Sunday, March 23, 2014

First Men in the Moon (Ameran/Columbia, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I had expected to see the 1964 film First Men in the Moon at Gerry Williams’ showing at the ConDor science-fiction convention, but that proved impossible as the soundtrack was impossibly static-ridden and too distorted to render the dialogue audible. Fortunately, I had a copy at home and we watched it there instead — though, ironically, the circumstances led us to expect a much better movie than the one we got. The film begins in 1964, when a U.S.-Russian-British co-venture has finally landed a crew on the moon — and the film opens with the actual landing, done much like the real moon flights only five years later, with a lunar module detaching itself from the main spacecraft and using retro-rockets to touch down on the moon’s surface. Once there, the astronauts realize that they aren’t the first men on (or in) the moon after all; they find an old, rather dowdy-looking British flag and a note from a previous astronaut claiming the moon as territory of the British Empire under the authority of Queen Victoria. The United Nations Space Administration, which launched the current moon flight, sends a delegation to check out the name of Katherine Callendar (Martha Hyer), who signed the original document. She’s dead, but her former husband Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd) is still alive, living in a nursing home and insisting that he once visited the moon. When the delegates reach him, he tells a story about the first moon flight back in 1899 — and the rest of the film is a nice but overly campy flashback.

Bedford was deeply in debt and living in a rented cottage — though he told Kate he owned it — where he was supposed to write a play that was going to be such a huge hit it would pay off all his creditors. But he abandons that plan when he finds out his next-door neighbor wants to buy the cottage so he can expand his scientific experiments. The man, who’s a “mad scientist” in the charmingly dotty rather than the outright insane sense, is Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), who’s invented Cavorite, a substance that neutralizes gravity: when you paint it on something, as soon as the paint dries the object you’ve painted it on becomes weightless. Fortunately it only works when it’s exposed to light, so the reaction can be controlled by putting blinds over the Cavorite-coated surface and opening or closing them to make the object move in a particular direction. Bedford wants to cheat Cavor out of the rights and exploit it for short-term profit, but Cavor has always wanted to use it to power a spacecraft to the moon. They do so, with Kate stowing away at the last minute to get away from the lawyers hired by the cottage’s real owner, who’s suing her for trying to sell it to someone else, and they bump around space for a while (at one point Bedford screws up the steering so much the spaceship comes dangerously close to the sun) until they finally make a bone-jarring landing on the moon. Once there they find underground caves with pockets of atmosphere — a scientific howler quite a few films about moon travel, including Fritz Lang’s Woman on the Moon (1928) and the awful 1953 film Cat-Women of the Moon, used — and they also discover a race of highly civilized but also malevolent indigenous beings, the Selenites, who are half-humanoid and half-insect and played by actors in ill-fitting, all too baggy costumes.

Special-effects genius Ray Harryhausen worked on this project and his name was used to sell it, but his skills are used in only one sequence — a battle between the 1899 astronauts and three (potentially) man-eating caterpillars — otherwise it’s pretty much an action-porn film in which the astronauts keep getting entrapped by the Selenites and rescued by each other, with a bizarre ending in which Cavor agrees to stay on the moon and try to reason with the Selenites (his big, preachy speech at the end is the part of the film that most reveals the identity of the story’s original author, H. G. Wells) while the other two head back to earth. Flash-forward to 1964 again, and Bedford is frantically warning the United Nations space guys that people have no business being on the moon, that the Selenites are way too dangerous and the crew on the moon need to fly back immediately — only the 1964 astronauts discover that all the Selenites have died and their buildings have crumbled because (in a gimmick obviously borrowed from Wells’ The War of the Worlds, either by Wells himself or the credited screenwriters, Nigel Kneale and Jan Read) Cavor had a common cold and it infected and killed off the Selenites because they had no immunity to it. First Men in the Moon might have been a good movie but it was killed by the “arch” campiness of the approach to the material and the tackiness of the effects — particularly producer Charles H. Schnee’s unwillingness to use Ray Harryhausen more (Schnee worked on a lot of the Harryhausen projects and the two men apparently trusted each other and got along, but this time Schnee screwed Harryhausen over not only by giving him too small a budget for multiple effects scenes but shooting the film in 2.35-1 anamorphic widescreen, which forced Harryhausen to build his stop-motion models in forced perspective so they’d look “right” through the anamorphic decoder lens on the projectors showing the film).e pointed