SATURDAY AFTERNOON B-MOVIE CRAPFEST: “Destination Moon” (1950)

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It’s easy to forget what a watershed this film is, there are far better films only a few years down the road, and earlier SF films like “Flash Gordon” and “Buck Rogers,” but, really, this is *the* one that started it all. This is *the* film that gave birth to SF as an actual cinematic genre, and something more than sword and sorcery in space. It’s also the birth of Producer George Pal’s career as the unsung John Ford of speculative fiction. He *is* what Ridley Scott claimed he wanted to be in the late 70s/early 80s, if we can set aside differences of style, pacing, scripting, and whatnot. This was the first of ‘Our Pal, George’s’ long run of SF films including “When Worlds Collide,” “War of the Worlds,” “Conquest of Space,” “The Time Machine”, “Atlantis, the Lost Continent,” “7 Faces of Dr. Lao,” “The Power,” and “Doc Savage: The man of Bronze.”

Born György Pál Marczincsák in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Pal emigrated to the US in young adulthood, in the interbellum years. Initially he made a long and very successful series of stop motion animated shorts for Paramount, like this one here

He also made the very Christian “Davey and Goliath” series in the 1950s.

And just like Terry Gilliam a generation or two later, he developed a fascination for integrating animation and live action which would eventually lead to his fascination with taking on projects that were simply beyond the scope of most other producers at the time. He was fascinated with space, and by extension with Science Fiction, which led to him producing this film.

Based loosely on Robert Heinlein’s 1947 novel, “Rocket Ship Galileo,” the movie starts off more-or-less in the then-present day. Three of our protagonists are attempting to launch the first satellite in to orbit, but something goes awry, and it crashes in the desert. They suspect sabotage. We then jump forward three years, when one of the protagonists - a retired general - is trying to launch and even larger project - an actual manned flight to the moon! - without anyone having put up a satellite, or even having put a person in space yet. Amazing!

Rather than go to the government, the General goes to our fourth and final protagonist in the oddly tiny cast this movie has: a multi-millionaire aircraft factory owner. A hands-on guy, his office actually has a view of the *inside* of the Lockheed factory in southern California. It’s kind of neat in an Ayn Rand sense. Initially the industrialist thinks it’s a silly idea, but the General talks him in to it.

You’ll note, by the way, that I’m not using their names. That’s because this is essentially an early Heinlein work, and his gift for characterization hadn’t really kicked in yet. This is pulp, plain and simple, even if it is highbrow pulp, and so our characters are merely archetypes, not people per se. We’ve got The Scientist, The General, The Industrialist, and The Rube.

Anyway, The Industrialist and The General call a dinner party for a bunch of other industrialists and asks them to support their crazy-assed scheme. To explain the technical aspects of the project he shows them an honest-to-gosh Woody Woodpecker cartoon that Pal had commissioned especially for this film. (Walter Lantz and George Pal were life-long friends). Then they pass the hat, almost literally, and one by one the rich dudes pledge their financial support.

We then get a fairly lengthy montage sequence of them designing and building the rocket using clunky 1940s mechanical computers (!) and slide rules and pencil and paper which is just all kinds of charming, intercut with construction workers, some great glass matte shots of the space ship in various stages of construction, and unrest about the project cropping up in the US, which, we’re told, is the work of foreign agitators who don’t want *us* to get there first. Eventually, the US Government tries to shut the project down by legal means, but our heroes willfully ignore them and launch anyway.

From this point on, we get a lot of your basic 50s SF tropes - the launch sequence, weightlessness, gravity boots, someone drifting away from the ship, a harrowing landing, unforeseen technical complications - but bear in mind this is the first time virtually anyone in the US or the English Speaking World had seen this stuff. There’s some great FX shots of astronauts walking around on the hull of their rocket while in flight, courtesy of Pal’s great stop motion team, too.

The Rube’s purpose in all of this is to be amazed, and have stuff explained to him. Thus he freaks out during launch and asks why he’s so heavy, and is told acceleration; in space he floats around and asks why he’s so light, and they explain weightlessness to him, and so on. He’s the node of exposition needed by all the people in the audience who had no clue what was going on. It’s a thankless task, and minor-comedy star Dick Wesson isn’t quite up to it, but to his credit he doesn’t manage to completely embarrass himself, unlike later “Rube” characters in later Pal films would do. (Neither here nor there, but Wesson would later go on to write 60 episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies. I don’t know why that impresses me, but it does.)

If you’re a geek like me, and you grew up within a hundred miles of a UHF station in the 70s/80s, you’ve seen a zillion shlocky SF films, you’ve seen scores of “First landings” on the moon in a bunch of different productions, but what’s interesting is that it’s never a really big deal. The first step is just the first step, followed by a second and a third and so on. Perhaps it’s simply the abortive nature of the Apollo program that causes us to remember Armstrong’s fist words and forget everything else, or perhaps it’s that he did such a great job of it, or possibly it’s just a case of not knowing what’s going to be really significant until after the moment is passed, but in typical B-movie fashion of the period, the ‘first step’ is a complete non-event: One astronaut clambers to the ground and then sets up a ladder to help the other one. What happens next always takes my breath away and makes my imperialistic little heart beat faster:

Industrialist: Claim it, Doc! I'm your witness - claim it officially.
Scientist: By the grace of God, and the name of the United States of America, I take possession of this planet on behalf of, and for the benefit of, all mankind.

Wow!

After a botched landing on the moon, our heroes discover they haven’t got enough fuel to make it back, so the final act of the movie plays out much like Robert Sheckleys’ “The Cruel Equations,” with a fairly clever ending that doesn’t cheat, but perhaps lacks some of the impact it should have had.

Our heroes head back to earth and we’re told that this is…

THE END….
…Of the beginning.

This is a fun little film, and I can’t overstate its importance to the SF media genre. While there had been effects-heavy SF films before - “Just Imagine” and “Metropolis” and “Frau im Mond,” - this was the first one in color, and the first one aimed specifically at a mass audience. It proved a much-talked-about modest hit in the summer of 1950, and paved the way for a half dozen other films by Pal, and many far more ambitious films by other studios, including the now-deservedly-legendary “Forbidden Planet” over at MGM.

Part of the success of the film is that it takes everything completely literally, there are no fantastic elements, no lost civilizations on the moon as an attempt to gussy up stuff. This is an engineering story made at a point when engineers were the new cowboys, the heroes who’d won World War II. The big crisis in the latter part of the story is an engineering crisis, and the mostly-unrelated crisis in the first half of the film is essentially a conflict between engineers and people who are too stupid to be engineers. There’s something oddly heartwarming about that, though perhaps their shouldn’t be. The movie has an unrepentant “I’m smarter than you,” attitude, but it doesn’t really talk down to it’s audience, and gleefully includes the Rube character for their benefit.

Irving Pitchel’s direction is more than a little on the flat side, but it’s worth noting that he was a very accomplished director in his day - this was his 32nd film in 18 years (!) and he was holding down a successful career as an actor on the side (In fact he narrates the Woody cartoon as well). Given the effects-heavy nature of this film and the comparatively low budget, there probably weren’t a lot of directors that could have pulled this off back in the day. The look of the film is beautiful lurid Technicolor, and won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects that year. The incomparable Chesley Bonestell did the astronomical paintings for the space scenes, and the massive cyclorama they use on the moon’s surface.

Acting is competent, but nothing special, owing to the lack of any A-list actors. Everyone here is fine, but all of them lack that certain dash you really need in a flick with a cast this small. As such, the second half of the film - which is where all the money shots are - is never quite as interesting as the first half. Think of Jimmy Stewart in “The Spirit of St. Louis,” and you can see how a really strong actor has the presence to keep you mesmerized, just by way of contrast to the four ‘good enough’ actors here. No one really clicks with the viewers, but again, it’s a thankless task: they’re playing ciphers, essentially.

Curiously, there’s a frustrating theme of espionage and sabotage that runs through the first half of the film, then is dropped completely in the second half without ever really going anywhere or getting resolved. My hunch is that it’s probably a periscope from earlier drafts of the script that ended up getting dropped, but they didn’t have time or the presence of mind to go back and excise it from the script entirely. Or perhaps they’d already started filming when the decision to drop that subplot was made, and there was nothing they could do to take it out.

My hunch is that one of the four men who go to the moon was supposed to be a foreign agent acting undercover. This is pretty much the plot of Heinlein’s next screenplay, “Project Moon Base” (1953), and given the old man’s nature, it wouldn’t be surprising if he decided to build a new story out of outtakes from an earlier one. He also went on to write a novelization of this film the next year. For those keeping score, that means Destination Moon (The novel) was based on Destination Moon (The Screenplay) which was based on Rocket Ship Galileo (The Novel), essentially re-using the same story 3 times in 4 years.

I also *Strongly* suspect the Woody Woodpecker cartoon was a late addition to the plot, since it basically explains all the things that will be later exposited to the Rube character, thereby making him, and all that dialog fairly redundant. Probably it was tacked on once it became apparent that conversational explanations of some aspects of the science in the film weren't really enough to drive the concept home for the audience. Wise decision, though in restrospect it suffers a bit from the Han and Jabba, Han and Gredo scene in the redux of star wars - one or the other of those scenes should have been cut, since they cover the same information.

For those interested, this movie follows roughly the plot of the first half of “Galileo,” and completely omits the second half. Once *on* the moon in the book, our vastly younger heroes discover a band of escaped Nazi leaders and scientists who’ve been holed up there since the end of WW2.

I strongly recommend this movie to anyone who wants to know about the roots of the SF genre. This is an important, if not entirely polished or completely enjoyable film.

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