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Tuesday, March 24, 2009


For the next installment in Digression Week we go back to 1953 and a movie I couldn't get a copy in time for my tour of 1953. Spaceways is actually a rather early sci-fi / crime drama hybrid. Hammer Films produced it in 1952 and was itself a "freely adapted" version of an earlier radio play. When it was first produced, Spaceways was among its peers with Red Planet Mars, and Rocketship X-M. In that context, it was up to par. However, by the time Robert L. Lippert distributed Spaceways in America in 1953, the bar had been raised. Paramount's blockbuster War of the Worlds was just out. A little sci-fi/drama flick, with little action, was too easily lost in hubbub of "The War." Nonetheless, Spaceways deserves its place in line, in those early days when sci-fi was still taking shape.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The British space program is conducting tests preliminary to launching an orbiting satellite. Their tests succeed enough that the government okays the next phase. At a party to celebrate, it becomes clear that the lead scientist, Dr. Steve Mitchell has a problem with his wife Vanessa. She is keen on the biologist, Dr. Phillip Crenshaw. To complete the triangle, mathematician Dr. Lisa Frank is dotingly keen on Steven. The phase 2 rocket fails in its third stage burn -- perhaps due to a lack of fuel. It goes into orbit instead of coming back down. Phillip and Vanessa have disappeared. The authorities suspect Steve of having killed the two and stashed their bodies in a drained fuel tank aboard the rocket. No bodies. The perfect crime. Steve convinces the authorities to let him go up in a manned rocket and fetch back the crippled one. This would prove his guilt or innocence. They agree and construction on the manned rocket is accelerated. Lisa tricks her way into going with Steve. They blast off before word comes that Phillip, a spy, and Vanessa were found at a coastal cottage. Philip was about to flee. Vanessa has a change of heart. He shoots her dead. The police burst in, but too late. Meanwhile, the shock of stage 3 separation is too much. The ship is damaged and out of control. Lisa radios back her notes to fix the problem for those who must follow. Steve, to avoid a dour ending, un-jams the controls. They can return. Happy ending.

Why is this movie fun?
Even though it doesn't get a lot of screen time, the big-winged rocket is a treat for 50s future-tech fans.

Cold War Angle
Instead of analogies, the Cold War forms a background plot element that shows up in two places. One, is where the General urges the Minister to approve the satellite project with dire undertones "in the event we should not be first." An orbiting station would "keep the earth under constant surveillance." (which, indeed, they do) The second comes nearer the end when Vanessa balks at going "east" with Philip, the spy. "I just got out of one prison," she says, referring to the restrictive rocket base. "I'm not going to a prison with 200 million people in it." A nice oblique reference to the Soviet Union.

X-M UK -- There is a scene towards the end of Spaceways that has noticeable parallel to Rocketship X-M. A rocket is out of control. Aboard it are a man and woman who recently realized they were in love. The female scientist radios to earth her notes to correct the problem and a little speech that their deaths should not stop others from following. In Spaceways, however, Steve is able to free the jammed controls at the last minute and they're saved. Also, quick-eyed viewers will spot a couple seconds of XM's liftoff footage.

Poster Hype -- The British poster (at left) promised little, so was less apt to disappoint. The American poster, (shown above) however, promised a giant wheel space station. The tag line: "The screen's First Story of Space Islands in the sky!" suggested some space station action. American audiences may have felt a bit let down with the limited space travel scenes -- and no space wheels.

Love Drama -- Most of Spaceways is a spy story with crime drama overtones. It just happens to be set in a rocket research base. There's the complex love web: Steve's wife Vanessa is a disenchanted gold-digger because he's not getting famous enough fast enough. Philip, the spy, is wooing Vanessa. Lisa, the mathematician, has a secret crush on Steve, but he's married.

Spy Drama -- Amid typical Cold War hyper-security, one of the rocket scientists has gone missing. Philip gained the confidence of a corporal who was due to be rotated out, in order slip out. He planned to steal rocket secrets and flee to Russia. Ruthless Philip killed naive corporal Roger and shot naive Vanessa. Nasty spy.

Crime Drama -- When Steve's wife and "lover" go missing on a base no one can get off of, Inspector Smith is led to just one conclusion: the bodies are aboard the rocket which just went into orbit. Steve was the only one alone with the rocket, ergo... Steve planned to take up a second rocket, retrieve the first, and thereby prove his innocence (or at least lack of conclusive proof of guilt).

Old World Craftsmanship -- Notice the instrument panels in both the mission control base and aboard the rocket. Instead of the ubiquitous aluminum, you'll see fancy wavy grain book-matched veneer panels. Pretty fancy old world craftsmanship for the space age.

Bottom line? Spaceways is many movies in one, with the space travel portion being a somewhat minor and late component. For this reason, it will seem rather slow and talky compared to flashier, more action packed sci-fi movies. Watch it with Rocketship X-M and it will fit right in.


Mike Scott said...

The author, Charles Eric Maine ("Escapement"), also turned his radio play into a novel (published in 1953).

Love the Bonestell spaceship design (swipped from one of the Collier's articles)!

Nightowl said...

Yes, loved the Bonstell rocket very much. That and the space station wheel predating "Conquest of Space" by 3 years, was interesting too.

I forgot to mention the Charles Eric Maine fact. I did cite him in my "Escapement" review. He had a fondness for crime/drama writing.