The pivotal laughter test that kickstarted the Planet Of The Apes saga

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1968’s Planet Of The Apes remains a science fiction classic – but the film’s very existence came down a screening test in New York with nine people in the room.

One of the few projects that Disney didn’t cull when it completed its acquisition of 20th Century Fox over a year and change ago was a fresh entry in the Planet Of The Apes saga. That’s little surprise, either. Since the first film adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel in 1968, there has been a total of nine Apes films, and most recently the terrific ‘Caesar’ trilogy, that concluded with 2017’s War For The Planet Of The Apes.

The films have generated over $2bn in box office business, and the current plan is for Maze Runner director Wes Ball to take the saga forward with whatever the next film is called. All we know thus far is that it’ll be set after the events of War For The Planet Of The Apes, and thus on that timeline.

However, tracking the series right back, it’s interesting to see that one pivotal session with studio bosses was crucial in the first film getting the go ahead in the first place.

The first movie is, of course, a flat-out sci-fi classic, with Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall leading an ensemble cast, under the eye of director Franklin J Schaffner (who also helmed Papillon and Patton). Michael Wilson and Rod Serling penned the script. And amongst the other miracle workers on the movie, there was the make-up team.

It’s no secret that this caused a lot of problems. How, after all, could the actors playing apes in the film – the likes of McDowall, James Daly, Kim Hunter and James Whitmore – both look convincing in their roles, and also have the leeway under the heavy make-up to actually act?

John Gregory Dunne’s book The Studio is a fascinating tome, where the author spent 1967 with pretty much unlimited access to 20th Century Fox across its many departments. As the blurb on the back of a recent edition not unreasonably boasts, the book is ‘a work of reportage that, thirty years later, may still be our most minutely observed and therefore most uproariously funny portrait of the motion picture business’. And slap bang in the middle of that period of reporting came the production of Apes.

Fox at the time was still overseen by arguably the last of the studio moguls. Darryl F Zanuck was its president, having co-founded the studio (as 20th Century Pictures). That said, by this stage he was primarily based in New York, leaving the day-to-day running of the studio to his son, Richard D Zanuck. The latter was Los Angeles-based, and had the title of vice president in charge of worldwide production.

For a film to press ahead, the pair needed to give the say-so, but producer Arthur Jacobs knew there was a problem with Planet Of The Apes. That he’d spent years trying to convince Fox to do the picture, having picked up an option on the novel in 1964. But every studio rejected the movie, with Warner Bros coming the closest to saying yes. Finances led it to walk away, after Serling had completed a draft of the screenplay.

Jacobs was also overseeing the huge production of Dr Dolittle, starring Rex Harrison, for Fox. And thus he brought Planet Of The Apes to the desk of Richard Zanuck, who wasn’t best pleased to see it. As reported in The Studio, Jacobs said “every time I came into his office, I brought it up. It got so I never even got the name of the picture out of my mouth. I’d say ‘Dick, what about…’ and he’d say ‘no’”.

Persistence paid off, and Zanuck ultimately agreed to see a sample as to whether the project was feasible. And that’s where extensive make-up tests were undertaken to try and see if it was workable that people could convincingly play apes.

A special dialogue scene was penned for a test, therefore, and not a short one. They needed to see if the apes could hold the screen for a period of time, with a conversation taking place between them. Also, their faces needed to move in order for it all to come together. After an awful lot of work, finally Jacobs and his team was ready to present the footage to Richard Zanuck in Los Angeles, and he liked what he saw. But, crucially, he wanted to present it to his father for the final say-so.

Thus, off they went – with the oh-so-important can of footage – to New York, for an audience with Darryl Zanuck. This was it. As Jacobs recalled, “Jesus, there were nine guys in that screening room watching the test. If any one of them laughed, we were dead”.

Those were the stakes as the lights dimmed and the footage played out. The footage – that has subsequently appeared on DVD releases of the film – featured Heston, Edward G Robinson, James Brolin and Linda Harrison (who were both on contract at Fox). Here is that crucial near-nine minutes of footage that the Zanucks were presented with…

And, of course, it worked. “They didn’t laugh and we were in business”, Jacobs said, and he’d subsequently juggle both Dolittle and Apes as they both made their way to the screen: one proving to be a lot more successful than the other.

It’s worth adding too that not only did Darryl Zanuck give the film the go-ahead, he also recommended a core member of the film’s personnel. That he suggested they give a young composer by the name of Jerry Goldsmith the job of scoring the picture. That didn’t turn out too badly, either…


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