Monday, June 1, 2009

Rocketship X-M (Lippert, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran him a movie we’d recently downloaded: Rocketship X-M, a 1950 production from Lippert Pictures but one with more competent help both in front of and behind the cameras than Lippert usually mustered. The stars are Lloyd Bridges as Col. Floyd Graham, pilot on the “Rocketship Expedition Moon” that gives the film its title; John Emery (Mr. Tallulah Bankhead) as Dr. Karl Eckstrom, who along with his partner Dr. Ralph Fleming (Morris Ankrum) conceived of the lunar mission; Noah Beery, Jr. and Hugh O’Brian as two other crew members (with a woman, Osa Massen as Dr. Lisa Van Horn, chemist and inventor of the rocket’s fuel, to add sex appeal to the cast even though through most of the movie Massen is playing in the sort of thickly accented, stiff-upper-lip style of Garbo in Ninotchka), while behind the camera Kurt Neumann is credited as producer, writer and director, the cinematographer is Karl Struss (which explains why Rocketship X-M looks so much better than most 1950’s sci-fi cheapies) and the musical score is by former Paul Whiteman arranger, Rhapsody in Blue orchestrator and Grand Canyon Suite composer Ferde Grofé. (He rather overuses the theremin but otherwise turns in a quite capable score.)

Rocketship X-M had a convoluted production history: it began as a script by Neumann about a rocket flight to Mars, on which the crew encounters living dinosaurs (one can imagine what the “suits” at Lippert must have thought when Neumann came in with a concept for a movie that would have been far too expensive for them to make — when they did King Dinosaur a year later, the “dinosaurs” were living lizards, photographed on model sets, and they scampered too quickly and energetically to be believable as huge, ponderous prehistoric beasts). Then special effects artist Jack Rabin approached Lippert with an idea for a film about a rocket to the moon called Destination Moon — just when George Pal was developing a project with that title and central premise. To get his company’s film into theatres before Destination Moon and take advantage of the publicity Pal and his studio, Eagle-Lion (the former PRC), was doing around the whole concept of space travel on film, Robert Lippert decided to rush his own space opera into production and combined the Neumann and Rabin stories — though after Pal threatened to sue anyone who did a movie about a rocket mission to the moon, Neumann reverted to his original concept and rewrote the script so the rocket is aimed at the moon but actually reaches Mars instead.

Once there (the Martian scenes are tinted in sepia to suggest that they’re on the “Red Planet”), they don’t find living dinosaurs, but they do learn that Mars once boasted a civilization of humanoids whose technological advancement was well ahead of our own, only they discovered nuclear energy and wiped most of themselves out in a nuclear war, and the surviving Martians have reverted to cavemen. Lippert actually got his film into theatres several weeks before the more prestigious Destination Moon, though audiences confused between the two films resented it enough that after a while theatres showing Rocketship X-M had to put up posters reading, “This is not Destination Moon” (much the way the revival theatre in San Francisco where I first saw the 1931 film of The Maltese Falcon had to put up a sign warning people that they were not showing the far more famous 1941 remake with Bogart).

Rocketship X-M was revised in 1982 when entrepreneur Wade Williams bought the rights and reshot some of the scenes of the rocket taking off and actually flying — though in the 1990’s most (but not all) of the original footage was restored — and the film as it stands is unusually good for a Lippert production, well staged, acted (within the limits of the genre), directed (despite the self-imposed limitation on Kurt Neumann to keep it interesting within the confines of the small spaceship on which most of it takes place) and reasonably convincing as a depiction of space travel even though weightlessness isn’t depicted consistently and is played mostly for laughs. Carlos Clarens didn’t think much of Rocketship X-M, calling it “a gimcrack story about a spaceship detoured by a female member of the crew [sic — the detour is actually caused by the arrogance of Eckstrom, who refuses to listen to the female crew member’s warning that his calculations are off and thereby makes the mistake that shoves the ship off course] from going to the moon and reaching Mars instead,” and saying of the plot gimmick that the Martians had annihilated themselves in a nuclear war except for a few who regressed to a prehistoric lifestyle, “This would-be pawky moral warning had all the earmarks of cheap, last-minute opportunism.”

I think he’s being unfair to this film, which though clearly inferior technically to Destination Moon (which had the benefits of color, a Walter Lantz cartoon sequence and spacecraft designed by the famous industrial designer Raymond Loewy) is actually a better movie. Much of Rocketship X-M seems less an attempt to rip off Destination Moon and more a politically progressive response to it: the spaceship is launched by a government agency (in Destination Moon it was sent up by a group of Ayn Randian private-sector capitalists after the government refused to bankroll anything so seemingly useless as a trip to the moon) and the whole tenor of the script, with its independent-feminist crew member and its anti-nuclear war message, seems so far on the other side of the political fence from the quasi-fascism of Robert Heinlein (who wrote the story on which Destination Moon was based and had a one-third credit on the script) it’s easy to believe the report on that blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo had a hand in the Rocketship X-M script.

Most of the press on Rocketship X-M has veered between qualified raves and qualified pans, and the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew even gave this their “treatment” (though when Charles downloaded it that way I insisted that, having never seen Rocketship X-M before, I wanted my first encounter with it to be “straight”), and as Charles pointed out it’s hardly in the same league as The Day the Earth Stood Still or Forbidden Planet (or, for that matter, Fritz Lang’s 1928 Woman on the Moon, which in my opinion remained the best film about space travel until 2001: A Space Odyssey 40 years later), but on its own merits it’s a quite well done science-fiction film, and the Martian scenes (which no doubt gave Kurt Neumann a sense of liberation after all the scenes he’d had to shoot inside that tin can of a spaceship!) in particular are marvelously conceived, vividly exploiting the Death Valley locations on which they were filmed (a quite appropriate locale for a film scored by Ferde Grofé, whose most famous work as a composer was the Grand Canyon Suite!) and suspensefully staged and edited.

The final scene, in which the surviving crew members suddenly realize that they don’t have enough fuel for a safe landing back on Earth and therefore they’re going to be killed in a crash — but they radio back to their home base to communicate the all-important “message” that Earth needs to avoid the fate of the Martians (though even in a film this gutsy exactly what we have to do to avoid their fate is not spelled out in the script) — is oddly moving and much more intense than the similar crisis at the end of Destination Moon (in which the astronauts have to jettison practically the whole interior of their ship to make it light enough to fly back to earth on their existing fuel supply — and that film ends oddly with the rocket still in mid-space on the way back from the moon to Earth!); and even the rather schlocky gimmick that Col. Graham and Dr. Van Horn finally discover and declare their love for each other just when their rocket is about to crash to Earth and they’re about to die is done in a way that avoids the obvious sentimentality and achieves a Romantic-opera sensibility of two lovers about to be united forever by their simultaneous deaths. Rocketship X-M isn’t a great movie, but it’s an engagingly quirky one and has a lot more to offer than your standard space opera of the period.