The Garden Theater in Princeton’s Hollywood Summer Nights film series just lifted off with the 1956 sci-fi classic “Forbidden Planet.” It was an eye-opener about what is happening both on the screen and in the theater on Wednesdays and Thursday nights through mid-September.
The “on the screen” deals with the theater’s interest in showing classic films as originally designed: to an audience on a large screen in a theater, rather than viewed on a small screen in a home.
And “Forbidden Planet” — like others in a lineup that includes Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” — is best appreciated as a big picture.
Adapted from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” the stuff of dreams in “Forbidden Planet” is in its Oscar-nominated special effects and production values, including flying saucers, fantasy landscapes, and futuristic interiors.
And on the Garden Theater screen, the film’s wide CinemaScope and lush Eastman Color are free to do their magic — although the digitally projected version lacks the sharpness of film.
The series opener filled the theater to about 70 percent capacity. And given the film’s genre and vintage, most were males over 40.
Since the nonprofit theater’s aim is to enhance the viewing experience, the showings feature an introduction to provide background or context. On this occasion Princeton-based science fiction writer Dexter Palmer stood below the screen and read some comments to call our attention to visual and textual elements.
Particularly keen was Palmer’s thought on the creative designs of the spacecraft, “gloriously unhindered by facts” of the actual space travel following the release of the film. And while some of the dialogue and characterizations in “Forbidden Planet” are dated, the visuals continue to win over the audience — as attested by the Princeton audience applauding at the end of the film.
While this showing was in color, the summer series has several black and white classics that will benefit from the large screen.
That includes the Thursday, July 7, screening of “The Maltese Falcon,” directed in 1941 by major filmmaker John Huston. His no-nonsense adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s story of hardboiled detective Sam Spade’s struggle to avenge his murdered partner and locate a legendary statue of a falcon is a lesson on how quick pacing, sharp delivery, and unaffected acting — led by Humphrey Bogart — can grab and hold an audience.
Another black and white gem is the Wednesday, July 27, showing of “Sullivan’s Travels,” director and screenwriter Preston Sturges’ 1941 sentimental valentine to comedy writing. Sullivan (actor Joel McCrae) is a well-known and well-off film comedy director who wants to create a socially conscious film called “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” (the inspiration of the Coen Brothers film of the same name).
To get the sense of being poor, Sullivan sets out on a shallow journey in Depression-era U.S.A. to experience adversity and, of course, gets more than he’s bargained for. Produced within the era’s codes of class, race, and gender, this witty and sometimes screwball comedy stocked by types is also reflective — bringing up ideas about poverty, success, filmmaking, and democracy in an by-gone silver-screen elegance.
Following on Thursday, July 28, is one of old Hollywood’s most celebrated romances, “Casablanca.” While many have seen the 1942 film on the small screen, seeing it large can be a revelation. The World War II-era plot is still the same old story: Rick (Bogart again) — the expatriate American cafe owner in French Morocco — is living a hollow existence until the woman he loves and lost, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), arrives at his cafe with her Nazi-defying husband. What changes is that the theater screen shows what the small screen blurs: close-ups of Bergman’s glowing face and the palm-leaf shadows behind her making her presence an oasis for Rick — who never drinks with anyone and jokes that he came to a desert city “for the waters.” It’s the little touches that help one see why the film has endured.
And why this series is important.
Hollywood Summer Nights, Garden Theater, 160 Nassau Street, Princeton. Wednesdays and Thursdays, through September 15. $11 general admission, $6 for members. 609-279-1999 or princetongardentheatre.org.