Friday, April 13, 2018

The Solar System on $5 a Day (Pt. 1)

This is my first entry in the Outer Space on Film Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini

Attention patrons of the Midnite Drive-In! For three days, from April 13th -15th. we are going to take a tour of the solar system.  American International Pictures is our main guide to this tour. We will be visiting many of the planets in our solar system along with a brief jaunt to Earth's moon.  We hope you enjoy this respite from your daily humdrum life.

The solar system is fairly huge.  At least it is by comparison to a trip around the world.  From our sun, it is around 7.4 billion miles to Pluto, the last planet in our solar system.  (Pluto is still a planet in my book.  The hell with what Neil deGrasse Tyson and the rest of  his big forehead astronomer buddies say...).  You could start at one point on Earth, say New York City, and travel completely around the Earth back to NYC almost 3 million times before you could come close to the same distance.

Almost ever since man has noticed that there are other planets in his neighborhood, there has been speculation that there might be life on those other planets.  The most famous example of speculation of life on other planets within our solar system would probably be H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.  I would hazard a guess that probably only the most remote aboriginal tribe in deepest dark Africa has never heard of this classic tale (which, in case you are one of those tribal members, involves Martians invading the Earth).

The drive-in movie theater has always been a ripe venue for tales of space travel.  Movies that were specifically made for drive-ins usually had a budget of mere pennies compared to the extravaganzas that crop up in the multiplex theaters of today.  (All six of the movies we will address over the next three days were made for less than a hundredth of the entire budget for the Tom Cruise version of The War of the Worlds...)

But cheap budgets did not always mean cheap entertainment.   While a couple of the movies that I address do come off a little stale, they are still worth at least one view, and a couple of them are entertaining enough to be watched several times.

We begin our tour with the planet Mercury.  Mercury is hot.  Take my word for it.  Cameras and film start melting before you even get within 100,000 miles of the planet.  This explains why no movies were ever filmed on Mercury until the early 21st century, when studios finally solved the enigma and were able to have a spaceship orbiting Mercury in Sunshine.  But we won't delve into that movie because our tour is limited on time.  You can check that movie out on your return to Earth.

The next planet on our tour is Venus.  Venus was the site for several decent films, among which were Queen of Outer Space which featured Zsa Zsa Gabor as a courtier to the dictatorial Queen of Venus helping our astronaut heroes who crash landed on the planet.  A Russian film, Planeta Bur, also took place on Venus, as did Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women and today's first feature, both of which were adapted from the Russian film.

Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965):

The film Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet is an example of someone taking a foreign film and adapting it, with a Russian film called Planeta Bur (Planet of Storms) standing in for real authentic American movie making.  The people who released this movie recut the movie, much like someone else did with the Japanese flick Gojira (Godzilla).  But instead of actually having the main actors interact physically with the inserted characters (Raymond Burr supposedly actually talks with some f the Japanese characters onscreen in the latter example), this movie just substitutes our main American actors and actresses talking to the characters from the Russian film via radio.

Basil Rathbone, who must have been hard up for a paycheck, plays a scientist, Professor Hartmann,  on a Lunar base that is in contact with three ships trying to reach Venus.  One of the ships, the Capella, is destroyed by a meteorite, leaving two ships.  Hartmann informs the two ships that they should wait on a replacement ship to arrive to help them.  But our astronauts don't want to wait the two months it will supposedly take for another spaceship to arrive, and one set of astronauts decide to go ahead with the plan and land on Venus.

Upon their arrival the two astronauts lose contact with the mother ship and another crew of three astronauts go down to look for them.  They leave Marsha (Faith Domergue), another astronaut, on board to keep in touch with the landing crew as well as keeping in contact with Hartmann back on the Lunar base.

You probably wouldn't know any of the actors who play the astronauts by name, but even if you did, for some reason AIP decided to give them more European sounding names like Robert Chantal and Kurt Boden.  And the actors are obviously not American, you can tell, but even if you couldn't you would surely notice that their lips are not actually forming the same words that are coming out of your speakers.    

Both sets of astronauts encounter dinosaurs and other exotic life on the planet, including a giant man-eating Venus flytrap (now THERE'S a humorous vignette...)  As the two groups try to connect with each other they run into several dire situations.  Fortunately they have the help of a robot who is able to get them out of one situation involving a rising flow of lava from a volcano.

 This movie has some very cheesy special effects and it is hampered by the fact that the Russian actors are not very good, but since it is only about an hour or so long, it is worth a watch, if only for the appearance of two memorable movie icons.  Basil Rathbone is famous to most viewers for his many portrayals of Sherlock Holmes and Faith Domergue was a sultry siren in many sci-fi and horror films herself ( Cult of the Cobra, It Came From Beneath the Sea, The Atomic Man and of course the most familiar role in This Island Earth)

On our tour of the planets in the solar system, we felt we would be remiss if we did not take a detour and visit Earth's moon.  The Moon was the first thing many of the early Earth natives looked at with awe and wonder over the years.  It was often speculated that life on the Moon existed, and when man finally went to the Moon it was discovered that, indeed, there was a life of sorts.  This was discovered first by the people who made A Trip to the Moon.  Among the other excursions to the Moon, we have Destination: Moon and a bizarre entry in the nudie film genre called Nude on the Moon (in which astronauts find a nudist colony on the moon, although technically it's only a topless moon colony, not a true nudist colony...)  Additionally we have today's second feature:

12 to the Moon (1960):

The premise of this movie is a multi-national group of astronauts is on a mission to be the first to land on and investigate the moon.  A distinguished director (played by the equally distinguished Francis X. Bushman) introduces the crew who will man the Lunar Eagle 1.  They include such distinguished scientists and experts as a German who was the ship's designer, Erich Heinrich (John Wengraf), a boy genius, the ship's mathematics specialist, Rod Murdoch (Robert Montgomery, Jr.), a Turkish physician, Selim Hamid (Tema Bey) and his Swedish nurse, Sigrid Bomark (Anna-Lisa), a French engineer, Etieene Matel (Roger Til), a British geophysicist, Sir William Rochester (Phillip Baird), a Japanese space photographer, Hideko Murata (Michi Kobi), a Russian geologist Feodor Orloff (Tom Conway), a Nigerian navigator Asmara Markonen (Cory Devlin), a Polish born Israeli who serves as the recorder, David Ruskin (Richard Weber), A Brazilian pilot Luis Vargas (Anthony Dexter) and the ship commander, John Anderson (Ken Clark), who is an American.  The ship's commander was unanimously elected to be the leader because of his experience in the field of space travel (and of course because he is a American and this is a United States made film...)

The 12 board the Lunar Eagle, the rocket designed by Dr. Heinrich, and blast off for space.  The trip s supposed to take 27 hours.  In that time, several subplots come to light.  Firstly, for a supposedly cooperative international flight, the Russian comes off as a typical Russian of the era, claiming that Soviet technology is the reason the mission will be successful.  Also there is some sniping between the Israeli and the Russian, since the Israeli is actually of Polish descent (Poland having been under Soviet dominion at the time).  Also, it turns out that the German scientist's father was the Nazi who ran the concentration camp where all of the Israeli's family had been exterminated, although the Israeli is the only one who doesn't know it.

On the trip there are several encounters with meteor showers.   The crew has some special equipment that helps them avoid being hit by the meteors.  (Seems like they probably could have gone at a different time and avoided them altogether, but you know Hollywood...)

After landing the crew find several interesting things, including gold and a bubbling viscous emanation which one crew member foolishly tries to touch and gets his hand burned.   The Swede and the Turk find a cave which seems to, incredibly, have breathable air.  They take off their helmets, and immediately fall in love.  (Don't look at me, I didn't make this up...)    They walk off deeper into the cave and essentially disappear.  Meanwhile the rest of the crew returns to the Lunar Eagle, less one other member who was swallowed up by some version of lunar quicksand.

Back on the Lunar Eagle, the computer starts printing out a message.  It is in the form of some hieroglyphics which, although they don't look Japanese in the slightest, the Japanese scientist can translate.  It is from the residents of the Moon who tell them to leave immediately.  They are worried that the Earth people will contaminate the utopia that is the Moon.  The Moon people say they have the two lovers and are going to keep them to observe them and decide whether or not they are going to destroy the Earth to prevent any further contamination.

Despite a few plot holes that you could fire a howitzer through, this movie is not all bad.  There are a few revelations and plot contrivances that you can see coming a mile away, but most of them, if viewed in the context of the time, are acceptable.

Come back tomorrow as we will continue or trek across the solar system.  In the meantime make use of the well stocked bar and diner on the third level of our spaceship.  We will be sure to drive it safely.



  1. Yeah. I can live with an acceptable plot contrivance or three. If it's all in the name of science.

    Looking forward to the next installment.

    1. I intentionally went with low budget fare on this. (Otherwise my title would have been ridiculous) Not all the movies I watched got decent ratings. (See tomorrow's entry...) Thanks for reading

  2. Thanks so much for your tour of the solar system! I love it that you chose mostly cheesy low budget films. They have their charm. Though I admire your fortitude, because I don't think I could sit through that many AND write about them!

    Thanks again!

    1. I loved having that many. I just wish I could have made it complete. But there were no movies I could find to fit the bill for the other three planets. Thanks for reading.

  3. I love how you set this up, as a tour of our solar system. Brilliant! However, I was a bit shocked you waded into the Pluto is/is not a planet Debate... ;)

    I also loved this: "Basil Rathbone, who must have been hard up for a paycheck..." Basil is always worth watching, in my books, and I'll be sure to watch out for this one – as well as "12 to the Moon". Great review!

  4. I don't consider the Pluto issue a "debate". I'm 57 years old. Pluto as a planet was good enough for my generation. It's these young whippersnappers that are turning it into a debate. :-D As far as Rathbone, he'll always be the best movie Sherlock. Cumberbatch is good as a modern-day Sherlock, but I always preferred Sherlock in his own milieu. (Even if they did co-opt Holmes to fight the Nazis during WWII.) Thanks for reading

  5. Thank you for your helpful article, I love this type of article.


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