Destination Moon (1950)
Directed by Irving Pichel
The classic era of Hollywood science fiction kicked off with Rocketship X-M (1950), but it wasn’t meant to be that way.
Producer George Pal’s Destination Moon was a lavish Technicolor production two years in the making that endeavored to depict space travel as realistically as possible. Rocketship X-M was a quick cash-in that was shot in less than three weeks with a budget of less than $100,000, which is how it was able to beat Destination Moon into theaters by about a month.
As a science fiction fan, I can’t help but be impressed by Destination Moon. Its dedication to scientific accuracy is admirable, and for 1950, its special effects are top-notch. On the other hand, as a fan of compelling drama, I have to admit that Rocketship X-M has a more engaging script, better actors, and is more fun to watch.
This is the problem with most “hard sci-fi,” which Destination Moon most definitely is. The ideas are fascinating, but the presentation is pretty dry.
The director of Destination Moon, Irving Pichel, understood this, which is perhaps why the second reel of the movie depicts a group of men watching a film strip that explains space travel in a fun and funny way with our old friend Woody Woodpecker.
Unfortunately, other attempts to inject fun into the film, like a last-minute replacement on the crew named Joe (Dick Wesson), who’s from Brooklyn and provides comic relief by pronouncing the word “work” as “woik,” aren’t as successful.
Destination Moon is based on Robert A. Heinlein’s 1947 novel Rocket Ship Galileo, which I read a few years ago. The basic idea of a mission to the moon carried out by a small crew — as well as a general commitment to scientific accuracy — is retained in the film version, but little else is. Heinlein’s novel was the story of a trio of teenaged boys reaching the moon with the help of their uncle. Once on the moon, they thwart a plot by Germans intent on establishing a Fourth Reich with the moon as their base.
The film version dispenses with the “boys’ adventure” aspect of Heinlein’s novel, as well as the idea of an enemy force already present on the moon. (Although a character in the film does state that the U.S. must reach the moon before a foreign nation is able to establish a missile base there.)
These storytelling decisions all makes sense, since Destination Moon was intended to be a realistic film.
Even though Destination Moon doesn’t have the same dramatic verve as Rocketship X-M, and even though some of its science is dated, it’s still a tremendously successful science-fiction film, and holds up well today, provided you’re a “serious” sci-fi fan.
Sure, some of the effects look hokey today, but it’s not for nothing that the film won an Academy Award for best visual effects.
Irving Pichel’s Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is an enchanting little fantasy that’s perfect for chasing away the winter doldrums.
This movie is an old favorite of mine. I first saw it on TV when I was a kid and absolutely loved it. It was a lot of fun to revisit, and was just as charming and funny as I remember.
Mr. Arthur Peabody (William Powell) is a dignified Bostonian on the verge of turning 50, that dreaded age that says, “if you’re not already having a midlife crisis, you’d better start now.” Mr. Peabody and his slightly younger wife, Mrs. Polly Peabody (Irene Hervey), go on vacation to the British Caribbean (now commonly referred to as the British Virgin Islands), and Mr. Peabody has a life-changing experience. While out fishing, he hooks a mermaid.
The mermaid is played by the beautiful and doll-like Ann Blyth. She’s listed in the credits as just “Mermaid,” but in the film, Mr. Peabody decides her name is “Lenore.”
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is book-ended by scenes of Mr. Peabody talking to a psychiatrist, Dr. Harvey (Art Smith). No one but Peabody ever sees the mermaid, so naturally his wife and everyone else all assume that he’s crazy.
The film is coy about Lenore’s existence, but she does seem to exist in physical reality. Mrs. Peabody see the mermaid’s fins sticking out of a bubble bath and scolds her husband for cleaning a fish in the tub. The mermaid also spits water on a man before darting back into the water, and when a woman whom the mermaid considers a rival for Mr. Peabody’s affection goes swimming, the mermaid bites her on the leg.
But there’s still a sense of unreality about “Lenore,” and not just because she’s a mythical creature. Lenore never speaks, but seems to understand everything Mr. Peabody says to her, and adores him. She’s his middle-aged fantasy come to achingly beautiful life.
There are parallel stories about Mrs. Peabody’s flirtation with a handsome chap, Major Hadley (Hugh French), and the beautiful adventuress, Cathy Livingston (Andrea King), who sets her sights on Mr. Peabody. The film wrings a lot of humor out of this situation, as Mrs. Peabody thinks Mr. Peabody is dallying with Miss Livingston while in fact he’s trying to keep the mermaid’s existence secret while planning on running away with her to the Florida Keys.
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is a lovely escapist fantasy, and is currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon. Highly recommended, especially if you’re sick of cold weather and aren’t going on vacation anytime soon.
How do you like your schmaltz? Extra fatty, thick, and glopped all over the place?
You do? Well, Irving Pichel’s The Miracle of the Bells should satisfy your appetite, provided you don’t require nauseating Technicolor or weepy musical numbers. Everything else is in place; soft-focus feel-good spirituality, a tragic love story, and a town coming together for the greater good.
Fred MacMurray plays Hollywood press agent extraordinaire Bill Dunnigan, an affable regular guy with a killer instinct when it comes to a promotional angle. One day he meets a struggling actress named Olga Treskovna (played by Italian actress Alida Valli, who’s credited as just “Valli”) and helps her get a break in a low-rent chorus line.
A year later, they meet again in a small town on Christmas Eve. They have a warm and romantic meal at a Chinese restaurant run by a venerable wise man named Ming Gow (Philip Ahn). Olga coughs when Dunnigan gets up to put some Christmas carols on the jukebox, which — if you’re a connoisseur of movie clichés — means you’ve already figured out that she will die of tuberculosis.
I’m not giving anything away, since the film begins with Dunnigan transporting Olga’s coffin back to her hometown of Coaltown, PA, and the rest of the film recounts her life and death through his eyes. She literally killed herself playing Joan of Arc in her first starring role, refusing to drop out even though she had TB, and her dying wish was to be buried on a hill in St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coaltown, next to her parents.
To thicken the plot, Marcus Harris (Lee J. Cobb), the big-time Hollywood producer of Olga’s star turn as Joan of Arc, doesn’t want to release the film because it stars a dead woman no one’s ever heard of. Too morbid, Harris declares.
Dunnigan has a reputation as a press agent who pulls stunts to put over crummy shows and lousy movies, so when he arranges all the bells in Coaltown to ring for three days for Olga, people think it’s a cheap ploy to get her final picture released. (It is, but Dunnigan’s motives are pure.)
Dunnigan also has to fight to have her body interred in St. Michael’s Cathedral, which is the smaller, poorer Catholic church in Coaltown, and the more popular his PR campaign becomes, the more pressure there is to have Olga’s funeral services held in the larger cathedral.
Frank Sinatra plays Father Paul, the young priest who presides over St. Michael’s, and it’s tempting to draw comparisons with another crooner who famously played a priest — Bing Crosby in Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) — but Sinatra’s performance is more understated. In The Miracle of the Bells he plays a character, not a song-and-dance version of himself.
Despite its overwhelming sentimentality, I didn’t hate The Miracle of the Bells. It’s OK for what it is, and it could have been much worse. (The great Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay with Quentin Reynolds, adapting Russell Janney’s best-selling novel. I haven’t read it, but the review in the September 16, 1946, issue of Time said that “as a novel, The Miracle of the Bells is one of the worst ever published.”)
I mentioned in my review of I’ll Be Yours, which was released earlier in 1947, that Deanna Durbin called the last four films she made “terrible,” and permanently retired from acting in 1948.
But just like I’ll Be Yours, I found Something in the Wind thoroughly enjoyable. The songs are great, the dancing is spectacular, and for the most part, it’s genuinely funny.
I think that Durbin’s retirement from acting had less to do with the quality of the films she was starring in and more to do with her desire for privacy and a normal life. (She apparently hated the public persona she’d been saddled with since she appeared in her first musical comedy, Three Smart Girls, in 1936 at the age of 14.)
Something in the Wind is by no means a great film, but Durbin’s impish sense of humor, beautiful singing voice, and perfect comic timing make up for a lot. It’s also a lot of fun to see tall drink of water John Dall in a light role. (Something in the Wind was made shortly before he would stake his place in cinematic history in 1948 as one of the thrill killers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and again in 1950 as the firearms-fancying protagonist of the noir classic Gun Crazy.)
Dall plays Donald Read, the scion of the wealthy Read family. When he attempts to “make things right” with the woman to whom his recently deceased grandfather has been making regular payments, he confuses Mary Collins (Durbin) with her aunt (Jean Adair), who is also named Mary Collins. Mary Collins (the younger) is a struggling radio DJ with a beautiful voice, and she has no idea what Donald is talking about, but she’s offended by the very nature of his proposal. When she finds out that her aunt has been receiving payments from the Read family after a failed love affair with the late patriarch of the family, she’s doubly offended, and sets out to ruin the Reads.
The Reads are a pleasantly screwball family — the kind that regularly engages in hilarious kidnappings and fun-loving extortion.
Donald is the straight man of the bunch, his cousin Charlie (Donald O’Connor) is the wacky cut-up, and his uncle Chester (Charles Winninger) is the blackmailing con man who will screw over anyone for a buck.
All of this is just an excuse for laughs, music, and dance, of course, but who cares? Donald O’Connor’s wild, no-holds-barred performance of Johnny Green & Leo Robin’s “I Love a Mystery” is the stuff of legend, and must be seen to be believed. And Durbin is a one-of-a-kind star, and as far as I’m concerned, every film she appeared in is worth watching.
Tomorrow Is Forever (1946)
Directed by Irving Pichel
International Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures
Irving Pichel’s weepy wartime melodrama Tomorrow Is Forever premiered in London on January 18, 1946, and premiered in New York City a month later, on February 20th. If you can suspend your disbelief and accept the convoluted, coincidence-laden plot, it’s quite a fine movie, with excellent performances and a moving story.
The film begins on November 11, 1918, as the First World War is drawing to a close. Charles Hamilton (Douglas Wood), the head of the Hamilton Chemical Works, Inc., in Baltimore, is joined by his son Lawrence (George Brent) and other members of the company in toasting their success. He raises a glass to the part the company played in winning the war, as well as their contribution to the nation’s victories in the Spanish-American War and the Civil War. Lawrence Hamilton walks over to a pretty woman named Elizabeth MacDonald (Claudette Colbert) who is sitting by herself, and offers her a glass. Charles Hamilton drinks to peace and prosperity, and declares the rest of the day a holiday. Lawrence talks to Elizabeth, a research librarian at the chemical works, and learns that her husband, John, who went to war as an officer just four months earlier, is coming home soon. Elizabeth is elated.
A little time passes. Presumably it’s a little more than a month, since there’s snow on the ground, Max Steiner’s lissome score breaks into an orchestral interpretation of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and Elizabeth is carrying a little Christmas tree. When she get home, however, she receives devastating news; a telegram informing her that her husband, Lt. John Andrew MacDonald, was killed in action on November 5th. She goes to their bedroom, stands in front of the dresser, and he appears behind her in the mirror like a ghost. He’s played by Orson Welles, and he and Colbert play out a touching scene. They were clearly very much in love, and seeing him go away to war was difficult for her. In the end, he holds her tightly and promises her he will come back. (Return he does, and that’s where the audience’s suspension of disbelief will come into play, but more on that later.)
Not only has Elizabeth lost her husband, she learns that she is pregnant with his child. Lawrence Hamilton takes her in, and cares for her and her son, who is named John Andrew after his father. Elizabeth and Lawrence marry, and while it is a marriage based on friendship and respect rather than passionate love, it is also a successful marriage, and they have another son of their own, Brian (Sonny Howe). John Andrew Hamilton grows into a strapping young man (played by Richard Long), whom his parents call “Drew.” They never tell Drew, however, that Lawrence is not his biological father.
Meanwhile, we learn that John didn’t actually die in the war, but he was so badly injured that he didn’t want to live, and refused to identify himself to his attending physician, Dr. Ludwig (John Wengraf). In their scenes together, only Welles’s left eye can be seen through his mass of bandages, and he begs Dr. Ludwig to put him out of his misery. Dr. Ludwig refuses, and tells him that with extensive reconstructive surgery and physical conditioning, he can be made well again. It’s not entirely clear why John wants to be allowed to die and never see his wife again, although it seemed to me that “shattered body” was code for “irrevocably damaged genitals.”
Twenty years pass, and war again conspires to destroy Elizabeth’s happiness. Germany invades Poland, and Drew and his fraternity friends, including his best friend, “Pudge” Davis (Tom Wirick), make up their minds to go to Canada to join the R.A.F. and train as pilots. Drew is a few months away from his 21st birthday, however, and Elizabeth refuses to give her consent. Drew is the image of his father, a man she loved with a passionate intensity, and to lose him to battle would be like losing John all over again.
At this point, an Austrian chemist named Erik Kessler enters the United States as a refugee, along with a little blond girl named Margaret (Natalie Wood). Kessler is played by Orson Welles, and it soon becomes clear that he is John A. MacDonald, even though he has an Austrian accent, a beard, glasses, and walks with a limp. He goes to work for the Hamilton Chemical Works, and enters the lives of the Hamiltons.
It’s at this point that the film began to seem ludicrous to me. Kessler immediately recognizes Elizabeth when he meets her, but she does not recognize him. Welles certainly looks and speaks differently as Kessler, but he was less recognizable in his old-age makeup in Citizen Kane (1941) than he is here. How can she not recognize him? A willing suspension of disbelief is required, as well as an appreciation of the conventions of the stage. It is enough to know that Kessler received a great deal of plastic surgery to reconstruct his face, so while the audience can recognize Welles in his new guise, they have to accept that no one else in the film can. Was I able to do this? Well … sort of.
Tomorrow Is Forever is a story about loss and letting go. The performances in the film are excellent, especially Welles and Wood. Their scenes together were my favorite in the film. Just seven years old when she made this film, her first credited role, Wood was able to project a wide range of emotions and even delivered her lines in German relatively convincingly. Long was also very good in his first film role, even though his performance is pitched mostly at a single tone; earnestness. It was clearly made as a star vehicle for Colbert, however, and it’s her emotional journey that drives the film. As I said, you have to accept all the coincidences in the story and the idea that Elizabeth is not able to recognize who Kessler really is to go along for the ride, but if you can, Tomorrow Is Forever is a pretty good film.