This is a fairly obscure B-movie, despite some significant elements and a famous writer contributing to the script. It is so mediocre that it was fairly easy for people to forget. The screenplay and story are credited to Robert Heinlein, but he co-authored the script with Jack Seaman. (more on this in the Notes section) The final result is marginal, even by B-movie standards. Despite some of the dreadful parts, Project Moon Base has some interesting parts which make it of historical interest.
Quick Plot Synopsis
Scrolling text tells how space became a strategic arena in the 60s. In 1970, a space station has been established so America can stage a moon mission. Colonel Briteis (frequently pronounced: Bright Eyes) is chosen to pilot the mission to fly around the moon as a survey flight, Major Moore to co-pilot and a Dr. Wernher to photograph the moon for future landing sites. Petty tensions arise as Briteis and Moore are revealed to have had a failed romance in the past and professional rivalry since. A group of spies replace Dr. Wernher with a double. His mission is to blow up the space station and its nuclear weapons.
Their rocket blasts off, with the obligatory fake high-Gs scene. At the space station, they transfer to the moon ship. While en route to the moon, the spy tries to take over the ship. Bill grapples with him, but they bump the engines-on button in the process. During the high-Gs (again), Briteis eventually shuts off the engines and Bill subdues the spy. With little fuel left, Briteis opts to land on the moon. They landed just beyond view of earth, so there's no radio contact. Bill and the spy don spacesuits to set up a radio relay on a mountain a few miles away. During this mission, the spy slips, falls down the mountain and dies. Bill returns, running very low on oxygen. Once inside again, they learn that a rescue rocket is on its way, that their mission is now to be "Moon Base #1" and since the public would look askance at a young buff man and pretty young woman cohabitatating, they should get married. This they do via televised minister and so all is well. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
To some extent, the low budget production is fun to watch. As a made-for-TV movie, it had to take all the shortcuts it could. Yet, despite this, they did rather well. A "first" for PBM is the portrayal of an orbital space station. Granted, it owed much to flying saucers for its design, but the concept of an orbital base was there. Space stations would become commonplace later, but PMB had it first. Another fun little bit is the lunar lander. Previous films had a single rocket for lift-off, journey and landing, Heinlein foresaw specialized vehicles. For 1953, his lander was surprisingly close to what the Apollo program developed. Another little fun bit is Hayden Rorke playing the gruff and patronizing senior officer. General Greene is very similar to the Dr. Bellows character Rorke played in the 60s TV series "I Dream of Jeanie."
Cold War Angle
Heinlein is said to have been anti-communist. It's little surprise that his plot lines involve shifty "enemies of freedom" and nukes in space. These elements, however, are not central to PMB. They move the actual plot (adventure / romance) along as in Destination Moon, but are not the point. PMB is more about gender roles than commies.
Made for TV -- PMB started out as a pilot for a proposed TV series, to be titled, "The World Beyond". The pilot episode, which was to be called "Ring around the Moon", would have run 30 minutes. Plans for the series got scuttled part way through shooting. The producers didn't want to waste what they'd invested already, so they shot more footage, expanding it to just enough for a feature film. This added noticeable filler. Since it was originally intended for the "small screen", it was shot more in the TV style of the early 50s. People stood or sat in front of a fixed camera and talked. TV studios were not geared (yet) for action shots. This goes a long way to explain why the pace can seem so dreadfully slow and talky at times, and why we hear the actors describing off camera events instead of us seeing them.
Two for One -- Two small production companies teamed up to share costs for their respective projects. Galaxy Pictures shot their TV moon story while Z-M Productions worked on Catwomen of the Moon. They shared sets and many props and some costumes. The rocket ships, both exterior and interior are almost identical. The rocket-fin elevator lift features in both films. Given the evidence, it appears that Z-M Productions were shooting a feature film (Catwomen) and Galaxy Pictures piggybacked shooting the would-be TV pilot to save money. TV ad revenue was pretty meager in the early 50s. Shows had to be very cheap to produce. As mentioned above, PMB was expanded into a feature film. It was mediocre at best, but it was better to make a little box office money than nothing.
Confused Sexism -- One feature of PBM which stands out strongly, is its contradictory treatment of gender roles. Heinlein was said to be somewhat pro-feminist, so it's not too surprising that we are given a woman military officer and spacecraft pilot who out-ranks the leading man. We also are shown a woman as president of the United States. A woman crew member was not totally new. Rocketship X-M, ('50) had Dr. Lisa. Unknown World ('51) had Dr. Joan. Yet, in both of those, the woman was an auxiliary scientist. Men were in charge. PBM's Colonel Briteis was the pilot and in command of the mission. The woman president comes at the end, as a non-sequetor surprise.
On the other hand, PBM has a painfully chauvinist scene in which General Greene calls Briteis a "spoiled brat" and threatens to spank her. Spank her? He totally devalues her rank and accomplishments. Even a non-feminist could squirm at such condescension and insult. Bill is touted as the truly skilled pilot and leader, but for PR reasons, Briteis (though clearly just a "girl") is given the command. Naturally, she's not up to the job. "Sorry I went all female on you back there," she says to Bill after screaming when the spy attacked. PBM may have an editorial theme on women doing men's jobs . Women can pretend to be equally qualified, but... In the end, however, it is the men who get the job done. At the end of the movie, Bill is promoted to Brigadier General. He out ranks Colonel Briteis, so is then in command of Moon Base One. The "proper" man-in-charge order has been restored. Happy ending. Passionate kiss.
The conflicting sex roles in PMB may be due to having two writers -- one a feminist, one a chauvinist. It makes for a very odd story.
Heinlein's Hand -- Heinlein liked working "real science" into his stories. Jack Seaman had produced several westerns. This was his first (and only) screenplay. Which of them contributed what is not clear. The result is conflicted and so beneath Heinlein's usual sci-fi standards that it suggests that their collaboration was not a smooth one. Heinlein is likely the source of several long talky segments were General Greene expounds on orbital physics or the space station's construction, etc. This was still gee-whiz stuff in the early 50s. Audiences were hungry for (or more tolerant of) techno-blather.
The theme of a moon landing and weapons in space more than likely came from Heinlein. He wrote a short story in 1949 called "The Long Watch" which dealt with a moon base being used as peace-keeper (atom bomb platform), but taken over in a coup. His contribution to the movie Destination Moon stressed the strategic importance of a moon base. This is the basis for the story in PBM, but banal espionage and trite romance intrude. These may have been Jack Seaman's contribution and/or the producers' notion of what TV audiences expected.