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12 To The Moon – A Very Strange Film, Indeed!

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

12 to the Moon is a very odd film; get the DVD, and see for yourself.

Since I’m in a David Bradley mood, I might as well post on his extremely peculiar science fiction film, 12 to the Moon (1959), just to let you know it’s out there. Most sources date the production as 1960, but in fact “according to an October 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item, Columbia purchased the independent production in August 1959, intending to rush it into release to capitalize on the topicality of a space launch,” and the film itself bears a 1959 copyright date, though it was released in June, 1960.

As Nathaniel Thompson notes on the Turner Classic Movies website, “while mankind continued to see competition in space exploration between American and the Soviet Union for years to come, this film instead proposes an inaugural lunar expedition aboard the Lunar Eagle comprised of an international team of a dozen astronauts from the United States, Poland, Israel, Sweden, Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan, France, Brazil, Britain, Turkey, and Nigeria.

Needless to say, their harmonious intentions run into a few speed bumps along the way as basic human territorial behavior comes into play (though not surprisingly, the American played by TV actor Ken Clark remains the most composed of the bunch). Caverns filled with air pockets, mysterious ice walls, and startling alien messages are just a few of the surprises in store, while the crew’s additional animal passengers (pairs of cats, monkeys and canines) also come into play before the end after they’ve already dodged other menaces including a meteor shower.

Extremely strange and unpredictable, 12 to the Moon has the usual budget-deprived look of many second-tier science fiction films of the period, along with the expected avalanche of dubious science and plot holes larger than the moon’s craters. One big surprise for movie buffs arrives in the opening scene with the entire setup for the plot delivered to the audience by Hollywood’s first bona fide movie star, Francis X. Bushman, here playing “Secretary General of the International Space Order” (the kind of role normally given to an actor like Basil Rathbone).

Shot in just over a week for a reported $150,000, 12 to the Moon was released by Columbia in June of 1960 on a double bill with Ishirô Honda’s Battle in Outer Space. The lack of a reasonable budget or star power doomed many science fiction films to obscurity after their initial runs, though this film managed to stay alive thanks to frequent television screenings.

Some of the more familiar cast members for eagle-eyed movie buffs include Japanese-American actress Michi Kobi (best known for the Jeffrey Hunter/David Janssen war film, Hell to Eternity, 1960), Norwegian TV actress Anna-Lisa, and Robert Montgomery, Jr. (College Confidential, 1960), son of Hollywood actor Robert Montgomery and brother of Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery, and Tom Conway, a regular in numerous Val Lewton horror classics such as Cat People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943). The Lewton connection continues to this film’s screenwriter, DeWitt Bodeen, who wrote both of the two latter films as well as 1962’s Billy Budd.

However, the most surprising member of 12 to the Moon’s personnel is undoubtedly its cinematographer, John Alton, an innovative Hungarian-born iconoclast who earned an Academy Award in 1952 for An American in Paris (1951). His demanding personality resulted in a patchwork career alternating between big studio films (Father of the Bride [1950], The Teahouse of the August Moon [1956], Elmer Gantry [1960]) and small programmers, though his work on the latter still produced remarkable results such as I, the Jury (1953), The Amazing Mr. X (1948) and The Big Combo (1955) — proving that for some artists, no project is too big or too small.”

Yes, it’s a very odd film; the French scientist, for example, who gets far too many closeups for no apparent reason for most of the film, suddenly reveals that he has secret pro-Soviet leanings, and urges the Russian member of the team to use the rocket ship they all inhabit to take over the earth with the use of some sort of atomic device; while the aliens who populate the moon take an unlikely interest in two cats brought along on the expedition, and demand that they be left for research purposes – why, we have no idea.

As if that isn’t enough, the German scientist on board has a Nazi father who murdered another crew member’s father during the era of the Third Reich, and yet the two manage to become boon companions; two other crew members become romantically involved, and are then trapped in a solid block of ice almost as a sort of punishment; another scientist is sucked under in the moon’s “quicksand” and also perishes. All of this happens in a flat, sort of matter of fact way; no one gets too excited, and the remaining members of the group are left to soldier on.

The moon aliens – who are never seen, incidentally – communicate with the group using a series of indecipherable hieroglyphics, which are nevertheless easily read by the Japanese member of the crew, and alternately issue threats and messages of peace, but not before the aliens succeed in freezing the entire earth and all its inhabitants with some sort of mysterious ray, which is in turn counteracted by the scientists by improvising an atomic bomb, and launching it from the ship into an active volcano, thereby generating enough heat to warm up the planet, during which two more members of the crew forfeit their lives. Whew!

Sound strange? It is, and despite the many obvious shortcuts used in the production, and the curious lack of motivation or even some semblance of logic in the film, it lingers in my memory, at least, as an warped but sincere attempt to create an international sense of purpose, in which all the nations of the earth combine to claim the moon jointly, rather than scrambling to be first. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a good film, but it’s a decidedly odd one, which never does what you expect it to, and goes careening off in any direction it feels like, with no regard for audience expectations. The film is readily available in an excellent transfer from Warner Archive, and at a running time of a mere 75 minutes, is certainly worth a look.

All in all, a very odd film indeed.

The Curious Career of David Bradley

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

David Bradley filming Charlton Heston as Antony in Julius Caesar (1950); photo by Chalmers Butterfield.

I have long been aware of the life and work of David Bradley, whose career seems to have been cut short before it really got started. A teen prodigy, Bradley first attracted attention with his 16mm independent features, including his version of Julius Caesar, starring a very young Charlton Heston. Though he was signed to MGM by studio chief Dore Schary as a result of that film’s reception, which won a tie for First Prize at the Locarno Film Festival, Bradley’s first act was brighter than anything that followed.

This is not to say that his subsequent films, particularly the science fiction parable Twelve to The Moon (1959), photographed by the gifted John Alton, are not without interest, but it is safe to say that for some reason, after making so many striking films on his own, Bradley never really found his footing within the industry, and instead completed his career teaching film at UCLA and Santa Monica College.

His papers are archived at Northwestern University, and as their summary of his life notes, “David Shedd Bradley was born in Evanston, Illinois on April 6, 1920, the son of Addison Ballard and Katherine Shedd Bradley. A member of Chicago’s prominent Shedd family, Bradley earned his undergraduate degree at Northwestern University. He went on to direct films for MGM as well as teach at UCLA. Bradley died in 1997.

Bradley attended the Todd School from 1935 to 1937 and Lake Forest Academy during 1937-1940. At Lake Forest Bradley made one of his earlier films, Preps in Action, an account of a day in the life of an average student. His first experience with film came through his use of his family’s Winnetka basement as a movie theatre for neighborhood friends. Bradley had turned his hand to filmmaking by the mid-1930s. Preceding Preps in Action was a 16 millimeter short of Treasure Island (1937).

Other films from the period include Doctor X (1938), Emperor Jones (1938), and an adaptation of The Christmas Carol, titled Marley’s Ghost (1939). Bradley spent a year at the Goodman Memorial Theatre Drama Department of the Art Institute of Chicago and cast actors he met there in full-length film versions of Oliver Twist (1940), Peer Gynt (1941), and the Saki story, Sredni Vashtar (1943).

In September 1941, Bradley enrolled in the School of Speech of Northwestern University where he continued to pursue his interests in film and acting. He was accepted also into the Northwestern University Radio Playshop. In 1942 military service interrupted Bradley’s formal education. Following three years in the film section of the Signal Corps, he returned to Northwestern where he completed film versions of Macbeth (1946) and Julius Caesar (1950). The latter tied for first place at the Locarno Film Festival and won much international acclaim.

One of the first 16 millimeter films to be booked into theatres on a nationwide scale, Julius Caesar attracted the attention of Dore Schary, the M.G.M. studio chief. After graduating from Northwestern in June 1950, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Speech, Bradley went to Hollywood to work for M.G.M.

Bradley’s first assignment at M.G.M. was to assist in coaching pre-production rehearsals for first-time director Robert Pirosh’s Go For Broke. After two years of interning, Bradley was allowed to direct his own film, Talk About a Stranger (1952). At the age of 32 Bradley was then the youngest director at M.G.M. In the early 1950s, with Gerry Sherman, Bradley formed Oceanic Productions Inc. Their first project was to be a filmed version of Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian journal Noa-Noa. James Agee wrote the screenplay and Emile Gauguin was hired as a technical assistant. This project was not completed.

Bradley left M.G.M. in the mid-1950s and made three more films: Dragstrip Riot (1958, American International), Twelve To The Moon (1960, Columbia Pictures), and Madmen of Mandoras (1964, Crown International). Later in his life, as an adjunct to producing and directing and drawing upon his extraordinary collection of rare films and extensive knowledge of the field, Bradley taught courses in film aesthetics and history at the University of California at Los Angeles and at Santa Monica College.”

Bradley’s life is thus extremely curious, and he’s never really gotten the attention he deserves; his career, cut short by Hollywood, remains one of the most enigmatic in cinema history, and his later films have been unjustly maligned, especially Madmen of Mandoras, which was taken out of his hands and drastically recut and reshot; the original film, to the best of my knowledge, no longer survives.

I may do some writing on Bradley in the future; his work remains uneven, and deeply mysterious.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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