Sunday, April 15, 2018

Vintage Sci-Fi Screening, April 14, 2018: “Destination Moon” (Eagle-Lion, 1950) & “2001” (MGM, 1968)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi film screening ( 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 and 2001 at, 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, 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.

The other film on last night’s program was Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, easily the greatest science-fiction film ever made and arguably the greatest film ever made, period. I vividly remember seeing it three times in 1968 at the Cinerama Theatre in San Francisco (and now regretting that never again will anyone be able to see this film that way, even though by the time 2001 was filmed the original three-camera Cinerama process had been superseded and “Cinerama” merely meant one camera using double-wide 70-millimeter film — Kubrick and his effects technicians, Douglas Trumbull (who worked out the “psychedelic” shots in the film’s famous finale and got credit) and John Dykstra (who built the spaceship models, and didn’t), already had a hard enough time working out the effects (including having to change the Discovery’s destination from Saturn to Jupiter when building Saturn’s rings convincingly turned out to be too difficult) and one shudders to think what they would have gone through trying to do them in three-camera Cinerama. 2001 is a film I can’t be objective about; I’ve been in love with it since I first saw it at age 14 and this time around I basically just sat back with an awestruck look on my face and let Kubrick’s masterpiece wash over me. I still can’t believe that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not even nominate 2001 for Best Picture — at least Citizen Kane got nominated! That shocked me in 1969 and it still saddens me that not only did 2001 not get the Best Picture award it thoroughly deserved but Kubrick did not win Best Director (he did win an award for the effects work in 2001 that, ironically, was the only Academy Award he ever got even though it was his technicians Turnbull and Dykstra who deserved it) and Douglas Rain did not win Best Actor for his utterly chilling performance as the voice of HAL. (After the screening, the proprietor told me that Rain had given an interview in which he said he spent only two days recording the voice of HAL — and that’s the only part of his career anybody remembered or wanted to ask him about. That puts him in the same class as Fay Wray, who in her later years complained that she’d had a major role in Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March and had played opposite Gary Cooper and other “A”-list stars of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, and all anyone ever wanted to interview her about was her role screaming at a giant ape in King Kong.) One thing that amazes me about 2001 was that Kubrick was the first major director to attempt a science-fiction film since Fritz Lang had made Woman in the Moon 40 years earlier (unless you count Robert Wise, who wasn’t that highly regarded when he made the original The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951 but became a major Hollywood figure later), and it’s something of a surprise that not until George Lucas and Steven Spielberg scored with the genre in the 1970’s has it become de rigueur for virtually every filmmaker seeking a blockbuster reputation to do science-fiction at least once.