Destination Moon (The Cornfield #34)

The astronauts wear color-coded spacesuits on their trip to the moon: explained as a way for them to tell each other apart, it also lets the audience to do the same. This is typical of the pleasures that come from the practical-minded method of Destination Moon, which takes a sober, this-is-how-this-might-actually-happen approach to its tale of spaceflight. The movie patiently explains the principles of rocket science and gravity and how energy should be deployed in various phases of a moon shot.

The picture rips right along: from a rocket failure in the opening sequence to a liftoff in less than a year (an illegal liftoff, because the authorities are racing to stop the voyage because of their piddling concerns about a possible atomic accident). The film has an explicitly anti-government agenda: the scientists and businessmen backing the moon voyage are agreed that government can’t be trusted to handle such a large project, so the barons of free enterprise will have their way. Luckily, the atomic-reaction gizmo doesn’t blow up, although to be fair to our scofflaw heroes, they did have the local population move ten miles away from the blast site as a precaution.

Destination Moon was inspired by a Robert A. Heinlein story, and Heinlein worked on the adaptation, along with a couple of other credited writers. (IMDb gives such a poignant, unadorned account of stray Hollywood careers, as clicking on the pages for this film’s other writers will attest. What was life like for Alford “Rip” Von Ronkel, who weathered his nickname enough for eleven official career credits, including a “Wagon Train” episode and a Zero Mostel movie, Once Upon a Scoundrel, made nine years after Von Ronkel’s 1965 death? Or James O’Hanlon, who wrote Ziegfeld Follies, a Spanish movie about Christ, and the should-be-cult surf movie For Those Who Think Young?) George Pal produced the film, and its success led him to create other science fiction triumphs, including The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. Director was Irving Pichel, who probably did have an interesting life, between being an offbeat actor and director. Pal and Pichel have a number of ingenious  scenes that are basically solutions to problems, such as weightlessness and lift-off.

Speaking of lift-off, there’s a long countdown (all the way from “thirty”) for the Earth departure. But they use the term “countoff” rather than countdown, one of the rare things this movie doesn’t accurately predict. (The countdown itself, by general consensus, was invented by another movie, Fritz Lang’s Woman on the Moon.) The countoff is delivered by Dick Wesson, the comic actor who performs the tiresome “Hey, I’m just a guy from Brooklyn” role; the other astronauts are a scientist (Warner Anderson, who would be in the TV show and movie The Lineup), the CEO of a Boeing-like aeronautics company (John Archer) and a general (Tom Powers, who played Barbara Stanwyck’s jerk of a husband in Double Indemnity).

Almost no women in the film, except for the scientist’s wife. There is a Woody Woodpecker cartoon, which is shown to the project’s investors as a way to explain how rockets work. In a way, this sequence is prescient too, for how it demonstrates the way corporations will produce elaborate film-related pieces meant to illustrate or sell an idea in  a boardroom. It is lucid in its description of rocket power, although it has Woody Woodpecker, thus raising the question, is there anyone anywhere who ever actually liked Woody Woodpecker? Why was this awful character ever popular?

Destination Moon has sequences that not only seem to have influenced Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke when they went about preparing 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that appear to have been taken as raw material on which to play variations: the color-coded suits, and also an entire spacewalk sequence in which one astronaut gets separated from the ship and begins drifting away. (But then this movie probably influenced every spaceship picture that followed, as it was almost the first one out of the gate in the sci-fi renewal of the 1950s.) 2001‘s immortal Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), he of the mysterious blandness and dubiously morale-beefing-up speeches, even resembles John Archer’s CEO, physically and otherwise.

NASA had the last laugh, pulling off the actual moon landing only 19 years after this film scoffed at government’s capacity for such a thing. Credit the movie with providing the blueprint, but overvaluing free enterprise.