SATURDAY AFTERNOON B-MOVIE CRAPFEST: “Project: Moonbase” (1953)

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Last time out we reviewed “Destination Moon,” the seminal George Pal SF film from 1950, the one that really *started* the Science Fiction boom in film sixty years ago. It was a surprise hit that didn’t talk down to it’s audience, and took the “Science” part of Science Fiction seriously. It was co-written by Robert Heinlein, and based on his “Rocket Ship Galileo” novel. Of course George Pal used his unexpected hit as leverage to tell more really ambitious films, many of which we’ll eventually get to here.

But what about Heinlein? What did he parley all the good will from “Destination” in to? Well, later that same year he went on to work for “Tom Corbet, Space Cadet” as a technical advisor, and then wrote a couple episodes of an SF Anthology show, and then he got involved in a new “Hard Science” SF pilot called “Ring Around The Moon” in 1953.

He wrote the script and of course functioned as a technical advisor on it as well. The producer realized that SF was becoming really popular, so after production of the pilot had ended, he brought in a second writer (“Jack Seaman,” who’d only previously written westerns) to pad out the script to (Barely) feature length and brought the cast back in to shoot some additional scenes. This was done without Heinlein’s knowledge, so we can’t entirely blame him for the outcome that resulted when a producer decides to go for the quick grab from a B-movie rather than the long-term investment of a series. Even so…well, you’ll see.

PLAY BY PLAY:

It is the distant future! The Year 1970! Humanity has finally developed space flight a year or two earlier, but hasn’t really gone anywhere interesting and just launches periodic orbital flights.

The United States Space Force decides to send an expedition to the moon, just to get there ahead of the unnamed foreign power that wants them all dead. The Space Force decides to send their most experienced astronaut, Colonel Briteis, who was the first person in space just a couple years before. They also decide to send along their best pilot, and a scientist, you know, just in case there’s like molecules n’crap on the moon, or whatever. Science!

It’s just a recon mission, mind you - land, check it out, plant the flag, say a few words, head home. The hook to all this is that it costs a whole lot of money to haul stuff in to orbit (Which in fact it does. Officially, it’s about $10,000/pound if you’re using a ‘wasteful’ disposable rocket. If you’re using the ‘economically sound’ space shuttle, it’s more like $18,657/pound.) Ergo, in order to squander as little money as possible the Space Force generally uses women as astronauts because they’re smaller and lighter than guys, but have equal mental capacity. and look much better in tiny little shorts.

(To further reduce weight, the futuristic space force uniform consists of tight little short-shorts, a tight T-shirt, and a skullcap with some military styled scrambled eggs on it. Really. Check out this still from the movie http://www.life.com/image/3242294 It’s pretty much *exactly* the kind of thing your friends made fun of you for as a kid, isn’t it? Yeah, Me too.)

Colonel Briteis is played by the truly hubba-hubba Donna Martell, http://www.b-westerns.com/pic_h-l/l-dm3.jpg so I’m entirely cool with the skimpy space duds, and I’m not really offended when her beefcake co-pilot goes prancing around in the same thing, but I draw the line at Hayden Roark, who’s evidently the General in charge of the Space Force.

Anyway, the Scientist is quickly killed off by the commies, who replace him with a lookalike mole who’s been living under cover in the US for years. No one notices. Liftoff goes as planned, with a stopoff at the really badly-designed space station where there’s some well-intentioned, but rather weak attempts to depict weightlessness. Of course a peter pan rig to make actors float around would have broken the bank of most 50s productions, so they try to get around that by saying everyone is wearing magnetic boots. That’s the standard dodge. There’s some split screen stuff on the station that shows people “Walking” via magnetic boots on the floor, ceiling, and walls. It’s a neat idea, but in practice it’s just rather annoying, particularly General Roark’s amazingly badly designed office on the space station. (Wait, wait, let me get this straight: they’re so hard up for cash that everyone in space has to dress like a PE Coach, but somehow they can afford to send up a big old metal desk for the General? Rank doth have it’s priveleges, indeed.)

En rout to the moon, The Scientist is revealed as a spy, and Copilot Beefcake and him duke it out, thereby causing the ship to go a bit off course, and then having no choice but to make an emergency landing on the moon. Unfortunately, they’ve expended all their fuel and can’t get back home.

Beefcake and the Spy (Which was by the way the name of my college roomate’s punk band) head out to set up an antenna to communicate with earth. The Spy dies in more-or-less an accident, and Briteis and Beefcake (Coincidentally, there was a Charlton comic by that name in the mid-70s) manage to contact earth.

Earth tells them they are now officially a moonbase, and that they’ll be shipping out supplies and a rescue rocket. The president of the US - a woman! - tells them that Americans won’t tolerate a man and a woman shacked up on the moon for weeks and weeks until the rescue mission can be launched, so they’ll have to get married and Beefcake is promoted to General Beefcake (You know, I want to make a bad joke about this, but words just fail me) so he can outrank his wife.

THE END!

In my review of the faaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrr superior “Destination Moon” ( http://www.republibot.com/content/classic-sf-movie-review-%E2%80%9Cdesti... ) I mentioned how there is a thread about espionage in the first half of the film that’s completely dropped in the second half. I theorized that it’s a periscope, an artifact left over from an earlier draft of the script that might have involved a spy. Having seen this - Heinlein’s very next (and last) film - I’m convinced of it. Both films have basically the same plot: The first manned landing on the moon; and both have basically the same hook: the landing gets botched and the astronauts are stranded a quarter million miles from home in very unfriendly surroundings. In fact, both scripts third act revolves entirely around using too much fuel on landing. In “Destination Moon,” the pilot simply botches the landing (I admire that - pilot error is so simple, and so rarely used!), and in “Moonbase” it’s because they were off course thanks to the spy/saboteur. I honestly believe that this film was built out of unused bits of Destination Moon.

When Heinlein found out how they’d changed his script, he was outraged and disowned the film, and he never had any movie work again for the remainder of his life. It’s easy to take his side - from about 1948 to about 1960 he was unquestionably the best American SF author - but the fact of the matter is that this is a goofy little film, and not very good. Even if we factor in that it was originally intended as a pilot that got chopped up, it *Still* isn’t very good.

That awful space station, those embarrassing uniforms - obviously intended for titillation in the early 50s - the entirely trivial death of the spy, and the hokey dialog are all his fault, regardless of who doctored the script. On the other hand, there’s some slow, but genuinely interesting bits like when they go in to waaaaaay too much detail about the nature of the Spy Cell in the US, or the unpredictable way that weight/cost ratios have led to women taking the lead in space exploration. Heinlein can take the credit for those as well, but the whole thing still feels half-cooked and off base.

The female Emancipation in space flight thing is pretty cool in concept, and a woman president in 1970 is a pretty snazzy idea, and I’ll give Heinlein the benefit of the doubt for those as well, but then there’s the terrible way the rewrite undercuts these elements: Briteis is a spoiled, petulant brat, the female president is more concerned with appearances than anything else, and there’s an “Aw, shucks, you can let women lead, but you can’t make those knuckleheads think, now can ya?” attitude to the film that undercuts its more progressive elements. Most of this is the hack co-writer’s fault, I’m sure, but some of it is the director, and some of it is Heinlein himself.

Obviously, he’s the one who came up with the bad nickname of “Bright Eyes” for the colonel. It’s a bad movie, and we can’t really blame Heinlein for that, but it would have been a bad pilot, and we *Can* blame him for that much.

As soon as production wrapped on this, the same producers used the same sets and space suits to film the grade-Z schlock film “Cat Women of the Moon” starring Sonny Tufts. It was released just one day after “Moonbase.” As a final insult, more people saw that movie than saw this one.

I’d say avoid this one unless you’re a bleeding-from-the-ears Heinlein fanatic, or you've got a thing for Hayden Roark. If you’ve got to watch it, track down the MST3K version so that Joel and the ‘Bots can ease the pain. It’s just not a good film.

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