December 27, 1975: 12 to the Moon (1960) / The Missing Guest (1938)

12tothemoon1sheet

Synopsis: The Secretary-General of the International Space Order (Francis X. Bushman) addresses a live worldwide television and radio audience just before the launch of the Lunar Eagle 1, an atomic-powered spaceship that will carry the first crew to the surface of the Moon. The mission has been funded by contributions from all nations, and the crew is meant to represent a cross-section of all nationalities. American John Anderson (Ken Clark)  commands the crew, which includes German engineer Erich Heinrich (Jon Wengraf), Polish-born Israeli engineer David Ruskin (Richard Weber) (an aeronautical engineer who also records an audio log of the voyage for posterity), Russian Feodor Orloff (Tom Conway) , who is the geologist / cartographer; Turkish doctor Selim Hamid (Muzaffer Tema); Brit Sir William Rochester (Philip Baird) ; Nigerian navigator Asmara Markonen (Cory Devlin); Brazilian pilot Luis Vargas (Tony Dexter); physician Sigrid Bomark (Anna-Lisa); clean-cut young genius Rod Murdock (Robert Montgomery, Jr) , Etienne Martel (Roger Til), French engineer and Hideko Murata (Michi Kobi), an “astrophotographer and pharmacist” who hails from Japan.

The purpose of the mission, we’re told, is for the crew to land on the Moon and claim it as international territory — thus preventing any future conflicts over its territory.

The launch goes off as scheduled, with the ship operating flawlessly. A meteor storm is encountered, but is successfully deflected by the ship’s electronic shield. Several members of the crew begin bickering about their own countries’ contributions to the flight, and there is some tension when Ruskin mentions his contempt for the German who killed his family, who, unknown to him, was Heinrich’s father.

When the ship lands on the Moon an exploratory party disembarks. They plant a flag and declare that the Moon belongs to all nations, and then begin to explore. Hamid and Bomark discover a cave that has oxygen inside it; removing their space helmets, they kiss passionately. Moving farther back into the cave (clearly preparing for some outer-space nookie), they do not notice that a wall of ice has mysteriously appeared behind them.

Still, they’re doing better than the rest of the crew. Rochester gets caught in some lunar quicksand and disappears; Orloff sticks his hands in some lunar slime and gets badly burned. But the real surprise comes when they receive a mysterious message from the lunar inhabitants that warn the Earth people to go back where they came from….

12tothemoon2

Comments: This modest offering from Columbia occupied the bottom of a double bill with Ishiro Honda’s Battle In Outer Space, and like a lot of the post-Destination Moon space-travel films of the 1950s it somehow manages to be both wildly improbable and thuddingly unimaginative. The movie starts out on a note of utopian do-gooderism: the voyage to the Moon has been underwritten by all the nations of the Earth, its noble purpose to claim the Moon for all the people of the world. In order to ensure that there’s an equitable representation of the earth’s people, an international crew of 12 is chosen.

If you’re thinking that a dozen astronauts seems like a lot more than you’d need for a lunar voyage, you’re right; and in fact there are so many people with so many overlapping disciplines (engineer / pilot / designer / astrogator / astronomer / cartographer / astrophotographer / physician / pharmacist, etc) that for every scene that shows someone on the crew actually doing something, you have several other people just milling around in the background. There are so many people on the ship that it’s difficult to tell them apart most of the time, and they are all so thinly written we probably wouldn’t know much about them even if we had more time with each of them. I suppose I should give the movie credit for trying to depict an international and multiracial crew, not a trivial thing in 1960; but again, we don’t get an opportunity to connect with them in any way.

12 to the moon1

Despite the large crew, the budget of the film is evidently quite meager. While the lunar landscape set appears fairly ambitious, the spaceship interiors are extremely bland and pedestrian and it’s clear that little thought went into their design. Military surplus electronics are stacked against the walls to try to evoke a high-tech look; and surplus air force high-altitude flight suits and helmets are used in lieu of spacesuits. A Norton bomb sight is pressed into service as a navigation console.  Instead of the “acceleration couches” that showed up in films of this era, the astronauts recline on what are clearly 1950s- era chaise lounges.

Murata and Bomark avail themselves of the ship’s “sonic shower” and marvel at how clean it gets them, but this is really just an excuse for the hirsute and ill-mannered Anderson to barge in with his shirt off. “Don’t you ever knock?” one of the women asks, to which Anderson snaps, “This isn’t the Waldorf!” Maybe the captain of a ship with a dozen people on it could post a shower schedule or something?

These little exchanges are clearly meant to establish points of conflict between characters, thus building dramatic tension in a story.  But 12 To the Moon hardly bothers, and the interpersonal relations between the members of the crew never go anywhere.

This includes the romance between Hamid and Bomark, whose abrupt decision to get it on while exploring a lunar cavern comes out of nowhere and seems a little bizarre. Apparently it’s supposed to make the aliens curious about human behavior (love, as we’ve come to expect from movies like this, is unknown and deeply mysterious to them).

Predictably, the aliens are supposed to be all intellect, baffled by the emotions we take for granted. And yet the aliens don’t act in anything approaching a rational way. They communicate with the humans through a string of symbols running through one of Lunar Eagle 1’s instruments, even though it doesn’t look like any human language (Murata is able to decipher the symbols even though she isn’t a linguist, apparently because she’s Japanese and the writing looks vaguely “oriental” ).

First the aliens warn the humans away, and insist on keeping Hamid and Bomark so that they can study “love”, and then, oddly, demand that the humans leave behind the two cats that were brought along for the journey. Maybe there’s a rodent problem on the Moon?

After acquiescing to these demands and leaving the Moon, the humans discover that the aliens are icing over the Earth, and that all of the planet’s cities are frozen solid. Makes you wonder what the aliens would have done if there humans hadn’t done as they were asked. How could an alien species freeze an entire planet? Why would it want to? But it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not it makes sense; a big crisis for the finale was needed, and this is it.

In storytelling terms these are huge, desperate haymakers, thrown because the screenwriters couldn’t think up anything better. The truth is, once you get your characters to the Moon there aren’t a lot of dramatic possibilities available. It was clear long before 1960 that the Moon had no atmosphere, no life, and little potential for big surprises. Even Destination Moon, which strove to be scientifically accurate, had to fall back on a one-man-has-to-be-left-behind melodrama in its third act.

That’s why our crew is forced to wander around with an “oxygen detector” (it looks like a Geiger counter with a little balloon fixed to it; it inflates a little bit when there’s oxygen around, or something) and they gamely scout around for signs of life, which they inevitably find. Along the way they stumble into various pitfalls (Sir William Rochester is so grimly determined to bravely sink into quicksand he practically has to fight off the crewmates who are attempting to save him).

The cast of bread-and-butter actors is undistinguished. The most prominent billing is reserved for Francis X. Bushman, and it seems clear we’re supposed to be impressed with his name showing up in the credits. Largely forgotten today, Bushman was a big star during Hollywood’s silent era, perhaps best-known for having played Messala in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur.

Ironically,  by 1960 anyone old enough to know who Francis X. Bushman was wouldn’t be likely to buy a ticket to 12 To the Moon anyway.

ben-hur

The Missing Guest

Synopsis: Newspaper reporter “Scoop” Hanlon (Paul Kelly) has been in the doghouse with his editor, and as a result he’s been stuck writing for the women’s page, where he must endure the taunts and jibes of his (entirely male) colleagues. He gets a chance at redemption when he’s offered a chance to pen a feature story: his boss wants him to spend a night in the notorious Blue Room at the Baldrich mansion on Long Island.

The room has been closed up since the murder of family patriarch Samuel Kirkland in the Blue Room 20 years ago — a murder that was never solved, since the room was locked from the inside. The family, according to the editor, is hosting a big celebration at the house tonight. If Scoop agrees to crash the party and find a way to spend the night in the Blue Room, he’ll get a fat bonus and will be placed back on regular assignment.

As it happens, the gathering that night at the Baldrich mansion is a costume party. A man in a ghost costume appears at the door; this turns out to be young Larry Deardon (William Lundigan), who scoffs at all the talk of supernatural events and asks young Stephanie Kirkland (Constance Moore) to dance. While dancing he broaches the topic of marriage, but she turns him down.

Outside the house, Hanlon is trying to find a way into the party, and is dismayed when he learns that all of the invited guests have already arrived. He is at a loss of how to get into the party when a car unexpectedly crashes into the front gate of the Baldrich mansion. The driver is knocked out.

Soon, Hanlon is brought in on the pretext that he is the driver who was injured in the crash. Stephanie finds his wallet that has fallen to the floor: it indicates that he is “Ronald Ranger, Psychic Researcher”. After a swig of brandy, he is revived and it is agreed that he should stay the night to recuperate.

But when he sees a ghost — or someone dressed like a ghost — in the window of the guest room, he takes its picture. This draws the attention of butler Edwards, who seizes his camera and discovers it has a name plate identifying it as property of Scoop’s newspaper, the Daily Blade. That gets him thrown out of the house.

Later that night, Larry declares that he will spend the night in the Blue Room in order to show everyone else there’s nothing to the old superstition.

The next morning, Scoop is found to have spent the night in the guest room — he bribed the family chauffeur to get in, he says — but comes under suspicion of murder when it’s revealed that Larry has vanished from the Blue Room — which, just like 20 years ago, was locked from the inside….

Comments: Universal’s second go at the Blue Room chestnut is a more lighthearted affair than 1932’s Secret of the Blue Room, but isn’t quite as silly as Murder in the Blue Room five years later. It’s a pretty weak entry as it suffers from an uncertainty in tone (the tip-off here can be found in the movie’s tagline, “Ghostly! Giggly! Grand!”), with the down-on-his-luck newspaper reporter pressed into service as protagonist, even though newspaper reporter protagonists with nicknames like “Scoop” or “Flash” had largely disappeared from the movies by this time.

The reporter and his comically demanding editor aren’t the only cliches trotted out for us in this one. We also get the old dark house and the red-herring butler and the beautiful heiress to the family fortune who just happens to have a weakness for down-on-his luck newspaper reporters. The whole movie is a fire sale of movie cliches, chucked into Universal’s blender and pureed within an inch of its life.

Horror as a genre had fallen out of favor by the time The Missing Guest was in production, and as you might expect the spooky stuff is just there for atmosphere; at heart this is just a standard murder mystery and not a very interesting one at that.

Paul Kelly’s character isn’t quite as hapless as the ones we’ve seen in Night of Terror or The Return of Dr. X but we’ve nevertheless seen his type a million times before: Scoop is cynical, streetwise, a bit rough around the edges but still a regular Joe who can see through the pompous affectations of the rich and powerful. Kelly plays him fairly well, clowning around until he’s called upon to be the smart, resourceful leading man.

I rather liked Constance Moore in this one; she’s best-remembered today for playing Wilma Deering in the 1939 Buck Rogers serial. To be honest, I can’t recall if I’ve seen it or not; these old serials never seemed to stick with me, and I tend to get Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon confused (they are, after all, both Universal serials, and both star Buster Crabbe).

William Lundigan had a durable career in both films and TV, and starred in the TV series Men Into Space (1959), which ran for a single season. It is difficult to find today, but is remembered as a fairly realistic drama about the early days of space flight. He appeared as a guest star in television dramas into the 1970s.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.