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By Phil Hall | October 19, 2012

BOOTLEG FILES 450: “Visit to a Small Planet” (1960 comedy starring Jerry Lewis).

LAST SEEN: The entire film is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been released on VHS.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: One of Jerry’s more elusive titles.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It was released in Europe, so maybe it can find its way to the U.S.

One of the most inventive and wittiest plays ever produced on Broadway was the source material for one of the dreariest and least amusing comedy films ever produced in Hollywood. How did that happen? Well, funny you should ask…

The material in question is “Visit to a Small Planet,” written by Gore Vidal. The work originated as one-shot production broadcast on the “Goodyear Television Playhouse” on May 8, 1955. However, reaction to the broadcast was so positive that Vidal expanded the work for the stage. The play opened on Broadway on February 7, 1957, and it proved to be a popular work with critics and audiences.

Vidal’s work took advantage of the 1950s science-fiction notion of alien invasions by offering an extraterrestrial intruder who uses wit rather than brute force to subjugate the planet. In this case, the urbane alien Kreton leaves his planet to become a spectator to the American Civil War. Alas, he is a century too late – but to his delight, Earth-bound warfare has progressed dramatically since the days of Lincoln. Taking up residence with a typical American suburban family, Kreton decides to start a new global war – strictly for his own amusement. “Isn’t hydrogen fun?” he happily exclaims over the choice of bombs to employ. However, the Earthlings successfully appeal to his intellect and dissuade him from pursuing his plans.

Vidal’s comedy offered a trenchant satire of Cold War politics and Eisenhower-era social values. In both the television and Broadway productions, the droll British actor Cyril Ritchard embodied Kreton as an urbane, otherworldly presence. A highlight of the productions was Ritchard’s telepathic communications with a Siamese cat – the actor brilliantly provided imaginative facial reactions to the feline’s wordless repartee.

In 1959, film producer Hal Wallis purchased the screen rights to “Visit to a Small Planet.” However, Wallis would not consider Ritchard for the film version. Although Ritchard was well known to audiences from his TV performance as the zany Captain Hook opposite Mary Martin’s Peter Pan, Wallis wanted a star that could bring in movie audiences.

Vidal suggested David Niven to play Kreton, while executives at Paramount Pictures (where Wallis was based) floated the possibility of Alec Guinness or Danny Kaye – the latter choice was a bit strange, since Kaye’s manic style of humor was quite different from Vidal’s cerebral brand of satire. Ultimately, Wallis chose a star who was even further away from Vidal’s word than Kaye: Jerry Lewis.

Why Jerry Lewis? Lewis would insist that his casting was Vidal’s idea, but Vidal refuted that. (In fact, the playwright had no role in the film’s creation.) More likely, Lewis needed to fulfill one last film under his contract to Wallis. Thus, Vidal’s play was reconfigured into a Lewis vehicle.

As a result, the film version of “Visit to a Small Planet” only possesses a shaky acquaintanceship with its source material. Screenwriters Edmund Berloin and Henry Garson removed the political aspects of the work, especially its acerbic view of the Pentagon’s militarism. Even worse, Kreton was changed from Vidal’s sophisticated adult into Lewis’ on-screen persona of a spastic, screechy man-child.

In the film, Kreton is a student in a class on planet X-47. The student body consists of adult men who wear silvery pajama-type uniforms, and Kreton is the class clown – he borrows a spaceship to go joyriding around the Earth. Although his teacher sentences him to write “I will not visit Earth” ten billion times, he sneaks off again in a spaceship and returns to Earth, landing in Richmond, Virginia. As luck would have it, he arrives at the home of a television broadcaster who is obsessed in proving that “flying saucers” do not exist.

The remainder of “Visit to a Small Planet” is mostly an extended fish-out-of-water comedy, with the innocent Kreton trying to comprehend the Earth protocol. Since he comes from a planet where the inhabitants are not required to reproduce, he is fascinated in watching how Earth couples engage in lovemaking. He also tastes alcohol for the first time, resulting in his walking up the walls and across the ceiling. There is also an extended visit to a Beatnik club, where Kreton uses his telepathic powers to play the bongos in a drumming contest with Buddy Rich – which is then followed by a wild dance with a hot Beatnik chick.

In watching “Visit to a Small Planet,” it is impossible not to become depressed by the film’s extraordinary waste of opportunities. The science-fiction premise is used to employ a number of special effects, but the gags are mostly silly (e.g., Kreton uses his powers to levitate traffic cops, Kreton hanging from a spaceship that blasts into the air). Even worse, Lewis surrounds himself with a number of genuinely talented actors (including Fred Clark, John Williams, Gale Gordon, Lee Patrick, Ellen Corby and a young Earl Holliman), but keeps all of the comedy highlights for himself. As a result, he becomes the obnoxious life of a dismal party – especially in the grueling (and badly dated) Beatnik section of the film.

The critics, who were never kind to Lewis’ work, were dismissive of “Visit to a Small Planet” – most notably, Howard Thompson of the New York Times dismissed it as “subtle as a meat cleaver.” However, audiences in that distant era loved Lewis and the film continued his streak as a box office icon – and even the Academy Award voters got caught up in the action, offering the film an unlikely nomination for its less-than-spectacular art direction.

Over the years, “Visit to a Small Planet” has become somewhat elusive. It was briefly released on VHS video in the 1980s by the Magnetic label, and it has occasionally turned up on television over the years. DVDs were released on European labels and it can be found in Netflix’s streaming selection, but there has yet to be a commercial U.S. DVD release. The full film is on YouTube in a multi-installment unauthorized posting.

As for the original Gore Vidal play, it occasionally turns up in regional theater, and perhaps someday an enterprising producer will brush off the text and put it on camera in the way that the legendary writer intended.

Post-script: this is the 450th installment in The Bootleg Files series. I would like to thank the Film Threat readers for their support of this long-running series – and here’s looking forward to the next 450 bootleg goodies!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Robert says:

    Cyril Ritchard was Australian, not British.

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