CD: Project Moon Base (1953)

March 3, 2013 | By

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Rating: Excellent

Label: Monstrous Movie Music/ Released: April 19, 2011

Tracks & Album Length: 47 tracks / (71:56)


Special Notes: 16-page foldout colour booklet with liner notes by co-producer David Schecter / Limited to 1000 copies.


Composer: Herschel Burke Gilbert




Project Moon Base represents a perfect case study where a goofy and rather amateurishly made film – in this case, a stillborn TV pilot expanded (well, barely) to a feature film – was blessed with a quality score for which it’s completely undeserving; perhaps it’s also testimony to Herschel Burke Gilbert’s professionalism that he delivered the dramatic goods so swell.

After scoring several indie films and the odd studio film during the early fifties, Gilbert eventually found stability in TV, scoring westerns, dramas, detective and variety shows. Most of that work is unavailable on disc, and the few film scores LPs released during his lifetime weren’t wholly flattering of his skills. The exception is perhaps the jazz-styled Burke’s Law (1963-1966), but Comanche (1956) and especially The Moon is Blue (1953) are fairly repetitive, which makes this CD release a pleasant surprise – a highly atmospheric, otherworldly score that embraces the conventions of the era (namely the heavy use of the theremin) but is filled with great moody sections that don’t devolve into shrill clichés.

The challenge for Gilbert was to see past the terrible dialogue and spastic character behaviour, not to mention dreadful humour and sexism, and as Monstrous Movie Music’s David Schecter infers in his typically witty booklet notes, the film wouldn’t have maintained anyone’s firm interest without Gilbert’s straight-faced score.

Right from the “Main Titles,” Gilbert presents a wonderful theme that captures the dangers of outer space: its foreboding darkness, the terrible loneliness that awaits mankind on planets and moons, and the risky journey as spacemen and space bunnies hop from the Earth to spaceports as pit stop depots before heading off to explore deep space nether regions. The sometimes tumultuous tenor of “Werner Attacks,” for example, works as direct dramatic underscore, and as a statement for the film’s greedy and the politically zealous factions.

Or maybe that’s an exaggeration, but had Gilbert’s score been affixed to a more dramatic film (even a George Pal production), it would’ve given that work extra subtext.

The key hook in Gilbert’s score is that haunting main theme, because its gloomy tone mandates the rest of the score is similarly coloured. “Magellan on the Moon” is striking for the pairing of theremin and violin – a marriage that almost evokes a human voice. Rhythmic counterpoint in “Wernher’s Reprieve” adds dramatic great tension, and a hastening of the theme’s first 8-notes ratchets the drama as a once villainous character ultimately dies for the good of mankind. Gilbert’s increased repetition of his main theme remains effective because of modest shifts in emphasized instruments, and the overall situation of two humans trapped on the moon, with no way of ever getting home.

Part of the musical language within the score has obvious antecedents: the finale in one cue has almost religious weight due to its similarities to Bernard Herrmann’s own theremin-saturated The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); and there’s the debt owed to composer Leith Stevens, who broke new ground in evoking his version of deep space space in his ethereal masterpiece Destination Moon [M] (1950), especially the retarded harp notes in “Drones.” (One can also cite Ferde Grofe’s Rocketship X-M [M], as that score not only dealt with a heroic space landing by idealistic spacemen + 1 space-bunny, but made brilliant use of the theremin during a series of exploration and chase sequences.)

The score’s closing comes through a series of brief cues that punctuate a ridiculous ‘space wedding,’ a hasty kiss, and a cast wrap-up, and MMM’s augmented the short score with music from the anti-Semitism drama / noir suspenser Open Secret (1948). Although the source materials lack the sonic depth of Moon Base, Gilbert wrote another solid dramatic score with a brassy main theme that infers subterfuge, desperation, and moral conflict. It’s a classic Hollywood score comprised of standard orchestra instruments instead of atmospheric oddities like the theremin, and the film’s earthbound characters ensure themes go through familiar permutations, but for a short B-movie score, the surviving suite reflects the genuine talent in Hollywood working in B-level and Poverty Row productions.

Gilbert’s love theme (“The Kiss”) is short, rhapsodic, and lovely, and the film’s dramatic contrasts are echoed in the quick mood shifts as Gilbert whips from saturated passion to danger, and colours the score with a little big city noir via brief, bluesy sax or trumpet solos that rise above the orchestra’s homogenous sound.

The last programme material on MMM’s packed CD is a selection of select cues re-recorded for the MUTUEL stock music library, many of which sound like alternate and outtake material with slightly different colorations, or function as background source music – as with the bouncy big band “Stan Jump (tale two)” – a pretty good poor man’s Glenn Miller dance tune.

MMM’s production is first-rate, and includes another massive examination of the composer and the music, and while the CD will please fans of sci-fi, noir, and B-movies, it’s also a fine tribute to one of the many professionals who worked hard and was savvy in exploiting his skills in various media streams. With music in film, TV, and stock music libraries, Gilbert should be a name that conjures more than a giant question mark, and perhaps this CD will help in at least elevating his stature a little bit from outright obscurity.



© 2013 Mark R. Hasan


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