Monday, August 4, 2008

Unusually Good 1950's Sci-Fi: "Riders to the Stars"

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I ran a movie I’d recently recorded from TCM onto DVD: Riders to the Stars, a better-than-average space opera from 1954 in which the U.S. experiments with unmanned rockets are having problems because every time they fire a rocket into space, those pesky cosmic rays fatigue the metal and the rocket breaks apart in earth’s atmosphere and crumbles into dust when they recover it. They decide that meteors hold the secret to creating a shield that will prevent this from happening, and so they recruit a team of 12 candidates from whom to select four astronauts, each to pilot an individual rocket ship into space and capture a meteor so they can analyze it and figure out how meteors can fly through cosmic-ray belts without disintegrating. How they’re going to keep their manned rockets from disintegrating on return like the unmanned ones had done, and killing the astronauts inside, is never quite explained in the script by Wolf Man writer Curt Siodmak, with uncredited tweaks by producer Ivan Tors.

Despite that major lapse — and some unintentionally risible moments that suggest this film could have been good Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fodder — for the most part Riders to the Stars is a sober-minded, relatively understated film of real quality. It starts — after the opening scene in which the “black box” (actually it’s brown, but we get the idea) from the latest crashed rocket is recovered (by two Jeep drivers who speed over the dunes of the desert landing site heedless of the fact that they’re towing trailers with scientific equipment — often the trailers are off the ground and their precious equipment risks getting lost in the desert forever) and one of the scientists, Dr. Jane Flynn (Martha Hyer) — drawn as a wanna-be astronaut herself barred from space flight by the usual sexist prejudices of the 1950’s (I was always amused at how the U.S. made a big deal that they finally sent a woman into space in 1983 — 20 years after the Soviet Union had done so!) — figures out that the way to build a better rocket shield is to study how the meteors do it.

Given that this movie was being made at the height of the Cold War, the Tors-Siodmak script depicts the recruitment of the 12 astronauts as a cloak-and-dagger process in which the entire adult male population of the U.S. is sifted through high-tech computers (on punch cards — one of the joys of a movie like this is seeing how obsolete 1954’s idea of high-tech is!) until they end up with 12 candidates, including mathematics professor Richard Donald Stanton (William Lundigan, top-billed), who’s engaged to a model named Miss [Susan] Manners (Dawn Addams) who can’t decide whether or not to marry him (which turns out to be beside the point since, as just about any reasonably experienced moviegoer could guess, from the time he ends up at the space camp he starts falling in love with Dr. Flynn instead and it’s clear she’s a better match for him) and who also happens to be the son of Dr. Donald L. Stanton (Herbert Marshall), head of the space program. (The idea that William Lundigan could possibly have been the offspring of Herbert Marshall is one of the biggest suspensions of disbelief this movie requires.)

For a moment I imagined that the script would amp up the Cold War rhetoric and do an equivalent to the story of Jesus — why else would they recruit 12 males if it weren’t going to turn out that one of them would betray the program, which in this secular context would have meant turning out to be a Soviet spy? — but instead they whittle the pool down to four by subjecting the would-be astronauts (who until the very last moments don’t even know what they’re being recruited for!) to psychological tests like being kept waiting in an office for hours: the first candidate who starts complaining about this (and the fact that they’ve been locked in!) is washed out. The coolest parts of the movie, however, are the shots in the giant centrifuge, a part of the training of real-life astronauts as well; these scenes were filmed in and around the real centrifuge at USC (though the close-ups of William Lundigan contorting his face to make us believe he’s at 12G’s were obviously studio work in front of a process screen and he was acting rather than actually experiencing heavy gravity) and are quite well dramatized to show us the unnatural nature of the stresses put on the human body by escape velocity.

Once the training is finished this 81-minute movie is almost two-thirds over; the astronauts get their launch orders (with less than an hour’s notice!) and, much to my surprise, they’re each assigned a separate spaceship complete with a “meteor scoop” to grab a meteor and bring it back to earth. One of the astronauts, Walter J. Gordon (Robert Karnes), loses control, is sucked out of his spaceship and instantly becomes a skeleton (a mistake in the script: the vacuum of outer space would instantly kill not only the human being but also the microorganisms within the human body that cause it to decay after death, so a victim lost in space would remain physically preserved indefinitely), which causes another astronaut, Dr. Jerome Lockwood (Richard Carlson — who in addition to appearing in the movie is also credited as director, though associate producer Herbert Strock, who later made monster movies at American International, apparently also handled some of the direction) to freak out and unstrap himself from the seat of the spaceship (the makers of this movie decided to handle weightlessness by simply never having the astronauts get up, though this one disobeyed instructions and they shot him in slow motion to help create the illusion of weightlessness in space).

So it’s up to plucky Don Stanton to catch the meteor, bring it back to earth and land his spacecraft without enough retro-rockets to do it safely — the final 25 minutes or so of this movie are actually quite effective suspense filmmaking even though the “training” scenes that precede them are a bit on the dull side — and overall Riders to the Stars is a quite capable piece of filmmaking, not a world-beating movie (Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon would remain by far the best movie about space travel for decades, probably until 2001: A Space Odyssey) but certainly appealing despite glitches like a dubious central premise (one commentator noted that, contrary to the assumption at the heart of the script, cosmic rays don’t fatigue metal; instead the big problem for which manned space rockets need shields is the heat of re-entry, and the material they ended up using was fiberglass and ceramic) and a color process offered by the “Color Corporation of California” that turned out to be SuperCineColor, our old friend from The Magic Carpet, which was unstable enough that the color went through some abrupt changes from reel to reel and, when it was working properly, offered credible skin tones, vivid blues and reds, and not much in the way of anything else.