Project Moon Base (1953)

Hi all, Nate here. Wait, before I even start with this review, let me settle something that has been bothering me about this movie’s title. Do a Google search and half the time it’s listed as “Moonbase” and the other half the time “Moon Base”, so which is it really? Well, I always default to the movie itself and what it says in the title card at the beginning, which is clearly “Moon Base”, despite the myriad lobby posters and DVD box arts and nearly every b-movie review site squeezing it together into one word. There, now you may go on with your life secure in the knowledge that you’re not a boob. And yes, the above image is wrong, but it’s pretty cool anyway.

Two words, end of story.

Our movie is set in 1970, far ahead in “the future” enough that GodBlessAmerica has put their first space station in orbit and are taking the initial tentative steps to visit/colonize the moon. As well, th…oh, here, just read it yourself…

Don’t make me type this.

Much to my surprise, the opening scene is not in space or in spacy environs, but a rather noirish spy-vs.-spy/cloak‘n‘dagger vignette where they set up that the “enemies of freedom” are working to sabotage America’s plans in space. A group of vaguely European-looking men with bad hair and Komsomolet-quality suits have determined that the space station must be destroyed to keep the Capitalist Americans from spying on their Motherland. It’s 1953 (real time), so one would normally think these unnamed baddies are stand-ins for the Godless Communist Rooskies, but I know better. This men are in fact NAZIS (ah-ha!!!), quaking in their jackboots that the Americans will one day discover the Secret Nazi Moon Base.

That Nazi’s tie is in 4th Reich colors!

The Nazi’s nefarious plan is to replace one of the astronauts on the next flight to the station with a double of their own and have that man do the dirty deed in space. To that end, they’ve “replaced” a certain Doctor Werher (coughcoughVonBrauncough) with a guy who looks so exactly like him you’d be forgiven in thinking that it’s just the same actor with his hair combed differently between takes. It doesn’t really seem to be an issue that the “new” Doctor Werher is not an expert in space sciences and he clearly hasn’t been through any of NASA’s astronaut training programs. But that’s ok, because, as you will see later, this movie treats spaceflight as little more difficult that taking the 3:15 Tuesday afternoon Pan-Am DC-9 from Dallas to Omaha.

Who needs training?

Off now to the “Earthport” at Dry Sands, New Mexico, which is surely a stand-in for the real world rocket base at White Sands, NM. Early b-movies often placed their sci-fi missile pads in various non-Canaveral locales, from Australia to the Yucatan to suntanned Pacific islands, but this might be the only one I’ve seen that’s set in Walter White’s old stomping grounds in the Southwest. Not that any of that matters because 99.9% of this movie’s scenes are interiors and any exteriors are stock footage, so the fact that the Dry Sands Base is really a rented warehouse studio in Pasadena is inconsequential. The Nazis, of course, used the repurposed V-2 facilities at Peenemunde for their lunar flights until early 1945 and then switched to the temporary rocket base in Antarctica until the end of the war.

Back-projected space base.

A jovial, very informal Four-Star General now takes over our movie for the next fifteen minutes, fountaining exposition like a cue card-reading volcano of technobabble and jingoistic American pride. He’s here to tell us, the audience, how awesome it is that ‘Murica has beat all comers to the Final Frontier and how it was all due to Joe RedState’s can-do attitude and Rosie the Riveter’s mastery of high-tensile strength metals. At times it seems like he’s talking to children, but you have to realize this is 1953 and grown men and women had zero idea what the stuff-of-fantasy space race was about other than what they saw in b-movies. The film does an admirable job explaining some of the technical stuff, so good in fact that you wonder if NASA/NACA had anything to do with the movie.

Like a young Paul Newman.

The mission that is the subject of our movie is a survey trip to the distant moon, a one-shot loop-around to take photos of the dark side and be a proof-of-concept that it can be done in the future with bigger and fuller rockets. Or so they say… I’m still inclined to believe it’s a reconnaissance mission to check on the Nazi Moon Base and probe its defenses. When it’s mentioned to the Four-Star General that the entire endeavor is considered by many to be an epic boondoggle and a waste of taxpayer money, he looks one degree off camera and says that “The most important thing in the world to me is the military security of the United States”. What I take that to mean is, “We have to find out what the Nazis are up to on the moon.” Don’t mock the truth.

His ribbons look taped on.

But they can’t go directly from New Mexico to the moon in one shot, because that’s “still beyond the capacity of our best ships”, so they are using the space station as a jumping-off point for the moon mission. That actually makes scientific sense as you’d have to carry far less fuel onboard if you could skip the atmosphere part of the trip. About that space station, let‘s flesh it out a bit using the General‘s dialogue. It’s a circular “titanium hull with steel bracing”, “350 feet in diameter”, that’s in a “transpolar orbit” that rotates around the Earth about 10 times a day. If that stated size seems unreasonably big for the world’s first space station, it is. Skylab was just 90 feet long, the International Space Station is about 350 feet wide overall and around 240 feet long, but the great majority of those measurements are the solar panels, the actual habitable space is much smaller. A better equivalent for our movie’s 350-foot wide station would be the original USS Enterprise-A‘s saucer section, which was about 410 feet in diameter according to my Federation Technical Manual (yeah, I bought the hardcover edition, what’s it to you?). As far as the orbital speeds, the ISS races around the planet about 16 times each day, so that was a pretty nice guess. Anyway, my biggest problem is that it took a way-too-short amount of time to get that entire space station operational, just the four years from the first orbital flight to today. There’s virtually no way that would/could happen that fast, especially for an unproven first-in-class design in the still-largely-theoretical field of mechanical engineering in space.

The General has a model of it on his desk.

The General also rambles on about how it costs $300 a pound to send anything into Low Earth Orbit to the station (in “1970” dollars), an oddly specific budgetary aspect of an industry in its infancy in 1953. It’s also way, way, way off. Just a couple of years ago, in the waning days of the “economical” Space Shuttle, it was still $8,000 a pound in the cargo bay, though the Rooskies could (and still do) toss a pound up for under 2 bills on one of their Proton rockets. Commercial non-governmental space rockets should bring that down through competition, Space-X and Virgin in the front row, but it‘s still probably never going to cost in the hundreds to get a pound of anything into LEO. Furthermore, he says that the cost/weight ratio is why all of America’s astronauts have to tip in at a scrawny 160 pounds or less, forcing NASA to only pick wee little men with bulimia for its space program. Of course, even as I type that I recall that the Mercury 7 guidelines were 5’11” and 180 pounds, but that was totally because of the claustrophobic tightness of the Mercury capsules. The spacious interiors of our movie’s rockets should be able to carry some extra pudge (I should note that Doctor Werher is tall and bulky, way over 160 pounds).

Model of the moon flight ship, that’s pretty big in comparison.

Ok, back to the plot. Beanpole astronaut Major Bill is here at the base, slated to be moon rocket’s primary stick. Word comes from the suits in Washington that he’s being bumped, literally at the last minute, from glory-getting pilot to jock-strap-holding co-pilot by a certain Colonel Briteis and he’s pissed! Pissed enough that he, at first, throws up his puny hands like a petulant child whose older brother gets to go to Pizza King while he has to stay home and eat broccoli soufflé, demanding that he be scrubbed from the mission altogether. The General talks him down eventually, because he‘s more a Father Figure than a commanding officer at times. It seems that Major Bill has a personal beef with Colonel Briteis that goes way back to four years ago (“1966”) when then-Captain Briteis bumped still-Major Bill from being the first human to make an orbital flight. The movie then takes a surprising dig at legendary Charles Lindbergh, suggesting that Briteis was fast-track promoted for political reasons, just like Lindbergh (allegedly) was.

That’s some harsh interior lighting.

So surely Colonel Briteis is some arrogant alpha-male douchebag USAF test pilot/fighter jock-type with iron balls and a sandpaper personality, right? John Frickin’ Wayne in a high-altitude pressure suit and all that, I’m sure we’re just going to fucking hate everything about him. Word comes that he’s arrived now and the camera pans to the door. Some bouncy hot twentysomething girl comes in first, must be the Colonel’s secretary or his mistress or something, she should really step out of the way and let the Colonel through… wait, what? What?!? That twiggy-thin over-eyelinered little girl IS Colonel Briteis!?! Wha…huh, er… But, but, but girls can’t be astronauts! They’re, they’re, you know, girls. Pam, what the hell is going on here? Girl’s can’t fly rockets, it’s 1953 in America, what sort of insanity is this? Oh my god, and she’s wearing pants! …I can’t go on.

That open shirt is not regulation.

Frankly, Nate, I'm not sure that this particular girl can fly a rocket, and I use the term "girl" deliberately. Donna Martell, the actress who plays Colonel Briteis, was about 25 when she made this movie, but she acts more like 15, when she wails to the General that she doesn't want to fly with Major Bill because he hates her! The General, maybe not unreasonably, treats her as though she's even younger, and he even threatens to spank her (and sounds serious) if she doesn't behave herself. I can't imagine how she qualified to be a an officer at all, let alone a colonel at the age of 25, so maybe Major Bill is right and she was promoted for political reasons. Then again, I don't see how the General became a general if his favored means of maintaining discipline is spanking junior officers.

Code of Conduct, anyone?

Incidentally, everybody pronounces the Colonel's last name as "Bright-eyes," although the correct pronunciation is "Bri-tice," according to her. Is this a bit of subtle contempt toward an officer who may have been promoted for political reasons, or is it subtle contempt toward a woman who has the audacity to think she can pilot a spaceship? I'm going to keep on calling her "Bright-eyes," since truthfully she doesn't deserve any better. But she and Major Bill, accompanied by the fake Doctor Wernher and some anonymous redshirt, do manage to take off in the rocket and reach the space station, bickering like middle-schoolers the entire time.

Just get a room, people.

The accommodations in the rocket are very similar to those in Cat-Women of the Moon: chaise lounges, reel-to-reel tapes on the corrugated metal walls, unmarked buttons, and panels of lights with no discernable purpose, although there's no unsecured desk chairs or school lockers. I'm not impressed with the astronauts' uniforms, which consist of high-waisted short pleated shorts, tight T-shirts, the 1953 version of Uggs, and cloth skullcaps that seem to have no purpose except to make the wearer look like a dork. Bright-eyes adds a pointy bullet bra to her ensemble. She does look kind of cute in this getup, but it's not at all a flattering look for the older male officers, although they do omit the bullet bra. Oh, and pistols ­ they all carry pistols. Why? We can see that the political situation on Earth is quite tense, but surely they don't expect a bunch of people from the Other Side to board the rocket and shoot it out with them?

She looks pretty comfy.

It's obvious that no great expense was taken with any of the sets we've seen so far, and the space station is no exception, being all plain featureless corridors and almost-bare rooms. There is one nice touch, though. Those boots of theirs must contain magnets, and the inhabitants of the space station make a practice of walking on any surface, whether floors, walls, or ceilings, that they find most convenient. After a brief talk with the people in charge, which was probably held to show the two groups sitting on different walls of the cabin, our trio sets off to the Moon.

That’s a poorly-framed shot.

Doctor Wernher has been pretty much silent up to now, but as they near the Moon, he starts looking around shiftily and asking Bright-eyes questions about how to fly the ship. As a matter of fact, it seems to be only a matter of punching a couple of buttons and twisting a few knobs, so being a pilot doesn't seem to require any particular skill. Maybe it's the navigation that's the hard part, since it appears that this is done by peering out of the control room window and using some kind of sextant.

The starfield races by behind them like they’re going Warp 97.

However, Major Bill has begun giving Dr. Wernher a few suspicious looks and finally resorts to that tried-and-true method of ferreting out foreign spies, which is, of course, asking him questions about baseball. Dr. Wernher fails miserably, and once he leaves the control room, Major Bill confides his suspicions to Bright-eyes. Being just a dumb girl who knows nothing about baseball herself, she laughs off his suspicions, but Major Bill turns out to be less than a genius himself, since he neglected to make sure that Dr. Wernher was actually out of earshot before tattling on him. This was a serious mistake, and Dr. Wernher promptly reappears and starts fighting with Major Bill.

Intrigue is afoot…in space!

In the commotion, one of them hits the wrong (unmarked and unguarded) button and sends the spaceship, and the gravity, careening out of control. Talk about a poor design, but I'll put off the lecture for now and get back to our main characters, who are now writhing slowly under the pressure of intolerable gravity. How much gravity, I can't say, because their "Gravitometer" doesn't have any units marked on it. And the access to the lower level is just an open hole in the floor! What idiot designed this spaceship, anyway? Don't tell me it was Bright-eyes! Jeez, whoever did this ought to be...Oh, well, back to the first exciting moment this movie has had. Yeah, it's been really boring so far, but I'm hoping the action is picking up.

More of a visual aide than a measurement.

Bright-eyes finally proves to be of some use when she manages to push a button (one single button!) that cuts off the acceleration and brings the gravity back to normal. Yes, the spaceship does have normal gravity, I suppose it was too expensive to fake weightlessness. Luckily Major Bill managed to get the best of Dr. Wernher, because the exertion of pressing a button appears to have been too much for poor Bright-eyes. She collapses limply on her chaise lounge after her heroic effort, although Major Bill seems to be completely unaffected. See why girls shouldn't pilot spaceships? They're just too fragile, the poor little things.

A scream or a yawn, you decide.

Bright-eyes manages to pull herself together long enough to push another button and land the spaceship on the Moon, but the effort is evidently quite taxing, and Major Bill has to help her up and comfort her once they touch down. (Dr. Wernher has been knocked out and secured with tape to his chaise lounge.) Bright-eyes is moaning that she blew it and there's not enough fuel to take off again, and although she may be right about the fuel, for once she's blaming herself for nothing, since she wasn't the one who a) talked out of turn and tipped off Dr. Wernher or b) hit the wrong button. Or presumably c) was responsible for the stupid spaceship design in the first place. If this happened to me, I'd find it hard not to favor Major Bill with a few choice words, but possibly Bright-eyes is finally showing a little maturity and realizes that under these circumstances, laying blame isn't going to get you anywhere and the best thing to do is to hold off on the lecture and get him to work with you to try to save you both. That, or as in the 1950s women were assumed to do, she falls apart in a crisis and looks around for the nearest man to lean on.

The ship descends Apollo-like to the surface.

I think my second guess is the right one. Despite being a colonel and a qualified pilot, Bright-eyes immediately hands over control to Major Bill and defers to him completely. To be sure, they're in a bad spot: they don't have enough fuel to take off, and they've landed in a place that's out of sight of Earth, so Earth doesn't know where they are. The Moon is blocking radio communication, and in any case, they don't know exactly where on the Moon they are themselves. Remember, they weren't supposed to land on the Moon during this mission, so Earth has no idea they're there. They have limited amounts of food, water, and air. Oh, and they may be near the Secret Nazi Moon Base. They don't mention this, but it's probably because they're so scared at the thought they can't bear to talk about it.

Not Nordic enough for the NMB.

Back on the space station, they've been informed that the FBI found the real Dr. Wernher, so they're aware that there's a spy aboard the spaceship, and they immediately become alarmed when the spaceship is late reporting in. On the Moon, Major Bill has come up with a plan: he's going outside to set up a relay so they can beam a signal to the space station. One thing I don't like about the plan is that he seems to need help to do this, and he's going to take Dr. Wernher with him. Major Bill's too manly to explain, so I'm not sure if he needs Dr. Wernher for technical assistance, to help him carry things, or if he's afraid that Dr. Wernher will manage to attack Bright-eyes if he's alone in the spaceship with her. I can't see how that would do him any good, but you know what fanatics The Enemy are. And wasn't he supposed to crash the spaceship into the space station anyway?

“I know, but that’s what this script says.”

Dr. Wernher agrees to help with what I consider suspicious alacrity. So, what's going to happen? Is he going to wait for a vulnerable moment and attack Major Bill, since we all know what dastards The Enemy is, or is he going to be so impressed with the nobility of the American Way of Life that he switches sides? Neither one, as it happens. He and Major Bill have just finished setting up the relay, when he anticlimactically makes a misstep and falls to his death. Major Bill pathetically radios to Bright-eyes that he's low on oxygen and may not be able to make it back, and we watch as he slowly staggers back to the ship. (For some reason he either wasn't able to or didn't think to help himself to Dr. Wernher's oxygen.) He collapses right under the spaceship and gasps pitifully that he's cold, but he's able to grab onto the lift and is carried into the ship, just in time.

Nice that the moon’s surface is so flat.

This part of the movie was quite rushed compared to the glacially-slow pace of the rest of the movie, and at no time were we in any doubt that Major Bill was going to make it back just fine. I think it may have been shoehorned in to kill off Dr. Wernher without doing something un-American like just shooting him with those pistols they've been carting around. Major Bill's weakness is also quite uncharacteristic. Was this segment maybe written at the last minute?

It’s late on a Tuesday in September and in Sector A, all is not well.

Major Bill naturally has to recuperate after his ordeal, and while he's out of commission, Bright-eyes is left on her own to contact the space station (and they've both doffed their skullcaps ­ why?). The poor thing has been trying for five hours, and the best she's been able to do is get a test pattern (does anybody remember those?) on the viewscreen, but once Major Bill is himself again, he points out that she needs to flip one more switch. Once that's done, they reach the space station with no trouble. The authorities at the space station are flabbergasted to hear that the spaceship landed on the Moon and are not at all sure what they're going to do to retrieve Major Bill and Bright-eyes. At first I wasn't sure why, but I think it may have been mentioned earlier, while I was trying not to doze off, that this is the only ship they have that's able to reach the Moon and carry passengers. Or maybe it wasn't mentioned, this movie is not meticulous about continuity.

HQ needs an interior decorator on staff.

Bright-eyes and Major Bill are left to cool their heels for an unspecified period of time, but finally the space station contacts them with a solution, if you can call it that. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President have decided to make a virtue out of necessity and designate the spaceship as Moon Base Number 1. Bright-eyes and Major Bill are ordered not to take off, even though they've already told the space station they can't, and are ordered to ration their food, water, and air, which also seems to be something that didn't really need to be said. The United States will use drones to drop supplies to them, and will keep supplying them until it finds a way to get them off the Moon.

So obviously painted corrugated sheeting on a cement floor, sad.

Major Bill and Bright-eyes are mulling this over, when the commander of the space station requests Bright-eyes to leave the room so he can speak to the Major in private. She's not happy about this, and for once I don't blame her. She's supposed to be the commander, after all, so is it appropriate for her superiors to keep her out of the loop? Or is this a matter of such vital importance to the United States that it's justified? What could be so important? Bright-eyes finally leaves, pouting like a little girl, and we find out. It seems that the President himself has decided that since it could be months before Major Bill and Bright-eyes can be rescued, it would be completely improper for a man and a woman to live together for that length of time. Therefore, Major Bill and Bright-eyes will have to get married (!!!).

Hopefully they’ll hang some drapes, maybe some wall art.

Naturally, both Major Bill and Bright-eyes are furious at this suggestion and despite military discipline, can't help giving the commander a piece of their minds at this insult to their ability to remain professional, not to mention the unwarranted meddling in their personal lives...You obviously are unfamiliar with 1950s movies if you think this. Major Bill admits that he's been sweet on Bright-eyes for quite a while, and Bright-eyes, who is listening in, is grinning and blushing. She demurely asks to come back into the control room and does her best to pry a proposal out of Major Bill, but he's too bashful, and the subject is tabled for now.

“Danger: Rocket Blast”? More like “Danger: Love!”.

While I'm trying to figure out why it was all right for them to fly together in a cramped spaceship but totally inappropriate for them to be in the same spaceship now that it's in one spot, Major Bill and Bright-eyes are diffusing the tension between them by turning a lot of unmarked knobs to help the promised supply drone home in on them. Stalwart Major Bill goes out to retrieve the supplies, while Bright-eyes stays in the spaceship in case any more knobs need turning. When Major Bill gets to the drone, we see it's very small, not much bigger than Major Bill himself. I hope Major Bill and Bright- eyes are light eaters and drinkers, and I really hope they've figured out a good way to "ration" their oxygen. But they're both quite pleased with what they got, and while Major Bill is carrying the supplies back to the spaceship, Bright-eyes takes the opportunity to contact the commander of the space station and request that he do something that will facilitate the marriage. The scene ends before we find out what it is.

“I hope there’s a Playstation 4 in this box!”.

Whatever he did must have worked, because the next scene shows the two of them being married, with the ceremony conducted by radio. What was her request? A really big diamond sent by the next drone? Not at all. After the ceremony is complete, the President is seen on the viewscreen, and we get the big reveal. I've been referring to the President as "he," but it turns out I was mistaken. The President is in fact a middle-aged woman, and she announces that she and Congress have agreed that Major Bill is to be promoted to brigadier general and made the commander of Moon Base 1. Just in case we might think this was a coincidence, Bright-eyes turns to her new husband and asks how he likes his wedding present. Propriety must really be important to the United States in 1970 if the entire government is that eager to get them married!

Why doesn’t President Hillary get a close-up like everyone else?

The movie ends with Bright-eyes and Major ­ er, General ­ Bill kissing. Little do they know that the Secret Nazi Moon Base is even now sending out a team of crack troops to remove this threat to Der Vaterland...but we'll have to wait for the sequel, which I'm happy to report was never made.

Damn, let the girl breath.

This was a very slow-moving movie, and like other B-movies MMT has reviewed, it could have been cut down considerably without losing anything important. However, that would have made it too short for theatrical release, and it wouldn't have helped the basic stupidity any. Robert Heinlein is credited with being the author, both in the movie credits and on IMDb, but I've read all of his works and I think whatever he wrote for this movie was extensively rewritten by someone else. IMDb also lists a "Jack Seaman" as an author, following Robert Heinlein's name. Jack Seaman was also the producer of this movie, so presumably he had the authority to rewrite as he saw fit. There are hints of Heinlein popping up here and there, but at his worst he was never this bad. A quick search of the Internet took me to a 2008 article on the website for Subterranean Press, and the author of the article, John Scalzi, suggests that I'm correct about what happened. He says that the movie was originally intended to be an episode in a TV series about space exploration. Jack Seaman decided to abandon the series and expand the episode into a barely feature-length movie, Heinlein left in disgust, and Jack Seaman rewrote as he pleased. It's evident that he wasn't anything like as good a writer as Heinlein. I was right about one other thing, too, according to this article: I mentioned that the control room looked very similar to the control room in Cat-Women of the Moon, and in fact the Project Moon Base set was reused in that movie (and I'm a little sorry I was so hard on Cat-Women of the Moon when I reviewed it, because compared to Project Moon Base, it looks pretty good).

The model work is fairly good, points for that.

One other point I want to bring up: what is it with the misogyny in so many 1950s movies? Why are so many of them determined to show women as lazy, weak, stupid, frivolous, and overly emotional, whose only goal in life is to get married? True, a lot of the women who worked during the war couldn't wait to get married, have children, and stay home once the men started coming back. After all, most people want to get married and have children, and being a stay-at-home housewife probably looked more tempting once the war was over and daycare centers available to women doing war work closed. Also, men of the time were unused to helping with housework and too often felt men shouldn't have to. Having a fulltime job and still being completely responsible for both housework and child care would be enough to make the most dedicated career woman think twice. Then, too, employers of the time could hire and fire pretty much as they pleased, and many employers refused to hire women, especially married women, feeling that a woman had no right to take a job that should go to a man with a family to support. So why were American movies, and American society in general, being so hard on women for caving into the pressure that society itself put on them? Was it the war? Were American men angry that they had to go and fight while their women not only sat home in comfort and safety but also took men's jobs? Did they secretly hate American women for thinking they were as good as men who had fought and suffered in battle? I haven't watched enough popular foreign movies of the time to see if other countries were as hard on women as the United States. Maybe not, since in most of the other countries who fought in World War II, the civilian population underwent a good deal of hardship and danger, so it's possible the men who did the fighting in those countries had less reason to feel resentful.

Only equal with a ring on her finger?

Or am I overthinking this whole thing, and was Colonel Briteis' character written the way it was because Jack Seaman's target audience was 10-year-old boys, and he figured they were still at that stage where they didn't like girls? This would also account for the overall juvenile tone of the movie. Or maybe Jack Seaman himself had some issues with women, who knows?

Donna Martell, in better days.

What are your thoughts on this fine addition to MMT's review list, Nate?

Well, Pam, definitely a worthy contender for The Most Misogynist Movie Ever Made, an embarrassingly accurate slice of early 1950’s American culture, an era where that sort of thing was perfectly “normal”. There were a few nice visual effects and a couple of moments where I was interested in what was happening, but overall this movie was pretty sludgy and slow and hard to pay attention to. As Pam mentioned, about 45% of it seemed to be padding to fill out a studio contract running time and made it a chore to sit through at times. Watch at your own peril.

The End.

Written in Noveber 2013 by Nathan Decker and Pam Burda.

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