Rocketship X-M

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ 

(6/10) In a nutshell: First serious American motion picture to go where no man has gone before. This 1950 Poverty Row movie was rushed into production to beat the lavish Destination Moon to cinemas and take advantage of the media buzz surrounding it. However, in some regards the cheap ripoff actually surpasses the ”original”, thanks to an Oscar-winning screenwriter, one of Hollywood’s greatest cinematographers, good acting and a movie with a good deal of heart and soul.

Rocketship X-M (1950). Directed by Kurt Neumann. Written by Dalton Trumbo, Kurt Neumann, Orville H. Hampton. Starring: Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen, John Emery, Noah Beery Jr, Hugh O’Brian, Morris Ankrum, Judd Holdren, Barry Norton. Produced by Kurt Neumann, Murray Lerner for Lippert Pictures. IMDb score: 4.9

Osa Massen, John Emery, Hugh O'Brian and Lloyd Bridges in Rocketship X-M.

Osa Massen, John Emery, Hugh O’Brian and Lloyd Bridges in Rocketship X-M.

Poster.

Poster.

After the abysmal sci-fi decade that was the forties, fans of the genre finally got to look forward to well-made, original, lavish, high-quality – actual – science fiction films. The spark that ignited the explosion of A-list science fiction films about space travel in the early eighties was a costly gamble of 600 000 dollars, in lavish colour, co-written by author Robert A. Heinlein, that won an Oscar for special effects and was nominated for another for art direction – the first American moon landing film that strived for scientific accuracy. Except that was not this movie. That movie was George Pal’s Destination Moon (review). This film is the low-budget, black-and-white quickie produced by Poverty Row studio Lippert Pictures about a rocketship that accidentally end up on Mars instead of the moon and meet the family from The Hills Have Eyes.

When studio executive Robert L. Lippert heard that George Pal was in the process of filming Destination Moon in late 1949, he decided to make a B movie that would profit from what he rightly guessed would be a blockbuster film, and when Destination Moon ran into one production problem after the other, the race was on to see who would be able to rush the first serious American space adventure film into cinemas. It turned out that B movie director Kurt Neumann was the faster, taking only 18 days to film Rocketship X-M, and the film premiered in New York in May 1950. Destination Moon wasn’t far behind, but still lost by three weeks. And Destination Moon practically did all the advertising for Rocketship X-M (oh, and X-M stands for Expedition Moon, in case you were wondering).

The principal writer of the script for Rocketship X-M was Dalton Trumbo, an author and writer whose screen credits at the time included Kitty Foyle (1940), for which he was nominated for an Oscar, A Guy Named Joe (1943), starring Spencer Tracy and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo. He was, however, best known for being a member of the Communist party and serving eleven months in jail for being one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to testify before the House Committee of Unamerican Activities in 1947. Trumbo was blacklisted, but continued to write after he was released, either under a pseudonym, without credit or credited with a ”front”. Rocketship X-M was his second screenplay after getting blacklisted, and the credits went to director Neumann and Orville H. Hampton, who also worked on the script.

Dalton Trumbo's mugshot.

Dalton Trumbo’s mugshot.

Trumbo would go on to write the script for the romantic classic Roman Holiday (1953) starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, as well as The Brave One (1956). Both films were given the Academy Award for best screenplay. The afore mentioned used actual writer Ian McLellan Hunter as a front, and for the second film Trumbo used the pseudonym Robert Rich. In 1960 Otto Preminger revealed that Trumbo was the de facto writer of his film Exodus, starring Paul Newman, which was released that same year. Actor Kirk Douglas then revealed that Trumbo had also written Stanley Kubrick’s classic Spartacus, which also premiered in 1960. That a blacklisted writer had written two of the year’s most successful movies practically ended the practice of blacklisting in Hollywood. In 1971 he directed the film Johnnie Got his Gun, based on his own pacifist novel, and in 1973 he wrote the screenplay for the classic Papillon, starring Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen. A Guy Named Joe was remade as Always with Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter in 1989, 13 years after Trumbo passed away. Steven Spielberg is set (in 2015) to direct a film based on Trumbo’s 1965 script Montezuma, which has never been filmed. Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List, American Gangster, Moneyball etc.) is set to revise the script and rumours put Javier Bardem in the led as Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez. Rocketship X-M was certainly not Trumbo’s best script, and his only sci-fi film, but his pacifist stance is clear throughout the movie.

Hugh O'Biran, Osa Massen, Lloyd Bridges, John Emery and Noah Beery Jr. in the cockpit.

Hugh O’Brian, Osa Massen, Lloyd Bridges, John Emery and Noah Beery Jr. in the cockpit.

The basic premise for Rocketship X-M is the same as in Destination Moon: a group of explorers set out on a rocket to go to the moon, and then something goes wrong and they have trouble returning. Only, in Trumbo’s script they end up going to Mars by accident. There were two reasons for this. First, by having the explorers go to Mars, Lippert and the filmmakers could avoid being sued for plagiarism, and second: Mars was actually much easier and cheaper to film than the moon. For the moon they would have had to make some sort of lunar set, but Mars could be filmed in a California desert (and it was).

The film is clearly divided into two sections. The first follows the preparations for the flight, the take-off and the beginning of the flight, where everything still sort of resembles as a basic moon flight story with at least an effort towards scientific – if not accuracy, then at least believability. The second part kicks in when the ship is struck by a meteor shower and the Mars adventure begins.

Dr. Egghead (John Emery) laying down the specs.

Dr. Egghead (John Emery) laying down the specs.

The film wastes no time – we jump in right at a rushed medical checkup 15 minutes before takeoff, and then the crew assembles before the press to give a leisurely press conference. Here we meet the players, as Fernando F. Groce describes them on Cinepassion: egghead commander (John Emery), chauvinistic pilot (Lloyd Bridges), resolute chemist (Osa Massen), stalwart astronomer (Hugh O’Brian) and obligatory comic relief (Noah Beery Jr.). With four minutes to go, the five heroes finally enter the spaceship and start checking gauges and calculations, before finally strapping down in their bunk beds (a staple in these films). En route the egghead and the woman start bickering about fuel mix calculations and the chauvinistic pilot asks if the woman wouldn’t rather be at home raising children and making beds. The comedy relief character, a Texan pilot, also tries to get one in on the woman scientist. The stalwart astronomer is stalwart.

But soon the team run into a freewheelin’ band of meteorites and have to take evasive action. But turns out the egghead’s fuel mix was wrong, and the evasive action becomes so violent that the crew passes out. When they come to, they have overshot the moon and are on a perfect course toward Mars. After some deliberation they decide to land on the red planet in the interest of science. They venture out into the Californian desert/Mars dressed in oxygen masks and army surplus bomber jackets (since there is atmosphere on Mars they don’t need pressure suits; also: it saves money on the costume budget). Here they find a deserted city in a desert and conclude that the inhabitants must have been dead for thousands of years. How they arrive at this conclusion from looking at an abandoned house and a metallic face mask is up for grabs. But, even more important, they find high levels of radiation and conclude that the civilisation must have been wiped out in a nuclear war. This is the warning they must bring to Earth, they decide: do not wipe yourselves out in a nuclear war.

The Martian landscape with matte painting by Irving Block.

The Martian landscape with matte painting by Irving Block.

For some reason they decide to camp out, and in the night they see a band of cavemen, and decide to take pursuit. Suddenly it is day again. No matter. They discover that this once proud civilisation has degenerated into the family from The Hills have Eyes, and furthermore have mutated. The men are ugly brutes with warts and stuff. The women are fashion models, but they are blind. The cavemen start throwing rocks. Egghead and comic relief perish. Stalwart astronomer is badly wounded. The three who live make it back to the spaceship. When closing in on Earth they realise they don’t have enough fuel to land. Pilot and woman scientist suddenly realise they love each other and are able to radio in their warning to the ground crew led by Dr. Fleming (Morris Ankrum). Then they crash and burn in the desert of Arizona. Dr. Fleming concludes that the mission was a success, since it might very well save the lives of all humanity: the message from Mars is loud and clear: do no wipe yourselves out in a nuclear war.

Now, I probably made this sound worse than it is. The plot itself is of course ridiculous, but the movie isn’t all that bad. In fact, when going through reviews it seems that it gets a lot more love than the stiff Destination Moon.

The spaceship design was copied from an article in Life magazine.

The spaceship design was copied from an article in Life magazine.

First, let’s talk science. It’s pretty clear from the beginning that logic isn’t the film’s strong point. Medicals are done 15 minutes before takeoff and consists of everyone standing in a circle getting their blood pressure measured. And as the doctor says: this doesn’t really mean anything, since one might be expected to have a slightly elevated blood pressure 15 minutes before stepping into a space ship. Then the crew have time for a press conference, individual interviews, actually going to the spaceship, bidding all the loved ones and the press farewell – this is all done beneath the spaceship – remember it is now five minutes until takeoff – and enter the spaceship AND go over the measurements and numbers. Wow.

On the other hand, they do get some stuff right. The spaceship they use is a two-stage rocket (they picked up the design from an article in Life magazine), as opposed to the one-stage rocket (that used NUCLEAR fuel) in Destination Moon. The G-forces during takeoff are depicted fairly well, and they even address the issue of weightlessness in space. Unfortunately they didn’t have the time nor money to create actual effects for the actors, so they try to cheat it away. They talk of ”decreased gravity”, which makes small objects become weightless, without affecting the passengers. In what galaxy this science works is a good question, but there you have it. More gaffes is the spaceship rocketing straight up, and then making a 90 degree turn to enter into orbit around Earth (to pick up speed, you see). They also have a cockpit that turns on its own axis, so the floor is always down. Something that would be useless in reality, since, you know, when you’re weightless it really doesn’t matter where the floor is. And the whole idea that the scientists would be calculating fuel mixes when the flight is underway is, of course, ridiculous. I won’t even get in to the science on Mars.

But: let’s talk for a minute about nuclear weapons and radiation. Today the warning against nuclear war seems self-evident, because we know from Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Chernobyl what radiation can do. This was not so in 1950. Back then radiation was often portrayed more as a nuisance than a life-threat. This was partly because not even scientists were perfectly clear on how radiation works. At the time the US government was conducting secret radiation tests on soldiers and criminals. The government did know that radiation potentially had devastating and long-lasting effects. This, however, was covered up the US government (this is documented) because of the ever-cooling cold war and the American desire to step up the nuclear programme and engage in all-round rearmament. This was also the stance of many sci-fi films. The 1949 film D.O.A. about a man poisoned with radiation nimbly avoids mentioning radioactivity at all, but calls it “luminous poisoning”. Ivan Tor’s Gog (1954, review) shows the leading lady in hospital because of radiation poisoning, but assures us she will be well as ever in a few days. In the right-wing, hawkish Destination Moon, the scientists (the good guys) repeatedly dismiss warnings of radiation as communist propaganda.

Rocketship X-M is one of the few films that get it right: Dr. Egghead tells the crew that it isn’t the war that has killed the populus on Mars so much as the radiation, still lingering after “thousands of years”, and warns the explorers not venture into the Martian buildings out of radiation danger. “Communist propaganda” was actually right, inasmuch as the only party in the US that strongly opposed rearmament, the nuclear bomb and aggression that might lead to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was the Communist Party, until it was banned, that is. This was one of the reasons that Trumbo joined the party in the first place.

To quote on of my favourite movie critics, Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant: “Hollywood was most likely patriotically parroting the Atomic Energy Commission’s ‘safe nuke’ public relations because they believed it with the rest of us. Radiation in Science Fiction became a completely fantastic, all-purpose Genie in a Bottle that made ants grow and people shrink. Not until 1959’s On The Beach did the notion resurface that radiation was a bad thing that could do really nasty stuff.”

Osa Massen and Lloyd Bridges in a publicity shot.

Osa Massen and Lloyd Bridges in a publicity shot.

Then we have the matter of the female on board. The fifties were something of a teetering point. Feminism was raising its head, but attitudes were slow to change. On the one hand Dr. Egghead explains in the beginning that the woman is there simply on the merit of her scientific knowledge, making the point that women can be just as good scientists as men. But then most of the conversation between her colleagues and herself on the ship boil down to the fact that she is the exception to the rule. It is pointed out repeatedly that to be a scientist one has to more or less give up on being a woman. The most blatant piece of sexism comes when Dr. Lisa van Horn (that’s her name) has a slight emotional fit and Dr. Karl Eckstrom (that’s Egghead) remarks that ”You’re not going to bring emotion into this are you?” When she apologises, he replies kindly: ”For what? For momentarily being a woman? It’s completely understandable.” But to the film’s credit, van Horn is actually treated as a fellow scientist and doesn’t go around serving tea and making bunks, as some female scientists in later sci-fi movies. Neither is she left behind ”because it’s too dangerous” when the crew sets out on its expedition.

Apart from the comic relief character, the film itself has a serious core. The kooky science does take away from this a bit, but not completely. Mostly this is thanks to the characters. Even if they are stereotypes and crudely drawn, they have personalities and a likeability about them. When the end comes, you actually care about what’s going to happen to them. This is, in part, thanks to the terrific actors. Best of the lot is the always superb Lloyd Bridges, perhaps best known today for his appearances in comedies like Airplane (1980) and Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993), as well as his guest spot on Seinfeld as the fitness-crazy octogenarian Izzy Maldebaum in 1997.

Lloyd Bridges in Airplane (1980).

Lloyd Bridges in Airplane (1980). He picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.

For an older generation, Bridges was known as a prolific TV actor, who gained attention for his emotional guest spot on the live anthology program The Alcoa Hour in 1956, in an episode directed by Sidney Lumet. In addition to his superb performances he also got carried away when ad-libbing and called a group of extras ”goddamn pigs”, which led to hundreds of complaints from viewers. He won an award for the episode and was nominated for an Emmy, as he was likewise for his stint on Seinfeld. He starred in the lead in the successful TV series Sea Hunt (1958-1961), produced by later Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry offered him the role of Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek series before it went to William Shatner. Fans of the original Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) remember him fondly as the legendary Commander Cain of battlestar Pegasus, in the double episode The Living Legend. His resonance with fans led to the character being reimagined in a larger role (and as a woman) in the remake (2004-2009). Bridges appeared in the TV sci-fi films The Love War (1970), Stowaway to the Moon (1975) and the episode The Sandkings on the TV series The Outer Limits in 1995. The episode was based on Game of Thrones-author George R.R. Martin’s Hugo- and Nebula-awarded novelette of the same name, and starred Bridges’ son Beau in the lead. He also appeared in the sci-fi comedy Honey I Blew Up the Kid (1992).

Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt.

Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt.

Bridges was father to Beau and Jeff Bridges, the latter who of course has made quite a mark on sci-fi with Tron (1982) and Iron Man (2008), and a few others. Beau Bridges is known to fans of Stargate SG-1 (2005-2007) as Major General Hank Landry. Beau’s grandson Jordan appeared in the 2000 sci-fi film Frequency, starring Dennis Quaid, and had a recurring role on the TV series Bionic Woman (2007). Lloyd Brigdes was himself briefly blacklisted in the fifties for his work with a political theatre group. He was an activist for world federalism and environmental issues. He passed away in 1998. The biggest revelation from his role in Rocketship X-M is that he was once young.

Danish actress Osa Massen (born Aase Madsen Iversen) turns in a strong performance as Dr. Lisa van Horn, even if she has to deal with some absolutely daft dialogue, especially in the romantic scenes with Bridges and Beery. She is perhaps the actor that gives the most humanity to her role in the film. Massen was known as Melvyn Douglas’ unfaithful wife in A Woman’s Face (1941) and had a reasonably successful career, although she never quite made the A list. In the fifties she had numerous guest spots on TV shows, including three episodes of Perry Mason and one spot in Science Fiction Theatre (1955).

Ose Massen.

Ose Massen.

John Emery is stable in the role of Dr. Eckstrom, but his role is a bit too stereotypical to be memorable. A noted character actor, he is perhaps best known for his supporting roles in the Ingrid Bergman films Spellbound (1945) and Joan of Arc (1948) and as Japanese premier Tanaka in Blood on the Sun (1945). He also had a substantial role in the underrated sci-fi film Kronos (1957), also directed by Neumann. Noah Beery Jr, son of legendary actor Noah Beery Sr, is a refreshing speck of light as the Texan mechanic, doing his comic relief without ever overdoing it or becoming too much of a caricature. He is best known for his role as Rocky Rockford in the TV series The Rockford Files (1974-1980). As the astrologer we see beefcake Hugh O’Brian in one of his first film roles. He would go on to great fame as the title character of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-1961).

Morris Ankrum.

Morris Ankrum.

As the ground crew boss Dr. Ralph Fleming we get one of the cult actors of fifties science fiction B movies, Morris Ankrum. His stern visage often got him roles as authority figures, not least when Mars was involved. Rocketship X-M was his first sci-fi movie, and he went on to appear in Flight to Mars (as the evil Martian Ikram, 1951, review), Red Planet Mars (as secrtary of Defense, 1952, review), Invaders from Mars (1953, review), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Kronos, The Giant Claw (1957), How to Make a Monster (1958), From the Earth to the Moon (as president Ulysses S. Grant, 1958), Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961) and Roger Corman’s X (1963).

Patrick Aherne has a substantial bit-part as a reporter, He later appeared as a Pentagon general in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review) and had a few guest spots on the TV series Adventures of Superman (1952-1958). Also as a reporter we get Kathy Marlowe, a perpetual wallflower who also appeared as one of the Venusian girls in the brilliantly bad Queen of Outer Space (1958) starring Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Judd Holdren as Commando Cody (1952).

Judd Holdren as Commando Cody (1952).

A third reporter is played by Judd Holdren, who would later find some science fiction fame of his own, in the serial format. First he played the titular role in Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere (1951), based on the popular TV show Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949, review). He later played the lead in Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952) and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953), as well as The Lost Planet (1953-1955) and appeared in Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (1954). His career plummeted fast, though, and he wound up having uncredited bit-parts in films like The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Space Master X-7 (1958).

As a fourth (uncredited) reporter we see a slumming Argentinian Barry Norton (born Alfredo Carlos Birabén), once a minor star in the Spanish-language cinema of Hollywood, at the time when films were still being made in multiple languages after the advent of talkies. He is best known for his role as Juan Harker in the Spanish version of Dracula (1931).

Director Kurt Neumann was born in Germany and was likewise shipped to Hollywood to film German versions of American films. In 1945 he joined Sol Lesser’s company Lesser Productions to direct a slew of Tarzan films starring Johnny Weissmuller and later Gordon Scott. In the late fifties he became known for his sci-fi films She Devil (1955), Kronos (1957), and the timeless classic The Fly (1958) starring Vincent Price.

Karl Struss.

Karl Struss.

The thing that really sets Rocketship X-M apart from a lot of the other B sci-fi films of the fifties, and even A films like Destination Moon is in fact that direction and the cinematography. Neumann’s direction is A class, and although the film was shot in only 18 days, it never feels rushed or as if the filmmakers didn’t have time to cover scenes from different angles of do retakes. The cinematography is fluid and never feels static, and there are some really nice angles and quirky shots. This is no surprise, as the director of photography was Neumann’s countryman Karl Struss, who won an Oscar for his work on F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Sunrise (1927), and worked with Charlie Chaplin on The Great Dictator (1940) and Limelight (1952). Struss was a favourite of Neumann’s and they worked together on many films, including all the afore mentioned of Neumann’s sci-fi movies. He is also a favourite of the editor of this blog, having filmed movies like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, review) starring Fredric March in an Oscar-winning effort as well as one of the best sci-fi films of the thirties, Island of Lost Souls (1932, review). He also filmed the turkey Mesa of Lost Women (1953, review) and The Alligator People (1959). Editor Harry W. Gerstad edited over 50 episodes of the TV series Adventures of Superman, as well as the B movies Unknown Island (1948) and The Alligator People.

Our heroes on Mars.

Our heroes on Mars.

Another coup the filmmakers managed to pull was to get composer Ferde Grofé Sr. to compose the music for the film. Grofé was one of New York’s most noted jazz arrangers in the twenties and thirties, as well as a noted composer of ”serious” music. He started scoring films in 1930, when arranging music for Jazz King. He moved on to films like Diamond Jim (1935) and Minstrel Man (1944), for which he was nominated for an Oscar. As opposed to many sci-fi films, Grofé’s score is never overpowering, and follows the emotions, rather than giving cues. Mostly it is subtle and beautiful, dramatic at just the right moments and building tension without waving a flag. His most memorable contribution to this film, though, is his use of the theremin for the scenes on Mars. This was the first time a theremin was used in a sci-fi or horror film, and practice would quickly be taken up by numerous composers, who seldom used it as well as Grofé. With time the theremin became so connected with B genre movies that it became a gag and eventually the only way to use it was as a pastiche (see for example Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood, 1994). The theremin artist in question was Samuel Hoffman, who became synonymous with the theremin sound of fifties sci-fi movies.

Detail of the spaceship controls.

Detail of the spaceship controls.

Another plus for the film is the production design, which is surprisingly good for a film with a budget of 94 000 dollars, which was slapped together more or less as an exploitation film. The interior of the spaceship really isn’t put to shame at all by Destination Moon, and since most of the film takes place inside the cockpit or in the desert of Mars, the film manages to avoid much of the B movie feel often connected with films of this type. Struss’ beatiful lighting helps, och course. The model of the space ship exterior has a bit too much of a Flash Gordon (1936, review) look to be quite believable, though. Production designer Theobold Holsopper (brilliant name) mainly worked on B or even Z films, including Captive Women (1952), Port Sinister (1953), Indestructible Man (1956), She Devil, Kronos, The Fly and The Bamboo Saucer (1968).

The make-up of the deformed Martians isn’t spectacular, but professional. Make-up artist Don L. Cash is perhaps best known for his work on TV, he worked in Family Matters (1989-) for nearly a hundred episodes. He also created make-up for Red Planet Mars (1952), The Crawling Hand (1963) and Demon Seed (1977).

Reworked special effects from 1979, courtesy of Dennis Muren & co.

Reworked special effects from 1979, courtesy of Dennis Muren & co.

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The special effects are perhaps what mostly reveal the films B movie roots. First of all, there’s the lack of special effects, and the fact that they are not particularly good when seen. There are a few a little too obvious matte shots, and the flight of the spaceship isn’t particularly convincing. In a few scenes the special effects team led by Jack Rabin and Don Stewart simply haven’t had time or money to do any shots of the spaceship landing and flying, and have simply opted for editing in footage of a V2 rocket. This obvious gaffe was amended in 1979 by a team led by Oscar winners Dennis Muren (of Star Wars fame) and Robert Skotak, who designed an exact replica of the ship in the film, and also replaced some of the rushed matte shots with new live action material. It wasn’t that matte painter Irving Block didn’t know how to do matte paintings, it’s just that sometimes the whole set can’t just be a matte painting. Block also did special and visual effects, or even acted as production designer, for films like Unknown World (review), Flight to Mars (both 1951), Captive Women, Invaders from Mars, the classic Forbidden Planet (1956), World Without End (1956), Kronos, Monster from Green Hell (1957), The Invisible Boy (1957), War of the Satellites (1958), Behemoth the Sea Monster, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock and The Atomic Submarine (all 1959), as well as the TV series Men Into Space (1959-1960), some of which he also came up with the stories for or produced. Not to forget The Saga of the Viking Women and their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957), the film that made Roger Corman shun attempts at A films. Today Block is perhaps best known as writer, producer and production designer for Forbidden Planet.

Design for Forbidden Planet (1956).

Design for Forbidden Planet (1956).

Another prolific special effects man on B sci-fi films was Jack Rabin, who created special photographic effects for the movie, most notable perhaps the trick of tinting the scenes of Mars red to create an otherworldly atmosphere and not have it look like a Californian desert – which works fairly well, even in the faded print that I have watched, where the tint has degraded to almost a yellowish sepia. Rabin often worked alongside Block, and also occasionally acted as writer and producer – he is perhaps best known for coming up with the story for Cat Women of the Moon (1953). Like Block, he also cut his teeth on Rocketship X-M.

Rabin also worked on the sci-fi films The Man from Planet X (1951), Unknown World, Flight to Mars, Invasion of U.S.A. (1952), Invaders from Mars, Port Sinister, the wonderfully bad Robot Monster (1953, review), The Neanderthal Man (1953, review), World Without End, The Black Sheep (1956), The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956), Kronos, Monster from Green Hell, The Unknown Terror (1957), The Invisible Boy, War of the Satellites (1958), Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959), The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock, The Atomic Submarine, Deathsport (1978), The Bees (1978), the TV movie The Darker Side of Terror (1979), Humanoids from the Deep (1980), and Roger Corman’s Star Wars ripoff Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), as well as the TV series Adventures of Superman and Men Into Space.

Lloyd Bridges and Osa Massen.

Lloyd Bridges and Osa Massen.

The budget of 90 000 dollars was low compared to Destination Moon and other high-profile films to come in the fifties, but just high enough to afford decent production values and some battle-tested and reliable actors. Neumann was a seasoned director, and he added the benefit of his friend and countryman Karl Struss, who was one of the best DP’s in Hollywood, all categories. As seen above, the crew also consisted of a crack team of artistic personnel who were all fairly young and tested their mettle against science fiction for the first time, probably not without a measure of enthusiasm.

The dialogue of the script reveals writer Trumbo’s ambitions to do something more than just make a space romp. The issue of world peace and the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union was close to his heart, and the outspoken mission of the trip was to go to the moon ”to secure world peace”. Even though the packaging is a bit kooky and the dialogue somewhat heavy-handed with melodrama, there is something very genuine about the film. Trumbo also sprinkles the dialogue with quotes from Rudyard Kipling, Percy Shelley and Albert Einstein, further enhancing the feeling that he truly wants to deliver a message. The misogynist remarks are jarring, but fortunately Osa Massen’s portrayal of Lisa van Horn and the action of the film counterbalance this – it actually feels like the writers and directors have tried to make some sort of a feminist statement, but would perhaps have needed a woman on the team, because the compliment are so back-handed they become cringeworthy.

All Martians women look like pin-up girls Kathy Marlowe.

All Martian women look like pin-up girl Kathy Marlowe.

While it is difficult to think that Trumbo would have written some of the dialogue, it may well be that the more misogynistic rap comes from Orville H. Hampton, who is credited with ”additional dialogue”, perhaps brought in to bump up the romance. Hampton later lent his talents to films like Lost Continent (1951), Mesa of Lost Women (1953), The Alligator People, The Atomic Submarine, The Flight that Disappeared (1961), The Underwater City (1962), as well as the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man (1977) and The All-New Super Friends Hour (1977-1978).

Janne Wass

Rocketship X-M (1950). Directed bu Kurt Neumann. Written by Dalton Trumbo, Kurt Neumann, Orville H. Hampton. Starring: Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen, John Emery, Noah Beery Jr, Hugh O’Brian, Morris Ankrum, Patrick Aherne, Sherry Moreland, John Dutra, Kathy Marlowe, Judd Holdren, Barry Norton. Music: Ferde Grofé Sr. Cinematography: Karl Struss. Editor: Harry W. Gerstad. Production design: Theobald Holsopple. Set decoration: Clarence Steensen. Makeup artist: Don L. Cash. Production management: Betty Sinclair. Sound engineer: Tom Lambert. Special effects: Don Stewart. Visual effects: Irving Block (mattes), Jack Rabin (special photographic effects). Stunts: Calvin Spencer. Props: Lou Asher. Wardrobe supervisor: Richard Staub. Special effects & make-up, 1979 revised version: Dennis Muren, Robert Skotak, Michael Minor, Tom Scherman, et. al. Produced by Kurt Neumann, Murray Lerner for Lippert Pictures.

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