy and William Powell – that sequels were inevitable, and followed quickly.

thin2The last Thin Man film, Song of the Thin Man, was released in 1947, and surprisingly, it wasn’t until about ten years later that the franchise became a TV show.

The television series starred Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk as Nick and Nora, and though they never quite found the same level of charm as Powell and Loy, the series is still quite entertaining.

Okay, so that’s the detective part, but where does the science fiction come in? With one of my all-time favorite sf movies.

thin5A digression: When I was a kid, sf on television was kind of a big thing, and one of my favorite shows was Lost in Space. Why? Two reasons: Dr. Smith, and The Robot. Yeah, I know, since then the show’s been imitated and parodied so much that it’s hard to take seriously, and really it was never meant to be anyway, but back then, it was just the thing to spark a pre-teen boy’s imagination. (Oh, just as a by-the-way, the television Lost in Space was actually based on a comic book titled Space Family Robinson published by Gold Key beginning in 1962, three years before the TV show made its debut. One important difference, however was that the early issues of the comic – the ones published before the television show came along – didn’t feature those two crucial characters mentioned above. But then again, neither did the original unsold TV pilot. Of course, they all took their original inspiration from Johann David Wyss’s 1812 novel Swiss Family Robonson, but now I really am digressing.)

thin6Anyway, you can imagine my surprised delight one day to see the classic 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet, which featured a Robot named Robby who distinctly resembled and was the obvious predecessor, in design at least, to LIS‘s Robot B9. (Actually, both of them were designed by Robert Kinoshita.) I’ll be honest, the first time I saw the movie – I can’t even remember when that was, though Wikipedia mentions a 1972 re-release as part of a “kiddie matinee” package, which certainly seems like appropriate timing – much of the plot went way over my head, but that really didn’t matter. The film was absolutely visually stunning, it had a really out-there soundtrack, and, most importantly, that robot. Obviously, I was hooked, and, as I mentioned above, to this day it remains one of my all-time favorites, and if you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend that you do, asap.

All of which leads us, finally, to today’s classic TV episode. After his appearance in Forbidden Planet, one might think that Robby would simply be retired, and either have his parts recycled for some other use, or perhaps be put on display somewhere, but that was not the case.

thin4Instead, Robby – whether as the same character or a different one – went on to appear on screens again quite a few times. The first time was in another science fiction film, The Invisible Boy. As a matter of fact, The Invisible Boy can actually be seen as a sort-of sequel to Forbiidden Planet, as Robby is actually playing the same character as the robot in Planet, who has been drawn back in time to the “present” of the film. The film has even been included on recent releases of Forbidden Planet on DVD and Blu-ray, thus pretty well cementing its place as at least a semi-official follow-up.

thin3After this, Robby (you’ll have to excuse me, btw, if I continue to speak of the robot as an actor instead of merely a character, but at least in the mind of my child-within, that’s what he is – and IMDB seems to agree, as that is the way they list him,  too) went on to play in a number of television shows, sometimes in slightly altered form, but always distinctly Robby. As a matter of fact, IMDB lists him as having 24 actor credits, among them such diverse shows as The Twilight Zone (he actually appeared in three separate episodes of that series), Dobie Gillis, The Monkees, The Addams Family, and even, yes, Lost In Space, where he once showed up to fight with the resident robot of that series.

His first television appearance, however, was – you guessed it, the episode of The Thin Man that is today’s feature. So why would a robot need to enlist the aid of a pair of private detectives? well, I’m certainly not going to give that away here, or at least not in writing. To find out the answer, you’ll have to actually watch the episode, which I’ve embedded below. Have fun!



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