We all know that science fiction has become science fact in the last few decades. But for those of us who attended Saturday Matinees in those so long ago times, Sci-Fi still rules!
This installment we have a very special contribution from a world renowned author, playwright, and genre expert, Bruce Dettman. Bruce's work has been published in such popular magazines as FilmFax, Scarlet Street, Scarlet the Film Magazine, Emmy, San Francisco Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine Good Old Days, True West, Military History, Monster Times, etc. He also wrote a book on Universal horror films, The Horror Factory, as authored plays including one on the life of composer Hoagy Carmichael, was a film reviewer for Hot Ticket Magazine, wrote a column on cliffhangers for Serial Report Magazine and writes a regular Superman column for the website Glass House Presents. One of my favorite of Bruce's pieces was his chapter on The Son of Dracula in the Midnight Marquee actors series on Lon Chaney Jr.
So sit back, relax, and return to the golden days of science fiction with Mr. Dettman's wonderful and insightful essay on Robert Lippert's sci-fi classic Rocketship XM.Illustrations provided by our dear friend, Bob Burns
While accepted today as a legitimate and much respected part of mainstream cinema, there was a time, not so very long ago, when the science-fiction film was more often than not relegated to the arena of juvenile entertainment, when it was considered low-brow or at best adolescent fodder for the under twelve audience who in the 1950s flocked to Saturday afternoon kiddie matinees to gobble down Juicy Fruits, inhale Pixie Sticks and scream protests when the tasteless projectionist ran unwanted cartoons like Casper, The Friendly Ghost or Little Iodine instead of the much preferred Daffy Ducks and Bugs Bunnies. For this generation, science-fiction usually equated with Hollywood’s then penchant for rear projecting and enlarging as many animals and insects in the animal kingdom onto the big screen as could be conceived, from over-bloated arachnids (Tarantula), to ants (the exceptional Them) to grasshoppers (The Beginning of the End) to giant wasps and snails (Monster From Green Hell and The Monster That Challenged The World) and then unleash them on some vulnerable American metropolis -- from New York to San Francisco -- with only Peter Graves or Richard Denning or John Agar standing in their way.
There were exceptions, of course, sci-fi based productions that were not only aimed at the pre-pubescent crowd but adult audiences as well, efforts such as Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World, Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and George Pal’s War of the Worlds, but these groundbreaking pictures were rare and far apart, not that the kids of my generation cared all that much. Give us monsters and incredible situations and some good popcorn (not to mention no parents) and we were pretty much happy campers.
Another arena explored during the early part of the 1950s was space travel. World War II had given the world the new potentially catastrophic double feature of crude missiles and the atom, and people were becoming intrigued by the thought that man’s next frontier -- if he made it that far-- would be an interstellar one. While few science-fiction films were produced immediately after the war, science-fiction as a literary form had amassed a large and growing audience with writers such as Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Arthur C. Clark, Frederick Pohl, Robert Heinlein and many others skilled in speculative prose and regularly churning out highly inventive stories and novels that a lot of the public was gobbling up. The writing was not only on the printed page but on the wall as well and two particular Hollywood players were reading it, producers George Pal and Robert Lippert, the results being the former’s much heralded Destination Moon and the latter’s somewhat maligned and disrespected Rocketship X-M, both released in 1950.
Rocketship X-M was hurried into production with a very quick shooting schedule designed, it was said by everyone, to beat Destination Moon to the screen, something the decade’s later monster magazines would continually hammer into its adolescent readers when writing about the movie. It was more or less accepted that Rocketship was a rushed and much inferior job, that it paled next to George Pal’s bigger budgeted and widely publicized and celebrated film accomplishment and that everyone who was a legitimate and serious science-fiction fan should appreciate the fact and if not openly boycott it then at least approach it in a somewhat condescending manner. There was only one problem with all of this, at least for a lot of the kids into this sort of film during the 1950s. Destination Moon might have been more grounded in legitimate scientific principles. Its intent might have been more serious, its aspirations more lofty, its documentary-like execution more realistic. But it wasn’t half as entertaining or fun. It was in fact, well, dull.
Rocketship X-M, on the other hand, was a great ride in more ways than one. Unlike other later films of the period that dealt with space travel, duds like Cat Women of the Moon, Fire Maidens From Outer Space and Queen of Outer Space, Rocketship was a deadly earnest production, light on scientific logic perhaps, but heavy on drama, thrills and with a grim and emotionally charged scenario to present and a very capable director/writer (Kurt Neumann) and likable cast working with conviction to make this all come together.
The plot centers around a four man (plus one female) crew making the first flight to the moon. For the record, the group includes the brains behind the whole business, Dr. Karl Eckstrom (John Barrymore wannabe John Emery), his dedicated (and cold fish) assistant Lisa (Osa Massen), pilot Floyd (Lloyd Bridges), Engineer Bill (Noah Beery Jr.) and astronomer Harry (Hugh O’Brien) who also acts as the navigator.
This ground-breaking giant step for man gets off to a fast start with the crew engaged in a friendly chit chat session with some press representatives up to just five minutes before their scheduled takeoff (the countdown voice heard over the proceedings sounds suspiciously like Hugh O’Brien) where everyone delivers homey and humorous sound-bites for the few reporters assembled (including Judd Holdren, TV’s Commando Cody) until they bid good-bye to Dr. Flemming (Morris Ankrum, the figure holding down events at home) and board the X-M. This flight is so hush-hush that no one, not even the reporters, are aware of it until they are summoned, apparently unbriefed, to the takeoff site. Forget CNN and Wolfe Blitzer.
The RX-M is a nifty looking ship, the cabin festooned with all manner of metal cylinders fastened to the walls, portholes for convenient viewing and hammock-like bunk beds. One thing the designer left out was anything to hold onto in the middle of the ship should gravitational problems arise or even a chair for pilot Bridges. This would become a deciding factor as the story progresses.
Once the predictable liftoff is over and the crew experiences the painful effects of “G” forces on their vulnerable bodies (lots of predictable face grimacing here in a scene that would be repeated in nearly every space opera to follow) the soon to be cliché moments of meteor showers and zero gravity are eventually showcased. The real wrinkle of the story, however, is that things ultimately go very wrong with their thrusters and after following a cataclysmic accident where they are all rendered unconscious – remember the absence of those chairs (?) -- they wake not to find themselves approaching the Moon but rather Mars.
Remarkably, this staggering re-route doesn’t bother anyone too much. The group is initially surprised by this radical and unforeseen change in plans, but they soon grow accustomed to the idea and even excited (except Noah Beery’s folksy Texan who laments not being able to wear the sophisticated spacesuits deemed necessary by the moon’s unfriendly atmosphere; oxygen masks and leather jackets will do on the Red Planet) by the notion of being able to explore the alien surface.
In atmospheric footage, (tinted red and filmed in Red Rock Canyon, ), the crew, armed with one pistol and a hunting rifle, explore the inhospitable and stark terrain eventually realizing from buried artifacts and other signs of a dead civilization that Mars once supported intelligent life. In fact, it still supports life but no longer the intelligent sort, only human mutations, the result of what appears to have been an atomic war.
Eckstrom wants the people of the Earth to learn of this, a warning perhaps of what could also befall their own planet if mankind doesn’t wakeup and smell the plutonium, but Bill and he are killed by Martians while trying to get back to the ship. With a severely wounded Harry in a near comatose state, Floyd and Elsa manage a quick liftoff from the lunar surface leaving the devastated Martian throwbacks behind and with all a go to return to Earth except for one small but essential detail, they haven’t enough fuel for the return flight. Gadgets and checked and rechecked as are computations and calibrations. There’s just no way around it. They are going to crash. Yikes. In a 50s movie!!!!
This is where the film nose-dives a bit into hokey land. Lloyd Bridges, in a later interview, stated that he argued against the film’s contrived conclusion but director-writer Neumann would not budge and stuck with the unrealistic exchange between Floyd and Lisa (O’Brien is totally out of things by now) who, with only a few minutes to live before the R X-M crashes into the planet, divulge their great affection for each other. They aren’t frightened anymore, just secure in their new found love. As they embrace and the ship hurls to inevitable destruction Neumann’s dialog is admittedly pretty bad:
“We can say we’ve had years together”
“There’s not that much difference between the future and the past.”
“I’m not afraid anymore.”
Rocketship X-M can be forgiven this climactic bathos because until this point it’s a great roller coaster of a cinematic ride. Although lambasted almost from the get-go as a very bottom of the barrel production, it really does not come off as such, certainly when compared to later examples of the genre such as Flight To Mars or the aforementioned Fire Maidens from Outer Space. Director Neumann keeps things on an even keel with a nice balance between action sequences and the crew’s interaction even if the politically correct crowd will wince at some of the early dialog between Bridges and Massen:
“I suppose you think women should only cook and sew and have children?”
“Isn’t that enough?”
Ferde Grofe’ provides an effective musical score that anticipates future fantasy films with his use of the eerie Theremin, and director Neumann, who would later direct other genre films The Fly, Kronos and She Devil helms with a good feel for mounting tension and a pervasive sense of danger and mounting doom.
From a personal standpoint it was Rocketship X-M, not Destination Moon that made me turn the desk in my bedroom into a control panel using a forgotten go cart steering wheel and a lot of radios and gizmos from my father’s garage. It was Rocketship X-M that made me wonder about space and other worlds and got me reading science-fiction.
It was Robert Lippert’s little B picture Rocketship X-M that got me dreaming bigger things than I would have dreamed before.
And it is Rocketship X-M, not the take itself too seriously Destination Moon, that I still recall the greater appreciation and fondness.
Article by Bruce Dettman