Saturday, January 16, 2016

Mars Movie Night, January 15, 2016: “The Deadly Ray from Mars” (Universal, 1938) and “Rocketship X-M” (Lippert, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s program at the Mars film screening was one of the proprietor’s mixed bags: The Deadly Ray from Mars, a cut-down feature-length version of the 1938 serial Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (shown in a tacky download that omitted all the credits to cast and crew); the quite compelling 1950 movie Rocketship X-M; a My Favorite Martian episode called “There Is No Cure for the Common Martian” (in which Ray Walston’s Martian character gets a cold and the virus affects him in unexpected ways; he can’t retract his antennae without causing himself incredible pain, and every time he sneezes he becomes invisible and doesn’t return to visibility until he sneezes again — there’s also a Miracle on 34th Street knockoff scene in which Bill Bixby’s character is assigned to report on an outer-space toy display and Martin, finishing his review for him à la Citizen Kane, comments on all the show’s inaccuracies, including the Polynesian knick-knack appearance of the “Martian” on display there; this show is pretty tackily produced overall but the young Bixby was attractive and I’ve always loved Walston’s dry wit); a few trailers for upcoming movies (including a Marvel parody called, I think, Deadpool, a scatological comedy about a reluctant, to say the least, superhero); and a bizarre seven-minute short in which two aliens (one of whom is dressed in a costume like the uniforms the Beatles wore on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover) visit an Earth-like planet and comment that the local inhabitants are entirely made of meat — “even their brains are meat,” they say disgustedly (which couldn’t help but remind me of virologist Peter Duesberg’s comment that “to a virus, we are just 73 kilograms of meat”). I already commented on these movies when Charles and I watched them before — we hadn’t seen the cut-down version of the Flash Gordon serial but my comment on the complete serial is at, while my review of Rocketship X-M is at — so there’s not much more I need to add.

The Deadly Ray from Mars (whose title is given on the page for the serial as Mars Attacks the World; an “trivia” poster claims the feature version was rushed out by Universal to take advantage of the publicity surrounding Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in October 1938) is actually a pretty good condensation of the 15-episode original, though the fact that it was a serial is quite obvious from the start-and-stop nature of the action and the way it keeps building to false climaxes (even with the cliff-hanger episode endings integrated with their resolutions) and lurching forward through bits of off-handed exposition just to get to the next action scene. I missed the gimmick of the Clay People’s healing mist (the serial features quite a few scenes in which people are locked in rooms and subjected to various gases for both good and ill, though the healing mist’s deletion means all the gases in the feature version are toxic) and the scene in which Jean Rogers as Dale Arden briefly becomes an action heroine herself (in this she anticipates Princess Leia in the first Star Wars and underscores the strong resemblance between the properties — indeed, George Lucas’s producing partner on the first Star Wars, Gary Kurtz, once told the Los Angeles Times that Lucas’s first plan had been to do a Flash Gordon remake and it was only because the Hearst Corporation, whose King Features Syndicate subsidiary owned the rights to Alex Raymond’s characters and regained control of the serials from Universal in 1951, asked for so much money for the rights that Lucas decided to develop something similar but “original” instead), but for the most part the feature retains the highlights of the serial, including at least two of the marvelous scenes in which the Clay People, ordinary Martians turned to stone (though still animate) by the evil magic of Martian Queen Azura’s white sapphire, detach themselves from the clay walls of the caves in which they dwell and start walking around. My comments on Rocketship X-M this time around are also similar to those from the last time, including the progressive political content — it seems that the spacecraft in Rocketship X-M was originally aimed at the moon but due to a combination of navigation errors and space accidents it ends up going to Mars instead, and Mars was once the home of a highly advanced civilization which did itself in via nuclear war, and this is presented as a warning to Earth and its people not to do the same thing — and the surprisingly good production, direction, writing and cast for a 1950 “indie.”

Rocketship X-M originally began as a story idea from writer-director Kurt Neumann, who wanted to make a film about a space flight to Mars, where the astronauts would encounter living dinosaurs. He took it to producer Robert Lippert, who essentially told him to forget it — his budget wouldn’t allow them to do dinosaurs or create an artificial planet (though Lippert did a dino-movie just one year later, King Dinosaur, using living lizards photographed on miniature sets to represent the dinosaurs unconvincingly). Then, when producer George Pal announced plans to film Robert A. Heinlein’s Destination Moon, Lippert called Neumann back in and said that if he’d rewrite his script so the astronauts went to the moon instead of Mars, he’d produce it. Only George Pal got wind of this project and, correctly reading it as an exploitation venture aimed at getting a film about a moon flight into theatres before his, announced he’d sue anyone who came out with a movie about a trip to the moon before Destination Moon. So Lippert called Neumann back, and Neumann suggested that they avoid Pal’s ukase by simply having their rocket diverted from the moon to Mars, where he’d wanted to set his story in the first place. The result was a quite good movie, well acted (especially by Lloyd Bridges and Osa Massen in the leads — Massen is an expert chemist who has designed the rocket’s propulsion system and in her opening close-ups she looks strikingly, and appropriately, like the young Katharine Hepburn, though she speaks with a foreign accent about midway between Marlene Dietrich’s and Ingrid Bergman’s), suspensefully directed by Neumann, with the Martian scenes tinted a kind of rust-red to make the “Martian” locations (actually Death Valley) look more like the “Red Planet.” The version shown last night was Wade Williams’ re-edited one from 1982, with some actual reshoots to make the rocket launches more convincing and even a few added scenes with doubles replacing the original cast members — and for that version Williams restored the tints of the Mars scenes that hadn’t been used after the original 1950 theatrical release prints. The final irony was that theatre owners who booked this film found they were attracting a lot of moviegoers who’d thought they were buying tickets to Destination Moon and reacted quite unpleasantly when they found they weren’t — so Lippert had to provide signs to the theatres playing the film that announced that it was not Destination Moon!