My very first zero-star review goes to a 1946 Mexican ”sci-fi comedy” starring a down and out Buster Keaton doing his best not to fall asleep on set. The script has three idiots landing a rocket in the middle of a Mexican city, thinking they are on the moon. That is the full plot. The best moments have Buster Keaton lifelessly repeating old gags from his silent era. The rest is a mess. (0/10)
Boom in the Moon (El Moderno Barba Asul, 1946). Directed by Jaime Salvador. Written by Jaime Salvador and Victor Trivas. Starring: Buster Keaton, Angel Garasa, Virginia Serret. Produced by Alexander Salkind. IMDb: 4.7/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Potentially this film could have been awesome. You’ve got one of the powerhouses of Mexican comedy during the Golden Era of Mexican cinema, Jaime Salvador Valls as both writer and director. Spanish-born Salvador might not ring many bells with international viewers, but this was the man who made close to 20 films with the legendary comedian Cantiflas, a man who on the US game show What’s My Line was called ”the greatest Mexican actor alive”, and whom Charlie Chaplin himself called ”the greatest comedian in the world”. International audiences may know him best from his portrayal of Passepartout in the 1956 film Around the World in 80 Days, a role that was reprised in the infamous 2004 remake by Jackie Chan (where he actually did some pretty awesome Buster Keaton impersonations). The lead in Boom to the Moon is played by an actor who is by many considered to have been the greatest US comedian of all time (Charlie Chaplin fans may disagree): Buster Keaton. And last but not least: the film sets it up to be the first ever full length feature film made in the whole continent of America about a trip to the moon.
But alas, this is not the film that we get. First of all, revered though Jaime Salvador may be by fans of Mexican cinema, his films were all decidedly in the B category. Salvador was primarily a writer, and as a director, well let’s say he knows how to set up a decent shot, but that’s about as far as his directorial prowess reaches. Third, what made his comedies so successful were not necessarily his witty writing, but the performance of Cantinflas, and unfortunately Cantinflas is not in this movie. Fourth, the Buster Keaton in this film is not the 20-something Buster Keaton that took the cinematic world by storm with his stoneface, his impeccable comedic timing and his otherworldly physique. No, this is the 51-looks-like-61-year-old, broke, shunned-by-Hollywood, embittered, post-binge-drinking, starring in a lower-than-low budget Mexican movie in Spanish, a language the he does not speak Buster Keaton. And last but not least, the plot is a total cop-out and nobody goes to the moon.
This is the extremely silly plot: Buster Keaton is an American soldier left floating in a raft after his plane is shot down in the last moments of WWII. Thinking he floats ashore in Japan when he arrives at the shores of Mexico, he gives himself up to Mexican authorities as a POW. The authorities in turn mistake him for a known criminal wanted for killing six women (hence the Mexican title ”The Modern Bluebeard”). His cell mate is a small-time crook played by Angel Garasa, a Spanish actor relocated to Mexico during the Spanish civil war, who often appeared alongside Cantinflas in Salvador’s films. As both ”criminals” are about to be executed, a brilliant deus ex machina takes place, as a scientist comes looking for volunteers crazy enough to pilot his experimental rocket to the moon – and thinks death row inmates probably wouldn’t mind choosing a rocket trip over the gallows. The film then goes into a tedious act of both characters refusing the offer, and trying to escape, although everyone in the audience know they are going into the rocket one way or another. Finally, with all things settled, they are accidentally accompanied in the spacecraft by the inventor’s daughter, played by Virginia Serret.
To make a befuddled story short, the rocket never reaches the moon, but lands in a field just minutes away from where it took off. The three stooges decked out in wizard’s robes (you know, blue ones with stars and moons on them – since they are on the moon, dummy!) goof around a bit thinking they are on the moon, and are taken in by a man who is happy to play along with their delusion for fun. The one sense of suspense we might have had is what might happen to them as authorities realise they are back on Earth (remember, they are sentenced to death), but even that is taken away from us, as the film informs them halfway through that the actual wife-killer has been apprehended and the two men an exonerated. Why the filmmakers would choose to throw away such a great last-minute reveal in the middle of the movie is beyond me, since it really doesn’t serve any purpose. Salvador tries to stick in another a big surprise at the very end of the film, but it is so forced and old hat (even in the forties) that it makes matters even worse.
The script by Jaime Salvador and Eastern European expat Victor Trivas is so full of holes that Keaton could jump hoops through it in his sleep. One of them is how Keaton suddenly learns to speak Spanish in the middle of the film, after we have been assured that he speaks no Spanish. In the beginning of the movie he couldn’t even tell the difference between Spanish and Japanese. And even in a ”crazy comedy” like this it craves a lot of suspension of disbelief to ask the audience to buy into the fact that a group would land in a town where two of the people involved actually live, meet fellow humans who speak their own language, and believe that they are on the moon. It is the kind of thing you do for about ten minutes of gags in a normal comedy, but building the whole premise of the film around it is just too rich.
The Mexican version of the movie is 108 minutes long, and it looks like Salvador and Trivas just didn’t have a clue as to what to do with all that time, so they pad the story out with a number of unrelated goofs and even a ten minute interlude of Keaton and Garasa fooling around on Serret’s farm. So thin is the script that I have to use the actors’ names, since none of the character’s are named, except Keaton, who is referred to as ”Bluebeard”. The American version is cut down to 68 minutes, but that is still too long. This is basically the kind of story that Georges Méliès would have told in 10 minutes. The parallel isn’t too far fetched, as much of it is basically silent film. One reason for this is that it is in Spanish, and the grumpy Keaton surely couldn’t have been bothered to learn Spanish for a production like this. The few lines he speaks in Spanish seem to have been learned phonetically, as he doesn’t seem to have a clue about what the rest of the characters are saying the rest of the time.
Well, at least Keaton must be good for a few laughs, I hear you say. And, yes, even when down and out, Keaton’s acrobatics are good enough for most circuses. But he simply reuses old gags from his silent films (there’s a horse mounting skit that is an exact copy from another movie, among others), and there is no feeling in them. In his best films, Keaton was swept up in some crazy plot, and the gags came out of him frantically trying to keep up with the pace and failing miserably. Here, there is no sense of urgency, and most of the gags are completely unrelated to the story. It’s like the filmmakers just put everything on hold for five minutes, let Keaton do a skit, and then got back to the proceedings. Adding insult to injury, most of the gags are poorly filmed. There are moments of brilliance, often involving the smaller gags, like the ones around dinner tables, in which we see the comedic genius of Keaton (and indeed Garasa) shine through, but they are not enough to save this film. The gags, such as they are in this film, could have been hilarious if the rest of the movie was well made. Now they just stick out like a sore thumb.
Now this is, ladies and gentlemen, a first for me. I have been fairly restrictive when dealing out stars with the lowest and highest marks. For a film to receive 10 stars it is not enough that it is a nearly perfect film, it should also have a significant element of originality and a cultural significance. I have thus far dealt out three ten-star ratings between 1896 and 1946. After reviewing 50 years of science fiction, I have not dealt out a single zero-star rating. Even the worst of Poverty Row’s Z grade films have, in my opinion, had some redeeming qualities. Boom in the Moon simply has none. It has been called by film historian Kevin Brownlowe ”the worst film ever made”. I’m not sure I would go that far, but it is without doubt the worst film I have reviewed on this blog.
Despite this, there are — inexplicably — critics who defend this movie. One is Phil Hall at Film Threat who, bizarrely, gives it 3/5 stars, writing: “More silly than funny, but hardly the debacle that some Buster Keaton fans insist”. Another is Buster Keaton historian Jim Kline, who thinks that the film’s “pacing is lively and the restagings of old gags work well within the kooky plot”. I usually don’t like to argue with individual experiences of a film but I would sincerely like to know how Kline finds any of the proceedings in Boom in the Moon “lively”.
Still, the general consensus out there seems to coincide with my evaluation. Dennis Schwartz gives Boom in the Moon the equivalent of a 2/10 star rating, writing that the film “represents the low-point for one of the greatest screen comedians of all time”. Graeme Clarke at The Spinning Image notes that “none of this is funny”, and calls the film “embarrassing” and “strange”. Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings calls it “the most depressing movie I’ve seen”. Finally, Keith Bailey at The Unknown Movies writes: “The movie strains credibility so often in the movie that even for a movie that aims to be nothing more than a silly comedy, your intelligence feels greatly insulted by the end. This ‘boom’ is a bust, one that even die-hard Keaton fans would be better off skipping.”
There’s a notion that seems to float around among Boom in the Moon’s few apologetics that the film has a worse reputation that is deserved because Buster Keaton fans are mad that Buster Keaton starred in such a bad film. First of all, this doesn’t make sense. Why would Buster Keaton fans be mad if this wasn’t a bad film? Second, I can debunk this on a personal level. I’m no bigger Buster Keaton fan than the average Joe, and I think this is a turd, with or without Keaton. Third, in my experience fans usually react in the opposite way. If Bela Lugosi fans are anything to go by, then fanatics tend to be more apologetic towards films that their heroes star in; “at least Bela Lugosi is in it to lend it some class” tends to be the general reaction.
So how did the great Buster Keaton find himself in such a position? Well, it all starts with the financial problems that the very expensive film The General (1927) caused his distributor United Artists. The company demanded input in his future films to keep costs down, even though Keaton worked as an independent filmmaker. After two more films, he thought that it was just as well he signed with a studio, if he couldn’t have artistic independence anyway (and his company was broke), and signed to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which would prove disastrous for his career.
With MGM his artistic input was severely reduced, and most of the time he appeared in what he thought were rubbish films. Not only that, he had to film them all three times, since this was the era when many studios made multilingual versions of their movies for the international audience. Hence, Keaton complained, he didn’t just have to film rubbish films in English, but in Spanish and French as well. As he didn’t speak Spanish and French, he learned his lines phonetically. This was also the time when he started drinking heavily, and so bad was his mood on set, that MGM fired him in 1933. After this, his career plunged. He did a few forgotten films in Europe, returned to the States in 1937 to play in a series of short educational films, wrote material for the Marx Brothers, Red Skelton and Lucille Ball, among others, and started making really bad comedy shorts for second-tier studio Columbia.
That was a low-point in his career. Not only was his film career in the ruts. He had during the last ten years suffered from heavy alcoholism and two very costly divorces. The second marriage he engaged in during a bout of binge-drinking and he later claimed not to have any memory of the actual wedding nor how the marriage came to be. And then he also had a devastating fire in his Beverly Hills mansion, which cost a fortune.
Anyway, things started looking slightly brighter in 1940, when a new wife curbed his drinking and is quoted as having salvaged Keaton’s career. Swallowing his artistic pride, Keaton settled for small roles and bit-parts in both A and B pictures, which at least kept the couple afloat financially. But Keaton hadn’t played a leading role since 1933, so when up-and-coming producer Alexander Salkind offered him not only one, but three pictures as a leading man, he naturally jumped at the offer. Be it as it may that the movies were going to be made on a shoestring budget in Mexico, in Spanish. Boom in the Moon, or El Moderno Barba Asul, was the second of the three films, and somewhere along the ride it must have dawned on Keaton just what sort of productions it was he had gotten himself into, and it shows on his face. He has now dispensed with his old stoneface, and the overwhelming expression of him during Boom in the Moon is: sad and and bored.
As far as I can tell, the US version wasn’t actually seen in the United States until 1983, when it was released on home video. The dubbing is not the worst I’ve heard, but neither is it very good. I have a feeling the dubbing was done for the video, as the voice actors feel a little bit too modern for the forties. On the other hand, as far as I know, the re-editing was done in the forties, when many foreign films were cut down to about an hour in length to fit the programming. At least 10 minutes have been cut by completely removing the farm scene, and I noticed some more subtle trimming here and there. Watching the US version you lose the pleasure of hearing Buster Keaton grunting in bad Mexican, but on the other hand the English dubber has a lot more enthusiasm than Keaton. Both versions are equally bad.
The US version, of course, is called Boom in the Moon, instead of “The Modern Bluebeard”, which would have been the literal translation of El Moderna Barba Asul. One reason for this may be that US marketers in the eighties weren’t too certain that the target audience were aware of the concept of ”Bluebeard”. Bluebeard, or King Bluebeard, is an old French folk tale about an evil king who murders all his wives one by one and then marries new ones. On the other hand, the story has been used as the basis for numerous film, the latest a French one in 2009. In the beginning of the film, Buster Keaton wears a big beard, which naturally lead the Mexican authorities to suspect he is the ”bluebeard” suspected for the killing of six women. Boom in the Moon might also have been an easier title to market to an adolescent crowd. Of course it is a bit misleading, since there is very little boom in this movie, and certainly no moon.
This was Jaime Salvador’s first stab at science fiction, but not his last. In 1948 he wrote the screenplay for the much better effort El Supersabio (review), starring Cantinflas as a scientist’s apprentice developing a formula for making immortal roses. In 1963 he directed, but did not write, El Monstruo de los Volcanes, about a Mexican snowman, quickly followed by a sequel called El Terrible gigante de las Nievles the same year. That same year he also directed a third sci-fi comedy called Los invisibles. And in 1969 he worked with another US star, John Carradine, on the film La Señora Muerte, released in the US as Madame Death
Producer Alexander Salkind, who lured Keaton into the project, is probably known to most sci-fi films as the man behind the groundbreaking Superman (1978), starring Christover Reeve, Superman II (1980) and, unfortunately, Superman III (1983). Salkind was the de facto producer behind the Superman films, although officially he was credited as ”presenter”. Salkind seemed to have been fascinated with the story of Bluebeard, since he returned to the tale in 1973 with a film called Bluebeard, that more closely followed the source material, although set in more modern times. The filmed starred Richard Burton and Raquel Welch and was a flop.
Boom in the Moon. Directed by Jaime Salvador. Written by Jaime Salvador and Victor Trivas. Starring: Buster Keaton, Angel Garasa, Virginia Serret, Luis G. Barreiro, Pedro Elviro, Guillermo Bravo Sosa, Ramon G. Larrea, Jorge Mondragon, Jose Elias Moreno, Ignacio Peon, Oscar Pulido, Enriqueta Reza, Fernando Soto, Jose Torvay. Music: Leo Cardona, Georges Tzipine. Cinematography: Agustin Jimenez. Editing: Rafael Ceballos. Art direction: Ramon Rodriquez Granada. Produced by Alexander Salkind for Alsa Film.