I first saw this movie on TV when I was about 10 years old and I absolutely loved it. Spaceships and Jerry Lewis as an alien – what could be better? It’s been at least twenty five years since I last watched Visit to a Small Planet. It’s still funny but, wow, have special effects come a long way!
Legendary American writer, Gore Vidal, wrote the original script to poke fun at America’s post-World War II fear of Communism. Vidal used his alien, Kreton, to take a satiric look at American life. That original script got its one time only broadcast on TV as an episode of Goodyear Playhouse on May 8, 1955. The TV play was a such a success that Gore Vidal decided to re-work the story and flesh it out and turn it into a Broadway play. Visit to a Small Planet had its Broadway debut on February 7, 1957. Australian actor Cyril Ritchard, who played the TV Kreton also portrayed the Broadway Kreton and directed the play. Ritchard went on to earn a Tony Award nomination for his portrayal of the spacy alien. Visit to a Small Planet ran for 388 performances and became a critical and commercial success. Critics proclaimed it “one of Broadway’s big hits”, “gloriously funny”, and “a topsy-turvy lark”. Visit to a Small Planet had gone from TV success to Broadway success. Gore Vidal decided it was time for film success.
Producer Hal B. Wallis considered a variety of actors, from Alec Guinness to Danny Kaye, to play the role of spacy alien Kreton. He decided on 34 year old comedian Jerry Lewis. Gore Vidal was not pleased and he let it be known. But Jerry Lewis was a Star. He had been on the Top Ten List of Box Office Stars twelve times (six times as part of the Martin and Lewis team and six times as a solo performer). Jerry got the part. While the TV and Broadway Kretons were “arrogant, selfish, and patronizing”, Jerry Lewis played Kreton as a lovable, childish alien (he is still attending alien school). Kreton is fascinated with the small, insignificant planet Earth and constantly sneaks off to visit against his teacher’s, Mr. Delton’s, orders (played by John Williams). On his latest visit, Kreton befriends the Speldings, an Earth family, and moves in with them so he can “study” Earth people and their emotions (Kreton’s people have done away with pesky things like emotions). Secure in his complete safety because of his alien powers, Kreton gets carried away with the novelty of emotions like joy and love and decides he might like to stay on Earth and even marry the Spelding daughter Ellen. (played by Joan Blackman). Unbeknownst to Kreton, his teacher, Mr. Delton, is watching his antics and decides to let Kreton feel what it is like to really be an Earth person.
While the Jerry Lewis’ version of Visit to a Small Planet went on to be nominated for the 1960 Academy Award for Best Art Direction (Black and White), the film just did not have the level of success that the Broadway play enjoyed. Critics complained that it was only “business as usual” for Jerry Lewis and that he “lacked the talent to fill Kreton’s role”. Of course, I knew nothing of the critics’ disdain when I first saw the movie on TV sometime in the late 1960s. I just thought it was funny and adding spaceships just made it great. I remember seeing Visit to a Small Planet three or four times and being absolutely ecstatic whenever it popped up on TV. I still think it is funny. This is a young Jerry Lewis clowning around at his slapstick best. Jerry as Kreton screws up his spaceship’s time travel controls and ends up in the wrong era, repeatedly bangs into his own invisible protective shield, is completely befuddled by emotions like passion and love, gets overcome by Beatnik music, plays all kinds of pranks on hapless humans, and definitely can not handle being a weak human. I just love Jerry’s rubber face whenever his Kreton runs head first into some human emotion. The film tones down the McCarthyism and fear of Communism that gave the Broadway show its bite. Basically the only thing left of that theme is Gale Gordon as suspicious neighbor Bob Mayberry. Basically it’s just Kreton and his ridiculous and hilarious antics. Of course the special effects are extremely dated. The flying saucer is just plain silly and other effects, like Kreton sleeping above his bed, are totally laughable. A first grader on a laptop could do better with today’s software. But still … there is Jerry making all kinds of comical faces and pratfalling all over the place and looking silly in a silver spaceman suit. Visit to a Small Planet is just plain old fashioned spaceman fun.
Visit to a Small Planet is in black and white and runs one hour and 25 minutes. The special effects are very basic and the film is blurry in places but the audio is very good. There is nothing in this film to worry tender-hearted film fans. Even when Kreton is playing pranks on unsuspecting humans, he is not being mean-spirited. And when Ellen’s long suffering boyfriend (played by Earl Holliman) does finally manage to punch Kreton it becomes a riotous pratfall fest. The Internet Archive has three versions of Visit to a Small Planet that all seem about the same. Click each link to watch the film online or download completely FREE: Version #1, Version #2, and Version #3. IA also has Junior High English lesson plans to compliment Gore Vidal’s original story. Unfortunately, I could not find Vidal’s story anywhere free but some sites have copies available for purchase for only a few dollars.