THE AUDIO AND VIDEO AID DEPARTMENT
The science fiction picture, "Rocketship X-M1", made by the Nassour Studios at a cost of $80,000 is now being exhibited in Kansas City. To the science fiction fan this picture may be both a surprise and a disappointment. It is, however, an excellent picture on which to judge future Hollywood effort in filming science fiction.
The picture is an honest effort. The actors perform their task without that tongue-in-cheek attitude that is so annoying to the science fiction fans. The technical shortcoming of the picture are due to lack of funds and a compromise with the motion picture fans. And these are the two factors that the science fiction fans are going to have to bear with in anything produced in Hollywood.
Costs are easy to understand. Space travel pictures are going to cost a lot of money. Did you read the article by Heinlein in the July ASTOUNDING? The picture "Destination Moon", filmed by George Pal at a cost of $600,000, is an effort to make an accurate and convincing forecast of what space travel will be. The one technical problem of creating the "free fall" of space was very expensive. The brilliant starry sky of empty space, the lunar landscape, the dust-free area around the moonscape -- all cost money. The science fiction fan cannot expect this expenditure in every class B space opera that comes along.
"Rocketship X-M1" is a B picture, and it is interesting to see how some of these technical problems were handled.
First the story in brief. A group of scientists, one a girl, start out on the first rocket flight to the moon.. They do all right until they discover that a mistake has been made in the fuel mixture and that they are off course. They get it fixed, but in starting the rockets again the sudden acceleration knocks everyone out. When they come out of it they are coasting near Mars. So they land on Mars -- can't miss this wonderful opportunity. Here they find evidence of a once flourishing civilization and plenty of radioactivity. Atomic war did this! Blind, half-naked savages attack them with rocks. One of the party is killed. Are these creatures the remnants of a great civilization? There can be no other answer. Off they go to earth with the "message". "Hold that bomb -- look what it did to Mars." The fuel gives out -- they can't make it. The hero rigs up a radio connection. The girl scientist decides in that last moment that she loves him. They are in each other's arms as they dive into the sea giving us the "message".
Now we don't want to get sarcastic about the "message". It makes no difference that most of us with radios are convinced down to the three year old level that an atomic war would be pretty awful, and we don't need a trip to Mars to clinch the argument. The "message" does seem a little futile, and no doubt the science fiction fan could think up a dozen messages with much more practical value in connection with the first flight in space, but the "message" as given has the best dramatic value for the motion picture fan.
And here we run into the motion picture fan and the compromise that will have to be made with him in any future science fiction films. What kind of fellow is he? According to the motion pictures made for him, he is interested in love, success, love, the fact that he may be drafted for the Korean war, and love. And he has been sold the atomic bomb. It has been forced on him by the biggest promotion job in the history of the world. Advertisers have sold him "atomic" razors and automobile engines, "atomic" blondes have won his beauty contests. He has been informed by the press, radio, movies and even from the pulpit that this is the "atomic age". It is hard to teach the motion picture fan anything, and it is easy to let him glide along on things he already knows. So it is the "atomic message" that our hero shouts in his dying hour, rather than a new concept that might cause our motion picture fan an uneasy moment of thought.
This compromise will also involve girls. We are going to have to take them along in our motion picture space ships. They were left out of the "Destination Moon" rocket, and this was due to a heroic effort on the part of the technical advisers. We can't expect this every time. In some stories we might leave them behind to sweat it out like they do in war pictures, but they will get into some of the ships. The best way to provide the motion picture fan's love interest is to bring the girl right along in the ship. Of course in a real space ship this would involve so many difficulties that for the first few flights they are going to be left behind, but the motion picture fan will insist on a heroine -- so she will be there. This should not bother the science fiction fan too much because the loveliest girls ever imagined have smiled at him from the covers of his prozines for years.
In solving the technical problems of space flight, the producers of "Rocketship X-M1" also made compromises with lack of funds and with the motion picture fans. "Free fall" in space is expensive. In one scene in "Rocketship X-M1" it is demonstrated when a jacket floats off the back of a chair. One of the characters grabs it and everyone laughs. The actors do not float; the chair does not float; only the jacket floats. Everything except the jacket remains anchored to the floor of the control room by the gravity of good old mother earth. Let me point out that to put everything on wires so that everything floats is expensive, and to have everything float is too much of a new concept for the motion picture fan, so only the jacket floats. In "Destination Moon" everything floats at great expense, and a great deal of time is spent in preparing the motion picture fan for this. I'll bet he will be less satisfied with the scene than when only the jacket floats. OK, so you don't believe it. Go see both pictures and watch the audience reaction to these scenes.
Mars, in "Rocketship X-M1" is a scene from our western desert done with a red filter. I thought I'd die when I saw that red filter -- good old bloody Mars! Even the planets have reputations. The motion picture fan was quite satisfied.
In one scene meteors threaten the rocket. They are all about the size of basketballs, come out of the same spot in the void, and wish right past the window of our rocket, making a loud and terrifying noise. I don't know much about meteors. They might be the size of basketballs instead of tiny invisible rocks, they may shine like neon lights in the blackness of space, and they might all come from one spot in the void right past the spaceship window, scaring everyone in the control room half to death -- but I'll be damned if they'd make a loud noise. That was for the motion picture fan. And it was frightening. Even I ducked.
The take-off of the rocket was a shot of a V-2 from White Sands, New Mexico. You have seen it dozens of times in newsreels, and on television. Until the real rocket takes off for the moon, we are going to see this same V-2 shot in most of our class B space movies.
Taking everything into consideration, and in spite of the slight complaints noted above, "Rocketship X-M1" is a fine picture. The showman's business paper, VARIETY, says that a Broadway theater held it over because of good business. It also did a good business in Kansas City's "Esquire", and is now showing in several neighborhood theaters. That's fine and I hope we can have a lot more. The motion picture people are watching "Destination Moon" and out space opera cycle will depend more or less on the success of this picture. The success of "Rocketship X-M1" seems to foreshadow a big success for "Destination Moon".
There are a number of fantasy and science-fiction plays on the air these days -- the best is "Dimension X" You can hear it Saturday nights on NBC at 6:00 CST. These plays lean heavily on sound effects which sometimes add and sometimes detract from the production. I thought the sound greatly overdone on the June 24th show, "Destination Moon". With all the whoopin', whizzin', boop-booop-boop-in', WHAP, wham, drrrrr, hidit-hiditin' that went on during this production it was a wonder the spaceship got off the ground.
However, in the previous week, the sound effects made two Bradbury stories. The first was "There Shall Be Soft Rains", from Colliers. This story was read. No dialog was spoken. The only actor was a mechanical house, and the sound effects man made the house a living entity. Believe me, this was the finest play I have heard on radio. The other -- "Invasion" a Bradbury tale from PLANET of several years ago -- was also well done.
Others I've heard on this program include "To The Future", another Bradbury story from Colliers; and "The Embassy", which I believe is by Donald A. Wollheim.
A lot of fantasy is being shown on television. Almost all of the big television play shows have at one time or another this spring and summer done one or two stories that could be classed as fantasy. "Lights Out" is devoted to both fantasy and science-fiction. They did a fine production of Murray Leinster's "The Strange Case of John Kingman", from Astounding. John MacDonald's "A Child is Crying" was also excellent.
Most "Lights Out" plays are formula ghost stories which I label "the dead strike back". For example, in the one I saw this evening, the hero is an elderly man whose son, a fine pianist, is killed by a bolt of lightning while playing one of Chopin's numbers. The old man has a housekeeper who wants his money. And she has a crazy son who is going to help her get it. Together they keep the old man prisoner and take away his money a little at a time. There are complications, but in the end the dead pianist comes back and does vengeance on the crazy son of the housekeeper by striking him with lightning. More villains have been done in by ghosts in "Lights Out"! There was the backwoods father who came back from being drowned in the river to save his daughter from a fate worse than death; there was the sergeant who came back (in uniform yet) to a reunion of the old squad to get the guy who plugged him in the back on Okinawa; and so on and so forth. The occasional science-fiction play is a welcome relief from all this.
In conclusion we can say that the audio and visual aid department is picking up this year. When the new season starts this fall, we can expect a fine crop of motion picture, radio, and television dramas.
Text versions and page scans Judy Bemis
Data entry by Judy Bemis
Updated June 19, 2015. If you have a comment about these web pages please send a note to the Fanac Webmaster. Thank you.