July 16, 2019

Blazing Rockets: Hollywood’s Great Race to the Moon, Part One

On the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11's liftoff to the moon, Films From Beyond launches a two-part series on another space race that took place nearly twenty years before the historic mission: the race between two producers to premier the first "authentic" trip to the moon on American movie screens. The series will conclude on July 20, the anniversary of the moon landing.

Poster - Destination Moon (1950)
It was all set to launch. The rocket, the centerpiece of the project, was elegant and sleek, reflecting the best educated guesses of scientists, engineers and assorted dreamers as to what kind of ship it would take to carry human beings to the moon and beyond. Technicians had spent countless hours working up the crew compartment, instrument panels, spacesuits and assorted gear needed to get the project off the ground. Others combed over the plan, making sure it all made sense and no details were overlooked. The primary crew -- a combination of veterans and relative newcomers -- had rehearsed tirelessly.

It was documented and promoted in more detail than almost any other project of its type, culminating in an eye-popping four page spread in America’s leading glossy magazine, Life. [1]

That almost became its undoing. A rival group, seeing the plans laid out so lavishly, decided to take advantage of the public interest that had been so carefully cultivated, and rushed a project of their own into production. The result: Lippert Pictures’ Rocketship X-M was the first to lift off on an American movie screen on May 26, 1950, eclipsing George Pal’s carefully crafted Destination Moon ship by almost a month.

Unrecognized by the public at the time, this cinematic space race foreshadowed the real world, white knuckle superpower race that would result in the space shot heard ‘round the world: the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, on October 4, 1957. (The runner-up in that race, the U.S.’s Explorer 1 satellite, lifted off the pad on January 31, 1958.)

The real world stakes were of course much higher than those of Hollywood’s. It was a matter of perceived national survival versus gross ticket sales. With memories of the Nazi’s V-2 rocket weapon fresh in the public mind, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that a country that could launch a metal sphere into earth orbit, no matter how small or modest, was well on its way to being able to launch a nuclear bomb across continents to strike at vulnerable cities. It was a major milestone in the race to put men into space, as well as marking a new era of backyard fallout shelters and duck-and-cover drills in schools.

Sputnik 1, the world's first space satellite
The spherical beauty that launched a thousand
spaceships: Sputnik 1.
From the perspective of nuclear age superpower tensions, the rivalry of movie production companies seems paltry indeed. But the output of those companies and their impact on the popular imagination in the decade leading up to Sputnik and the first men into space was not trivial. Moviemakers like Pal took the dreams and plans of such astronautic visionaries as Willy Ley, Hermann Oberth and Robert Heinlen and made them as real to the public as their craft would allow. These movie rocketships weren’t just devices to take characters like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon on space flights of fantasy. They were based on the best thinking of real scientists and designers, the inheritors of rocketry pioneers Robert Goddard and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

Above all they helped cement the popular notion of piloted spaceflight as something real, well within current technological means and soon to become a feature of modern life. In the recent past the Nazi rockets had terrorized London with their explosive payloads. Now, even more powerful rockets would carry human beings on peaceful missions to the moon and Mars.

For America at the dawn of the new decade, it was a Dickensian “best of times, worst of times.” The nation, its cities, infrastructure and wealth relatively untouched by the ravages of World War II, established its post-war economic dominance through such instruments as Bretton Woods and the Marshall Plan. The foundations for a new prosperous middle class were laid through revived industry and the G.I. Bill. We had The Bomb, and had proven its terrible power against Japan. We were a new, exuberant empire, but there were nagging problems chipping away at our confidence and security.

We no longer had the atom bomb all to ourselves. The Soviets, our nominal allies of convenience during the war, had successfully tested their first atom bomb in August, 1949. The means by which they joined the club further shook our collective confidence: Klaus Fuchs, a German-born British physicist admitted on January 24, 1950 to passing crucial nuclear research from the Manhattan Project to the Soviets. The next day, U.S. State Department official and accused Soviet spy Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury.

Soviet spies seemed to be everywhere. In February, freshman Senator Joseph McCarthy took to speaker circuit to declare that the U.S. State Department was filled with subversive communists. It seemed to many that it was just a matter of time before the Cold War turned hot. And sure enough, by the end of June, President Truman had committed U.S. forces to turn back putative communist aggression in Korea.

Poster - I Married a Communist (aka The Woman on Pier 13, 1949)
The bright dawn of the decade and the new American Century saw more than a few dark clouds collecting in the distance. In darkened movie theaters, gritty, pessimistic, even cynical crime melodramas -- movies that French critics would later label “film-noir” -- screened side-by-side with tear-jerkers, musicals and westerns. Films like I Married a Communist (aka The Woman on Pier 13, 1949) and D.O.A. (1949) seemed to capture the mood of a public exhausted by war, giddy with promises of material prosperity, and paranoid about communists and other assorted bogeymen getting ready to take it all away.

On other genre fronts, the creaky old Universal monsters were breathing their last gasps chasing Abbott and Costello around studio lots. And the matinee movie serials that had for a time been a great source of futuristic fun with their spaceships, rayguns, and robots, had all but collapsed in a rusted heap by the beginning of the 1950s.

The growing number of TV sets certainly had its impact, but it was also evident that Gothic vampires, lumbering Frankenstein monsters and serial space opera heroes weren’t going to cut it for teens with some extra change in their pockets. Drive-in theaters popped up like mushrooms across the country, promising thrills and excitement that you couldn't get at home on the cathode ray tube.

Long before Madison Avenue ad men perfected their manipulative arts, the American movie industry dominated the entertainment world by taking the deepest desires and fears of audiences and channeling them into satisfying, self-contained silver screen dreams. Now, In order to tear Americans away from their living rooms and keep them digging into their pockets, movie makers, especially of the B variety, dumped the quaint old Freudian-inspired dreams of Dracula, Frankenstein and the like in favor of thrills and anxieties that were much closer to the surface.

Another impact of television was to reinforce the immediacy and reality of news being generated around the block and around the world. It might be one thing to listen to a description of an A-bomb blast over the console radio. It was another to see it in your living room. Multiplied by millions of living rooms and generously supplemented with images of Senator McCarthy railing against Communists in our own government, the flickering tube helped to lay a blanket of mass anxiety over a society entering a period of unprecedented prosperity.

Still - H-bomb test
The nightmare symbol of the 1950s: The mushroom cloud
Naturally, the photogenic atom bomb and its deadly sidekick radiation were everywhere in the popular press as well. Even as the U.S. and the Soviets were furiously working on the next really big thing -- a hydrogen bomb that would make the bombs dropped on Japan look like firecrackers -- the American public was being treated to a parade of stories about how nuclear war might become the new normal.

The genius of movie makers during this time was to grab material from the headlines, rework it, and turn fears into thrills, but at the same time deflect the more depressing details that brought things too close to home and triggered our deepest anxieties. Catharsis in a darkened theater was good; coming home from the theater obsessed with commies, fall-out shelters and other post nuclear survival strategies was not.

Flash Gordon-type fantasy was not up to answering the call of the Atom Age. To capture audiences, science fiction was going to have to be more relevant and reality-bound, while at the same time providing excitement and hope for the future. Sci-fi (as it came to be known) would soon rule theaters and especially drive-ins during the decade. The very best, the films that appealed then and now, set up their thrills with material pulled from the latest headlines, but didn’t confront the communist menace head-on.

All manner of atom-spawned, “what have we wrought?” monsters and mutants filled America’s movie screens throughout the ‘50s. Atomic testing awakened the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). The Japanese soon had their own angry irradiated giant, Godzilla (1954), to deal with. In the New Mexico desert, ground zero of atomic testing, giant ants set about to become the new rulers of the earth (Them!, 1954). Not to be outdone, The Deadly Mantis (1957) and bus-sized grasshoppers (Beginning of the End, 1957) proved that other mutant members of the insect kingdom could just as easily threaten humanity with extinction. Even a single, solitary man could become a giant headache for civilization if he was unlucky enough to get caught in the middle of a nuclear test (The Amazing Colossal Man, 1957).

Still - Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms ushered in
an era of atomic monstrosities.
There were a few attempts, especially at the beginning of the decade, to lure moviegoers with sobering, here's-how-it-might-happen depictions of nuclear war and its aftermath (Five, 1951; Invasion, U.S.A., 1952), but these seemed to hit too close to home and were relative box-office duds. More savvy B movie makers managed to sell post-apocalyptic themes by including kid-friendly mutants and/or by setting the action in a safely distant future (Day the World Ended, 1955; World Without End, 1956).

The Bomb wasn’t the sole preoccupation of 1950s sci-fi, but its attendant anxieties helped launch the cinematic space race, which in turn prepared the public for the real one. The space advocates’ Cold War message was hammered home again and again in the popular press: If we, the good ol’ U.S. of A., were to forestall nuclear war and prevent irradiated Commie mutants from taking over, we were going to have to take the highest of high ground and claim it for us … and peace of course. Not so subtly disguised in the high-blown rhetoric was the assumption that the nation that controlled space -- including the ability to deliver judgement from on high in the form of space-based weapons -- could enforce world peace on its own terms.

Like many of the towering figures of the early post-war years who challenged the nation to be first into space, the man who would lead America’s first authentic movie mission to the moon, George Pal, was a European expatriate. (While Lippert Pictures’ crew did indeed beat Pal’s into theaters, they didn’t actually make it to the moon, as we shall see.)

Born in Hungary in 1908, Pal was the son of theatrical parents who traveled constantly. Raised by his grandparents, George eschewed theater life to study architecture, He parlayed the draftsman’s skills he picked up as an architectural student into extra cash selling anatomy drawings to medical students at a nearby school. Upon realizing that Hungary’s less than vigorous construction industry wasn’t in shape to support yet another aspiring architect, the ever-enterprising Pal again used his drawing skills to secure a position at a Budapest motion picture company making titles for silent films.

Cover art for the George Pal Flights of Fantasy DVD set
His work filming theatrical commercials triggered a love for animation that would last a lifetime. Inspired by popular American cartoons like Felix the Cat, he taught himself the esoteric art. In 1931 he moved on to more promising pastures in the form of the mighty German film company UFA, where his self-taught expertise promptly got him promoted to head of the studio’s cartoon department.

However, UFA would not hold on to the restless young man for long. By 1939, when he and his wife secured a visa to the United States, he had operated his own studios and thrived in Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands producing short animated films and commercials. With such a reputation, he was quickly snatched up by Paramount. He opened a studio in Hollywood, where production of his “Puppetoons,” featuring wooden stop motion-animated puppets, began in earnest.

Between 1941 and 1947 he made dozens of films for Paramount. Pal’s creations earned him six Academy Award nominations and a special Oscar in 1943 for his contributions to the art. Not surprisingly, animation legend Willis O’Brien (King Kong), and soon-to-be legend Ray Harryhausen (Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, 20 Million Miles to Earth, etc.) would at one time or another work with Pal during the period.

By 1947, however, Paramount was ready to give the Puppetoons the pink slip. Perhaps like Flash and Buck, the innocence and exuberance of Pals’ animated characters was no longer a good fit for a nuclear-obsessed world seemingly ready to turn the tap from cold war to hot at a moment’s notice. No matter. George Pal was ready to turn his talents to more meaningful, and lucrative, feature films.

It took two long years of pitching ideas (while supporting himself making short educational films), but in 1949 he finally secured financing from Peter Rathvon, who had recently left RKO to form his own company, Eagle Lion Films. Pal inked a deal for two projects. First out of the gate was The Great Rupert (1950), a holiday comedy starring Jimmy Durante, Terry Moore and the title character, a dancing squirrel with a heart of gold. Rupert was a natural first feature for the Puppetoons creator, employing his trademark sentimentality and animation tricks. The second project, initially titled Operation Moon, couldn’t have been more different in style, spirit or scope. [2]

Cover for Robert Heinlein's novel Rocket Ship Galileo, 1947
The great science fiction writer Robert Heinlein was fresh off publication of his first novel, Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), when the Hollywood bug bit him. A literary agent introduced Heinlein to screenwriter Alford “Rip” Van Ronkel, and the pair developed a very realistic story of the first mission to the moon based on some of the novel’s concepts. Selling the story to conservative movie executives was another matter, echoing the problems Heinlein had encountered in finding a publisher for the book.

Eventually Van Ronkel found a kindred spirit in Pal when the two met at a party hosted by cinematographer Lee Garmes. Pal was intrigued by the script, and subsequent meetings with all three sealed the deal. [3]

The project was a far cry from the animated hijinx of wooden puppets and anthropomorphic squirrels. However laborious and time consuming those films were to make, this was on a whole new level, one aiming for the stratosphere and beyond. The resources needing to be marshaled weren’t far off from actually trying to shoot a rocket into space. But if there was a man to do it, it was the eternal, enterprising optimist, George Pal.

To be continued! In Part Two, Producers George Pal and Robert L. Lippert race to be the first to put a realistic moon trip on American movie screens...

Notes:

  1. "Destination Moon," Life magazine, April 25, 1950, 107
  2. Gail Morgan Hickman, The Films of George Pal (South Brunswick, NJ: A.S. Barnes, 1977)
  3. Dwayne A. Day, "Heinlein's ghost (part 1)," The Space Review, April 9, 2007, http://www.thespacereview.com/article/848/1

2 comments:

  1. Entertaining, insightful, informative - the rewards we always get from one of your essays. A great way to commemorate the big 50th anniversary. I'm watching Destination Moon on TCM right now, by the way.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you so much Bill! Destination Moon was a great accomplishment and set a high bar for all the sci-fi that was to follow. Enjoy!

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