The gravity from a passing “dead star” pulls a small British village into space in this 1934 comedy. Class tensions and romantic rivalry come to the fore as the villagers try to adapt to their new roles as inhabitants of Earth’s newest moon. 4/10
Once in a New Moon. Written & directed by Anthony Kimmins. Based on novel by Owen Rutter. Starring: Eliot Makeham, Rene Ray, Morton Selten, Wally Patch, Derrick de Marney, John Clements, Mary Hinton. IMDb: 5.5/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
This little British comedy from 1934 is a political fable turned romantic comedy with some SF dressing. The story, based on the 1929 novel Lucky Star by Owen Rutter, takes its premise from Jules Verne’s 1877 story Hector Servadac / Off on a Comet. The populace of the sleepy small town of Shrimpton-on-Sea pays little heed to warnings in the press about the approach of a “dead star” (read: comet), which is already causing earthquakes and floods in other parts of the world. As the effeminate pastor puts it: the Nazis … erh oh … the dead star is thousands of miles away, and couldn’t possibly affect their little town. The lord of the town, as well as the ruling bourgeoisie, agree with the pastor, and shoo away the panicked postmaster/amateur astronomer who tries to raise awareness.
However, as the dead star passes, its gravity pulls Shrimpton-on-Sea, together with a significant body of water, away from the Earth, and as a spherical body, the little village settles in orbit around the Earth, like a new moon, hence the pun of the title. It takes a while for the inhabitants to realise they are now Shrimpton-in-Space, as they later re-christen their town, but they are convinced after the postmaster circumvents the “Earth” in three days.
Jules Verne liked to set his stories in isolated, scarcely inhabited societies, often allowing single characters to act as mouthpieces for ideas, ideologies or countries, and many of his books played out subtextually as political dramas, beneath the obvious adventure story. Parallels to Shrimpton-in-Space can also be found in much of the utopian and dystopian literature, from Thomas More’s Utopia to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and beyond. Several SF films were made in the thirties that toyed with this idea. American Deluge (1933, review) built a new society after a Biblical flood, and Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Aerograd (1935, review) let the progressive and reactionary forces of Soviet society battle it out in a small forested village in Siberia. Czech Skeleton on Horseback (1937, review), penned by Karel Capek, invented a nameless nation in order to comment on class struggle, war, peace and fascism. Quite possibly Capek was inspired, as I suspect the producers of Once in a New Moon were, by the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup, which premiered in 1933 and had Groucho & Co raise hell in the small, fictional country of Fredonia.
By placing the action in small, isolated and largely fictional setting, one can create a sort of cross section of society, and with the help of some symbolism and caricature discuss social and political issues without the hassle of trying to make the story realistically fit into contemporary society. And this is exactly what director/screenwriter Anthony Kimmins is trying to do in Once in a New Moon. After the inhabitants of Shrimpton-on-Sea have accepted that they are now Shrimpton-in-Space, they start going about the business of organising their society to meet the demands of this new reality, and clashes between the upper class and the workers are inevitable, especially as the small town has a couple of loud-mouthed communist agitators among their midst.
The key players in this political fable are all recognisable from similar films of the era. First, of course there is the bumbling, walrus-mustachioed lord/mayor who is more interested in enjoying a glass of brandy with his stamp collection than actually ruling a town — played by Morton Selten, who could do these parts in his sleep. Then there is his stuck-up, commanding wife, who seems to be the one taking the actual decisions — a well cast Mary Hinton in another typecast role. The reverend we have already mentioned, played by Richard Goolden, and the bulk of the aristocracy is rounded out by bit-part actors Gerald Barry, H. Saxon-Snell and John Turnbull. The protagonist of this ensemble cast is the afore-mentioned postmaster, Mr. Drake, played by Eliot Makeham, who made a career of out playing unassuming “little men” like Mr. Drake. Although he is laughed out of the town hall when first warning about the coming Death Star, it is to Drake that the town rulers turn when England disappears all around them, the moon disappears from the sky, and the sun starts rising and setting in odd times of the day. When he risks his life unravelling the mystery of the village, he is hailed as a hero by the people.
In order to get by without import, the the town starts to ration food and fuel — all but the aristocracy, who continue to live largely. Spurred on by the loud communist agitator Mr. Parrott (Wally Patch), the townspeople demand a general election. Lord Bravington will hear of no such thing, but is convinced by his son, Bryan-Grant (a sympathetic Derrick de Marney). Mr. Drake reluctantly agrees to stand as the people’s candidate for president against the lord, and wins a landslide victory. However, the aristocracy refuse to accept the results, and start hoarding supplies. The hard-nosed communists of the people then agitate for revolution and burning down the lord’s mansion with all the upper crust inside, while poor, middle-of-the-road Mr. Drake is caught up in the middle, trying to argue for moderance and cooperation. On his side he has Bryan-Grant, who is one of two suitors to his daughter, the aptly named Stella (Rene Ray) — the other being one of the communist agitators Edward (John Clements), who seems happy to start a civil war just to smear his romantic rival.
So that’s the gist of the political satire that Anthony Kimmins is cooking up for us — ruthless communists versus greedy, self-righteous aristocrats, and caught in the middle, the well-meaning, kind-hearted ordinary folks who are just trying to make it through the day. However, as a number of films made in the era, Once in a New Moon pulls the breaks before the ideological clash has a chance run its course, and in typical British fashion, everything is resolved, if not with a cup of tea, then at least with a shared cigar during a sunrise.
I haven’t been able to find a copy of Owen Rutter’s source novel, nor have I found much information about it online. However, considering the hopelessly literary lines of the movie, I suspect that the script follows the novel rather closely, and this confirmed by Jeffrey Richards in the book British Science Fiction Cinema. Director Kimmins was the uncredited scriptwriter, and the only staff credited in the opening credits, apart from Rutter and composer Walford Hyden. The movie was produced as a so-called quota quickie by Fox Britain, and filmed in Shepperton Studios.
Kimmins was a stage actor who quickly became better renowned as a playwright specialising in comedies, and had a long-running hit in West End with his play When Parents Sleep in 1932. His success on stage quickly opened the door for movie work. In the mid-20’s, British film industry was in a bad slump. The US, Germany, Denmark, France and other countries were flooding theatres with foreign movies, and the UK film industry was largely seen as amateurish and ill-equipped to compete with the big film producers. In 1924 the British government enforced a quota of British films which movie theatres had to rise to. In order to meet demands, movie theatres and distributors had to increase the number of films being made in the UK, giving rise to the so-called quota quickie; films made fast and cheap, often by small independent companies out to make a quick buck in the now invigorated film market. Several US companies also established themselves in Britain, or made deals with British studios for US release, thus gaining a secure and cheap source of bottom-of-the-bill movies for their domestic market. And in the early days of sound cinema, one thing there was a lack of was screenwriters. Often, stage plays were remade as movies, and playwrights were hot stuff in the movie business. Kimmins wrote his first movie script in 1933, and such was the lack of competent directors that in 1934 he made a contract with Fox Britain as a director. Once Upon a New Moon, made the same year, was his third directorial job.
Kimmins’ lack of directorial experience shows. While his handiwork is not as bad as some of the bottom-of-the-barrel B-movies made in Hollywood at the time, his staging and blocking is often awkward. Shots are static, and the anonymous editing is often abysmally bad. When people stare out into the ocean or look to the horizon, it is painfully obvious that they are standing in a studio looking at a wall. Cutaways to storming seas are awkwardly inserted, sometimes obvious stock footage with a completely different quality that the rest of the film. At one time one of the characters complain about the darkness caused by the loss of electricity while standing in a brightly lit room, even casting two shadows on the wall from two clearly electrical light sources. This is then followed by a terrible day-for-night sequence, which is obviously filmed in bright sunlight, with the sun casting sharp, black shadows on the brightly lit ground. However, much is saved by decent location footage on the British coast, and the hand-me-down sets are generally of good quality.
The dialogue feels very much as if ripped straight from the novel, as it is overly flowery and literary. Matters aren’t improved by the fact that the actors apparently haven’t had much time to rehearse their lines, which tend to feel as if they have been crammed and read from memory, or read aloud from cue cards. Sometimes you can see actors visibly relieved after making it through a lengthier monologue. Apparently there wasn’t much time for re-takes, as there are several flubs left in the edit.
However, the actors soldier on bravely, and contribute much of what makes this film ultimately watchable. Eliot Makeham wins our sympathies, even if his character development is left floundering in the last third of the movie, as focus shifts to the romantic rivalry. Derrick de Marney makes for a sympathetic and nuanced romantic hero, even if he feels almost too perfect to be realistic. As his rival John Clements’ unsavoury communist is too much of a cardboard cutout for Clements to even have a chance to make anything out of the role. Rene Ray is suitably chirpy as the no-nonsense romantic interest and her father’s keeper. Morton Selten huffs and hams his way through the role as the pampered lord with gusto and gets many of the best lines. His comedic timing is on point, but he is hampered by the above-mentioned lack of rehearsal which makes it seem like he reads some of the lines for the first time from a cue card. Mary Hinton provides good backup as the cold, nagging noblewoman with little regard for the welfare of the common people. Richard Goolden delights in his send-up of the clergy, but his best moments come in the beginning of the movie, after which he fades into the background.
One problem with the script is the multitude of characters crammed into the one-hour movie. Several characters beside the above mentioned are carefully presented and established without having any bearing on the plot. Mr. Parrott, the communist agitator, is ultimately rendered pointless, as it is Clements’ character Edward who become the de facto leader of the communist coup attempt. Indeed, Jeffrey Richards confirms my suspicions of one communist too many in the book British Science Fiction Cinema, where he notes that Clements’ character is not present in the book, but added for the sake of the triangle drama of the film. Gerald Barry, H. Saxon-Snell and John Turnbull are all frequently featured in the movie as members of the aristocracy, but these three could all have been combined into one, as they all serve simply as the lord’s yes-men. The reverend is a good character, but never plays any real role in the proceedings. All these people babbling in one scene after the other deprives the viewer of the chance to build any real relationship with the main characters, of which there are also too many. As Kimmins (or perhaps author Rutter) gets cold feet and pulls out of the political confrontation, it is up to the romantic subplot to provide the emotional punch of the end of the movie. But the romantic plotline limps badly from the beginning, partly because we don’t get any chance to get to know the characters.
As a satire, the film’s premise is not bad at all, and it begins promisingly, with the inhabitants of a small village ignoring all warnings of an impending calamity, choosing instead to go about their business as if nothing was wrong in the world. Life goes on in Shrimpton-on-Sea, as Bilbo Baggins would put it, full of its own comings and going, with change coming slowly, if it comes at all. When the village is swept up into space, unnoticed by the inhabitants, people at first refuse to believe the facts, clinging instead to the notion that all that has happened is a particularly bad flood. This premise, of people going about their usual business despite the increasingly overwhelming evidence that nothing will ever again be the same, pretending all is well and as has always been, would in and of itself have made a superb basis for a movie. Exploring these stubborn dynamics of the small rural village might have been used to draw parallels to society at large, keeping a theme that would have resonated today still with the onslaught of climate change and our difficulty to realise that the world is no longer the same as it once was. However, the film packs on theme after theme, dumping the previous ones as it moves along. Ultimately the movie simply collapses under its own thematic weight, with none of the issues raised having been properly analysed or resolved.
Viewers who bristle at bad science may want to give Once in a New Moon a pass. From the get-go, the premise is preposterous. A “dead star” is essentially a black hole, and if one of those came close enough to our solar system to cause natural disasters, it would also have more serious consequences, like knocking the planets out of their current orbits, or even sending our sun and all its drabants spiralling into the black hole. However, if we buy into the wacky idea that a “dead star” could chip away a village from Earth, and it would settle in orbit around our planet, there’s a multitude of “buts”. The first, of course, which collapses the entire premise of the film, is gravity. At best, gravity on the planetoid of Shrimpton-in-Space would be around one thousand of Earth gravity, meaning that most of the village’s atmosphere would immediately escape and everyone would die. End of movie. But of course, this is not an SF movie per se, but a fable. The premise is so bonkers, that as a viewer, you immediately throw your hands in the air, and accept the crazy science of the movie as is.
Judging from the scarcity of mentions in the Hollywood trade press, Once in a New Moon seems to have had a very limited release in the US. Neither can I find any lengthy reviews from the time of its release in the British press. The few capsules reviews I have found are all politely positive. The Derby Evening Telegraph writes: “Despite the impossible situation that the author invents, the film is good fun”, while London’s Evening Standard opines that “The theme is quite competently handled”.
Once in a New Moon has a 5.5/10 rating on IMDb based on around 130 votes, and no Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic entries. It is a well-enough known curio to get a casual title drop in a Guardian column. However, there are not that many modern reviews out there for this rarity. Kris Davies at the Quota Quickie blog calls it “an often funny satire on Interwar Britain with it’s slightly shakey but still intact class system and the dark shadow of socialism threatening to cut the Lord off from his sherry”. Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings writes: “as a science fiction epic […] it’s not much; special effects are kept to a minimum, and it mostly uses its concept as a springboard for its political satire, wherein the ruling class does battle with socialists. Given that the political satire seems to be the whole point of the movie, it’s rather disappointing that the movie opts for a deus ex machina ending in lieu of letting the satirical action play out, so I can only conclude that ultimately, it’s about the romance; at least that plays out to its end. As a comedy, it’s pretty short on laughs […]. All in all, this is neither particularly fun nor particularly memorable.” R. Chatten at FilmUforia states: “Much of it attractively shot on rural locations – with a noisy music score, Russian-style editing & directed with a restless camera […] There’s a lot of political talk but the suspiciously short running time of 63 minutes suggests substantial pruning before it was passed for exhibition.” And Tim Durbin at Viewing the Classics says: “I wouldn’t call this a great film, but it’s a rare example of science fiction in the 1930s, and definitely worth checking out for familiar character actors”.
Despite all its flaws, I personally found Once Upon a New Moon a rather enjoyable little British farce, if you take it for what it is and accept its limitations. But as the man said, it’s not a great film. Its main problem is the script, which crams too much into a short running time, and doesn’t follow through on, really, on any of its themes. Even the romance angle feels rushed and half-hearted. However, the film must be commended for tackling a subject, albeit as a lark, that would crop up in serious SF dramas many decades later.
The theme of a society suddenly isolated from the rest of the word — or indeed representing what is left of mankind, has been played out in both literature and film for centuries, as stated above. Jules Verne used the trope in the 1870’s and 1880’s in his books 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island, Hector Servadac and most notably in Propeller Island. Hector Servadac may or may not have been inspired, though, by the American 1869 novella The Brick Moon by Edward Everett Hale, often cited as the first piece of fiction involving a space station. In the novella, an inventor is attempting to launch a brick satellite into orbit, as to serve as a point of reference of sailors navigating. However, an accident launches the satellite too early, with workers and their families still aboard the “brick moon”. With no way of getting down, the small community soon establish a tiny country of their own. And what is Once in a New Moon, really, but a sort of precursor to Battlestar Galactica?
Director Anthony Kimmins served in WWI, then hit the stage as an actor, and legend has it he offered to work in the film industry as a writer for free in the early 30’s in order to learn how to write dialogue. If Once in a New Moon is anything to go by, he certainly had his job cut out for him. According to himself, his first assignment as a movie actor, as the lead in John Hunt’s The Golden Cage, came by because the actual lead actor fell ill. He played another lead in another Hunt film in 1932, but that was the end of his film acting career, as he found notable success as a playwright and screenwriter from 1933 onwards. On stage, he had a resounding hit with the romantic comedy When Parents Sleep. In film he was perhaps most successful with a string of low-brow comedies which he wrote and directed for comedian George Formby in the second half of of the 30’s. He rejoined the navy when WWII broke out, and served, mainly in the information department, for the entire war. He ran the British Navy’s Pacific Fleet Newspaper, and became a hugely popular radio broadcaster — according to one source, the most popular voice on the radio among the troops, second only to Churchill. His film career after the war was patchy, with an eclectic mix of movies. In 1947 he directed Burgess Meredith in the well-received thriller Mine Own Executioner, and followed up the next year with the expensive costume flop Bonnie Prince Charlie, starring David Niven. He directed Alec Guinness in the comedy The Captain’s Paradise (1953), and found some success with the children’s films Smiley (1956) and Smiley Gets a Gun (1958). In 1962 he made his last film, an adaptation of his most successful post-war stage play, The Amorous Prawn. He passed away in 1964.
Eliot Makeham is remembered by few these days, but friends of classic British films from the 30’s and 40’s will have a vague memory of seeing him in one or the other role as a “harassed official or henpecked husband”. The diminutive, expressive actor appeared in well over 100 films between 1931 and 1956, and even played the lead in a handful of quota quickies. His best known lead role is probably as the master of a spooky mansion in John Harlow’s shaky old dark house movie Candles at Nine from 1944.
Lead actress Rene Ray (real name Irene Creese, married Brodrick) had a reasonably successful career as a steadily working actress in both film and stage, in both lead and supporting roles. She made her (uncredited) film debut in the ambitious but wobbly 1931 dystopia High Treason (review), and delivered standout performances in The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935), opposite Conrad Veidt and His Lordship (1936), with George Arliss. Had she won the lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), which she auditioned for, Ray’s career might have taken a different turn, however, she stayed in London, and during most of WWII, performed on stage in West End. In 1947 she got good reviews when performing in the Broadway premiere of J.B. Priestley’s classic An Inspector Calls. That same year she appeared in her only Hollywood film, in a supporting role in Victor Saville’s If Winter Comes (1947).
However, for this blog, readers should actually be more interested in Rene Ray’s writing than her acting. With a keen interest in writing, she published her first novel, a gothic fantasy called Wraxton Marne, in 1946. In 1953 put her acting career on the side (although she did still do a few films and TV appearances in the mid-50’s) to focus on her writing career. For our purposes, the most interesting project was the ATV serial The Strange World of Planet X — the first British science fiction serial to be produced after the immense success of The Quatermass Xperiment. Ray wrote all 6 episodes of the serial, which concerned a scientist’s experiments with entering the fourth dimension, through the mysterious world of Planet X. The serial was a success, and Ray novelised it, making her part of the small but significant group of female SF writers published in the 50’s. A low-budget movie adaptation with the same name as the serial and the novel was made in 1958. Ray continued to write, but unfortunately never returned to the genre. She passed away in 1993.
Once in a New Moon is packed with British character actors all worthy of a line or too. Morton Selten was a respected stage actor who appeared in at least 25 productions on Broadway, doing films mostly as an aside, where he often played royalty or aristocrats. He may be best remembered for his last role, as the King of the Land of Legend in the 1940 colour epic The Thief of Bagdad. Derrick de Marney was slated to become a romantic hero of the British screen, and as such he was also cast in his breakthrough role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (1937). However, Marney was keen on playing a broad variety of characters, and often appeared in meatier supporting roles, which allowed him a wider acting range. He is remembered for his turns as Benjamin Disraeli in Victoria the Great (1937) and the sinister title role in Uncle Silas (1947). Marney had a substantial supporting role in H.G. Wells’ and Alexander Korda’s Things to Come (1936, review) and appeared in the derided The Projected Man (1966).
John Clements appeared on the stage for all of his career, spanning from the early 30’s to the 80’s. Once in a New Moon was his film debut, and he received supporting roles in a number of prestige pictures during the 30’s, then started getting top billing in smaller movies, culminating in his turn as the lead in Ralph Richardson’s The Four Feathers (1939 — remade with Heath Ledger in 2002). The war interrupted his movie career, and the quality of Clements’ movies dropped in the 40’s. Focusing on the stage, he appeared irregularly in supporting parts and cameos during the 50’s and 60’s, primarily on TV. In 1982, Richard Attenborough called him out of retirement for a cameo in the Oscar-winning biopic Gandhi.
Thorley Walters became a fixture in British comedies in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, and continued to rely on his comedic talents often as a befuddled aristocrat or authority figure. However, his career took a somewhat different turn in the 60’s, thanks to his friendship with Terence Fisher, the man who directed many of Hammer’s legendary horror films. Walters became a regular in the Hammer horrors, appearing in, among others, The Phantom of the Opera (1962), Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) and Frankenstein Created Woman (1967). He also appeared as Dr. Watson in four unrelated Sherlock Holmes-themed films, most of them comedies — the best remembered one is probably the German 1962 movie Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace — memorable mainly for starring Christopher Lee who is dubbed in English by another actor. Apart from the above mentioned, Walters appeared in a handful of other science fiction movies. Although directed by Terence Fisher, 1962’s The Earth Dies Screaming was made for Lippert Films. Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969) was Hammer and Trog (1970) was Herman Cohen Productions. The People That Time Forgot (1977) was AIP/Amicus.
Once in a New Moon. Written & directed by Anthony Kimmins. Based on the novel Lucky Star by Owen Rutter. Starring: Eliot Makeham, Rene Ray, Morton Selten, Wally Patch, Derrick de Marney, John Clements, Mary Hinton, Gerald Barry, Richard Goolden, H. Saxon-Snell, John Turnbull, Cecil Landau, Thorley Walters. Music: Walford Hyden. Produced for Fox Film Company.