Project Moon Base/Project Moonbase (1953) -**
Up until about the turn of the 1980’s, there was a lively tradition in Hollywood of taking TV pilots that didn’t pass muster at the networks, re-editing them, perhaps shooting a bit of additional footage, and then releasing them to theaters. It almost never worked. 1953’s Project Moon Base was an early example of the phenomenon. Originally, it had been shot as the pilot (or perhaps the pilot and a subsequent episode or two) for a series to be called “Ring Around the Moon,” from a script by none other than Robert Heinlein. The TV bigwigs weren’t buying it, though, and cheap-ass sci-fi movies were cleaning up at the box office, so producer Jack Seamon had the footage reworked into a feature film, which he then sold to Lippert, the same outfit that was responsible for the pioneering Rocketship X-M. Let’s just say the transformation from abortive TV series to theatrical movie didn’t do Project Moon Base (as “Ring Around the Moon” was rechristened) any favors. Its story structure a shambles, its subplots hanging in tatters, and its most intriguing ideas lying dead in the rubble of its rearranged script, Project Moon Base is notable mainly for being among the most conspicuously failed hard sci-fi films of its era. Indeed, so wretched a job did the editors do that Project Moon Base is in certain respects even worse than its notorious sister production (they were filmed on the same sets), Cat-Women of the Moon.
Is anybody going to be surprised to hear that the film starts out with an opening crawl? I didn’t think so. As is so often the case, the picture of the near future painted by Project Moon Base is simultaneously remarkably conservative and wildly optimistic. The first manned space flight was made in 1970, by an American astronaut named Captain Briteis; Briteis was immediately promoted to the rank of colonel in recognition of this epoch-marking achievement. Now, four years later, with work completed on the orbital space station that will make this more ambitious mission possible, the US space agency is gearing up to send two astronauts and a civilian scientist out to make an orbit around the moon. You see what I mean about the strange combination of conservatism and overreaching? By 1974, flights to the moon had become so routine that it took something like the Apollo 13 near-disaster to make anybody take notice of them, and the advances in rocketry between the early 50’s and the late 60’s were such that there was no need to cheat by making the launch to the moon from an orbiting dock not subject to the full force of the Earth’s gravity. On the other hand, neither of the two space stations that entered service during the 70’s came anywhere close to the sophistication of the one depicted here. The Mir was little more than an expensive ego-trip for the Soviet government, while NASA’s Skylab proved to be a boondoggle of epic proportions, the kind of thing you’d expect the US Post Office to dream up. In any case, the astronaut earmarked for the moon mission is Major Bill Moore (Ross Ford, of Reform School Girl). He had been the front-runner for the job of making the first manned space flight four years before, but got passed over in favor of the significantly lighter Briteis when it became evident that the rocket he was to ride wasn’t going to have enough carrying capacity to lift him along with all the bulky, heavy equipment that was necessary to the mission. Understandably, there is now a certain degree of rivalry between the two astronauts, which is only exacerbated by the fact that Briteis now outranks Moore. The bigger rockets in service these days can carry a crew of three, however, so Moore’s 160 pounds are no longer an obstacle to his career in outer space, and General “Pappy” Greene (Hayden Rorke, from When Worlds Collide and The Night Walker) is pleased to see Moore getting his due at last.
Then a phone call from the White House changes everything. Moore is to be bumped down to the position of copilot, with command of the moon mission going to— that’s right— Colonel Briteis. Mere moments after the change in plan is announced, Briteis walks into the general’s office, and oh my God— she’s a girl! (Donna Martell, who succeeded in getting on TV as part of the cast of “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger”) You know, I think even 1953 was a little late to be playing that card and making such a big deal over it. The presumption that we’ll be shocked to see a woman (who, incidentally, doesn’t look old enough to be a first lieutenant, let alone a colonel) put in charge of flying to the moon is just the beginning, though. The smarmy sexism on display in Project Moon Base rapidly reaches Around the World Under the Sea proportions, as Briteis (whose name the men invariably insist upon mispronouncing, “Bright Eyes”) immediately reveals herself to be a childish, petulant little shit, and General Greene threatens to sling her over his knee and spank her. And for a moment there, I was pretty sure he was really going to do it, too. Finally, we get one last spin through the Agonizer before the scene wraps itself up, when puff-piece journalist Polly Prattles (Barbara Morrison) shows up to interview Greene, but seems to be interested mainly in the fact that a woman in orbit would be weightless. Ha.
Moving on now to what seems at first like it might be the plot (it won’t be, worse luck), we encounter a man called Roundtree (Herb Jacobs) who is secretly working for those dirty, lousy, stinkin’ reds. Apparently the dirty, lousy, stinkin’ reds have assembled a stable of spies who look more or less exactly like every important scientist in the United States, with an eye toward substituting one of their agents for whomever the space agency selects as the scientist to accompany Briteis and Moore on their trip around the moon. The idea here is that the moon launch is the first step toward establishing a permanent military presence on the lunar surface, and the dirty, lousy, stinkin’ reds simply can’t allow that to happen. When Roundtree learns that the third seat on the moon rocket is to be filled by one Dr. Wernher, he instantly dispatches Wernher’s double (Larry Johns) to the hotel where the scientist is staying to kill him and take his place. Thus when Briteis and Moore take off, they bring with them an enemy sworn to sabotage their mission and destroy the space station, even at the cost of his own life.
Now like I said, it sounds like that business with the commie spy is going to be the core of the plot, but this is not actually the case. Instead, all that happens when Fake Wernher makes his move is that the spaceship gets thrown slightly off course as a result of the fight that breaks out between him and Moore. Meanwhile, the colonel’s efforts to bring the ship back under control leave the vessel in an unstable orbit, forcing the astronauts to land on the moon even though they no longer have enough fuel to escape the moon’s gravity for the return trip. (You know, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that before in some other movie that didn’t suck…) Fake Wernher, in other words, is nothing more than a plot device, and his subsequent death in a fall from the lunar peak on which he and Moore were erecting a radio rig that would let them communicate with the Earth means that he’s a single-use plot device, at that! The spy’s early demise leaves us with nearly half the running time remaining on the clock, and no apparent story with which to fill it. That’s when General Greene calls in with a suggestion that sets new standards for ridiculous plot developments: since Briteis and Moore are going to be stuck on the moon alone together for at least ten days before anyone can reach them with new supplies, and since the White House has decided to make the most of their unscheduled landing to establish a moon base on the site with the two of them in command, maybe the stranded astronauts ought to get married for PR’s sake. Excuse me?! Get married?!?! These two?!?! As a PR stunt?!?! But as silly as it sounds, Moore and Briteis have really had the hots for each other all this time— they just didn’t want anyone in the audience to know, I guess. They do indeed tie the not (Briteis’s vows pointedly include an oath of obedience toward Moore), and then Greene promotes Moore to the rank of brigadier general, putting him above Briteis and restoring thereby the natural order of things. No sooner has this happened, though, than the movie throws us all for a loop by putting the President of the United States on the telescreen with a message of encouragement— the president’s a woman (Ernestine Barrier) too!
It’s hard to know what to make of Project Moon Base’s sexual politics, even though they take center stage for the majority of the film. From the moment Briteis appears onscreen, we are continuously bludgeoned over the head with the message that women are more or less totally useless, and have no place doing things like piloting spaceships and outranking men. Briteis can’t do a goddamned thing right, Heinlein’s script is completely upfront about her promotion to colonel having been a purely political maneuver, and we are led to conclude that there would have been nothing at all irregular about it if General Greene had followed through with his threatened spanking. But then the last scene in the movie comes along, and there’s a woman in the Oval Office. It just doesn’t add up, you know? And while it’s at it, Project Moon Base lets slip an opportunity to do something really interesting with the subject of gender roles. Remember, the reason Briteis got to take that first rocket up above the atmosphere was that she was the only good pilot the space agency had who was little enough to squeeze into the cockpit and light enough to lift into space. We have here a perfect (and, within the context of rocket science as it was understood in the early 1950’s, entirely credible) example of age-old prejudices crumbling in the face of unanswerable practicalities, and yet Heinlein’s script (or whatever was left of it after the editors got through) does nothing at all with the idea, and indeed stampedes madly in the opposite direction at every opportunity. In short, Project Moon Base gleefully undermines what mostly seems to be its own argument, stridently proclaiming that the relative positions of the sexes in the early 50’s is ordained by nature itself even as it offers up a scenario which inescapably shows that they plainly aren’t.
Of course, muddle-headed ideology is really about the least of this movie’s problems. Project Moon Base’s worst defect is that it wraps up the only real conflict somewhere around the halfway point, and then insists on hanging around with no ambition, direction, or purpose for another 35 minutes or so. It’s as though the movie were deliberately trying to be boring. It also suffers from production design which, though highly distinctive, doesn’t work nearly as well in practice as it might have in theory. One of the first things you’ll notice is the astronauts’ flight suits: t-shirts, hot pants, slippers, and strange little skullcaps, without a single metal article to be seen anywhere on them. The idea, presumably, is that weight on a spaceship is at such a premium that every conceivable economy must be made, even to the extent of dressing the crews down to the minimum required for basic decency. There’s a certain logic at work here (again, in the context of the early 50’s, when power-to-weight ratios were threatening to pose a truly insoluble problem for transatmospheric rocketry), but in the end, it just ends up looking silly when the crew of the lunar lander appears to be dressed for a slumber party. Other aspects of the production design aren’t quite as debilitating in their goofiness, but I do have to wonder whose bright idea it was to design the docking ports on the space station so that it looks like the orbital platform is having sex with the visiting rocketships. All things considered, Project Moon Base is another film which is probably not worth bothering with unless you’re an obsessively hardcore fan of 50’s science fiction.