Cast & Crew
At an Army testing site, General Thayer watches as a satellite rocket is launched. The rocket crashes, but Dr. Charles Cargraves, who has been developing the rocket for the last four years, vows to continue his work. Thayer later visits Jim Barnes, owner of an aircraft company, and tells him he suspects the rocket was sabotaged. He also speculates that the next rocket built will have an engine powered by atomic energy and will travel to the moon. Jim is skeptical, but Thayer convinces him that the combined resources of American industry could put a rocket on the moon within a year. At a formal gathering, Jim tries to interest a consortium of industrial leaders in the project, and he shows them a "Woody Woodpecker" cartoon that explains how space travel could become a scientific reality. Thayer tells the group it is vital to global security that America be the first country to reach the moon, warning that a foreign power could use the moon as a missile base and thus gain control of the earth. The industrialists are persuaded, and work on the new rocket begins. When the spaceship, Luna, is finished, Charles receives word that the government has denied his request to test it at the construction site, citing concerns about radioactive fallout. Growing public opposition to the project leads Jim to suspect they have been targeted by a subversive propaganda campaign, and he decides to launch the rocket without waiting for permission. The preparations for takeoff are almost completed when radio technician Joe Sweeney tells Jim and Charles that Brown, who was to man the spaceship, has been taken to the hospital for an appendectomy. They ask Joe to take Brown's place, and he agrees, convinced that the rocket will not really work. After saying goodbye to his wife Emily, Charles joins Thayer, Jim and Joe in the spaceship, and they blast off. Once they are in orbit, the men don magnetic boots, which allow them to walk around in the weightless atmosphere of the capsule. When the men put on space suits and go outside the ship to repair an antenna, Charles loses contact with the ship and is cast adrift in space, but Jim uses blasts from an oxygen tank to propel himself toward Charles and lead them both to safety. The ship eventually approaches the moon, and after several failed attempts, they touch down. Charles and Jim emerge from the ship and claim the moon in the name of the United States. While the other crew members are conducting scientific tests, Jim communicates by radar with Dr. Hastings at the control tower, and Hastings confirms his fear that their difficulties during landing used up too much of their power, which means they may not be able to escape the moon's gravitational pull. Hastings instructs them to lighten the ship, and the men strip off nearly 3,000 pounds by removing metal fixtures and discarding all non-essential equipment. When Hastings tells them they must eliminate another 110 pounds, Thayer, Charles and Jim each volunteer to stay behind. They are about to draw lots when Joe sneaks out of the ship. He urges the others to leave, but Jim devises a way for them to discard the radio and the last space suit, thus reaching their weight goal. The ship takes off successfully, and the four men joyfully begin their journey back to earth.
John S. Abbott
Robert A. Heinlein
Robert A. Heinlein
Miles E. Pike
Rip Van Ronkel
Best Special Effects
Destination Moon starts with a failed rocket test, not an auspicious start if you're planning to ride one to the moon. That doesn't deter a General and his industrialist buddy who, sparked by Cold War fever, decide that the US has to get to the moon first. They're rushing against government interference, trying to raise the necessary funds (using a Woody Woodpecker cartoon!) and struggling with barely functioning technology. On top of that, the technician traveling with them doesn't believe the rocket will really work and would rather be out chasing the babes.
Destination Moon was based on the novel Rocketship Galileo by renowned science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who also gave us such classics as Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. The original novel was one of several Heinlein wrote aimed at a teen audience (though like the Harry Potter books they appeal quite easily to adults) so it featured a kindly uncle and three boys who tangle with some recalcitrant Nazis on the moon. Most of that story (except the scientist's name Cargreaves) vanished when producer George Pal (War of the Worlds (1953), The Time Machine, 1960) decided to make the characters older so the film wouldn't seem like kiddie fodder. Pal also wanted the film to be entirely plausible so he had Heinlein adapt his own novel and act as a technical consultant. Some of the film's backers wanted it to be more conventional, to include a love story or to fudge some of the science. Heinlein even claims that at one point the backers had a script written that included dude ranches and singing cowboys on the moon. But fortunately that never happened, something Heinlein attributes to director Irving Pichel's integrity, saying, "he is not a scientist, but he is intelligent and honest."
When it came to the special effects, Heinlein also noted that the best way to film them would be to raise several hundred million dollars, actually build a spaceship and then just "photograph what happens." Obviously that wasn't going to happen with a total budget slightly over $600,000. So, the crew had to do some creative improvisation with the effects because they didn't have the money to do more conventional effects. It also gave them a chance to experiment. Instead of cheesy-looking rear-screen projection, they had noted astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell make large paintings, some even mounted on wheels, for backdrops. The rocket interior was built to rotate so they could simulate weightlessness. The lunar surface was constructed on an elaborate sound stage so that piano wire could be used for the large jumps associated with low gravity. (The same technique would later be used for martial arts films the following decade.) The effects were made more difficult by the use of Technicolor and the intensely hot lights it required. Yet somehow it all worked. The result is a space exploration film that represents the best scientific knowledge of the time (even if the moon's surface turned out to be actually quite different) and remains well worth seeing.
Director: Irving Pichel
Producer: George Pal
Screenwriter: Robert A. Heinlein, James O'Hanlon, Rip Van Ronkel
Cinematographer: Lionel Lindon
Composer: Leith Stevens
Editor: Duke Goldstone
Cast: Tom Powers (General Thayer), John Archer (Jim Barnes), Erin O'Brien-Moore (Emily Cargraves), Warner Anderson (Dr. Charles Cargraves)
By Lang Thompson
Weird Worlds - WEIRD WORLDS - Four Sci-Fi Favorites on DVD From Image Entertainment
First up is George Pal's Technicolor hit from 1950 Destination Moon, which is generally considered the first film of the 1950s wave of Science Fiction. Big studios wouldn't touch 'Buck Rogers' film fare but stood up and took notice when this little Eagle-Lion release broke box office records. With an almost documentary attention to technical detail, the film tells the story of a privately funded moon rocket while offering viewers a primer on the basics of space travel: Weightlessness, inertia, orbits. Walter Lantz's Woody Woodpecker serves as sort of a visual aid in one scene. With its intriguing needle-nosed silver rocket poised on a desert launching pad, Destination Moon introduced the world to the notion of space travel as a real possibility.
Some specifics of the Lunar voyage ended up being prophetic. The flight mechanics of Apollo 11 were similar and the landing required a last-second change to find a suitable landing site. The moon is claimed for all mankind in a speech broadcast live, just as happened in 1969.
The source novel for Destination Moon was written by the prolific Robert Heinlein, and his harsh Cold War politics are felt when the rocket's promoters state that America must get to the moon before the Russians, so as to plant atomic missiles there first. Both a failed engine test and a legal objection to the launching are blamed as the work of 'foreign Red saboteurs.'
Non-science fiction audiences have a low tolerance for Destination Moon's focus on science facts over drama, and the film is burdened with weak characters and unfunny comic relief. But it stirred the imaginations of millions, starting a popular groundswell for John F. Kennedy's announcement eight years later, that America would make a moon mission its national crusade.
Destination Moon is a good transfer of a Technicolor print in reasonable condition but frequently beset with fine scratches and an occasional splice. Colors are bright and sharp enough to reveal tiny wires and other special effect shortcuts that were harder to see on old 16mm prints. An engagingly over-hyped trailer stresses the fact that articles in many mainstream magazines are exploring the possibilities of a new frontier in outer space.
1953's Project Moonbase was co-authored by Robert Heinlein and originally produced as a proposed television series to be called Ring Around the Moon. Heinlein and company continue their commitment to credible space science, but, taking a hint from George Pal's experience, add a melodramatic plotline about Communist subversion. The resulting odd mix of scientific authenticity and Cold War paranoia was not widely released and soon became obscure.
1970. The United States Space Force's latest moon mission is infiltrated by a foreign power identified only as "the enemy of freedom." After a struggle with a saboteur, the ship makes an emergency landing just over the horizon on the dark side of the moon. To communicate with home base, the spacemen must climb a lunar mountain to point a radio antenna at the Earth.
The science is exemplary. Spacemen wear skullcap headgear and walk on the walls and ceiling, just as they do in Kubrick's epic. There are only a few awkward props, such as a portable communicator that's just an old telephone receiver with a big antenna attached. On the other hand, Heinlein's dramatics are a joke. Heinlein gives everyone 'funny' names. Leading lady Donna Martell is Colonel Briteis (pronounced 'bright eyes') and an annoying gossip columnist is dubbed Polly Prattles. The foreign agent is on a suicide mission, but volunteers to help the Americans after the forced landing. How is the villain's true identity uncovered? He doesn't know what the Brooklyn Dodgers are.
Actor Hayden Rorke (later of TV's I Dream of Jeannie)'s general is supposed to be a good guy but behaves like a complete creep. He snickers at the notion that publicizing "the science angle" will allow the Space Force to cloak its real mission, the secret deployment of nuclear weapons in orbit. Rorke renames the crashed spaceship "Moon Base One," thereby putting a positive news spin on a mission gone awry. Although sexual equality in the corps is stressed, Rorke and other top brass make sexist remarks to Briteis, who, as a female astronaut, is obliged to wear short-shorts, a tight t-shirt and a push-up bra!
The most outrageous scene is saved for the end, when the President is revealed to be a woman. The film treats that revelation as a joke, but not the situation of having an unmarried man and woman sleeping in close quarters alone on the moon: Briteis and her male astronaut partner are ordered to submit to a marriage ceremony performed by Television!
The B&W Project Moonbase is a good transfer of a print in fine physical shape. Herschel Burke Gilbert's score makes use of a wailing Theremin. An original trailer is included.
In other far sillier 1950s space films astronauts found civilizations on the moon, Mars, Venus and a moon of Jupiter. In each case, aliens were human in form and the Earthmen found plenty of beautiful showgirls to enroll in kissing lessons. Serious space pictures almost disappeared, but Zsa Zsa Gabor became The Queen of Outer Space in CinemaScope and color. One of the last and most juvenile of these low-budget space films was The Phantom Planet.
A 1980 U.S. Air Force space patrol fails to return after colliding with a rogue planetoid called Raeton. A follow-up rocket crashes as well, and its lone survivor Frank Chapman (Dean Fredericks) becomes a castaway. Like Lemuel Gulliver, Frank discovers that Raeton is inhabited by tiny people only six inches tall. Before he knows what's happening, the astronaut shrinks to miniature size as well. The little kingdom welcomes Frank and encourages him to choose a wife, which leads to a jealous rivalry. As in This Island Earth, Raeton is fighting a war with another alien culture called the Solarites. A captive Solarite is played by young actor Richard Kiel ("Jaws" in the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me). His monster costume is a poor imitation of the Metaluna Mutant, looking more like a dog-faced giant with light bulbs for eyes.
Producer-writer Fred Gebhart made the previous year's 12 To the Moon, another maladroit picture with a cast of acting pros. Silent star Francis X. Bushman is the leader of Raeton, and genre favorite Coleen Gray is the main love interest. But the soporific script, slow pace and unimaginative special effects make the film difficult to sit through. The various planets and space vehicles look like burning bits of sponge and the shrinking gimmick is silly.
The Phantom Planet is transferred from a very clean print source with only a bit of damage, again around reel changes. The clear image and sound only highlight the production's lack of ambition.
The success of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 prompted several expensive space films to be produced behind the proverbial Iron Curtain. First Spaceship on Venus is an Americanization of an East German-Polish space adventure from 1960 called Der Schweigende Stern (The Silent Star). In the 95-minute original film a technological artifact from Venus is found in meteor fragments in Siberia. An international Dream Team of scientists and space pilots take off in a gigantic ship called the Cosmokrator to investigate, analyzing the artifact on the way. After some harrowing adventures on the blasted, ruined surface of the dead planet, they determine that the Venusians were planning to attack the Earth but accidentally annihilated themselves with their own weapons. The cities may be lifeless but vast machines still operate underground. The brave cosmonauts are threatened when one of these machines is inadvertently disturbed.
The small distributor Crown International picked up this film and released it in 1962 co-billed with an import from Japan, Daikaiju Baran. Both pictures were heavily altered so as to pass as American productions. The Japanese film became Varan the Unbelievable while the space film got a new life as First Spaceship on Venus. Interestingly, the American editorial team that re-cut the space movie included Hugo Grimaldi and Gordon Zahler, who also worked on The Phantom Planet.
First Spaceship on Venus was dubbed into English and more conventional music tracks were remixed from familiar stock music libraries -- we even hear a few bars from the score for The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The original Agfacolor film was reprinted in Technicolor, resulting in beautiful release prints.
Crown International also did some heavy pruning on the picture -- seventeen minutes' worth. Several long speeches were removed, including a lot of political material. The original East German space explorers conduct an extended debate about the refusal of the United States to participate in the Venus mission. An 'enlightened' American scientist defects (in a Russian MIG jet!) to join the rest of the international cosmonauts.
Grimaldi eliminated this back-story and also a beautiful scene in an Alpine meadow where the top scientists talk before blasting off into the heavens. The American re-cut retains the explorers' discovery of Hiroshima-like shadows of the extinct Venusians burned into the sides of buildings, but omits accompanying observations about barbaric warmongers back on Earth. The political snipping goes a bit too far at the end, when the American version fades abruptly on a crowd greeting the returning voyagers. In the East German original the shot continues to feature dozens of well-wishers joining hands in a gesture of international solidarity. What's so bad about that?
First Spaceship on Venus has remained popular because of its beautiful and imaginative visuals. The giant 3-spired spaceship (renamed the CosmoStrator) is so striking that we don't stop to think of its essential impracticality. Venus is a dark world with crunchy crystallized earth and clouds of colored gas floating under a black sky. Some landscapes look like melted forests and others like Hieronymous Bosch's illustrations of Hell. The astronauts cruise about in little glass-nosed golf carts, driving slowly past colossal ruins of unidentifiable structures. The effects are simple but spectacular, making Venus a weird world indeed.
In the film's action finale a huge lake of black ooze comes to life and pursues a trio of spacemen and their tank-like mini robot Omega up a spiral ramp. They finally use a ray gun against the Venusian blob. The planet's automatic machinery goes haywire, generating negative gravitation and forcibly pushing the CosmoStrator off the planet. A brave pilot tries to rescue a comrade left on the surface, but cannot control his tiny shuttlecraft in minus-ten gravity.
First Spaceship on Venus attracted little attention save for the appearance of European name Yoko Tani as the ship's medic; she had starred with Anthony Quinn in the previous year's The Savage Innocents by Nicholas Ray. The other international crewmembers are all played by Eastern Europeans. African Julius Ongewe is perhaps the first Black astronaut to be depicted in the movies.
Wade Williams' print of First Spaceship on Venus, letterboxed but not enhanced, is in basic good shape with only some scratches and minor damage at reel changes. But transferring a dense Technicolor print to video results in high contrasts and clogged blacks; the diamond-like Venusian soil loses its glitter and Mr. Ongewe's face sometimes appears as a black blot in a bright screen. The original Der Schweigende Stern is available in Region One from First Run Features, and is a recommended purchase even though this four-title set is a bargain on its own.
For more information about Weird Worlds, visit Image Entertainment. To order Weird Worlds, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Weird Worlds - WEIRD WORLDS - Four Sci-Fi Favorites on DVD From Image Entertainment
Ha-ha-ha-HA-ha! It'll never get off the ground. Hmph -- no propellers!- Woody Woodpecker
Rockets do not employ propellers. They use jets.- Cartoon Narrator
So do gas pumps, but they don't fly to the Moon.- Woody Woodpecker
Obviously you know nothing about rockets. Now, let's pretend that umbrella of yours is a shotgun.- Cartoon Narrator
Shoot it.- Cartoon Narrator
Now listen, fella, I've known you from way back. Two-engine planes weren't fast enough: you had to go in for four. Then props weren't fast enough: you had to go in for jets. Now you've got a hold of something else, something that'll go higher and faster than anything that ever existed before. You can't swing it alone, so you're trying to rope us in on it. Well, before we go along with you, you'll have to tell us: what's the payoff?- Industrialist
Dollars and cents? I don't know. I want to do this job because it's never been done. Because I don't know. It's research, it's pioneering. What's the Moon? Another North Pole -- another South Pole -- our only satellite, our nearest neighbor in the sky.- Jim Barnes
But why go there, Jim?- Industrialist
We'll know when we get there; we'll tell you when we get back. It's a venture that I don't want to be left out of.- Jim Barnes
Here's the reason. The vast amount of brains, talents, special skills, and research facilities necessary for this project are not in the government, nor can they be mobilized by the government in peacetime without fatal delay. Only American industry can do this job. And American industry must get to work, now, just as we did in the last war!- Jim Barnes
Yes, but the government footed the bill!- Industrialist
And they'll foot this bill, too, if we're successful; you know that. If we fail, we'll take a colossal beating. So we can't fail! Not only is this the greatest adventure awaiting mankind, but it's the greatest challenge ever hurled at American industry. And General Thayer is going to tell you why.- Jim Barnes
The reason is quite simple. We are not the only ones who know that the Moon can be reached. We're not the only ones who are planning to go there. The race is on -- and we'd better win it, because there is absolutely no way to stop an attack from outer space. The first country that can use the Moon for the launching of missiles... will control the Earth. That, gentlemen, is the most important military fact of this century.- General Thayer
You can't buck public opinion; I've tried. Have you seen this?- Dr. Charles Cargraves
That isn't public opinion -- it's a job of propaganda!- General Thayer
You're almighty right it is. Manufactured and organized -- with money and brains. Somebody's out to get us.- Jim Barnes
Say, Doc, the ship's about ready to take off, isn't she?- Jim Barnes
Except for tests and minor adjustments.- Dr. Charles Cargraves
Well, what's the next favorable time?- Jim Barnes
About a month from now.- Dr. Charles Cargraves
No, I don't mean that. What's the next favorable time this month?- Jim Barnes
The Woody Woodpecker cartoon used in the movie was updated and then used by NASA to explain space travel to the public.
The panoramic view of the lunar scenery was a Chesley Bonestell painting 13 feet long, mounted on wheels and rolled past a stationary camera. To make the stars appear brightly luminous, 534 holes were punched in the painting and illuminated from behind.
This marked the first time that Grace Stafford (cartoon producer Walter Lantz's wife) did the voice of Woody Woodpecker.
The working titles of this film were Operation Moon and Journey to the Moon. At the end of the film, the following words appear onscreen: "This is the end/of the beginning." According to the Screen Achievements Bulletin, which was signed by George Pal, director Irving Pichel did a considerable amount of work on the screenplay, although he is not credited onscreen for this contribution. Pal chose to hire relatively unknown actors for the picture, fearing that famous or typecast performers would detract from the story's credibility. According to a August 1, 1949 Los Angeles Times news item, Pal scouted small legitimate theaters throughout the country, accompanied by his associate Harry Henkle and film editor Duke Goldstone.
According to information contained in the film's production file at the AMPAS Library, pre-production work took more than a year and included consultations with military rocket engineers and scientists from California Institute of Technology. Photographs taken from the Palomar Observatory in San Diego were used to create the set for the moon. The film won an Academy Award for Best Special Effects and was nominated for Best Art Direction (Color). The film's special effects included miniatures, stop-frame animation and makeup devices to simulate the effect of gravitational pull on the actors' faces. It also received the Bronze Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Destination Moon was Eagle Lion Classics' highest-grossing film of 1950.
Modern sources cite the film as a milestone in the development of the science fiction genre, noting that it portrayed space travel with unprecedented realism. The production marked the motion picture debut of comic actor Dick Wesson.
Released in United States 1995
Released in United States August 1950
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1950
Released in United States 1995 (Shown at AFI/Los Angeles International Film Festival (The AFI Fest Movie Marathon All Night: Left Wing versus Right Wing) October 19 - November 2, 1995.)
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1950
Released in United States August 1950