Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi film screening (http://sdvsf.org/http://sdvsf.org/) was billed as “Ground-Breaking Science Fiction!” and contained two movies that stood above the common rut of sci-fi films then and now: including the 1950 Eagle-Lion release Destination Moon and Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’ve not only seen both these films several times but have previously posted notices on them to this blog, Destination Moon at https://moviemagg.blogspot.com/2016/06/destination-moon-george-pal.html and 2001 at https://moviemagg.blogspot.com/2017/05/2001-space-odyssey-kubrick.html, so I’ll just be brief here. Destination Moon was produced by George Pal, directed by Irving Pichel (usually known as an actor but the co-director with Ernest B. Schoedsack of the first version of Richard Connell’s story “The Most Dangerous Game” in 1932) and written by Alfred “Rip” Van Ronkel, Robert A. Heinlein and James O’Hanlon based on a novel by Heinlein. That’s how the names appear in the credits, but it’s clear this is really a Schreiber rather than an auteur movie and the Schreiber is Heinlein — who, according to “Trivia” posters on imdb.com, worked on no fewer than five versions of this material: two novels, Rocketship Galileo and The Man Who Sold the Moon, a short story called “Destination Moon” which a science-fiction pulp magazine published in connection with the film, the film script itself and a radio adaptation of it. Heinlein’s Right-wing Libertarian politics are very much in evidence throughout this movie, from the assertion that going to the moon is too big a job for the government and only private enterprise can handle it to the dark hints that if the U.S. isn’t the first country to get to the moon, a sinister, unnamed (but obviously, in a 1950 Cold War context, the Soviet Union) foreign power will get there first and will be able to rain down missiles on us in space attacks we’ll be helpless to stop. (The simultaneously filmed Rocketship X-M can be read less as a cheap ripoff of Destination Moon and more as a politically progressive response film to it — something I thought even before I learned that blacklisted Communist writer Dalton Trumbo had made one of his uncredited sub rosa contributions to its script.)
I’ve had an odd relationship with Destination Moon over the years; I remember watching it with my late roommate/home-care client John P. on TV and both of us were startled that the film was actually in color; we’d each seen it (separately) before, but only on black-and-white TV’s. (Destination Moon is often cited as the first science-fiction film ever made in color, which is true only if you don’t count the 1932 Doctor “X,” shot in two-strip Technicolor and usually classed as a horror film, though it’s about a group of scientists doing advanced research and the horror comes from one of their discoveries going terribly awry.) One of our regular attendees hailed Destination Moon as the first “serious” science-fiction film that attempted a realistic (as realistic as the scientific knowledge available at the time it was made could be, anyway) depiction of space flight — this gentleman also mentioned that he’d once driven astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin around at a convention, thereby putting the rest of us one degree of separation from someone who really had gone to the moon and set foot on its surface. Sorry, but Fritz Lang’s Woman on the Moon, from 22 years earlier, got there first: Lang had the assistance of two technical advisors who later worked on the Nazis’ rocket program and still later on the U.S. space program, Hermann Oberth and an uncredited Willy Ley, and they explained everything to him, including acceleration (the increase in gravity that occurs as a rocket nears escape velocity) and weightlessness (Lang and his writer, his then-wife Thea von Harbou, posited that the floor of their spacecraft would be studded with leather straps into which the astronauts could insert their feet so they could walk normally in a weightless environment; in Destination Moon the astronauts wore magnetized shoes and in 2001: A Space Odyssey they used Velcro grip shoes). Woman on the Moon was also the film for which Fritz Lang invented the countdown: he asked Oberth how they knew when to launch their experimental rockets. “We just count from one to 10, and launch on 10,” Oberth said. “That doesn’t seem very dramatic,” Lang answered — and then the director hit on counting backwards and having the launch be at zero. (Woman on the Moon was a silent film, but the launch countdown — shown with numbers flashing on the screen — is still quite dramatic and powerful.) About the only scientific howler Lang, von Harbou and his advisers committed was positing that there would be pockets of human-breathable air on the moon so that the astronauts — Lang’s romantic-lead couple, anyway — could stay behind and live out their lives there.
I found myself liking Destination Moon last night better than I have before. It’s still a creepily fascistic movie — and I probably was more aware of those elements than I would have been if I hadn’t seen it right after a Mars movie night in which the main feature was Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars, another film with its origins (however dim) in something Robert Heinlein wrote. One surprise about Destination Moon is that there are virtually no women in the dramatis personae (later space-travel films like Rocketship X-M usually included at least one, if only to provide a romantic interest for the lead): just Erin O’Brien-Moore (the interesting actress who played Humphrey Bogart’s clueless wife in the 1937 social-comment melodrama Black Legion, and played her beautifully) doing nothing but one scene in which she pledges to stand by and wait for her husband to come home from his moon trip, and if he doesn’t come home to remain faithful to his memory. Destination Moon isn’t one of those science-fiction films that offers any real human emotion, nor does it have the sort of doomed romanticism of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles written about the same time — but then Heinlein and Bradbury ended up at opposite poles of sci-fi fan debates throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s over militarism, technology, the Cold War and eventually Viet Nam (at one famous science-fiction convention in 1968 the two introduced competing resolutions on the Viet Nam war, with Heinlein’s supporting it and Bradbury’s opposed), but on its own terms it’s quite well done and one can readily imagine how its combination of technological supremacism and American patriotism (and a bit of Ayn Randianism in the pathetic attempt of a little man with a moustache to stop the moon rocket from blasting off via a court order, which Heinlein clearly wants us to see in Randian terms as one of those pesky little takers trying to assert himself against the MAKERS) struck a chord with 1950 audiences. My favorite story about Destination Moon doesn’t have anything to do with the film itself: it seems that before George Pal produced it at Eagle-Lion he had offered it to Paramount, who had been bankrolling his one-reel “Puppetoon” shorts. They turned it down, so Pal got Eagle-Lion to finance it — and as it turned out, the theatre Eagle-Lion engaged for its opening run in New York City was two blocks away from the Paramount building, so the “suits” at Paramount could look out their windows and see moviegoers literally lining up for blocks to see the movie they had turned down.