Evan's Reviews > I, Robot

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
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Dec 24, 11

bookshelves: scifi-utopia-dystopia, __in-my-collection, _less-than-200-pages, 2011-reads
Read from December 05 to 24, 2011

In 1989 I drove to Indianapolis to meet Eric, a collector of rare films, ostensibly to see his 16-millimeter print of the elusive 1926 W.C. Fields movie, So's Your Old Man, of which he claimed there were only a half dozen extant copies. We also screened prints of the Lon Chaney Sr. silent, He Who Gets Slapped and the silent German mountain film classic, The White Hell of Pitz Palu, both of which, at the time, were very difficult to see but which have since been issued on DVD. For good measure, he threw in a Charles Bowers comedy short and the Will Hay British comedy, Oh, Mr. Porter!

As the evening progressed, I could tell Eric was hesitant and distracted, twice starting to tell me something and then stopping in mid-word with a "Never mind."

Eric, like most film collectors, was very protective of his cinematic cache. I was sworn to secrecy to tell no one that he even owned the W.C. Fields movie and to especially be hush-hush about a nitrate print of another movie that he kept under temperature controlled conditions in his basement. Owning a highly flammable nitrate print is completely illegal.

But Eric had a secret eating at him. I must have seemed or looked trustworthy, because he finally clued me in. "How would you like to see a print of Abbott and Costello Meet the Mechanical Men?" he asked.

I thought he was joking. Film buffs know the backstory of this long-unseen production, which was withdrawn after its disastrous audience preview in Pomona in 1951, and then remained unreleased after becoming mired in a perpetual legal squabble that pitted Universal studio and the Isaac Asimov estate. The estate contended the film, directed by the workmanlike Charles Brabin, deviated too far from the content and thematic spirit of the fragmentary novel and thus violated a clause in the contract, which gave Asimov final approval or disapproval of the film's content and the right to order withdrawal of the film.

A technician at Universal had apparently read the novel on its first publication in 1950 and in discussing the book with a screenwriter at the studio the two began to see its obvious potential as a vehicle for the legendary comedic duo. Several stories in the book involve the misadventures of comically flustered robotic engineers, Donovan and Powell, who seemed to always be up to their ears in trouble with crazy robot shenanigans. A&C had met menaces as disparate as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Killer, the Invisible Man, Captain Kidd and other horrific villains in their comic forays. So the reasoning went, why not robots? The studio executives loved the idea, and gave the technician who had read the novel a bonus for suggesting it, especially as Paramount also was considering buying the rights as a vehicle for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, which would have marked that comic duo's debut in comedy sci-fi.

Eric held in his palm a small reel in a film gauge I was not familiar with; it seemed almost as small as Super 8, and he placed it on a special projector. I sat on his filthy couch full of cat hair and cast my eyes toward the illuminated screen in the darkened room, taking in the test pattern and numeric countdown before the credits, stained with color splotches. A Universal logo in a crude color format, not Technicolor but Cinecolor, I think, reeled off before me and I settled in for a completely unexpected and unlikely experience. When the title came on the screen, Abbott & Costello Meet...THE MECHANICAL MEN!!!, backed by an alternately ominous and comical musical score, I could not believe it. I was about to see one of the rarest movies on Earth.

My jaw, which had dropped below my collarbone upon seeing the title, dropped closer to the floor as the movie unwound. I simply could not believe what Universal had done to Asimov's classic novel--and I could understand completely why the author forbade the studio from putting the film into general release.

The stories in the book dealing with the emergence of robotic reasoning and the nature of the three rules of robotics had been jettisoned entirely, and in their place A&C had to save the world from a mad scientist (played ignominiously and with evident boredom by Boris Karloff) and his robot army. To cap this disgrace, A&C engaged the crudely realized robots--looking more like an assemblage of whiskey barrels and cardboard boxes--in a tired custard pie fight, which, unlike the ineffective bullets previously tried, jammed their circuitry and foiled the madman's plan. (In later interviews for film magazines, Karloff denied he had made the movie or that it even existed). B-movie blonde bombshell Martha Hyer was woefully miscast as the homely, frigid, sarcastic and serious robopsychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin. The filmmakers even found a way to fit her into a slinky sequined dress slit up the legs for a rendition of an original song penned by none other than Sammy Cahn: "No Love Like Robo Love," which twists the first law of robotics (never harm a human) into "never harm a human heart." Like Karloff, Cahn later refused to discuss the existence of this song or his participation in the film. Character actor William Frawley (soon to gain fame as Fred Mertz on TV's I Love Lucy), also dreadfully miscast, lent extra comic relief as a bespeckeled scientist who learns of the robot menace and is thus dragged off by several, shouting "heeeelllp!" as he disappears behind a door to a fearsome fate. In the final scene, now terribly racist, a bumbling black maintenance man accidentally gets a metal pail stuck on his head, causing the clueless and panicky Costello to believe that the defeated robot army has been resurrected, eliciting his trademark sign of alarm, wheezed from the plump and aging comic's throat: "Heyyyyy, Abbbbootttttt!!!"

As the lights came on in the room I had to ask Eric: "Where did you GET this?"

"Sorry," he said. "I can't say. I could be arrested for even owning this."

I told him his secret was safe with me.

And if you've read this far, then it's April Fools for you four months early.

Merry Christmas.
--------
(Now, an actual review:)

I, Robot, from 1950, is not entirely a novel as first effusion but as a collection of short stories published in various magazines during the 1940s which are here strung together in a flashback framework as the memories of Dr. Susan Calvin, a "robopsychologist." Each of the stories is presented as her reminiscences of anecdotes about the evolving sophistication of robotics in the 21st century.

The first story, "Robbie," about a girl and her robot companion, is a quaint variation on the old "boy and his dog" story, and is the weakest of the bunch. In fact it took me a good while to recover from the disappointing taste left by it. I also found it hard to take seriously some of the stories featuring the comically bumbling duo of test engineers, Donovan and Powell, even when the stories featured some interesting philosophical points. But the stories build in strength as the collection proceeds, culminating in the superb second-to-last story, "Evidence," about one politician accusing another of being a robot, leading to a fascinating examination of the many concepts of robot and human ethics that Asimov explores throughout the book. It was the only story that made me say, "Fuck, yeah!" at the denouement, even though the book is littered with clever endings that reminded me of Agatha Christie mysteries. On the whole I was not blown away but the book gets better if you can stay with it.
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Reading Progress

12/05/2011 page 10
5.0%
12/08/2011 page 30
16.0% "So far, Asimov's vision of the future could not be more off the mark."
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Benjamin (last edited Dec 24, 2011 02:00PM) (new)

Benjamin Duffy Son of a...! Your lies, sir, they are awfully plausible and plausibly awful.


message 2: by Evan (last edited Dec 24, 2011 02:58PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Evan Thanks, Ben. I think. ;)
All of that was true until I got to the Abbott and Costello part. I did see the other rare films screened at Eric the collector's house at the time and place specified. As I was reading about Donovan and Powell in the novel I got the wild hair about Hollywood botching the book, in the manner described. I had fun with it, in any case.

In the future I might be doing more of this kind of thing; just going wherever I want with the reviews. We'll see.

Benjamin wrote: "Son of a...! Your lies, sir, they are awfully plausible and plausibly awful."


Manny Brilliant! If you ever choose to offer yourself as a spokesperson for major multinational corporations, I predict your services will be much sought after.


Evan I have offered myself to multinationals in that capacity and have been turned down. Thanks for the review kudos, nonetheless.


Manny If this means that they have people who consistently do it better, I am a little disturbed. I'd prefer to believe that they're underestimating your skills.


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