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You Are What You See

2. Do We Eat Lunch Or Do We Go To The Moon?

We go to the Moon. Or at least, we do in Destination Moon (1950) the one that started it all. The whole 1950s SF boom began right here, with George Pal's Technicolor® production directed by Irving Pichel from a script by Robert A. Heinlein, Rip Van Ronkel, and James O'Hanlon and music by Leith Stevens. (And a Woody Woodpecker cartoon by Walter Lantz.) Astronomical art by Chesley Bonestell.

The movie pretty much follows what it would have been like to go to the Moon in the 1950s. As per Heinlein (and lots of other SF writers of the times) it's private industry and business who get behind the Moon project, not the government. Anti-commie propaganda comes in, too: businessmen are scared into getting behind the Moon shot by the line, "Whoever controls the Moon, controls the Earth — and we're not the only ones thinking of going there."

The novel this was taken from is Heinlein's 1947 Rocket Ship Galileo, which is about kids and their uncle going to the Moon and finding Nazis already there (as I said somewhere else; their souped-up V-2s were about 14,000 mph too slow to achieve orbit much less escape velocity.) All the novel, except the trip itself, was dropped for the movie.

We follow Jim Barnes (John Archer) (as Bill Warren says, "nobody came to this movie to see the actors") playing the head of a small aircraft company working on a satellite project for "Doc" Cargraves (Warner Anderson) and General Thayer (Tom Powers), at a place which is obviously White Sands. The rocket crashes. Barnes quits.

Two years later, General Thayer comes to him asking him to join in a rocket project involving atomic power built by the same Cargraves who built the satellite rocket that crashed: this is where the line about going to the Moon or to lunch comes in.

The Archer character gets a bunch of industrialists together to back the atomic rocket. (This is where he shows them the Woody Woodpecker cartoon which explains to them — and the audience — the scientific principles involved in a Moon landing.) They all join him after the threat about other nations getting there first.

After trials and tribulations (including evading a government order not to test the atomic engines), the four crewmen — Barnes, Cargraves, General Thayer, and Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson) — a scaredy-cat Brooklyn comic-relief who had to replace Brown, the original radio/radarman who gets appendicitis at the last minute — go aboard the rocket. The Sweeney character provides what comedy's in the movie, and is there for the others to explain things to — so the audience will know too. They have to launch the rocket in 17 hours — the only favorable time that month. (The calendar on the wall they consult says June and the 1st is on a Tuesday — the first time that would happen in the (movie's) future would be in 1954. So in this movie we take off for the Moon in June of 1954, instead of July of 1969.

They get in the ship. No "A-OK" here, in the communications check Wesson says: "Everything's just dandy here." There's a 30-second countdown; they take off and suffer lots of G-forces and G-faces. Then we get the weightless scenes and the use of magnetic boots (achieved the same way Astaire danced on the ceiling and later the TWA stewardess served food to the crew in 2001: A Space Odyssey.) There are views of the retreating Earth and the approaching Moon. There's a spacewalk on the hull of the Luna in their color-coded spacesuits (Abbot & Costello later used them in Go To Mars in 1953; they were what the Martians wore in 1951's Flight To Mars.) orange (Archer), blue (Anderson), teal (for Wesson). These scenes are the only ones in the movie done in stop-motion animation in the long shots — George Pal had of course built his career on the stop-motion Puppetoons. The ship is also too small in these scenes, in comparison with the space-suited figures.) Cargraves goes overboard — his boots lose contact with the hull while they're out to fix a stuck radio antenna — he floats away from the ship and they can't get a safety line to him. General Thayer brings out an oxygen tank — which Barnes rides with directed blasts — out to get Cargraves and being him back to the ship. (The general's spacesuit is a pale straw yellowish-chartreuse.)

There are some swell scenes of the Luna doing the flipover maneuver for landing. They expend too much fuel while landing. The moonscapes around them are impressive (Bonestell again). Ladderlike rungs come out of the side of the ship and Barnes and Cargraves climb down. Cargraves first jumps down to the Moon's surface, but Barnes speaks first ("Claim it Doc. I'll be your witness.") They have landed in the crater Harpalus, rather than the Mare Tranquilitatis. All four explore and put out scientific instruments; Anderson takes a photo of Wesson (Sweeney) holding his arm up with Earth cupped in his hand "like a modern Atlas". They jump around like Gordo and Cernan later did. Meanwhile Barnes is checking back with "Oith" as Sweeney says: Hastings, the double-dome with the slide rule and the Univac says they have to lighten the ship by "another thousand pounds" after they've already thrown out a couple of tons of stuff they don't need — there are scenes of hacksawing ladders, unbolting radar control panels, emptying their pockets. Three spacesuits are left outside — Sweeney's teal one is the only one they're using to take stuff out to the Moon's surface. They've gotten rid of nearly everything and they still are short "another 110 pounds:. They try to decide who stays. Sweeney goes outside to sacrifice himself. They figure a way to attach an oxygen tank outside the airlock with a safety line tied to the radio they don't need and Sweeney's spacesuit: Sweeny shucks the spacesuit in the partially closed airlock and goes back to the control room. They cycle the airlock — there's some false jeopardy as the suit hangs before being pulled out, and they take off. We watch Harpalus recede on the aft TV screen, and the Moon getting smaller, the Earth larger ahead. The End.

The movie — essentially a travelog — had huge impact in 1950. This was the start of it all. (Rocketship X-M — originally Rocketship eXpedition Moon — beat it to the screens — but it was started after production of Destination Moon began and was filmed in b&w (with the sequences on Mars tinted pinkish-red) on location rather than being totally studio-bound like DM. According to Bill Warren's Keep Watching the Skies! two different sets of people came to Robert Lippert the producer, with stories about going to the Moon or Mars. Then there was all the hoopla about the production of Destination Moon and Lippert went with one bunch of people and started production of Rocketship X-M. At one point the script called for dinosaurs to be found on Mars, but they went with the radioactive After-The Bomb conclusion instead.)

If there had been no Destination Moon, there would have been no R X-M. Nor any SF boom of the early 1950s. No Day the Earth Stood Still, no The Thing (From Another World) of 1951, certainly there would have been no Flight to Mars of the same year as those movies. The world was lucky Pal (and Heinlein) had the vision to start it with something as good as this. (They did that rarest of things in old Hollywood — they were first to be first, rather than first to be second.) In a sense, the rest of the 50s was second — it all followed from this one movie.

It really couldn't have been done better: the special effects were state of the art for 1950 — and Heinlein and Herman Oberth were there to make sure there were no real scientific blunders. And there are some surprises — in the blast-off sequence while they're undergoing G-forces, a sudden orangish light floods the control room — (they left the California desert at 4 a.m. and have risen into the sunlit dawn) it's both surprising and logically just right.

That Rocketship X-M seems the better movie now (as a movie) is because we saw the space travelog so many times since Destination Moon (especially in Pal's own Conquest of Space, a real bow-wow of a movie, 1955). Destination Moon was the first time any of this had been shown on the screen in a realistic way. Rocketship X-M is a gritty grey (and pink — tinted scenes became something of a Lippert trademark — he tinted everything green on the jungle plateau of dinosaurs in 1951's Lost Continent) film with a downer ending and a warning about Atomic War, and it's full of stealthy attacking Martians for many of the scenes set on Mars — and nobody in it has dialogue as bad as Wesson's in Destination Moon. R X-M holds up as an action movie even now. And now that we've been to the Moon and back (for real and true) we know what going there and back is like, and it's not much like Destination Moon. That's why it seems more dated. (Yeah, yeah, we haven't sent people to Mars yet but it sure won't be like the one in R X-M, no matter what else it turns out to be.) We won't find Mu-tates or Sherry Moreland with blank eyeballs.

Destination Moon is the daddy of all SF movies. It was made with a prescience that there was an audience for it, and for SF films in general. Others rushed in where it had gone, and made plenty of money and made some pretty good movies, ones that nobody would have done even two years before. (Imagine a great SF movie coming out of nowhere in 1949...) More and more SF movies got made, until by 1958 there were 75 a year. Pal led the way with this, and followed with When Worlds Collide in 1951, and then War of the Worlds in 1953.

By the end of the decade he created, his kind of movie was long gone. Pal's next great movie, The Time Machine had to wait for the next decade, 1960. Destination Moon made the world of SF films so safe, that movies like Destination Moon couldn't be made anymore, by the end of the same decade. That's what a revolutionary film it was.


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about howard

Locus Magazine is offering a special deal on the issue with the superb Heart-of-Waldrop photo and interview. Che'ekidaou'ut.

Howard Waldrop is a legend in his own time. He writes, he fishes, he builds bookcases. He does not have a cellphone, a computer, or an email account.

For someone who is about as wired as an echidna, Howard has a pretty substantial online career. He has had a website since 1997. You can read The Ugly Chickens, The Other Real World, Winter Quarters, D = R x T, and his collaboration with Leigh Kennedy, One Horse Town, on SciFiction. Mary Margaret Roadgrader is available on the excellent Strange Horizons. He has an occasional column, Crimea River, on Electric Story. And now he has a blog. Go figure.

For additional embellishments of the Waldrop legend, see Who Is Howard Waldrop, Anyway? For extravagant lies about Howard, see Alternate Waldrops, on Strange Horizons. Howard's most recent books are Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations and Dream Factories and Radio Pictures. Buy 'em.

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