Saturday, May 21, 2016

Flight to Mars (Monogram, 1951)

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

The features at last night’s Mars movie screening were two cheapies from the early 1950’s, Flight to Mars from Monogram and Red Planet Mars from a company I read off the opening credits as “Hillary Productions, Inc.” but which is listed on the film’s page as “Malaby Pictures Corp.,” releasing through United Artists. Both were clearly part of the cycle of space-travel films kicked off by George Pal’s production of Destination Moon in 1950 — it was a huge hit (Pal produced it for the small Eagle-Lion company, formerly PRC, after his usual studio, Paramount, turned it down; after its success Paramount re-signed him and gave him Philip Wylie’s When Worlds Collide, which they’d originally bought for Cecil B. DeMille in 1932, as his next project) and sparked a number of other studios to rush out films about space travel. One was a stone ripoff called Rocketship X-M — based on a story by Kurt Neumann about a trip to Mars, hurriedly rewritten so it took place on the moon, then re-rewritten when Pal and Eagle-Lion threatened to sue anyone else who did a moon-flight film, so Neumann returned to his original story idea and had his astronauts head for the moon but get diverted to Mars. Neumann was working for a studio even chintzier than Eagle-Lion — Lippert, which was mostly a reissue label and foreign-film distributor — but they got their movie into theatres three weeks before Destination Moon and claimed in their ads that theirs was the first film featuring space travel (which it wasn’t). So the “suits” at Monogram green-lighted their in-house talent, including director Lesley Selander (who divided his time between Monogram and Republic and did mostly “B” Westerns for both), writer Arthur Strawn and a semi-name and no-name cast including Marguerite Chapman (top-billed even though, like Bette Davis in Bureau of Missing Persons, the film is already half an hour old before her character appears), Cameron Mitchell, John Litel and Morris Ankrum. (Litel’s presence puts everyone else in the cast one degree of separation from Humphrey Bogart and Ronald Reagan.)

Monogram also put enough money into the production to shoot it in color — Cinecolor instead of Technicolor (Destination Moon had been in color but Rocketship X-M was in black-and-white) but still welcome — and for the first half-hour or so it’s a pretty straightforward portrayal of the first manned expedition to Mars. One novelty is that one of the lead astronauts is a reporter, Steve Abbott (Cameron Mitchell), who’s there to broadcast live coverage of the flight, first via radio and then, once the ship is so far from earth it is no longer in radio contact, via “space cylinders,” which are basically miniature rockets launched from torpedo tubes that have homing signals that will guide them back to Earth. The other four astronauts are the mission’s captain, Dr. Jim Barker (Arthur Franz); Carol Stafford (Virginia Huston), whom Barker took along because she’s such a great rocket scientist and designed many of the ship’s controls but who’s also in decidedly unrequited love with Barker; and older scientists Dr. Lane (John Litel) and Professor Jackson (Richard Gaines), the latter of whom is the obligatory skeptical grump who declaims about how they’re likely to fail and die, and even if they reach Mars and get back the results are probably not going to be happy. On the way nothing much happens except that Steve Abbott finds himself falling for Carol Stafford (well, with a woman and two young guys aboard a romantic triangle was bound to manifest itself) and Carol has to deliver a lot of sexist chatter about how she really wants a husband and family instead of a career. The ship also runs into a couple of meteor showers — shown as red dots that look so much like they were drawn directly onto film one wonders if Norman McLaren was doing uncredited special-effects work on the film (the credited effects person was Jack Cosgrove and lists Irving Block and Jack Rabin as well). They escape the first one unscathed but the second one forces them into some maneuvers to avoid it, and between that and the previous mysterious disappearance of some of their fuel they find themselves far off course and realize that they can land on Mars if they still want to, but it’ll be touch-and-go whether they’ll have enough fuel to get back. This becomes even more problematic when the ship crash-lands in the middle of a Martian mountain range, but its impact triggers an avalanche that buries most of the spacecraft.

When they get out they find themselves greeted by an honor guard from Mars — in this version Martians look just like Terran humans except they’re wearing spacesuits (neon-bright colored leftovers from Destination Moon; this film also cribbed the interior set of the spaceship from Rocketship X-M) because the surface of Mars is as toxic for Martians as it is for humans. No problem: the Martians have simply moved themselves underground and developed extensive technologies, including hydroponic farming, from a seemingly inexhaustible energy source called “corium.” The Martians — including Ikron (Morris Ankrum), leader of the Martian Council that governs the place — offer the Earthlings everything they need to rebuild their ship and return home, including a supply of corium to replace the ship’s depleted atomic fuel. Only director Selander then cuts to a meeting of the Martian Council and shows us that this is a trap: Mars has tried to develop an interplanetary spacecraft of its own but has failed, so Ikron proposes to let the Earthlings repair their ship, give them all the time and resources they need to do that, only just when the ship is about to take off from earth, the Martians will kill the Earthlings, take over the ship, figure out how it’s constructed and build enough of a fleet of them they will be able to conquer Earth and take it over. The reason they want to do this is they’re running out of corium, and without that key energy source their ability to support themselves on Mars will end — so they want our planet to colonize and our own atomic-energy resources to replace the soon-to-be-depleted corium. Though not as blatant in its Cold War propagandism as Red Planet Mars, this plot line certainly smacks of anti-Communist hysteria, ridiculing the very idea of “peaceful coexistence” and reinforcing the ruling ideology in the U.S. at that time that all movements advocating world peace were simply fronts for those evil Commies in their attempts to get us to disarm so they could take over without a fight. There is a decent Martian on the Council, though: Tillamar (Robert Barrat, considerably heftier and more avuncular than he was in his days as a stock villain at Warner Bros. in the early 1930’s and rather surprisingly cast as a good guy here), who wants Mars and Earth to — dare I say it? — peacefully coexist.

Tillamar’s daughter Alida (Marguerite Chapman) — whose name can’t help but evoke memories of the pioneering Mars movie from the Soviet Union in 1924, Aelita: Queen of Mars (indeed, one reviewer who apparently actually read Alexei Tolstoy’s source novel for Aelita instead of just watching the film, in which the entire Mars sequence is merely a dream of the central character, said Flight to Mars is actually a closer adaptation of the “other” Tolstoy’s novel than Aelita) gets assigned to help the Earthlings repair their rocket, and in the process she falls for Dr. Barker and he for her, sending Carol Stafford into some hissy-fits of what-has-she-got-that-I-don’t jealousy until she ends up seeking solace in the arms of Steve Abbott. (Maybe if she’d worn a mini-skirt — one of the weirder conceits of this movie is that the two Martian women it depicts both have daringly short outfits that make it look like the Martians invented the mini-skirt 15 years before it became popular on Earth.) Alas, there’s another mini-skirted Martian woman, Terris (Lucille Barkley), who’s a spy — and Alida overhears her and Ikron plotting and “outs” them to the Earthlings, telling them they’d better get their spaceship fixed in a hurry and fly back home before their Martian hosts kill them. They manage this — though there’s a preposterous scene in which we’re supposed to believe Steve and Barker defeat an entire Martian army unit just by themselves — and they take Alida and Tillamar with them; Tillamar apparently thinks that from Earth he can mobilize a Martian resistance to Ikron’s rule, gain control of the council and make mutual trade deals with Earth instead of conquering it. (The new TPP — Trans-Planetary Partnership.) Flight to Mars isn’t much of a movie, and for someone who specialized in “B” Westerns Selander’s staging of the action scenes (not that screenwriter Strawn gave him that many of them!) is surprisingly lame, but it’s decent, inoffensive entertainment, made at an acceptable level of professionalism (which hadn’t always been true of Monogram in the 1940’s!) and O.K. for its time and place.