Sunday, November 22, 2015

Marooned (Frankovich/Columbia, 1969)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s movie at the Vintage Sci-Fi showing in Golden Hill was a big-budget epic from 1969 (the last year the venue organizer considers “vintage”) called Marooned, made by Columbia in 1969 and co-produced with an in-house “independent” company headed by the studio’s then-production chief, Mike Frankovich. Marooned began life as a novel by Martin Caidin, who also wrote Cyborg — the basis for the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man — though his emergence as a writer of science fiction, or indeed any fiction, in the 1960’s was a surprise because until then he’d been known mostly as an author of nonfiction books about World War II (including The Night Hamburg Died and A Torch to the Enemy, about the U.S. bombing raids against Germany and Japan, respectively). The first person to think about turning Marooned into a movie was veteran director Frank Capra, who, coming off the spectacular failure of his 1961 film A Pocketful of Miracles (the bloated and casting-compromised[1] remake of his 1933 classic Lady for a Day), did a 20-minute short about space travel, Reaching for the Stars, for showing at the New York World’s Fair. The experience led him to space as a possible subject for another feature film, and he seized on Caidin’s Marooned, selling it to Columbia (his old stomping grounds from 1926 to 1939) and persuading Frankovich, who ironically had got his start in films on a major Capra project (he had a bit part as an announcer in Meet John Doe), to greenlight it. “Mike went for Marooned in a big way,” Capra recalled in his autobiography. “I moved back into Columbia Studios in May 1964. Walter Newman began writing what was to become a most magnificent script. Three long, frustrating years later, I backed off from Marooned, a beaten, frustrated man. Using his powers of script and budget approval, Frankovich finally forced me into an impossible position: make the film for under $3 million or give up the project. I gave up the project. Whereupon Frankovich took it over as his personal production, engaged John Sturges to direct it, and spent $8 million in filming it.”

It’s hard to imagine Marooned fitting into Capra’s oeuvre — unless the whooping horns that go off at the space center in Houston when at least some of the marooned astronauts are rescued are supposed to represent their guardian angels getting their wings — but it doesn’t really fit into Sturges’ oeuvre either. His best-known films are the taut modern-Western melodrama Bad Day at Black Rock and the action-fests The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, two key films in the career of Steve McQueen, and he was available to take over Marooned because McQueen had just fired him from the auto-racing drama Le Mans after they’d been having arguments over McQueen’s insistence on fewer lines. (Most actors read a script and demand the writers give them more dialogue; McQueen, who was convinced he was at his most star-powered when he reacted on screen to what others were saying or doing, asked for less dialogue, and on Le Mans his penchant for silent reaction grew to the point where he said nothing for the first 30 minutes of a two-hour movie. “Steve, you’ve got to say something!” Sturges pleaded. McQueen fired him.) Marooned was problematic for a director whose best films range widely across picturesque countrysides because virtually all of it takes place in confined spaces: first, the spacecraft being ridden by the Apollo “Ironman I” mission and the space station in which they live for five months (it’s supposed to be seven, but the fuddy-duddies at Mission Control cut it short after they notice the astronauts are becoming cognitively impaired by their long period of weightlessness), then the control room at the space center in Houston and finally the interior of the XRV which flies a hazardous rescue mission to save the three astronauts who ended up trapped in their spacecraft when the retro-rockets (the backwards-firing rockets that are supposed to slow their descent into the atmosphere so they land safely and don’t disintegrate into ash in the atmosphere upon re-entry) mysteriously fail.

The plot (as conceived by Caidin and scripted by Mayo Simon — a name that seems to inspire so many bad jokes I won’t go there — after Frankovich junked Newman’s “most magnificent script” — judging from Newman’s work on Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, also a drama about a rescue, a Marooned made from his script would probably be better than the one we have) concerns the three trapped astronauts, Jim Pruett (Richard Crenna), Clayton Stone (James Franciscus) and “Buzz” Lloyd (Gene Hackman) — by coincidence, one of the astronauts on the first Apollo mission actually to land on the moon was also nicknamed “Buzz,” Bob Aldrin — along with Charles Keith (Gregory Peck, top-billed), the fussy Mission Control head who’s in charge of trying to talk them down; hot-shot former astronaut Ted Dougherty (David Janssen, who steals the first half of the film out from under the other principals until he’s locked inside the XRV for the second half and becomes just another anonymous guy in a spacesuit — one lesson you learn from the film is that if you’re wearing a spacesuit your ability to act is severely limited no matter how good you are in normal clothes), who insists on launching a rescue mission even though the only available rocket was designed for something else and the XRV has never actually been tested for manned flight; and the astronauts’ Stepford wives: Celia Pruett (the overqualified Lee Grant), Teresa Stone (Nancy Kovack, whom I’d otherwise heard of only as the female romantic lead in the Three Stooges’ last film, The Outlaws Is Coming, with Adam “Batman” West as the male lead), and Betty Lloyd (Mariette Hartley, who’s almost as overqualified for her role as Lee Grant). When one of the women says that they understand their job is to keep house and hold down the fort while their menfolk do exciting things like explore space, the two women in our audience groaned and the screening’s organizer said, “Now do you believe this is a vintage movie?” (And this film was released in 1969, six years after the Soviet Union had launched the first woman into space; I remember pissing off a woman in a grocery line in 1983 when I was saying people were making way too much of Sally Ride being the first American woman astronaut to fly a space mission, and she thought I was just being a male-chauvinist asshole until I added, “20 years after the Russians did it,” and she understood and got my point.)

The big problem with Marooned is it’s surprisingly boring — the most frustrating sort of bad movie, one with a good movie trapped inside and desperately trying to get out — it’s a plot that had been done before (in overall outline even if not in the details) and would be done far better later (in the masterly Apollo 13 and, from what I hear, in Gravity, a film that’s still sitting in my DVD backlog but which I’m interested in watching because other people at the screening said they felt Gravity succeeded where Marooned failed), but it still should have had potential for a better film than the one that got made. Deprived of the wide-open spaces of his Westerns and chase films, director Sturges muffs one opportunity for suspense after another; the astronauts look almost indistinguishable from each other in their spacesuits (and Gene Hackman, the most talented actor of the three, just makes himself insufferable in an attempt to “spin” his character and establish a difference from the other two); Gregory Peck goes through the entire movie showing almost no emotion at all (I understand taciturnity was part of his stock in trade as an actor, but in his best films, like To Kill a Mockingbird, you at least got the impression there were things he cared about emotionally) and coldly weighing the alternatives of leaving the astronauts up there until the oxygen in their spacecraft runs out and mounting a rescue attempt that just got more difficult because a hurricane is aiming straight for the launch site at Cape Canaveral (though it’s called “Cape Kennedy” here during the short-lived renaming of the site for the 35th President) — a problem Peck’s character solves by waiting to do the launch until the rocket is in the eye of the hurricane; and the sheer sang-froid of the Stepford wives the astronauts are married to is a thing of ugliness and a horror to behold. (Even when Mrs. Pruett is called over and informed that her husband has just sacrificed his own life so the other two will have enough oxygen to hold out until the rescue vehicle arrives, she doesn’t seem to break a sweat over the news: she’s upset but neither angry, grief-stricken nor shocked.)

As if the malfunctioning retro-rockets, the lack of testing of the rescue vehicle, and the hurricane weren’t enough melodramatic elements to keep the plot boiling, a Russian space vessel (which you can tell is Russian not only because its name is in Cyrillic lettering but it looks like a giant samovar — where the Apollo spacecraft looks like a giant vacuum cleaner and the red XRV looks like a giant budgie) comes along and saves Lloyd, while Stone is rescued by the XRV. The audience at our screening watched the film in stunned silence for the first two hours of its swollen 132-minute running time (about 100 minutes would have been the right length for this story) and then, during the final sequences in which various astronauts are floating around, untethered, in deep space either being rescued or missing it, started laughing. If there’s one thing that can be said for Marooned, it’s that it carried over from Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey from the previous year the taciturn emotionlessness of the astronauts themselves and all the people on the ground helping them — I remember that auteur critic Andrew Sarris hated 2001 when it was first released but said it looked more believable after the Apollo 11 moon landing because the real astronauts had behaved in the same emotionless fashion as the ones in Kubrick’s film — but whereas 2001 was exaltation Marooned is just a bore, and it didn’t even do well at the box office, earning just $4,350,000 in its initial release. And because it takes place in the filmmakers’ present and depicts only technology that actually existed at the time, I’m not even sure Marooned qualifies as science fiction; it’s just a bad quasi-military melodrama about space travel that could have been a nail-biting thriller but fell far short of its potential.

[1] — Capra wanted Helen Hayes for the part of Apple Annie, the young Steve McQueen as gangster Dave the Dude and Shirley Jones as his nightclub-owning girlfriend. He was forced to settle for a miscast Bette Davis as Annie, Glenn Ford as Dave the Dude and Hope Lange, Ford’s then-squeeze, as the girl.