This is my entry in the 1961 Blogathon hosted by Movie Movie Blog Blog.
1961 was a momentous year. The year started with the first Roman Catholic candidate for President being inaugurated into office. Later significant events included the first man to orbit the Earth in space (Yuri Gagarin) later to be followed by the first American in space (Alan Shepherd), the President first advised the public about building fallout shelters, the "hijacking to Cuba" craze started with the first plane that was hijacked, and Adolph Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, went on trial (and was later found guilty of war crimes). Also significant; your not-so-humble blogger was born.
On the movie side, several significant and well received movies made their debut in 1961. West Side Story was the Oscar darling of the year, but also significant movies such as The Hustler, The Guns of Navarone, Judgement at Nuremberg and Breakfast at Tiffany's, all of which took home Oscars were released.
On the slightly less significant, but just as interesting side of the entertainment industry were the first performance of a band that called themselves "The Beach Boys", two classic TV shows, "Mr. Ed" and "the Dick Van Dyke Show" premiered, and Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in a single season (a record that would stand for 37 years).
The Phantom Planet (1961):
There is nothing like a rogue planet to stir up consternation among the scientific community. Especially when that rogue planet only shows up periodically to cause havoc with the space industry.
The Pegasus III encounters some problems while out from Lunar Base 1, scoping things out. The instruments go haywire and then suddenly an asteroid appears on the radar that wasn't there before. Not only that but some tractor beam has caught the Pegasus III in it's grip and is drawing it into the asteroid. (Can anyone say "Death Asteroid"?). Also since Lunar Base 1 is unable to detect the asteroid out there in space, the only people that have encountered it were the crews of the two spaceships that have eventually crash-landed on it.
Yes, I said two. Apparently this has happened before. A previous spaceship, Pegasus II, also experienced the same phenomena. And apparently there were no survivors of either crash. This doesn't make the American space bigwigs back home very happy. So they decide to send their best pilot, Capt Frank Chapman (Dean Fredericks) to check it out. Chapman had been scheduled to be the first man to fly to Mars, but the brass decides to postpone that in an effort to get to the bottom of this situation.
Chapman goes out in Pegasus IV (you'd think there might be some superstition about sending out a third spaceship called Pegasus, but maybe that's just me...) Chapman and his second-in-command, Lt. Ray Markonen (Richard Weber), don't initially find anything. They conclude that the orbit of the mysterious planetoid must be very erratic. Through some rather unfortunate events, Markonen is eventually killed.
Then Chapman finds the same planetoid that the others have found, and yes, his rocket is also captured by the mysterious tractor beam that the other spaceships. But our hero manages to get the ship to land safely. He passes out into unconsciousness after exiting the spaceship.
He is found by a band of Lilliputians (really, little people just like the ones in Gulliver's Travels). They open his helmet, and when he breathes in the air of the planetioid, he too becomes a little person. He is taken hostage where he meets with the ruler of the place, Sessom (Francis X. Bushman). Chapman finds himself on trial for the crime of being a foreigner (??!!) His sentence; he is made a citizen of Rhetan (???!!!), the name for the planetoid.
He immediately gets on the bad side of Herron (Anthony Dexter), the resident bully, because Herron sees him as a rival for the love of Liana (Colleen Gray), who happens to be the daughter of Sessom. Of course, Chapman doesn't really want Liana, or for that matter, to even stay on Rhetan, but he is almost a prisoner, since he is forbidden to ever leave. But if he is to remain, and is to actually marry and become a viable producing member of society, he actually has his designs on the mute Zetha (Delores Faith).
But Herron insists on a duel for Liana. When Chapman gets the upper hand in the duel, but refuses to administer the death blow, Herron and Chapman become bosom buddies. (only in the movies...) Herron and Liana and Zetha eventually agree to help Chapman escape Rheton. Fortunately for Chapman, if he does get back to Earth, he won't be six inches tall anymore, because, surprise, surprise, when he breathes his normal Earth oxygen, he will be reverted to his normal size.
In the interim, the Rhetons have to do battle with another race know as the Solarites. These are pretty ugly creatures (actually we only get to see one, a thoroughly unrecognizable Richard Kiel, in his first feature film role as a captured Solarite being help prisoner on Rhetan). It is Chapman's bravery that helps get him the help he needs to escape the phantom planet.
As ridiculous as this whole thing sounds, the movie is actually pretty good.
Assignment- Outer Space aka Space-Men (1961):
The Italian movie Space-Men was made in 1960. It appeared on the US shores with a re-dubbed English version of the script in 1961 as Assignment: Outer Space.
I am honestly not sure what the hell the plot of this movie is. Initially, a reporter from Earth, Ray Peterson (Rik Van Nutter), also given the name of IZ41, is sent to a space station to write a story about "infra-radiation" (whatever the hell that is..). He makes friends with the pilot who takes him out to the space station, Al (Archie Savage), also known as X15. (Note: It's never really clear why all these people have additional alphanumeric names, especially since most of the time they are addressed by their given names).
Once on the space station, Peterson gets sideways with the commander, George (David Montersor) (who is the only one who wasn't given an alphanumeric name, so I guess rank has its privileges). Peterson, just by being there, annoys the commander. But he also a supreme f**k-up. He manages to cause a problem that makes the ship lose 500 gallons of fuel into space. (Of course he was trying to save the life of Y15, a fellow astronaut, but that is besides the point, as far as George is concerned.)
Y15, as it turns out, is Lucy (Gabriella Fannon), the ship's navigator. The ultimate surprise, (sexist as it may be, but this was the early sixties after all) , when Peterson finds out that his fellow astronaut is female is to exclaim "You're a girl!" To her credit, she doesn't respond with "No sh*t, Sherlock!" The bad news is, now Peterson is even more hot water with George because, guess what, Lucy is George's girlfriend. (It's probably useless to ask why the authorities let a girlfriend/boyfriend situation be on the same space ship...)
Now here's why this plot is so confusing. Apparently there is a rogue spaceship, pilot-less, that is heading towards Earth. When it reaches Earth it will begin to orbit it. And it's fitted with some kind of cosmic mumbo-jumbo that will burn up the planet if it is allowed to orbit it. And it's also got some heavy-duty force field that makes it virtually impregnable to missiles. (I can't help but wonder why the scientists built the damn thing in the first place.. Also this sounds a bit like the Death Star, again. Wonder if George Lucas watched this double feature in real life as a young man..)
Several attempts are made to destroy the rogue spaceship, but eventually, and you had to know this was coming, our hero, despite being only a reporter and not having any space piloting experience, volunteers to drive a space cab through a tiny vulnerable spot in the force field and land on the space ship, in an effort to disable it. Any guesses as to whether he succeeds? Peterson of course is given a medal by Princess Leia (oops, I mean, he gets to be friends with his fellow spacemen, including George and Lucy).
I can save you a little bit of trouble on this one. The acting is very sub-par. The special effects are negligible. (There is even a short three or four frame scene in one shot in which you can clearly see a car and a house, despite the fact that the scene takes place on Mars, which even in this movie is currently not habitable.) Both of these movies were released on the same day, December 13, 1961 (just two days after yours truly was born). They indeed were paired at the drive-in so it's looking more and more like Lucas might have seen them together. Take my advice, though. See the first one, but skip this one, unless you are a movie masochist like me.
Time to drive off into the dark recesses of space (or at least to the nearest Death Star). Drive home safely folks