MONOCHROME MANOR Presents:
ROCKETSHIP X-M (1950)
Review by Steve Van Samson
Down a particularly twisted road, over an old bridge and up, up on the very top of a hill where no one goes, stands a forgotten manse. With a sudden clap of thunder, the nameplate flashes—MONOCHROME MANOR. Standing here, nearly forgotten, is a place out of time. A place where bookshelves move, portraits leer, and on nights just like this… old black and white movies are screened in the house’s totally plush theater room.
Tonight’s Feature: ROCKETSHIP X-M (1950)
Having not lived through the decade personally, when I think of 1950s cinema (especially the schlocky kind), a specific genre comes to mind. Gothic period-piece, horror pictures (such as was made famous in the 1930s by films like DRACULA, 1931, FRANKENSTEIN, 1931, and the like), had gone out of vogue. The public, still charged by the detonation of the first atomic bomb (in 1945) thirsted for something new in their escapism. Rather than looking to the past, it became the future which captured the imaginations of moviegoers. As such, studios began churning out their monsters in two basic flavors:
ATOMIC AGE MUTANTS and of course, SPACE ALIENS.
It should be mentioned that the concept of men boarding a shiny rocket and seeking out new life/civilizations was not exactly a new one. Though the term “science fiction” would not be popularized until 1954 (thanks to Forrest J. Ackerman), it can be traced all the way back to 1851. In fact, the term was first used by William Wilson in his book “A Little Earnest Book Upon A Great Old Subject: With the Story of the Poet-Lover.” In film, French surrealist Georges Méliès released A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902), an infamous silent masterpiece which contains the famous shot of a man-faced moon blinking in pain, after having a spaceship rudely crammed into his eye!
That said, the 1950s was a time when science fiction experienced a sort of renaissance. One that has never really gone away.
But enough of that…
One of the first films of the decade to bring science fiction to the modern consciousness was a low-budget little number by the name of ROCKETSHIP X-M (1950). The film was co-written, produced and directed by Kurt Neumann—a man who would later direct one of the greatest science fiction/horror flicks of all time, THE FLY (1958). Granted, next to that one, ROCKETSHIP X-M comes off as more than a little bland. That said, the film is not without its charms.
Our story begins with an extended military press conference. The breaking news? Why, in less than an hour, a momentous achievement will be undertaken: the first manned rocket to the moon! What’s more, the ship, codenamed RXM (or Rocketship eXpedition Moon) is already primed, gassed up and ready to jet! All that’s left is to introduce the crew to a sea of thirsty reporters, as well as us, the viewers. Unfortunately, this is accomplished in a very “let’s-get-this-out-of-the-way” sort of way. Now, from a runtime (and budgetary) perspective, this method probably made a lot of sense, but I found it a bit on the cold side. After all, it’s rather difficult to connect with a cast of characters when they are paraded systematically past the screen—their notable traits boiled down into a few concise, press-ready statements for rapid consumption.
The primary character standouts are the ship’s stalwart captain, Col. Floyd Graham, and the ravishing but clinical Dr. Lisa Van Horn (Osa Massen). Worth noting is that Col. Graham is played by a 37-year-old Jeff Bridges. The actor does a great job as the crew’s likeable leader, and if there is anything this film is remembered for, it’s being “that space movie with Lloyd Bridges.”
SIDE NOTE: As the man aged, Lloyd Bridges’ voice never changed. Not one bit. In fact, after seeing ROCKETSHIP X-M (1950), I can imagine a fresh faced little Lloyd—age 6—skipping down the sidewalk whilst spouting the gravelly tones of Admiral Benson from HOT SHOTS! (1991).
After a hot steaming pile of pseudo scientific mumbo-jumbo and some half-hearted feminism (which somehow still manages to be insulting to women), the press conference comes to a close. The time to get to brass tacks is nigh. Our dauntless crew bids farewell to friends and to Mother Earth, giving us our first glimpse of the titular wonder of progress—the Rocketship X-M. We follow Col. Graham and the crew through a series of cheap-looking but charming sets, before arriving finally at the bridge.
Get comfortable folks, this is where we’ll be spending most of the movie.
After running through some last-minute diagnostic checks, the crew begins to ready themselves for takeoff. Here, in a teachable moment, the movie shows that the safest way to blast off into space is by laying down in a bunk bed and then securing yourself via a single automotive style seatbelt. I, for one, did not know that.
With a bang and a whoosh, the RXM is off and away! The first stage of the mission is a success and there is much rejoicing. Following this are a series of scenes that can be most kindly described as “dull.” For the next 25 minutes, we are treated to a number of vignettes featuring the various crew members as they go about their day. Turning things, checking things, computing things, taking care to illustrate how even smart doctor-type women are not as smart or as useful as the men around them.
Oh, the 50s.
There are a couple of “non-dull” scenes, but these feel manufactured. The “thrilling” asteroid belt that comes out of absolute nowhere to soar past the ship on either side, but never strike it, is one example. It sort of feels like writer/director Neumann realized that his movie was dragging and added these parts later, via reshoots. Aside from this, we get to know everyone a little better and even notice a burgeoning spark between super smart (just not as smart as the guys) Dr. Lisa and our hero, Col. Graham.
Considering it’s “that space movie with Lloyd Bridges,” the sentiments in this movie are spread on surprisingly thick. And believe it or not, there is actually some really good stuff in here that would be more at home in some sweeping romance film—one which did not feature space aliens. One of the best scenes of the movie involves Col. Graham discussing the magical romantic properties of moonlight with the ship’s only female officer. Now, by this point, most every character has mansplained something or other to Dr. Lisa, and while my eyes were prepped and ready to roll, the scene actually ends up being quite sweet. We can see that Lisa Van Horn is the way she is for her own set of reasons. Not the least of which being the fact that no matter how brilliant or successful she might be, the world she left behind is a man’s world. A world that long ago forced her to choose between being a woman and being a scientist. But here, out amongst the stars, maybe, just maybe… it’s okay to be both.
I did mention the sentiment is spread on rather thick, didn’t I?
Eventually, the movie does pick up—even pitching us a much-needed curveball around the 40-minute mark. See, the plan all along was to circle the earth a single time and sling-shot the ole’ RXM right to the moon. Unfortunately, the speed they pick up far exceeds what was anticipated. The result is the rocket flies wild—straight past the moon and into open space, which as you know… is a pretty big place. To make matters worse, all those G-forces send the crew into unconsciousness for an indeterminate amount of time. Maybe days!
The first to awaken is Dr. Lisa, who quickly rouses the others (you’ll note the male crew members are even superior at staying unconscious!). It takes a few minutes to regain their bearings, but it’s pretty clear that something went wrong. The moon is nowhere in sight, but that red planet out the starboard window sure looks familiar. That’s right ladies and gentlemen—it’s Mars. The 4th rock from the sun. Home of John Carter and that weird face thing. It’s all terribly exciting, I assure you. And since these characters are SCIENTIST TYPES, the decision is quickly made to make the best out of a bad situation and do some sight seeing on earth’s OTHER nearest neighbor.
About now, I’d bet you are wondering about those aforementioned space aliens. Well, worry not, gentle reader, for Mars may be a barren, desolate wasteland, but it is far from uninhabited. The Mars portion of the movie is definitely a welcome shift. Not only in tone and setting, but in color! That’s right, to spice up the sequence, a sepia gel was used—turning black and white to well, brown and lighter brown. All joking aside, it’s pretty unexpected and quite effective. It helps you feel like you’re in another place, on another world.
The Martians are not what you’d expect. Though I don’t want to spill every single bean, I’ll say that I’ve never seen aliens presented this way before. And though the movie devolves into a gigantic finger-wag, the moral quandary presented here is absolutely valid. Thickly laid on—yes.
One final note. As I watched this movie—especially the launch sequence and those scenes involving the crew communicating with Earth via radio—all I could think of was Bugs Bunny. You know the one! When the US government lures Bugs into a huge rocket filled with carrots, then blasts him off to the moon where he inadvertently stops a tiny Romanesque spaceman from blowing up the earth? The episode is called HAREDEVIL HARE and it features the first ever appearance of Marvin the Martian. After seeing ROCKETSHIP X-M, I felt certain that the cartoon had been spoofing the movie all these years, but after a bit of research, I found that HAREDEVIL HARE was released two years earlier, in 1948.
In closing, ROCKETSHIP X-M may not have inspired one of the greatest Bugs Bunny cartoons of all time, but it did help kick off an important new cinematic genre. There are better examples of 1950s sci-fi, but knowing your roots is never a bad thing. Besides… none of those have Lloyd Bridges.
© Copyright 2018 by Steve Van Samson