How A Monkey Saved Fox

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is here. Its arrival marks yet one more opportunity for Twentieth Century Fox to cash in on a series that’s been a bonanza since 1968. In that year the original Planet of the Apes became an unexpected Fox hit. Producer Arthur Jacobs was supposed to strike it rich for Fox with Doctor Dolittle, a big-budget musical confection trying to blend the whimsy of Mary Poppins with the wit and post-Victorian elegance of My Fair Lady. Hoping to please the entire family, Fox spent $18 million (a huge sum in those days) on Doctor Dolittle, then advertised it grandiloquently as “Twentieth Century-Fox’s Christmas Present to the World.”

Only one problem: this movie featuring talking animals and singing humans (Rex Harrison among them) was a true Christmas turkey. That didn’t stop it from being nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (along with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate). Veteran producer Mike Medavoy (Black Swan), upon being reminded that Doctor Dolittle was up for Best Picture in a very strong year, quipped to me that “this tells you a lot” about the way the industry operates. In 1968, Fox’s award-season strategy was both simple and effective. It involved seven plush screenings of the film to accommodate members of Hollywood’s craft branches, each kicking off with champagne or cocktails, and then a buffet supper in the studio commissary.

Nine nominations notwithstanding, Fox made no money on Doctor Dolittle. But the following year, Arthur Jacobs moved from Dolittle’s sausage-cooking chimpanzee to a screenfull of talking apes, and hit the jackpot. The tale of American astronauts stranded on a distant planet where humans are subjugated by gorillas and orangutans struck a nerve in audiences already made anxious by wars, assassinations, and other man-made disasters. The surprise ending had particular impact. Who can forget that half-submerged Statue of Liberty? Writer-producer J. J. Abrams (Lost), when asked about his favorite plot twist of all time, cited the climax of Planet of the Apes, “when you realize, ‘Oh my God, he’s never getting home because that is home.’”

Planet of the Apes was also viewed in the Sixties as an allegorical look at the rising tension between the races. This was hardly intended. In 1968, when Sammy Davis Jr. enthused that Planet of the Apes was the best film he had ever seen about black/white relations, Jacobs had no idea what he was talking about. Davis’s comment was later relayed to Eric Greene, who was then researching his Planet of the Apes as American Myth (1996). Years before, at age five, Greene himself had seen a Planet of the Apes movie, and had quickly become a devotee of the entire series. Greene didn’t understand back then why he was drawn to the Apes films. But as a child of mixed racial heritage he felt a special bond to these stories that so poignantly investigated racial “otherness.”

Planet of the Apes was a movie in which the once-mighty white race had become a subject population. In this dystopian vision of the future, white men are slaves. As for white women, they’re either dead (the female astronaut who never makes it to the planet) or dumb (Linda Hamilton, beautiful but unable to speak).In those circumstances, being a monkey’s uncle—or aunt—sounds pretty good to me.

by Beverly Gray