Eagle-Lion May: Destination Moon (1950)
To preview our screening of Canon City and a short documentary about Eagle-Lion studios with an introduction by Alan K. Rode at the convention, we are spotlighting films made by this short-lived studio.
ADAM WILLIAMS: Against a tide of saboteurs, bureaucrats, public opinion, and appendicitis, a U.S.-based privately funded organization forges ahead to their goal: a manned mission to the moon. More akin to a Popular Science article than a yarn in Amazing Stories, Destination Moon aims to make the mission seem feasible (I found one newspaper ad that described it as “Unusual but not freakish”), quite an achievement in 1950. The approach works, even 72 years later—this is an exciting picture. Early in the film, an investor asks the practical question, why go to the moon? The head of the project responds, “We’ll know when we get there, we’ll tell you when we get back.” This valiant spirit informs the entire movie.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: There sure is something refreshing about a vintage movie that is really all about the American “can-do” spirit. Early on, I was wondering exactly where this story was going to go, as there are concerns about sabotage either from within the project or due to foreign interference. I’m not a great fan of science-fiction films, but I was intrigued by not knowing exactly where this whole thing was going to go.
AW: There’s plenty of stars in the sky but not many in this movie. The four-man crew is played by John Archer, Warner Anderson, Tom Powers, and Dick Wesson. I’ll just get the latter over with—Wesson plays a goof from Brooklyn who is a last-minute fill-in on the mission and serves as the relatable everyman. His “beer, babes, and baseball” commentary is consistently cringe-inducing and the sole irritant in the movie. Archer, Anderson, and Powers may be leaden, but each convincingly plays a character that could explain how a rocket lands and probably play a good game of golf to boot.
I wasn’t interested in this movie for the performances. The real stars here are the George Pal miniatures, Ernst Fegté’s art direction, Chesley Bonestell’s matte paintings of the lunar landscape, impressive trick photography—in Technicolor, no less—by Lionel Lindon, and appropriately awe-inspiring music by Leith Stevens. As if that wasn’t enough, you even get a Woody Woodpecker cartoon.
RB: This doesn’t happen often with me, but I must admit that I found myself wondering just who these people were. I have a good eye for character actors, but these folks were all completely unknown to me, which is odd because after reviewing their credits, they’ve all been in films that I’ve seen, but they aren’t exactly the most charismatic actors that you’ll run across. Dick Wesson, for his obnoxiousness, does downplay his “comic relief” persona to the point where there actually isn’t much comic or relief. Oddly enough, he spent the bulk of his career writing TV sitcoms, with things like The Bob Cummings Show and Barney Miller in his credits.
The Woody Woodpecker sequence is especially notable for how well done it is. The Lantz studio rarely reached the heights of the Warners and MGM groups, so it’s unfair to expect this to match the level of other classic cartoon appearances in feature films. Don’t expect Bugs Bunny dancing with Jack Carson, or Tom & Jerry swimming with Esther Williams. However, this scene is pretty much on the level of a regular 1950 Woody cartoon, mostly animated by Laverne Harding and Paul Smith (and a few others). Harding’s animation stands out particularly well. Plus, it does exactly what it was supposed to do, and explains how rockets work in layman’s terms, helping to educate and propel the story.
AW: It was a brilliant way to avoid excruciating exposition and I always love to see 16mm projectors in films.
After the cartoon, the captains of industry excitedly pledge their support for the mission. How strange is it to see wealthy industrialists portrayed in a positive light? Perhaps there was intentionality behind this decision. In 1947, Ayn Rand’s pamphlet Screen Guide for Americans was published through the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. In the short essay, Rand describes the subtle (and flagrant) Communist messaging found in Hollywood pictures and makes 13 suggestions for filmmakers “who do not wish to help advance the cause of Communism.” It may be a case of two like minds reaching the same conclusions, but I suspect this pamphlet found its way to Robert Heinlein before he wrote the film’s screenplay. Director Irving Pichel was certainly trying to distance himself from the Communist label after being subpoenaed by HUAC in 1947—and he would be hard-pressed to come up with a better project than this. Destination Moon is the rare movie that adheres to all of Rand’s rules including “Don’t Smear the Free Enterprise System,” “Don’t Smear Industrialists,” and “Don’t Smear Wealth.”
RB: That’s probably the most science-fictionish aspect of all of this. Let’s get a bunch of the richest people in the country together in one room, and actually get them to commit to doing something for the greater good of society. What could go wrong?
AW: In July of 1969, mere days after the Apollo 11 landing, the Museum of Modern Art presented a program of science-fiction films. The series, which covered everything from Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon to David Cronenberg’s debut Stereo, was bookended with two of the most significant films of the genre up to that point: Destination Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although its impact has lessened over time—that’s a consequence of accurately predicting future events—the film is still beloved. A lot has been written about it. Reading some of the commentary, especially Dennis S. Johnson’s 1971 article in Cinefantastique “The Five Faces of George Pal,” makes any further discussion feel redundant. Nevertheless, one more piece of praise causes no harm.
RB: While just barely missing out on the space race for the first film about space exploration, it’s really remarkable just how little of this film actually is fiction, and it deserves its reputation for being a trail blazing film. This is a case where it’s unfair to judge a film based on the acting, and instead completely appropriate to sit back and marvel what was able to be accomplished on a meager $600,000 budget. The ingenuity and foresight are a lot of fun and make Destination Moon an engaging and admirable viewing experience even for a non-fan of science fiction like myself. Four stars for sure.
AW: Simply put, this movie just works. By the end of it, I was even rooting for the goof from Brooklyn. Considering its cultural significance and brilliant execution, what exactly is the point of the National Film Registry if Destination Moon isn’t included? This is a must-see: four stars.