The First Men (plus Woman) Go to the Moon + RKO

May 22, 2015 | By

RKO_Radio_Pictures_logoI admit the reason I paired these similar themed films was to blab a little about RKO (1928-1958), a smaller major studio that managed to produce a striking collection of films by various directors, and not unlike Japan’s Nikkatsu, weathered several challenges, such as new CEO’s, owners, and financial ups & downs.

When Howard Hughes bought RKO in 1948 (the studio’s acronym stands for Radio-Keith-Orpheum), he began what most film historians would classify as a ruinous reign, ultimately selling the studio on the cheap to a tire company in 1954 after his own vanity projects – notably the infamous Jet Pilot (1957) and The Conqueror (1956) – cost the studio a fortune and symbolized what happens when an airplane manufacturer / airline owner plays absentee landlord to a property filled with a variety of passionate, greedy, and assorted creative figures.

The movie business may be glossy, but it needs someone who lives and breathes movies, and has the ability to react to picky audiences, new government regulations, and the threat of TV and other entertainment venues and technologies that threaten the dominance and very future of a business.

FromEarth2Moon_1958_posterFrom the Earth to the Moon (1958) is regarded as the second-last film produced / completed by RKO before assets were sold to various buyers.

Warner Bros. released From the Earth, but the film’s quality was adversely affected when production funds were cut down, scenes were snipped from the shooting script, and no one seemed to care about the picture anymore. There’s a sense director Byron Haskin just wanted to get the damned thing done, and get as far away from RKO as possible.

Part of the problem in assessing this adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel lies in the terrible copies released on home video, which encompass VHS and laserdisc. The former was the cheapest format, hence me picking it up from a budget bin decades ago.

Interglobal Video Promotions specialized in public domain films or old catalogue title studios licensed for a song, and many sold for under $10.

 

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Not unlike those 20 movies for $9.99 DVD collections, the source transfers were old, but the recording speed wasn’t the higher quality SP, but LP, that middle speed that wasn’t as ugly as slower EP, but tended to have more smeared colours and playback issues than SP.

(Some video recorders could play but wouldn’t record in LP because it was never an ‘official’ speed, and some machines wouldn’t show a picture when an LP recorded tape was in Pause mode, or one shuttled back & forth.)

My source tape looks like crap, and the HiFi audio disappears seconds into the recording, leaving one of the linear channels. (To watch the film mandated taking the audible left channel, and with a Y-cable, piping it into another machine just to hear mono in both speakers.)

 

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WRONG. Three men and a girl make to the moon’s orbit. Things go differently for half the cast soon after.

FromEarth2Moon_VHS_cvr_s

WRONG. Film isn’t 100 minutes, and although family could watch film without fear, they’d need extra pillows for when they fall asleep.

 

This is the reality of budget LP tapes. Above are the front and back of the sleeve, and below is the torn ‘Tracking May Need Adjusting’ paper that was crumpled inside which I never noticed until 20 years after I bought the tape.

 

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Classy, eh?

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Because of the striking similarities to H.G. Wells’ novel First Men in the Moon – both tales deal with men intending to reach the moon for science, profit, and ego – Ray Harryhausen’s 1964 film version of the latter is the better cousin of From the Earth, but it too has some flaws.

What’s important, though, is how Hollywood chose to treat the first human lunar landing: unlike the respective authors who kept women out of the picture, the idea of including women in the movie versions was imposed purely to create love interests for the youngest men in the expeditions, and it was unfathomable to Hollywood that women could become astronauts, let alone be the creators of NASA-like, Big Science projects. (A rare exception is the goofy Project Moon Base from 1953.)

In First Men, Kate brings chickens to feed the men (!) and is pretty much a commodity like the space orb used to reach the lunar surface, whereas in From the Earth, Virginia is a stowaway who pouts and pines for love and never even questions the men’s skills when things don’t go according to plan. The only thing missing in both films is that classic moment where the woman trips on a pebble, sprains her ankle for 2 minutes, and requires male assistance because that pebble was pretty sharp.

I haven’t seen Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon (1929), but apparently it too deals with a team of explorers and entrepreneurs who plot a voyage to the moon in search of gold. Like From the Earth, there’s greed and sabotage, but the female character is apparently one of the eggheads, so points to Lang and co-writer Thea von Harbou for not putting all the power in the hands of men.

First Men enjoyed a striking DVD release from Sony in 2002, and Twilight Time’s gorgeous Blu features another aborted special edition from Sony’s archives. The studio may have felt sales of their first batch of Harryhausen titles failed to do big business, and with nostalgia for Harryhausen’s canon not as potent as before, this lesser-known work (smaller cast, fewer monsters) meant First Men was put on hold.

It seems strange to withhold a release, especially given Harryhausen actually recorded what’s apparently his final commentary track, but sometimes it’s all about the numbers. Alongside To Sir, With Love (1967), Oliver! (1968), and Lost Horizon (1973), fans can enjoy both the sparkling transfers and unreleased extras via Twilight Time.

That isn’t the case with From the Earth, but then if you read the review, you’ll realize the overall sloppiness of its production and post-production which deeply affected what could be described as a subversive critique of the American military complex.

In a way the film reminds me of Cannon Films’ own attempt to make Journey to the Center of the Earth (1988). Rusty Lemorande’s film was never released theatrically. In fact, the effects were never properly finished because the studio recut the film, and literally hacked material from a totally different movie to turn the classic Verne story into some idiocy that ends with a punk underworld with footage by hack extraordinaire, Albert Pyun.

Cannon’s piece of cinematic ordure – that’s really what it is – did appear on home video, and like some of the effects in From the Earth, they’re not done. At least RKO’s in-house swansong to sci-fi has George Sanders, Joseph Cotton, and a blonde Debra Paget in the cast, but the movie has yet to enjoy a legit DVD release made from a decent source print in North America.

Apparently there’s one from Spain, and if this still is proof, the film’s finished effects might actually look pretty good:

 

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You could say both films were giving the short end of the stick by their respective studios, but only one managed to ultimately enjoy a special edition release while the other, like its late-term RKO brethren, remains an orphan film, probably re-emerging on TCM via old U-matic video masters.

Not the most dignified treatment for a once respected studio with arguably the best corporate logo (see top again).

Coming next: several soundtrack reviews, and another set of Blu-ray reviews,

 

 

 

Mark R. Hasan, Editor
KQEK.com

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Category: EDITOR'S BLOG

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