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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.

Lewis D. Collins’ Wild Stallion (1952)

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Click here, or on the image above, for scenes from Lewis D. Collins’ White Stallion (1952).

As Frank Miller writes of this exceptionally odd film on the TCM Website, “many movies have been built around the pursuit of a childhood love. Heathcliff pursued his [lifelong love] Cathy in nine film and 13 television versions of Wuthering Heights, and Charles Foster Kane built a business empire while dreaming of his [childhood sled] Rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941). In the 1952 Western Wild Stallion, Dan Light (Ben Johnson) searches the Black Hills for Top Kick, the horse he lost the same day an Indian raid killed his parents.

Wild Stallion was an early production from Walter Mirisch, who started his career at Monogram Pictures making low-budget Westerns and action films, most notably the Bomba series that Johnny Sheffield moved into after he ended his run as Boy in the Tarzan films. Mirisch shot the film quickly, during the month of December 1951, with the land around the Corrigan and Iverson Ranches in California standing in for the Black Hills of Wyoming. Even a windstorm that destroyed some of the sets didn’t keep him from getting the film into theatres by April 1952.

Like many films from Poverty Row studios like Monogram, Wild Stallion provided a showcase for young actors on the way up though leading man fame may have seemed far away for Ben Johnson at the time he starred in the film. A former cowboy and rodeo champion, he had come to Hollywood as a wrangler when Howard Hughes hired him to transport horses to the locations for The Outlaw (1943).

After years of stunt riding for stars like John Wayne and Randolph Scott, he was spotted by John Ford, who promoted him to ever bigger roles in his Cavalry Trilogy and the title role in Wagon Master (1950). Then the two quarreled while making the third Cavalry film, Rio Grande (1950), after Johnson’s agent tried to squeeze Ford for more money on an upcoming film. As a result, the director simply stopped working with him, and Johnson’s career stalled. He even left Hollywood for a year to work the rodeo circuit. He wouldn’t get his career back on track until Ford convinced him to accept the role of Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show (1971), which won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Leading lady Martha Hyer went to school with Charlton Heston, Patricia Neal and Cloris Leachman, and, like them, went to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. After being spotted at the Pasadena Playhouse, she started landing film roles, earning her first billing as Tim Holt’s leading lady in Thunder Mountain (1947). It wasn’t until she signed with Universal, where she was promoted as their answer to Grace Kelly, that the icy blonde started moving up the career ladder.

Her biggest success came with a loan to MGM in 1958 to co-star as the frigid English professor thawed by Frank Sinatra in Some Came Running. The role won her an Oscar nomination, but she had a hard time finding a suitable follow-up in a Hollywood changing rapidly with the decline of the studio system. Instead she found a more satisfying role off-screen as the wife of independent producer Hal Wallis.

Rounding out the cast of Wild Stallion [are several] reliable character actors caught between the decline of the studio contract system and the rise of television. Edgar Buchanan, co-starring as the horse tracker who trains Johnson, had been a staple of Columbia releases in the ’40s, most notably as Cary Grant and Irene Dunne’s closest friend in Penny Serenade (1941). He did well as a free-lancer in the ’50s, but is best remembered as Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction.

Second-generation actor Hayden Rorke came to Hollywood after years on the stage and was a familiar face on movie screens in the ’50s, with small roles in everything from An American in Paris (1951) to Pillow Talk (1959). He entered television history as Captain Bellows, the suspicious commanding officer on I Dream of Jeannie.

In 1952, the cast of Wild Stallion was still far from the fame they would achieve in later years. As a result, ads for the film sold not the human characters, but rather the horse. Top Kick was billed as the ‘Untamed King of the Wild Outlaw Herds!’ and ‘Outlaw stallion defying man’s ruthless guns…battling snarling killer wolves!’ Hype aside, however, the taglines capture one of the film’s evergreen selling points, its focus on one of the animals that helped win the West. In most low-budget Westerns, the love story is of relatively minor importance. In Wild Stallion, it takes center stage, even if it represents a departure from the boy meets girl formula to create a boy meets horse epic.”

Indeed, this is what’s oddest about the film; Ben Johnson’s character seems utterly uninterested in anything except his beloved white stallion, to the point that any romantic interest between Johnson and Martha Hyer is reduced to the absolute margins of the film. The other thing, of course, is that when watching Wild Stallion, the viewer is conscious of the fact that these are real cowboys in the film, doing most of their own stunts; it’s as if Hollywood in the 1950s was desperately recreating the American saga of  ”manifest destiny,” using ranch hands as out of date in their time as the cowboy drifters in John Huston’s The Misfits a decade later, in an attempt to hold on to the past.

A really bizarre little film, more “boy meets horse” than “boy meets girl”; worth seeing.

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 thirty books and more than 100 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. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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