Rocketship X-M

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(6/10) Poverty Row studio Lippert Pictures rushed Rockethip X-M into theatres in 1950, ahead of the much-hyped big-budget production Destination Moon, claiming the title of the first American space exploration movie. Despite its cash-grab nature, in some ways it actually surpasses its heavy-going “original”. 

Rocketship X-M. 1950, USA. Directed by Kurt Neumann. Written by Dalton Trumbo, Kurt Neumann, Orville H. Hampton. Starring: Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen, John Emery, Noah Beery Jr, Hugh O’Brian, Morris Ankrum, Judd Holdren, Barry Norton. Produced by Kurt Neumann, Murray LernerIMDb: 4.9/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

1950_rocketship_xm_001After the abysmal sci-fi decade that was the forties, fans of the genre finally got to look forward to well-made, original science fiction films in the fifties. The spark that ignited the explosion of A-list science fiction films about space travel in the early fifties was a costly gamble of 600 000 dollars, in lavish colour, co-written by author Robert A. Heinlein, that won an Oscar for special effects and was nominated for another for art direction – the first American moon landing film that strived for scientific accuracy. Except that was not this movie. That movie was George Pal’s Destination Moon. This film is the low-budget, black-and-white quickie produced by Poverty Row studio Lippert Pictures about a rocketship that accidentally ends up on Mars instead of the moon and meets the family from The Hills Have Eyes.

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Middle: Poster for Destination Moon.

When studio executive Robert L. Lippert heard that George Pal was in the process of filming Destination Moon in late 1949, he decided to make a B movie that would profit from what he rightly guessed would be a blockbuster film, and when Destination Moon ran into one production problem after the other, the race was on to see who would be able to rush the first serious American space adventure film into cinemas. It turned out that B movie director Kurt Neumann was the faster, taking only 18 days to film Rocketship X-M, and the film premiered in New York in May 1950. Destination Moon wasn’t far behind, but still lost by three weeks. And Destination Moon practically did all the advertising for Rocketship X-M (oh, and X-M stands for Expedition Moon, in case you were wondering).

The basic premise for Rocketship X-M is the same as in Destination Moon: a group of explorers set out on a rocket to go to the moon, and then something goes wrong and they have trouble returning. Only, in Trumbo’s script they end up going to Mars by accident. There were two reasons for this. First, by having the explorers go to Mars, Lippert and the filmmakers could avoid being sued for plagiarism, and second: Mars was actually much easier and cheaper to film than the moon. For the moon they would have had to make some sort of lunar set, but Mars could be filmed in a California desert (and it was).

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Hugh O’Brien, John Emery, Osa Massen, Lloyd Bridges and Noah Beery on Mars.

The film is clearly divided into two sections. The first follows the preparations for the flight, the take-off and the beginning of the flight, where everything still sort of resembles as a basic moon flight story with at least an effort towards scientific – if not accuracy, then at least credulity. The second part kicks in when the ship is struck by a meteor shower and the Mars adventure begins.

The film wastes no time – we jump in right at a rushed medical checkup 15 minutes before takeoff, and then the crew assembles before the press to give a leisurely press conference. Here we meet the players, as Fernando F. Groce describes them on Cinepassion: egghead commander (John Emery), chauvinistic pilot (Lloyd Bridges), resolute chemist (Osa Massen), stalwart astronomer (Hugh O’Brian) and obligatory comic relief (Noah Beery Jr.). With four minutes to go, the five heroes finally enter the spaceship and start checking gauges and calculations, before finally strapping down in their bunk beds (a staple in these films). En route the egghead and the woman start bickering about fuel mix calculations and the chauvinistic pilot asks if the woman wouldn’t rather be at home raising children and making beds. The comedy relief character, a Texan pilot, also tries to get one in on the woman scientist. The stalwart astronomer is stalwart.

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Matte paintings galore.

But soon the team run into a freewheelin’ band of meteorites and have to take evasive action. But turns out the egghead’s fuel mix was wrong, and the evasive action becomes so violent that the crew passes out. When they come to, they have overshot the moon and are on a perfect course toward Mars. After some deliberation they decide to land on the red planet in the interest of science. They venture out into the Californian desert/Mars dressed in oxygen masks and army surplus bomber jackets (since there is atmosphere on Mars they don’t need pressure suits; also: it saves money on the costume budget). Here they find a deserted city in a desert and conclude that the inhabitants must have been dead for thousands of years. How they arrive at this conclusion from looking at an abandoned house and a metallic face mask is up for grabs. But, even more important, they find high levels of radiation and conclude that the civilisation must have been wiped out in a nuclear war. This is the warning they must bring to Earth, they decide: do not wipe yourselves out in a nuclear war.

For some reason they decide to camp out, and in the night they see a band of cavemen, and decide to take pursuit. Suddenly it is day again. No matter. They discover that this once proud civilisation has degenerated into the family from The Hills have Eyes, and furthermore have mutated. The men are ugly brutes with warts and stuff. The women are fashion models, but they are blind. The cavemen start throwing rocks. Egghead and comic relief perish. Stalwart astronomer is badly wounded. The three who live make it back to the spaceship and take off. When closing in on Earth they realise they don’t have enough fuel to land …

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Sherry Moreland as the Martian woman being dragged away.

Now, I probably made this sound worse than it is. The plot itself is of course ridiculous, but the movie isn’t all that bad. In fact, when going through reviews it seems that it gets a lot more love than the stiff Destination Moon.

The principal writer of the script for Rocketship X-M was Dalton Trumbo, an author and writer whose screen credits at the time included Kitty Foyle (1940), for which he was nominated for an Oscar, A Guy Named Joe (1943), starring Spencer Tracy and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo. He was, however, best known for being a member of the Communist party and serving eleven months in jail for being one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to testify before the House Committee of Unamerican Activities in 1947. Trumbo was blacklisted, but continued to write after he was released, either under a pseudonym, without credit or credited with a ”front”. Rocketship X-M was his second screenplay after getting blacklisted, and the credits went to director Neumann and Orville H. Hampton, who also worked on the script.

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Osa Massen and Lloyd Bridges.

Trumbo would go on to write the scripts for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956), both anonymously, and in both cases likewise anonymously awarded with an Academy award. In 1960 Otto Preminger revealed that Trumbo was the de facto writer of his film Exodus. Kirk Douglas then revealed that Trumbo had also written Stanley Kubrick’s classic Spartacus, which also premiered in 1960. That a blacklisted writer had written two of the year’s most successful movies practically ended the practice of blacklisting in Hollywood. Rocketship X-M was certainly not Trumbo’s best script, and his only sci-fi film, but his pacifist stance is clear throughout the movie.

The dialogue of the script reveals Trumbo’s ambitions to do something more than just make a space romp. The issue of world peace and the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union was close to his heart, and the outspoken mission of the trip was to go to the moon ”to secure world peace”. This was also the stance taken by Destination Moon, but in true George Pal and Robert Heinlein fashion, “world peace” meant building a bomb on the moon before the Communists did. Trumbo, on the other hand, suggested that it wasn’t who held the bigger bomb that was the problem, but the bomb itself. Even though the packaging is a bit kooky and the dialogue somewhat heavy-handed with melodrama, there is something very genuine about the Rocketship X-M. Trumbo also sprinkles the dialogue with quotes from Rudyard Kipling, Percy Shelley and Albert Einstein, further enhancing the feeling that he truly wants to deliver a message. The misogynist remarks are jarring, but fortunately Osa Massen’s portrayal of Lisa van Horn and the action of the film counterbalance this – it actually feels like the writers and directors have tried to make some sort of a feminist statement, but would perhaps have needed a woman on the team, because the attempt is so back-handed that it has the opposite effect.

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Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen and Hugh O’Brien.

While it is difficult to think that Trumbo would have written some of the dialogue, it may well be that the more misogynistic rap comes from Orville H. Hampton, who is credited with ”additional dialogue”, perhaps brought in to bump up the romance. Hampton later lent his talents to films like Lost Continent (1951, review), Mesa of Lost Women (1953), The Alligator People, The Atomic Submarine, The Flight that Disappeared (1961), The Underwater City (1962), as well as the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man (1977) and The All-New Super Friends Hour (1977-1978).

It’s pretty clear from the beginning that logic isn’t the film’s strong point. Medicals are done 15 minutes before takeoff and consist of everyone standing in a circle getting their blood pressure measured. And as the doctor says: this doesn’t really mean anything, since one might be expected to have a slightly elevated blood pressure 15 minutes before stepping into a space ship. Then the crew have time for a press conference, individual interviews, actually going to the spaceship, bidding all the loved ones and the press farewell – this is all done beneath the spaceship – remember it is now five minutes until takeoff – and enter the spaceship AND go over the measurements and numbers. Wow.

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John Emery goes over the designs for the spaceship, which the filmmakers copied from a magazine story.

On the other hand, they do get some stuff right. The spaceship they use is a two-stage rocket (they picked up the design from an article in Life magazine), as opposed to the one-stage rocket (that used NUCLEAR fuel) in Destination Moon. The G-forces during takeoff are depicted fairly well, and they even address the issue of weightlessness in space. Unfortunately they didn’t have the time nor money to create actual effects for the actors, so they try to cheat it away. They talk of ”decreased gravity”, which makes small objects become weightless, without affecting the passengers. In what galaxy this science works is a good question, but there you have it. More gaffes is the spaceship rocketing straight up, and then making a 90 degree turn to enter into orbit around Earth. They also have a cockpit that turns on its own axis, so the floor is always down. Something that would be useless in reality, since when you’re weightless it really doesn’t matter where the floor is. And the idea that the scientists would be calculating fuel mixes when the flight is underway is, of course, ridiculous. I won’t even get in to the science on Mars.

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Danish, French and Belgian posters.

Today the warning against nuclear war seems self-evident, because we know from Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Chernobyl what radiation can do. This was not so in 1950. Back then radiation was often portrayed more as a nuisance than as a threat to life. This was partly because not even scientists were perfectly clear on how radiation works. At the time the US government was conducting secret radiation tests on soldiers and criminals. The US government did know that radiation potentially had devastating and long-lasting effects. This, however, was covered up because of the ever-cooling cold war and the American desire to step up the nuclear program and engage in all-round rearmament. This was also the stance of many sci-fi films. The 1949 film D.O.A. about a man poisoned with radiation nimbly avoids mentioning radioactivity at all, but calls it “luminous poisoning”. Ivan Tor’s Gog (1954) shows the leading lady in hospital because of radiation poisoning, but assures us she will be well as ever in a few days. In the right-wing, hawkish Destination Moon, the scientists (the good guys) repeatedly dismiss warnings of radiation as communist propaganda.

Rocketship X-M is one of the few films that get it right: Dr. Egghead tells the crew that it isn’t the war that has killed the populus on Mars so much as the radiation, still lingering after “thousands of years”, and warns the explorers not venture into the Martian buildings out of radiation danger. “Communist propaganda” was actually right, inasmuch as the only party in the US that strongly opposed rearmament, the nuclear bomb and aggression that might lead to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was the Communist Party, until it was banned, that is. This was one of the reasons that Trumbo joined the party in the first place.

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The deserted Martian city.

To quote on of my favourite movie criticsGlenn Erickson at DVD Savant: “Hollywood was most likely patriotically parroting the Atomic Energy Commission’s ‘safe nuke’ public relations because they believed it with the rest of us. Radiation in Science Fiction became a completely fantastic, all-purpose Genie in a Bottle that made ants grow and people shrink. Not until 1959’s On The Beach did the notion resurface that radiation was a bad thing that could do really nasty stuff.”

Then we have the matter of the female on board. The fifties were something of a teetering point. Feminism was raising its head, but attitudes were slow to change. On the one hand Dr. Egghead explains in the beginning that the woman is there simply on the merit of her scientific knowledge, making the point that women can be just as good scientists as men. But then most of the conversation between her colleagues and herself on the ship boil down to the fact that she is the exception to the rule. It is pointed out repeatedly that to be a scientist one has to give up on being a woman, as if the two weren’t compatible. The most blatant piece of sexism comes when Dr. Lisa van Horn (that’s her name) has a slight emotional outburst and Dr. Karl Eckstrom (that’s Egghead) remarks that ”You’re not going to bring emotion into this are you?” When she apologises, he replies kindly: ”For what? For momentarily being a woman? It’s completely understandable.” But to the film’s credit, van Horn is actually treated as a fellow scientist and doesn’t go around serving tea and making bunks, as some female scientists in later sci-fi movies. Neither is she left behind ”because it’s too dangerous” when the crew sets out on its expedition.

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Hugh O’Brien, Osa Massen, Lloyd Bridges, John Emery, and Noah Beery.

Apart from the comic relief character, the film itself has a serious core. The kooky science does take away from this a bit, but not completely. Mostly this is thanks to the characters. Even if they are stereotypes and crudely drawn, they have personalities and a likeability about them. When the end comes, you actually care about what’s going to happen to them. This is, in part, thanks to the terrific actors. Best of the lot is the always superb Lloyd Bridges, perhaps best known today for his appearances in comedies like Airplane (1980) and Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993), as well as his guest spot on Seinfeld as the fitness-crazy octogenarian Izzy Maldebaum in 1997.

The thing that really sets Rocketship X-M apart from a lot of the other B sci-fi films of the fifties, and even A films like Destination Moon is in fact that direction and the cinematography. Neumann’s direction is A class, and although the film was shot in only 18 days, it never feels rushed or as if the filmmakers didn’t have time to cover scenes from different angles of do retakes. The cinematography is fluid and never feels static, and there are some really nice angles and quirky shots. This is no surprise, as the director of photography was Neumann’s countryman Karl Struss, who won an Oscar for his work on F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Sunrise (1927), and worked with Charlie Chaplin on The Great Dictator (1940) and Limelight (1952).

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As opposed to the capitalist gung-ho movie Destination Moon, Rocketship X-M foresaw that it was the government that would take the US into space.

Another coup the filmmakers managed to pull was to get composer Ferde Grofé Sr. to compose the music for the film. Grofé was one of New York’s most noted jazz arrangers in the twenties and thirties, as well as a noted composer of ”serious” music. He started scoring films in 1930, when arranging music for Jazz King. He moved on to films like Diamond Jim (1935) and Minstrel Man (1944), for which he was nominated for an Oscar. As opposed to many sci-fi films, Grofé’s score is never overpowering, and follows the emotions, rather than giving cues. Mostly it is subtle and beautiful, dramatic at just the right moments and building tension without waving a flag. His most memorable contribution to this film, though, is his use of the theremin for the scenes on Mars. This was the first time a theremin was used in a sci-fi or horror film, and practice would quickly be taken up by numerous composers, who seldom used it as well as Grofé. With time the theremin became so connected with B genre movies that it became a gag and eventually the only way to use it was as a pastiche (see for example Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood, 1994). The theremin artist in question was Samuel Hoffman, who became synonymous with the theremin sound of fifties sci-fi movies.

The production design is surprisingly good for a film with a budget of 94 000 dollars, which was slapped together more or less as an exploitation film. The interior of the spaceship really isn’t put to shame at all by Destination Moon, and since most of the film takes place inside the cockpit or in the desert of Mars, the film manages to avoid much of the B movie feel often connected with films of this type. Struss’ beautiful lighting helps, och course. The model of the space ship exterior has a bit too much of a Flash Gordon look to be quite believable, though. Production designer Theobold Holsopper (brilliant name) mainly worked on B or even Z films, including Captive Women (1952), Port Sinister (1953), Indestructible Man (1956), She DevilKronos, The Fly and The Bamboo Saucer (1968).

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Rough landing?

The make-up of the deformed Martians isn’t spectacular, but professional. Make-up artist Don L. Cash is perhaps best known for his work on TV, he worked in Family Matters (1989-) for nearly a hundred episodes. He also created make-up for Red Planet Mars (1952), The Crawling Hand (1963) and Demon Seed (1977).

The special effects are perhaps what mostly reveal the films B movie roots. First of all, there’s the lack of special effects, and the fact that they are not particularly good when seen. There are a few a little too obvious matte shots, and the flight of the spaceship isn’t particularly convincing. In a few scenes the special effects team led by Jack Rabin and Don Stewart simply haven’t had time or money to do any shots of the spaceship landing and flying, and have simply opted for editing in footage of a V2 rocket. This obvious gaffe was amended in 1979 by a team led by Oscar winners Dennis Muren (of Star Wars fame) and Robert Skotak, who designed an exact replica of the ship in the film, and also replaced some of the rushed matte shots with new live action material. It wasn’t that matte painter Irving Block didn’t know how to do matte paintings, it’s just that sometimes the whole set can’t just be a matte painting. 

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The Martian mask.

The budget of 90 000 dollars was low compared to Destination Moon and other high-profile films to come in the fifties, but just high enough to afford decent production values and some battle-tested and reliable actors. Neumann was a seasoned director, and he added the benefit of his friend and countryman Karl Struss, who was one of the best DP’s in Hollywood, all categories. As seen above, the crew also consisted of a crack team of artistic personnel who were all fairly young and tested their mettle against science fiction for the first time, probably not without a measure of enthusiasm.

Rocketship X-M unfortunately has a bit of a shoddy reputation and its low 4.9/10 rating on IMDb doesn’t do it justice. The culprit here is in all probability the cult TV show Mystery Science Theatre 3000, or MST3K as it is known as to its fans, which featured the film in an episode in 1990. While there is certainly ample fodder in the movie for the type of riffing that MST3K specialises in, it’s unfortunate that it’s now often associated with the kind of no-budget schlock that was usually featured on the program — and a large part of its audience has probably never seen it without the snide comments of MST3K as the soundtrack. Fortunately, though, a lot of critics on the internet have enjoyed the film in its original form, or a least the 70’s re-edited version. As Fredrik puts it at Silver in a Haystack: “This film is best enjoyed in its original clothing, not the MST3K garb”.

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Boom!

And the film has some strong defenders. Heavy hitters like TV Guide and AllMovie both give Rocketship X-M 3/5 stars. TV Guide writes: “Today the film in many ways seems better than Destination Moon, less pretentious and a lot more exciting”, while Hans J. Wollstein at AllMovie calls the film “admirably well acted and produced”. Empire Magazine doesn’t give a rating, but states that the movie “has a lurid streak and gonzoid plotting to recommend it, not to mention a fashionably cynical nuclear era unhappy ending”.

Phil Hubbs at the creatively named blog Hubbs Movie Reviews goes as far as giving Rocketship X-M 8/10 stars, writing: “I don’t think you can go wrong here if you’re a fan of corny 50’s science fiction. This has got to be one of the best.” Richard Scheib at Moria gives the movie another 3/5 stars, calling it “a surprisingly modest and well made entry” and “a more interesting film than Destination Moon turned out to be”. Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant notes that although “the science of Rocketship X-M is beyond all hope, and provides endless hilarity for the MST3K roast of the film”, “unlike the cardboard heroes of the Pal film, we care about these imperfect types wandering the desert of Mars, and their deaths have a sting of futility”.

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Amazing!

Kevin Lyons at The EOFFTV Review isn’t wholly sold: “Despite its problematic content, Rocketship X-M is a sprightlier film than Destination Moon and its pulp sensibilities help smooth over some of the more vicious bumps in the road. But despite being the first of the 50s American science fiction films it’s still really just a footnote in the development of the genre. It may have helped to open the door but far more interesting films were about to start pouring through.” And I have found a single critic who prefers Destination Moon to Rocketship X-M, and that is Damien Thaymans at French Cinema Fantastique, who writes: “Too cobbled-together and wobbly to compete with Destination Moon […], Rocketship X-M remains an interesting little work as deliciously naive as the lunar adventures of Tintin and his companions”. Thamyans gives the film 2.5/5 stars.

Lloyd Bridges was known as a prolific TV actor, who gained attention for his emotional guest spot on the live anthology program The Alcoa Hour in 1956, in an episode directed by Sidney Lumet. In addition to his superb performances he also got carried away when ad-libbing and called a group of extras ”goddamn pigs”, which led to hundreds of complaints from viewers. He won an award for the episode and was nominated for an Emmy, as he was likewise for his stint on Seinfeld. He starred in the lead in the successful TV series Sea Hunt (1958-1961), produced by later Star Trek producer Gene RoddenberryRoddenberry offered him the role of Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek series before it went to William Shatner. Fans of the original Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) remember him fondly as the legendary Commander Cain of battlestar Pegasus, in the double episode The Living Legend. His resonance with fans led to the character being reimagined in a larger role (and as a woman) in the remake (2004-2009). Bridges appeared in the TV sci-fi films The Love War (1970), Stowaway to the Moon (1975) and the episode The Sandkings on the TV series The Outer Limits in 1995. The episode was based on Game of Thrones-author George R.R. Martin’s Hugo- and Nebula-awarded novelette of the same name, and starred Bridges’ son Beau in the lead. He also appeared in the sci-fi comedy Honey I Blew Up the Kid (1992).

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Lloyd Bridges picked the wrong day to stop sniffing glue in 1980’s Airplane.

Bridges was father to Beau and Jeff Bridges, the latter who of course has made quite a mark on sci-fi with Tron (1982) and Iron Man (2008), and a few others. Beau Bridges is known to fans of Stargate SG-1 (2005-2007) as Major General Hank Landry. Beau’s grandson Jordan appeared in the 2000 sci-fi film Frequency, starring Dennis Quaid, and had a recurring role on the TV series Bionic Woman (2007). Lloyd Brigdes was himself briefly blacklisted in the fifties for his work with a political theatre group. He was an activist for world federalism and environmental issues. He passed away in 1998. The biggest revelation from his role in Rocketship X-M is that he was once young. Of course, Gen-X:ers may remember Bridges primarily from the ground-breaking Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy Airplane (1980), where he picked the wrong day to stop sniffing glue.

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Osa Massen and Lloyd Bridges.

Danish actress Osa Massen (born Aase Madsen Iversen) turns in a strong performance as Dr. Lisa van Horn, even if she has to deal with some absolutely daft dialogue, especially in the romantic scenes with Bridges and Beery. She is perhaps the actor that gives the most humanity to her role in the film. Massen was known as Melvyn Douglas’ unfaithful wife in A Woman’s Face (1941) and had a reasonably successful career, although she never quite made the A list. In the fifties she had numerous guest spots on TV shows, including three episodes of Perry Mason and one spot in Science Fiction Theatre (1955).

John Emery is stable in the role of Dr. Eckstrom, but his role is a bit too stereotypical to be memorable. A noted character actor, he is perhaps best known for his supporting roles in the Ingrid Bergman films Spellbound (1945) and Joan of Arc (1948) and as Japanese premier Tanaka in Blood on the Sun (1945). He also had a substantial role in the underrated sci-fi film Kronos (1957), also directed by Neumann. Noah Beery Jr, son of legendary actor Noah Beery Sr, is a refreshing speck of light as the Texan mechanic, doing his comic relief without ever overdoing it or becoming too much of a caricature. He is best known for his role as Rocky Rockford in the TV series The Rockford Files (1974-1980). As the astrologer we see beefcake Hugh O’Brian in one of his first film roles. He would go on to great fame as the title character of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-1961).

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Morris Ankrum in the 1961 film Incident at Dawson Flats.

As the ground crew boss Dr. Ralph Fleming we get one of the cult actors of fifties science fiction B movies, Morris Ankrum. His stern visage often got him roles as authority figures, not least when Mars was involved. Rocketship X-M was his first sci-fi movie, and he went on to appear in Flight to Mars (as the evil Martian Ikram, 1951, review), Red Planet Mars (as secretary of Defense, 1952), Invaders from Mars (1953), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Kronos, The Giant Claw (1957), How to Make a Monster (1958), From the Earth to the Moon (as president Ulysses S. Grant, 1958), Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961) and Roger Corman’s X (1963).

Patrick Aherne has a substantial bit-part as a reporter, He later appeared as a Pentagon general in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review) and had a few guest spots on the TV series Adventures of Superman (1952-1958). Also as a reporter we get Kathy Marlowe, a “perpetual wallflower” who also appeared as one of the Venusian girls in the brilliantly bad Queen of Outer Space (1958) starring Zsa Zsa Gabor.

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Osa Massen, John Emery and Lloyd Bridges.

A third reporter is played by Judd Holdren, who would later find some science fiction fame of his own, in the serial format. First he played the titular role in Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere (1951), based on the popular TV show Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949, review). He later played the lead in Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952) and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953), as well as The Lost Planet (1953-1955) and appeared in Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (1954). His career plummeted fast, though, and he wound up having uncredited bit-parts in films like The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Space Master X-7 (1958).

As a fourth (uncredited) reporter we see a slumming Argentinian Barry Norton (born Alfredo Carlos Birabén), once a minor star in the Spanish-language cinema of Hollywood, at the time when films were still being made in multiple languages after the advent of talkies. He is best known for his role as Juan Harker in the Spanish version of Dracula (1931).

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Going over the specs.

Director Kurt Neumann was born in Germany and was likewise shipped to Hollywood to film German versions of American films. In 1945 he joined Sol Lesser’s company Lesser Productions to direct a slew of Tarzan films starring Johnny Weissmuller and later Gordon Scott. In the late fifties he became known for his sci-fi films She Devil (1955), Kronos (1957), and the timeless classic The Fly (1958) starring Vincent Price.

Cinematographer Karl Struss was a favourite of Neumann’s and they worked together on many films, including all the afore-mentioned of Neumann’s sci-fi movies. He is also a favourite of the editor of this blog, having filmed movies like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, review) starring Fredric March in an Oscar-winning effort as well as one of the best sci-fi films of the thirties, Island of Lost Souls (1932, review). He also filmed the turkey Mesa of Lost Women (1953) and The Alligator People (1959). Editor Harry W. Gerstad edited over 50 episodes of the TV series Adventures of Superman, as well as the B movies Unknown Island (1948) and The Alligator People.

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Italian and Spanish posters.

Matte painter Irving Block also did special and visual effects, or even acted as production designer, for films like Unknown World, review), Flight to Mars (review, both 1951), Captive Women, Invaders from Mars, the classic Forbidden Planet (1956), World Without End (1956), Kronos, Monster from Green Hell (1957), The Invisible Boy (1957), War of the Satellites (1958), Behemoth the Sea MonsterThe 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock and The Atomic Submarine (all 1959), as well as the TV series Men Into Space (1959-1960), some of which he also came up with the stories for or produced. Not to forget The Saga of the Viking Women and their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957), the film that made Roger Corman shun attempts at A films. Today Block is perhaps best known as writer, producer and production designer for Forbidden Planet.

Another prolific special effects man on B sci-fi films was Jack Rabin, who created special photographic effects for the movie, most notable perhaps the trick of tinting the scenes of Mars red to create an otherworldly atmosphere and not have it look like a Californian desert – which works fairly well, even in the faded print that I have watched, where the tint has degraded to almost a yellowish sepia. Rabin often worked alongside Block, and also occasionally acted as writer and producer – he is perhaps best known for coming up with the story for Cat Women of the Moon (1953). Like Block, he also cut his teeth on Rocketship X-M.

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Poking around Mars.

Rabin also worked on the sci-fi films The Man from Planet X (1951, review), Unknown World, Flight to Mars, Invasion of U.S.A. (1952), Invaders from Mars, Port Sinister, the wonderfully bad Robot Monster (1953), The Neanderthal Man (1953), World Without End, The Black Sheep (1956), The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956), Kronos, Monster from Green Hell, The Unknown Terror (1957), The Invisible Boy, War of the Satellites (1958), Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959), The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock, The Atomic Submarine, Deathsport (1978), The Bees (1978), the TV movie The Darker Side of Terror (1979), Humanoids from the Deep (1980), and Roger Corman’s Star Wars ripoff Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), as well as the TV series Adventures of Superman and Men Into Space.

Janne Wass

Rocketship X-M. 1950, USA. Directed bu Kurt Neumann. Written by Dalton Trumbo, Kurt Neumann, Orville H. Hampton. Starring: Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen, John Emery, Noah Beery Jr, Hugh O’Brian, Morris Ankrum, Patrick Aherne, Sherry Moreland, John Dutra, Kathy Marlowe, Judd Holdren, Barry Norton. Music: Ferde Grofé Sr. Cinematography: Karl Struss. Editor: Harry W. Gerstad. Production design: Theobald Holsopple. Set decoration: Clarence Steensen. Makeup artist: Don L. Cash. Production management: Betty Sinclair. Sound engineer: Tom Lambert. Special effects: Don Stewart. Visual effects: Irving Block (mattes), Jack Rabin (special photographic effects). Stunts: Calvin Spencer. Props: Lou Asher. Wardrobe supervisor: Richard Staub. Special effects & make-up, 1979 revised version: Dennis Muren, Robert Skotak, Michael Minor, Tom Scherman, et. al. Produced by Kurt Neumann, Murray Lerner for Lippert Pictures.

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