Sunday, June 19, 2016

Destination Moon (George Pal Productions/Eagle-Lion, 1950)

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

Today the 1950 science-fiction movie Destination: Moon is of no more than historical importance — the moon trip was actually made 19 years later, and the special effects on this are charmingly primitive (though weightlessness is actually well — albeit inconsistently — dramatized) — Irving Pichel’s direction is of the traffic-cop variety and a no-name cast of actors perform efficiently but unmovingly (though, given the well-trained taciturnity of real-life astronauts, this actually lends the film a patina of authenticity). The story is pretty undramatic — nothing much happens except they fly a rocket to the moon (stopping in mid-space for some extra-vehicular activity and a reasonably suspenseful rescue of an astronaut who starts drifting away into space), then make such an inept landing they have to jettison practically everything in order to lighten the rocket enough to get back (and we never even see them land back on earth; the film ends with them still in mid-space on the return trip).

Ironically, neither my roommate John P. nor I had ever seen the film in color before; John missed it on its original theatrical release and he, like I, had seen it before only on black-and-white TV. Not that we were missing much; aside from the brightly-colored spacesuits (so the astronauts could recognize each other over long distances on the surface of the moon), there wasn’t much in the way of creative use of color in this movie (Lionel Lindon from King Kong was the cinematographer). The most interesting aspect of this film was that it was based on a novel by Robert Heinlein, and Heinlein is also listed in the middle position of a three-person screenwriting credit (with Rip Van Ronkel — what a great name! — above him and James O’Hanlon below), and Heinlein’s Right-wing ideology makes its appearance in subtle but unmistakable ways throughout the film. One of the astronauts is a Billy Mitchell-style general who attempts to get federal funding for rocket projects on the grounds that we can’t let the unspecified “enemy” (in 1950, that could only have meant the Soviet Union) develop a lunar rocket before we do; when the first test rocket crashes spectacularly, the general and the corporate leader whose company built it suspect sabotage (with absolutely no evidence at all); when the federal government pulls the rocket allocation after the failure, the corporado gets all his friends from private enterprise together and they do it all without government assistance (there’s even a promo film, starring Woody Woodpecker and actually made by Woody’s creator, Walter Lantz, which he uses to “sell” the project to the investors — and it’s the best promo insert into a conventional dramatic film I can think of, aside from the superbly done “Mr. DNA” sequence in Jurassic Park); the residents of the area where the rocket launch site exists protest against it because it’s nuclear-powered and even obtain a court order to stop the flight, which our heroically libertarian astronauts simply defy. Ironically, after the recent election results (and more recent phenomena, like Newt Gingrich’s McCarthyite charge that one-fourth of Clinton’s White House staff people have taken drugs), this film’s reactionary politics are the most au courant thing about it! — 12/8/94


I went to see Charles at his place, bringing the tape I made last year of the movie Destination Moon. It holds up pretty well, actually, though author Robert Heinlein’s Right-wing ideology really drags the film down (especially his insistence that the private sector build the moon rocket because government wouldn’t fund it, and the scenes in which protestors attacking the idea of a nuclear-powered rocket are revealed to be dupes of a sinister foreign power, carefully unnamed in the film but obviously referring to the Soviet Union). The final scenes, in which the rocket needs to be lightened so it can travel back to Earth (which it never actually reaches — the film ends rather abruptly with the ship in mid-space), are the ones that Apollo 13 reminded me of, and while the scenes are nowhere near as suspenseful as the ones in the recent film, they do have a somewhat similar air of improvisation, as if the astronauts are forced to be more “heroic” than they might otherwise have been because their original plans have broken down in some way. I like this movie for several reasons, not the least of which because it’s a portrait of where America was “at” in 1950, hyper-concerned about Cold War competition and at the same time in love with the idea that American industry, especially freed from the shackles of government regulation, could do anything. (I also have a feeling that most of the people who went to see this film in 1950 regarded it as wildly science-fictional and had no idea that in just 19 years — within the lifetimes of many of them — people actually would get to the moon.) — 1/4/96


The Vintage Sci-Fi film screening last night combined the obscure Russian film Cosmic Journey, a.k.a. Cosmic Voyage (I presume the original Russian title, “Kosmicheskiy Reys,” can be translated either way) with a pretty familiar U.S. movie from 1950, Destination Moon. The genealogy of Destination Moon is a bit unusual but it’s pretty clear that this is a Schreiber movie and the Schreiber is Robert A. Heinlein. His screenwriting credit is second among three — Alford “Rip” Van Ronkel precedes him and James O’Hanlon follows him — but the credits also proclaim the film is based on a Heinlein novel, though there seems to be some uncertainty as to which one. Heinlein actually published two moon-travel novels in 1950, Rocketship Galileo and The Man Who Sold the Moon, and after the film was finished he placed a short-story adaptation of the film’s plot under the “Destination Moon” title in a sci-fi pulp, Short Stories Magazine, and also wrote a radio script for NBC’s Dimension X program called “Destination Moon” that was apparently his own adaptation of the movie. I’ve seen Destination Moon twice before, first on an old TV in black-and-white and then with my late roommate/home-care client John P. on TV — an experience I remember because we were both startled that the film was in color: like me, he’d seen it previously but only on a black-and-white TV! Destination Moon is a good, workmanlike science-fiction movie hampered by Heinlein’s Right-wing Libertarian politics — this is the sort of story Ayn Rand would have come up with if she’d done a piece about space travel (as it is, the one science-fiction story in Rand’s oeuvre, Anthem, is a dystopia from 1937 in which socialist collectivism has so totally taken over the world that the words “I” and “ego” have been eliminated from the language; the narrator, who of course is a Randian superhero who rebels in the name of individualism, refers to himself as “we” throughout until he finally rediscovers those magic words and the I-don’t-need-anyone social attitude that goes with them). The film begins with an attempt to launch a satellite into space; the U.S. military has funded the effort and the rocket has been designed by scientist Dr. Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson), but despite extensive tests prior to the launch the rocket explodes in mid-air before it ever leaves earth’s gravity. Cargraves and his military sponsor, General Thayer (Tom Powers), are convinced the rocket didn’t just fail; agents of a sinister foreign power (and you don’t need two guesses to figure out who Heinlein and his co-writers meant, and wanted the audience to understand, who that would be in 1950!) sabotaged it because they wanted to be the first country to conquer space. So Thayer retires from the Army and he and Cargraves seek out the backing of aircraft manufacturer Jim Barnes (John Archer) to put together a consortium of private industrialists to back the project financially, since the failure of Cargraves’ previous rocket has killed their chances of getting any more government money.

There’s a big scene in which Archer calls together his would-be investors for a pitch meeting and introduces the project with a promotional film explaining the physics of space travel; the film is by Walter Lantz, creator of Woody Woodpecker, and Woody is indeed the star of it. (According to an “Trivia” poster, the film-within-the-film was later taken over by NASA and suitably updated to indicate how people were really going to fly to the moon.) This sequence is the clearest statement of Heinlein’s politics in the film; asked why the government isn’t funding the project, Barnes says, “The vast amount of brains, talents, special skills, and research facilities necessary for this project are not in the government, nor can they be mobilized by the government in peacetime without fatal delay. Only American industry can do this job. And American industry must get to work, now, just as we did in the last war!” Then General Thayer adds, “We are not the only ones who know that the Moon can be reached. We’re not the only ones who are planning to go there. The race is on — and we’d better win it, because there is absolutely no way to stop an attack from outer space. The first country that can use the Moon for the launching of missiles... will control the Earth. That, gentlemen, is the most important military fact of this century.” (It sounds a lot like the arguments Admiral Thayer Mahan was making in his late-19th-century book The Effect of Sea Power on History, a book which profoundly influenced Theodore Roosevelt and led him to support both the Spanish-American War and the Panama Canal; Heinlein is arguing that control of space will be as important in the new era as control of the sea was in Mahan’s and Teddy Roosevelt’s time.) The pot of Right-wing melodrama boils even hotter as the moon rocket gets built, only because it uses a nuclear reactor as its fuel source there’s a supposedly “spontaneous” — but actually, Barnes insists, sponsored and funded by That Sinister Secret Power That Dare Not Speak Its Name — anti-nuclear demonstration aimed at preventing the rocket from being tested. Fine, says Barnes; we won’t test it. We’ll just launch it, he decides, even though that means being ready to lift off in just 17 hours to catch the moon at its closest to Earth.

This means that he’s able to lift off his rocket while some obnoxious mooching busybody is outside of it waving a court order forbidding Barnes and his crew from launching. It also means his original fourth crew member, who’s just come down with appendicitis, is unable to go and Barnes has to draft Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson), a typically obnoxious comic-relief character with a Brooklyn accent (the sort of role Frank McHugh would have played at Warners in the mid-1930’s if they’d decided to do a film about a moon trip) who agrees to go aboard the rocket only because he’s convinced it’ll never work. The reluctant fourth astronaut joins Barnes, Cargraves and Thayer and they actually get to the moon — along the way there’s some entertaining wire-work simulating weightlessness and at least some scenes done the way Buster Keaton had done at the end of The Navigator, Fred Astaire did his dance on the walls of his room in Royal Wedding and the flight attendant served Dr. Heywood Floyd his meal upside-down in 2001: A Space Odyssey: a revolving room set and a camera bolted to it so the actors could look like they were walking up walls when they were really in normal gravity the whole time. (There’s a mistake in the film in that once the astronauts are through with the horrifying acceleration process and are in space, Barnes equips them with magnetic boots so they can walk around the spaceship normally — but when they go outside the ship to do repairs the boots allow them to cling to the side of the ship even though we’ve previously been told it’s made of titanium, which is non-magnetic.) Instead of the usually obligatory meteor shower in space, Barnes has to order his crew (all but Thayer) out because they’ve lost radio contact with Earth. This turns out to be Sweeney’s fault; he thoroughly greased the moving parts of their retractable antenna, not realizing the grease would just freeze in space. They get the thing fixed but almost lose one of the astronauts and Barnes has to grab one of their spare oxygen containers and use it as a makeshift rocket to propel himself to Cargraves so he can grab him and steer him back to the ship.

When they finally reach the moon Barnes blows the landing and uses more fuel in his retro-rockets than he was counting on, which leads to the famous final scenes in which the astronauts are told by their mission control people back on Earth that they have to lighten the ship by 1,200 pounds to have enough fuel left to return home — and when they’ve thrown away everything they can think of and made the ship look like an old building in a rundown neighborhood that’s been stripped by scavengers, they’re told they’re still 120 pounds over the limit and it looks like one of the astronauts is going to have to sacrifice his life and stay behind on the moon so the other three can get back safely. Thayer offers to be the sacrifice on the ground that he’s the oldest of them; Sweeney also offers to be the sacrifice, presumably because the world can get along well enough without the obnoxious and unfunny “comic relief” character; but Barnes says they’re all going home and by throwing out the ship’s radio and its last spacesuit, and cutting their oxygen supply to the bare minimum they need for the trip, they can lighten the ship enough to accommodate all four astronauts. Oddly, the film ends before the returning astronauts actually make it back to Earth — there aren’t the usual welcome-home crowds we generally got in space-travel films of this vintage — and a title which reads “The End” and then another line of type comes on under it and says, “of the Beginning.” This seems especially ironic now that the U.S. sent six crews to the moon between 1969 and 1973 and then stopped doing so; no one since has attempted a manned (personned?) moon flight, let alone one that went any farther (like Mars), and quite a few science-fiction fans are convinced that if there’s going to be any more human exploration of space, it’s going to be funded, as it is in Destination Moon, by the private sector because modern-day governments and the politicians who run them lack the vision to see that it’s the human race’s destiny to explore space.

Destination Moon is a good movie, and though there were certainly other moon-flight films before it (from the pioneering one by Méliès in 1902 to Fritz Lang’s and Thea von Harbou’s Woman in the Moon — which made the assumption that there would be pockets of atmosphere on the moon that would allow humans to live there normally without having to wear space suits and bring their own oxygen — and the Russian Cosmic Voyage/Cosmic Journey shown as a double-bill companion with Destination Moon), this is the one that got seen the most by U.S. audiences and U.S. filmmakers and set the cliché templates for how space exploration would be depicted on screen for decades to come. There were some odd stories about the production of Destination Moon; it was made by Hungarian-American producer George Pal, who wanted to make a feature after doing a series of model-animation “Puppetoon” shorts for Paramount. Naturally Paramount was the studio he shopped this project to first, but when they turned it down he went to the Eagle-Lion company, which had been formed by J. Arthur Rank in 1948 when he bought the infamous sub-“B” studio PRC (the initials officially stood for “Producers’ Releasing Corporation” but, despite a few islands of quality, most of their movies were so bad Hollywood jokesters said it really meant “Pretty Rotten Crap”) to have an assured U.S. outlet for his British productions. The first year of Eagle-Lion’s operations he had a blockbuster U.S. hit with one of his British movies, The Red Shoes, and Destination Moon turned out to be another huge hit for him. Indeed, George Pal had his revenge against Paramount because the theatre showing Destination Moon in New York happened to be in the same neighborhood as Paramount’s business headquarters, and the executives who ran Paramount then, Adolph Zukor and Barney Balaban, got to look down from their offices and see the people lined up to get into the theatre showing the film they’d turned down. So quite naturally Paramount rushed to re-sign Pal and give him, for the plot of his next science-fiction blockbuster, a 1932 novel by Philip Wylie called When Worlds Collide they had bought when it was published at the behest of Cecil B. DeMille, only to decide that DeMille’s version would be too expensive to make money.

The people behind Destination Moon themselves went into paranoid overdrive when producer Robert Lippert announced that he’d be making his own moon-travel movie, Rocketship X-M, based on a story writer-director Kurt Neumann had sold him about a crew of astronauts who travel to Mars and discover living dinosaurs there. Lippert told Neumann that living dinosaurs were right out of his price range budget-wise but he’d be interested in a space-travel movie, only he asked Neumann if he could send his astronauts to the moon instead of Mars and shoot his film so quickly he could get it into theatres before the still in post-production Destination Moon — only Eagle-Lion got wind of what was going on and threatened to sue Lippert if he released a movie about a moon flight before or while Destination Moon was in theatres. Lippert briefed Neumann about this, and Neumann’s response was O.K., I’ll have my astronauts intend to go to the moon but get sidetracked in space and end up where I wanted them to go in the first place, Mars. Also either Lippert or Neumann hired blacklisted Leftist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to do an uncredited rewrite of the film, which meant that Rocketship X-M became less a knockoff of Destination Moon and more a seemingly deliberate progressive response to it: in this version the astronauts who end up on Mars find the remnants of a Martian civilization, the Martians having rendered themselves extinct due to nuclear war. (See the moviemagg blog post on Rocketship X-M at Rocketship X-M got into theatres before Destination Moon and did respectable business even though Eagle-Lion’s legal department forced Lippert and the theatres who booked their movie to post signs outside their locations reading, “This Is Not Destination Moon.” (In the 1970’s I remember a similar sign outside a revival theatre showing the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon and its 1936 remake, Satan Met a Lady, warning would-be patrons that this was not the classic 1941 The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart.) — 6/19/16