September 19, 2011

19 CMBA Guilty Pleasures Movie Blogathon: Flight to Mars (1951)


"Of course, academia collects masterpieces and is sometimes uneasy with silliness. . . . But real fans cherish bad movies, too, the frivolous spasms of light on the screen, the ones that led to reckless dreams."
—David Thomson


When I was six years old, I couldn't wait to get home from school each day and watch the latest installment of my favorite television show, a shoestring-budget serial called Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, shown on local after-school kids' TV. Clearly modeled on Buck Rogers, Rocky was an outer space law enforcer who cruised the galaxy in a rocket ship with his female first officer and ten-year old sidekick Bobby searching for villains and meddling in the affairs of inhabited planets. Whether battling the evil queen Cleolanta, rescuing the beautiful princess Juliandra from the machinations of her evil twin sister, or saving the heedless inhabitants of two planets on a collision course, Rocky and his crew could be relied on to triumph over villainy and save the day with their low-tech gizmos and their wits.

The program was my education in the distinction between reality and the movies. I experienced my first screen crush on the lovely Juliandra and learned that reading the credits at the end told me who she was in real life. Seeing her on another TV show playing a different character altogether and reading her name in the credits there really drove home the point that these were actors playing make-believe people, and after that I was always aware of the difference between the actor and the character. Probably the most educational result of the program, though, was when my father told me that we didn't really fly around the solar system in rocket ships, that (at this time) humans had never left Earth and the notion of space travel was wholly imaginary. I was crushed, but I did learn that just because you see it on the screen doesn't mean it really happens in life.

When I watched a DVD of the 1951 science fiction movie Flight to Mars recently, it immediately evoked the wonder felt by the six-year old armchair space traveler watching Rocky Jones. Such pleasure is almost beyond analysis and certainly beyond justification. It might be called guilty pleasure, although only an adult would think of the sensation in such a way. Briefly put, it's a movie-watching satisfaction that cannot be justified on aesthetic grounds, that in fact defies justification of any kind beyond the purely subjective. In this case—as in many similar cases, I suspect—the reaction surely is essentially one of nostalgia, a reaction in which memory completely blends with the present. For the adult it is the equivalent of revisiting that innocent, pre-rational childhood state of mind in which anything that gives mental or emotional pleasure is accepted without thought, on that level of pure sensation in which the thing itself is its own justification.

As its title indicates, Flight to Mars is about the first human expedition to Mars. One thing that makes this movie so enjoyable is that its plot is virtually a template for similar low-budget films of the 1950s about space travel to distant planets. The crew consists of four scientists—the team's leader, Dr. Jim Barker (Arthur Franz, who played the astronomer in Invaders from Mars), a professor, a medical doctor, the female member of the crew, Carol Stafford (Virginia Huston, probably best known for playing the "good girl" Robert Mitchum is engaged to in Out of the Past)—and one non-scientist, a cynical reporter along strictly as an observer, Steve Abbott (Cameron Mitchell). After surviving such perils as nearly being captured by the gravity of the Moon and dodging a sudden meteor shower, they crash land on Mars.

When the crew leaves the ship to survey the damage, they find architectural artifacts of a Martian civilization and then suddenly are greeted by Martians (led by Morris Ankrum, veteran of numerous 1950s sci-fi pictures) in colorful space suits. These Martians, who are human in every respect and even speak flawless English (they've been monitoring radio broadcasts from Earth), invite the travelers to enjoy Martian hospitality in their underground city—yet another iteration of Fritz Lang's Metropolis—while repairing the rocket ship. This is, of course, a scientifically advanced civilization whose inhabitants eat hydroponically grown and mechanically prepared food and lounge around in molded plastic chairs in starkly modernist dwellings.

Although the aliens seem civilized and friendly, we soon learn they have an agenda of their own. The element which powers their civilization, corium (could this be related to the synthetic stuff used to make kitchen countertops in the 1970s?), is running out. The Martians, needing a new home, have decided Earth fits the bill and never having developed space travel themselves, think the space ship that has landed on their planet is just the thing to take them to Earth to launch an invasion. Will the travelers learn the truth about the aliens' scheme from the brainy Martian Alita (Marguerite Chapman) who, with her slide rule and T-square, is helping Capt. Barker in his plans for the repairs while falling in love with him (don't even think about alien anatomy), and her father (veteran character actor Robert Barratt), a pacifist in favor of d├ętente with the earthlings? If they do, will they be able to overcome fuel and weight restrictions and take Alita and her father with them as ambassadors of inter-planetary peace?

Despite its obviously minuscule resources—it was, after all, a Monogram Pictures production filmed, according to the actor Cameron Mitchell, in just five days—Flight to Mars is a striking looking movie, in many ways a triumph of imagination over budget. It was one of the first movies filmed in SuperCineColor, a three-strip color process derived from Cinecolor, a two-strip process devised in the thirties as a low-cost alternative to Technicolor and used mostly for cartoons. The garish, oddly bright colors in Flight to Mars complement the film's futuristic sets, not only adding visual appeal to the minimalist decor, but emphasizing their almost expressionist geometry and angularity and forming planes of color that lend a convincing impression of depth and space to the film's painted scenery. The curious demographics of the Martian population also give the filmmakers the opportunity to mask narrative implausibilities with eye-catching costumes. The Martian political leaders are ordinary-looking middle-aged men and their garb may be strictly functional, but all the females on the planet appear to be in their twenties—slim, leggy, gorgeous, and dressed in tight, vaguely uniform-like outfits with outlandishly architectonic shoulder pads, super short mini-skirts, and shoes that resemble a cross between high heels and calf-height boots.

The special effects of the rocket in flight are superior to those of an Ed Wood movie, but that's about the most that can be said of them. On the big screen they must have seemed especially unconvincing. The model used for the rocket ship, however, is splendid—sleek, metallic, and streamlined. It was originally designed for the 1950 film Destination Moon but wasn't used in that film. After appearing in slightly modified form in Flight to Mars, it would later be used in several other sci-fi movies of the 1950s.

Whether dealing with giant creatures, alien invasion, or space travel, science fiction movies were a major part of the American film industry of the 1950s. Mostly niche fodder for drive-ins and the lower half of double features, these films offered a more spectacular, fantastic, and often disturbing experience than the sedate television fare and the serious-minded social issues pictures of the time. Occasionally one of these films would hit artistic pay dirt. But for every Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Day the Earth Stood Still, there were dozens of lesser films. The closest the space travel sub-genre came to greatness was probably Forbidden Planet, but as enjoyable as it was, everybody knew it was really Shakespeare in outer space. It wasn't until years later that this type of film got any real respect with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet if you were to ask me which I would rather experience tonight, Kubrick's technically dazzling but cold and austere vision of the future, or the more basic—and in comparison, definitely silly and frivolous—pleasures of Flight to Mars, I would pick the latter without hesitation. And I don't believe I would feel even a trace of guilt over my choice.

This post is part of the Guilty Pleasures Movie Blogathon sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association. For more on the blogathon click here. The quotation by David Thomson is from "When Is a Movie Great?" Harper's July 2011: 35-39.

19 comments:

  1. I've never seen this sci-fi adventure. I'm not big on these type of films. However, I have seen Metropolis and Forbidden Planet, so I got those references. LOL!!! Your commentary is precise and informative, so I really enjoyed reading your it. I have to say those colorful space suits made me think of Star Trek's uniform shirts, too. You are right about the SuperCineColor device--it fits this type of movie perfectly. Thanks for your contribution to the blogathon event.

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  2. Thoughtful piece about the fun we allow ourselves.

    Morris Ankum, John Litel AND Robert Barratt? Sounds like my kinda flick.

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  3. I had to laugh when you described the Martians ultra modern furnishings and their inability to develop space travel: a society that can create Eames influenced dwellings doesn’t apply the same imagination to the heavens? The mini skirted outfits are hilarious; women got no respect in these sci-fi inspired carnivals, but that’s okay, it is all part of what makes these films so much fun. A film might be a guilty pleasure, but if it has the ability to transport us in memory to our childhood self, with little suspension of disbelief, this boarders on an art form. . .a wonder filled review on an obscure (for me) title.

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  4. I haven't seen "Flight to Mars" but I have seen "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger" - ! I don't remember much about it, really, except that it was must-see for my brother and me in our earliest spellbound days in front of the TV set. That flickering box inspired so many flights of imagination, though I was less interested in leaving the planet than my brother.

    A most thoughtful and interesting post, R.D., and an excellent take on "guilty pleasures."

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  5. I saw you were writing about this one and was very curious to read your views on this most curious and offbeat of 1950s science fiction films.

    About a quarter of the way into your essay, I soon realized I was thinking of "Red Planet Mars" with Peter Graves, which came out about the same time.

    So I'm afraid this one passed me by, but it sounds worth catching. I liked the stills of the mini-skirted women too. There's a flick called "Project Moon Base" from the early 1950s where the female astronauts are similarly attired.

    A really fun essay, R.D.

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  6. R.D. - I really like your recap of your early youth in front of the TV with Rocky Jones, Space Ranger and the realization you had about there really being actors behind the characters. I'm sure we all have moments like that in our lives. I love your line "The special effects of the rocket in flight are superior to those of an Ed Wood movie, but that's about the most that can be said of them." That is a backhanded compliment if I ever heard one(LOL). Have not seen this film buy many of them seem to have a similar set especially with only one woman on board.

    John

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  7. Wonderful remembranhces of a time gone forever, but as vivid as if it were yesterday. Your lead-in is priceless and your astute observations of how filmmakers of those kind of films stgaying within budget by using their imaginations is dead-on. I know FLIGHT TO MARS well, but I have my own guilty pleasures of the era which includes INVADERS FROM MARS, IT THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE, VOODOO ISLAND, DUNGEONS OF HORROR and I BURY THE LIVING,each of which would make for a separate post on this subject. I can also connect with your running home to watch television shows, as I remember much teh same with "Dark Shadows," and have a life-long affection for all the Star Treks, "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" and "Lost in Space" among the sci-fi entries.

    Anyway, this is (typically for you) an utterly engaging and fascinating essay.

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  8. I'm not big on sci-fi films. But, I did want to come over and read your interesting, Flight to Mars, movie review.

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  9. I think like a few of other girls here I'm not a huge Sci-Fi fan either but I can appreciate campy fun and enjoy, laugh with everyone else at the hilarious special effects (laughed at your Ed Wood reference) Those costumes just themselves are hysterical.

    A beautifully written and interesting review that really does show your love for the film and why it's your choice for the Blogathon.
    Well Done Space Cowboy,
    Page

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  10. Nicely done. I think many of our guilty pleasures are linked to films seen in childhood that we adored. I'm really intrigued by this film, particularly the fact you give it kudos for imagination over budget. I will have to seek this out.

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  11. I wish I had written of my guilty pleasure pick that "it's a movie-watching satisfaction that cannot be justified on aesthetic grounds." Alas, I am not so eloquent nor analytical...which one of the reasons why I seek out your reviews on THE MOVIE PROJECTOR. Jealously aside (oops, was trying to mask that), I had a grand time with your colorful review (and I don't just mean the space suits, though they are colorful). As Caftan Woman, the cast is certainly impressive. Arthur Franz did another entertaining sci fi film, MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS, in which secretions from a dead prehistoric creature turn him into a sorta caveman. But I digress...bottom line is FLIGHT TO MARS was a delightful review and a perfect pick for this blogathon.

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  12. Great piece. I really enjoyed your unique insights into the film and all that goes with the genre.

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  13. Thank you to everyone who left a comment. I have to say that I am surprised at the level of response this post generated. When I first heard that the subject for this CMBA blogathon would be Guilty Pleasures, I wasn't sure about it. But in the end it did inspire me to do something different from what I normally do, and for movie bloggers those are good things--getting inspiration and doing something out of the ordinary. This was also a fun post for me, again something unusual for someone whose normal approach is a fairly serious one. I've read all the posts in the blogathon that have been published thus far and have enjoyed every single one of them. The unusual theme seems to have prompted others as well to take creative approaches, and this has paid off by increasing the enjoyment factor for readers.

    I'm also surprised that anyone else remembers "Rocky Jones." My brother told me he recently watched a couple of movies compiled from episodes of the show on Hulu, something I would never do myself. The important thing was the effect it had on me at the time, and I wouldn't want to disturb my memories of it. I guess I take my nostalgia seriously!

    Finally, I should repeat that my reaction to "Flight to Mars" is a strictly subjective one, and I don't want to oversell the picture. Unless you're a fan of this type of movie or like me have childhood memories of watching such films, I doubt that it would mean as much to you as it did to me.

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  14. R.D., I am a huge fan of these 50's sci-fi flicks. I too learned to love them as a kid. I dont' really remember this one, but boy did I love that picture of the astronauts in their bright color-coded suits - what a designing kudo!

    I know most of the guilty pleasures posts are funny, and yours has some great stuff, but my favorite piece of your writing is really a thoughtful one: "For the adult it is the equivalent of revisiting that innocent, pre-rational childhood state of mind in which anything that gives mental or emotional pleasure is accepted without thought, on that level of pure sensation in which the thing itself is its own justification." I've never seen this feeling put into words so well. Great post, R.D.

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  15. David Thomson, in your beginning quote, has it right on, that "real fans cherish bad movies, too" - I think, as you point out, it's the nostalgia factor and also the state of innocence in which these movies are made - they're not out to Make a Statement, but simply to provide entertainment and explore new and exciting subjects. It's fascinating that many B-level genres (Sci-Fi, Film Noir) are often the most adventurous and far-seeing in the stories they have to tell, as well as the most visually inventive. Most 50's science-fiction films were not the big-budget, big-star productions, but they were the ones already looking into the future. I haven't seen Flight to Mars, but it sounds like a lot of fun, and the costumes and decor in your photos look great. Thanks for your great post!

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  16. Wonderful Post, brought back watching Tom Corbert Space Cadet on NBC. This film and Rocket Ship XM are early 50's favorites

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  17. The Martian political leaders are ordinary-looking middle-aged men and their garb may be strictly functional, but all the females on the planet appear to be in their twenties—slim, leggy, gorgeous, and dressed in tight, vaguely uniform-like outfits with outlandishly architectonic shoulder pads, super short mini-skirts, and shoes that resemble a cross between high heels and calf-height boots.

    Ray Bradbury is way off...Mars isn't Heaven, it's the Playboy Club.

    When Our Lady of Great Caftan mentioned that John Litel was in this (he doesn't play an alien lawyer, but you can't have everything) I marked it down as a must-see. The fact that Trevor Bardette, Stanley Blystone and Tris Coffin are present and accounted for in Mars just makes the cake icing sweeter.

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  18. I've never seen this one--these types of films are not really my cup of tea, but your post, combined with the recent Monster Movie blogathon over at Forgotten Days of Yesteryear, are making me wonder what I've missed by actively avoiding such movies. This was such a wonderfully insightful post (as always!).

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  19. Haven't seen this and it probably wouldn't be my kind of thing, to be honest, but I really enjoyed reading your review all the same, R.D. Great writing, as ever.

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