In 1956, Fred M. Wilcox was at the top of his game in Hollywood. His iconic science fiction movie Forbidden Planet was one of the top box office earners that year. Full of innovative special effects and weird electronic music, the movie remains one of the most influential science fiction films of the twentieth century. And Wilcox was no stranger to success: Previously, he'd directed the popular Lassie films and The Secret Garden, all of which were quite successful. And then abruptly, in 1957, Wilcox left MGM to become an indie filmmaker.
Wilcox's family would have seemed awfully futuristic in the 1910s when he was growing up in Virginia and Kentucky. His father married six times, though all six of his children (including Wilcox) came from his first wife. As a child of divorce during a time when nobody was supposed to get divorced, Wilcox must have had a pretty unusual perspective on the world from an early age.
Two of his sisters, Ruth and Pansy, went to Hollywood to pursue acting. Both wound up married to powerful movie magnates. Ruth married Edgar Selwyn, who co-founded Goldwyn Pictures (later MGM). And Pansy married Nicholas M. Schenck, president of Loews, a company that still owns movie theaters to this day. So it seemed inevitable that Fred would join his sisters in Hollywood, where he worked his way up the ladder at MGM until he got his big break directing a Lassie picture in the 1940s. Lassie Come Home starred future megaceleb Elizabeth Taylor.
Though he enjoyed success and a steady job at MGM, apparently Wilcox wanted to do something more than direct dog and robot pictures. Maybe he wanted to make indie films that had a social message. Or maybe he got stonewalled when he pitched his Forbidden Planet sequel to MGM, called Robot Planet.
Either way, Wilcox abruptly left MGM just one year after his hit film Forbidden Planet to become an independent producer and director. The result of this career move was an indie passion project released in 1960 called I Passed for White. Based on a novel of the same name (written by Mary Hastings Bradley, the mother of famed SF writer James Tiptree Jr./Alice Sheldon), it's about a young mixed-race woman who falls in with a crowd of wealthy whites. She decides to hide her racial identity and winds up marrying a white man. Everything starts to unravel when she has a baby and screams out, "What is it? Black or white?" Her husband believes she's asking because she had an affair with a black man, and promptly boots her out of his life — and out of the white world she's inhabited under false pretenses. John Williams, who wrote the now-legendary score for Star Wars, also wrote the score for I Passed for White. It was one of his earliest gigs writing music for an American movie.
Sniffed the New York Times at the time the film came out:
"I PASSED FOR WHITE," one of the year's more formidable titles, was suitably employed on the Allied Artists release that opened at neighborhood theatres yesterday. The film is fully as specious as it sounds.
Sonya Wilde plays the light-complexioned Negro girl who marries the wealthy blond scion of a snobbish "society" family without revealing her background. After suffering extensively and bearing a still-born child, she finally goes home to her mother, leaving the situation totally unresolved.
Amateurishly written, directed and played, this low-budget offering capitalizes on a delicate theme by depicting its subject in terms of tabloid sensationalism. The result, particularly for the audience, is grim.
Of course Wilcox was anything but an amateurish director, having worked on a few of the most successful Hollywood movies of the past couple of decades. And in the wake of the wildly popular "passing for white" movie Imitation of Life — originally released in the 1930s and then remade in the 1950s — it hardly seems fair to call I Passed for White "sensationalistic." It was part of an established subgenre of melodrama, aimed at women, dealing with racial and sexual issues of the day. With such negative critical reception and no major studio to back it, however, Wilcox's last film sank without a trace.
Wilcox died in 1964 without ever making another movie. Why did he go from making big budget fare like Forbidden Planet to making I Passed for White? Maybe his experiences as a younger man made him want to tell a story about "marrying up" from a woman's point of view. Or maybe, at the dawning of the Civil Rights era, he thought a story about race was more important than movies about robots. Or maybe he really did just want to cash in on a sensationalistic tale. We'll never know. Fred M. Wilcox's career remains one of the most enigmatic in Hollywood. But thanks to his incredible contribution to science fiction, he's unlikely to be forgotten.
You can rent I Passed for White via YouTube for less than $3.