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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Rocket to the Moon

Yet another British import for 1967, was Rocket to the Moon (R2M). While not a big studio production, (Jules Verne Productions did only this one film) R2M is a bigger budget production. It seems patterned after the successful star-sudded, retro-Victorian comedy epics of the mid-60s:: 20th Century Fox's Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines ('65) and Warner Bros.' The Great Race ('65). R2M features many comedic character actors, such as Lionel Jeffries, Terry-Thomas and Gert Frobe. R2M was later re-released in America with more farcical title of Those Fantastic Flying Fools. R2M's claim to science fiction rests only in its tenuous connection to Jules Verne. It is otherwise an earthbound comedy romp.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The film opens to a montage of failed technological "triumphs". P.T. Barnum flees to England to escape the collapse of a business deal. At an Academy of Sciences lecture, he hears Professor von Bulow suggest his explosive could send a projectile to the moon. PT suggests they do more: send a man to the moon. A committee is formed. Dillworthy (Jeffries) will design the projectile. Bulow (Frobe) will design the propellant. The Duke will supply the land. PT (Burl Ives) will be fundraiser. Washington-Smythe (Thomas) will be treasurer. Gaylord Sullivan (Troy Donahue) is the American engineer. Madeline (Laliah Levi) is his fickle love interest. Through a complex web of subplots interspersed with gag vignettes, we learn that Smythe has embezzled all the funds. Dillowrthy's design is rejected so he's miffed. They team up to sabotage the project, wagering heavily on its failure. When the accounts are discovered to be empty, Madeline's other fiance steps up as investor. Despite bumbling and foolery, the project is ready to launch. Gaylord is strapped in, but gets his arm stuck, so cannot pull the launch lever. A spy of the Tsar is aboard, but knocks him out with chloroform. Gaylord is extracted. Dillworthy and Smythe sneak aboard to do more sabotage. The spy launches the Moon Ship, which sails into the sky. Everyone is sad at first, at the loss of the ship, but cheer up when coal rains down from the explosion. The Duke is now a wealthy mine owner. Meanwhile, Dillworthy and Smythe are at the head of a line of slaves pulling the Moon Ship along a country road. Dillworthy and Smythe argue about whether they are in Russia or on the Moon. Could be the moon if the Russians got there first. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Well, it's a comedy. It's fun by design. There are some amusing gags and a few cute lines. Lionel Jeffries plays his usual nervous, befuddled Englishman. Thomas does an excellent job with his scoundrel character: Smythe.

Cold War Angle
In lieu of a Cold War spin, R2M has a Space Race spin with the apparent contest being who will get to the moon first, the Americans or the Russians.

Once Again -- Verne's story, "From the Earth to the Moon" (1865) had already been adapted to film in 1958. RKO's From the Earth to the Moon used Verne's basic plot, but wove in some Cold War cautionary themes. Peter Welbeck's story, ( and David Freeman's script) for R2M was only very a loose adaptation, with little in common with Verne's book.

Comedy Epic Pattern -- R2M fits into the comedy epic sub-genre of the mid-60s. It's not a strong example of a sub-genre, but it fits. The pattern was to have a cast of many stars (usually comedy actors) and a complex plot which allowed for many gags. It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World ('63) is one of the best. A subset cast in Victorian times include:. The Great Race and Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines (both '65), which were well done examples. R2M tries to follow the pattern, but falls short. It lacks the energy of the previous examples. It may be that Director Don Sharp was just not as skilled at directing comedy.

Missing Mockery
-- Making fun of Kaiser Wilhelm II had once been almost a cottage industry for the first two decades of the twentieth century -- especially in England. Wilhelm was typically mocked for his pomposity, fondness for ostentatious uniforms and his signature upturned mustache. By 1967, the contempt must have faded. Don Sharp (or his producers) portrayed Wilhelm as rather ordinary, apart from the fancy dress uniform. It is a bit puzzling why a British production passed up an opportunity to make fun of Willy. They used to be quite fond of the sport.

Moonless Mission -- Almost all of R2M's plot consists of getting the Moon Ship built. Only the last several minutes involve any "rocket" travel. The Moon Ship never leave's Earth, but is flown to Siberia by the Tsar's spy. This sets up one of the amusing (and final) gags, in which Smythe thinks they've landed on the moon. The fact that the other slaves sing the Russian labor song, "Volga Boatmen" is because the Russians got to the moon first.

Bottom line? R2M has its funny moments, but other films of the comedy epic sub-genre are funnier. For sci-fi fans, there is very little in the way of sci-fi elements, beyond a wee bit of steampunk. R2M is adequate as entertainment. Though the plot lags in many places, some parts are amusing.

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