Jules Verne’s Rocket To The Moon (1967)
Director: Don Sharp
Starring: Burl Ives, Terry-Thomas, Gert Frobe
Ah, Jules Verne… the mere mention of the monicker conjures up visions of wildly far-fetched machinery, Victorian steampunk and all that, not to mention a dash of outlandish wildlife. Rejoice – they’re sending little Jimmy Clitheroe to the moon! Whoa, hold on a mo, the squeaky-voiced fella from a bygone age of wireless, The Clitheroe Kid? May contain cartoon slapstick and spoilers…
I made a list, oooooh… way, way back in March, the year of our Lord 2013. Are we still in 2013? No, really, it’s been one of them years, I’m not entirely sure. So, yeh, a list… a load of sci-fi films, stuff not on my DVD/Blu-ray shelf (unlike The Thing From Another World which is), some flicks I knew, some I didn’t. Fast forward to September, all aboard the Lovefilm train and let’s see what choo-choos into Trafford Park station. The disembarkee on this occasion is Jules Verne’s Rocket To The Moon. Ah-hah, thought I, haven’t seen this one but it’s the Verne-meister, so I’m looking forward to an insanely imaginative adventure. I slap that bad boy in the disc tray and flump back into the sofa, 7-Up in one hand, chilli-coated conkers in the other. Opening credits… It became immediately clear that director Don Sharp is here to make me giggle, not propel me forthwith on a journey into the fantastique. Thing is, I wasn’t in the mood for giggling so I suppose it is possible the film is very good and I’m simply incapable of being objective. Alternatively, Rocket may well be absolute cack.
The tenuous link to Jules Verne begins and ends with the title. The alternate US title – Those Fantastic Flying Fools – is far more appropriate (and also harkens to Magnificent Men/ Jaunty Jalopies). PT Barnum (Burl Ives) runs away from financial ruin in America to begin a joint venture in England, teaming up with the Duke of Barset (Dennis Price) to form a group of oddball scientist-types intent on sending a man to the moon. A midget, as it happens, his trusty companion General Tom Thumb (Jimmy Clitheroe) – without the wee ‘uns knowledge either. When furious Tom finds out (after receiving a letter of congratulations from Queen Victoria) he refuses point blank. They then turn to young hotshot rocket designer Gaylord – yes, Gaylord, stop being childish – Sullivan (Troy Donahue) to fill in as the reluctant astronaut, having already usurped the previous designer, Charles Dillworthy (Lionel Jeffries) who has failed to design a ship capable of a return journey or even to fit inside the launching cannon which is buried deep in a Welsh hillside. Standing to win a pile of cash from a botched moon-shot, the villainous Harry Washington Smythe (Terry-Thomas) and the jealous Dillworthy set out to sabotage the rocket. Hilarity is ensue-less.
To be fair Rocket doesn’t start too badly, the chest-swelling narration informing us; “… science blossomed like a magic flower and all Mankind fell beneath its spell…” This is quickly followed by Queen Victoria attending a palatial venue for an electrical exhibition but when she throws the ceremonial switch the fuse box blows and the whole place burns down. Following that, she is again in attendance at the opening of a modern suspension bridge – but when she merely cuts the traditional ribbon to open this tremendous feat of science the entire bridge collapses. Factor in Professor Von Bulow’s (Gert Frobe) ludicrous ‘projectile helmet’ and we’re up and running reasonably enough. It is then buried under a welter of bad jokes centred on the development of the rocket and Smythe’s exhausting efforts to derail the work.
This middle section of the film drags on and on. One joke, Von Bulow testing a cannon with ever increasing amounts of explosive (called ‘Bulovite’) on a beach while a bunch of stiff upper lip squaddies led by Stratford Johns (don’t know his character name) assist him, is interminable and becomes less funny the longer it goes on and the more times Von Bulow blows them all up. The inevitable punchline is too long in coming and the preamble lacks any kind of comic timing with Frobe mugging away more in hope than anything else. Amazingly, after another couple of scenes, the film returns to that sodding beach with that sodding cannon, though I have to admit Stratford Johns collapsing onto a stretcher did raise a smile.
I suppose it depends on whether or not you’re in a slapsticky kind of mood if you’re going to rake a smidgeon of fun out of Rocket. Admittedly I wasn’t. I’m referring mainly to the shenanigans concerning Madelaine (the lovely Daliah Lavi), Gaylord’s crazy lady-friend. When we meet her she can’t decide which bloke to marry between Gaylord and some other twerp called Henri (Eduard De Souza). It’s a feeble running gag for the rest of the movie except it isn’t funny. Madelaine though becomes a key player; Smythe imprisons her in his house early on and is rescued by Gaylord & Co. I have no idea why this scene exists; take it out of the film and nothing changes because there’s no impact on story or characters. It’s like a comedy sketch, delivered and forgotten. Later, while looking for Gaylord aboard the rocket, she rumbles Smythe & Dillworthy up to no good and they render her unconscious and whisk her off to a ‘home for wayward girls’ – or brothel, as inferred. As a means to keep her quiet it’s not ideal and Madelaine is out of there in no time. By coincidence, escape sees her land at a house where Smythe & Dillworthy are pinching gas for their car – and when I say gas I mean gas, not petrol. There then follows a countryside chase reminiscent of a Benny Hill skit, them in the gas-powered car and her on a penny-farthing bicycle; during the chase they run over a live duck and even more hilariously drive over a food laden picnic blanket in a field. No, not even animal cruelty will allow any pebble of mirth to be left unturned here.
You won’t believe this… just thought ‘who wrote this bollocks’ and looked up screenplay writer Dave Freeman; his scribbling credits include… Benny Hill! That explains the chase at least. It’s very difficult finding a plus amongst the tripe; stingy Smythe steals gas for his car from the old street lamps by rolling out an onboard pipe – fairly amusing. I also liked the electromagnetic loud hailer which doesn’t work properly, simply transforms any human voice into an indecipherable babble; the blossoming flower of science strikes again! I’m struggling after that. The stuff of inconsequence irritates and characters go off at tangents; Smythe’s assistant, Grundle (Graham Stark) is conveniently eased aside in favour of Dillworthy and given another plot line to pursue instead, romancing Angelica (Hermione Gingold) one of Barset’s two daughters. She and Electra (Judy Cornwell) are introduced tearing down the walls in Barset’s mansion in order to build an elevator. This eccentricity isn’t followed up, their behaviour doesn’t continue in a likewise vein and so again the scene comes off as a random sketch. Angelica knocks back Grundle’s marriage proposal and falls straight into the arms of Henri who dumps Madelaine, who resumes with Gaylord while Grundle kind of gets with Electra. I say ‘kind of’ because it only happens in order to set up a comedy conclusion between all the lovebirds. Tiresome.
But what of the rocket to the moon, I hear you say? What do they find on the moon, Wolf, tell us! Well, let me start by saying that the inside of the ship is rather quaint and also evocative of the Victorian era, in fact the whole film is well detailed in this aspect. I don’t know why a bottle of chloroform is on board though, I think it’s in case any frisky moon-animals need sedating but it is also conveniently placed to knock out Madelaine and Gaylord at separate points in the action. The rocket, however, does not go to the moon. Sorry. Yes I know the title intimates that a rocket is more than likely going to the moon – but it doesn’t. It is stolen by a Russian agent (don’t ask) and lands in Russia. I have no idea why Smythe & Dillworthy are on board at this point; they win a load of money when the launch is foiled but for some reason sneak in there to sabotage the ship a second time – “… he might come round…” Smythe comments referring to the unconscious and stretchered off Gaylord as a reason to do so, but banjaxing an already banjaxed ship doesn’t make much sense. Inexplicably, the rocket launches anyway… I know these things are supposed to be stupid but Sharp & Co have dispensed with logic entirely. The film, as a result, is all over the place.
That’s it. Terry-Thomas is always fun to watch, especially when he’s being such an outright cad as he is here. Smythe is the living embodiment of Wile E. Coyote, particularly when he’s trying to head off Madelaine. Daliah Lavi is playing an airhead for the most part and it gets wearying but then her character is required to turn resourceful and she fairs much better – plus Lavi is stunning. Frobe essays the comedy German scientist and he’s having a hard time of it; the main joke is him being constantly blown up by his own explosive invention – yes, including cartoon charcoal face/ smoking hair after-effect. It’s not that funny a joke to sustain. Technically, Gert and Terry are reprising their stints on Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, a film Rocket shares a lot in common with tonally. Lionel Jeffries tries his best but it’s a lot of huff & puff with not a lot to work with. Didn’t he design a rocket ship for First Men In The Moon as well? Everybody else is superfluous, particularly Barnum’s sidekick Tom Thumb. After he refuses the opportunity to be the ‘lucky’ astronaut round about an hour in, Tom simply disappears out of the film – seriously, gone like he never existed. Very odd. I get the feeling he should have been the astronaut originally but for whatever reason (lack of confidence in his ability to carry this aspect of the film?) switched to Donahue, an otherwise undistinguished presence in the movie. Shouldn’t speculate, I’m probably completely wrong…
Lovefilm’s disc sleeve gives the running time as 89 minutes; try 114 of the little bastards. I gather the US cut is 95 minutes… sounds like someone has been trying to chisel a decent movie out of this. No need to bother, not worth the effort. Bin this and find a proper Jules Verne adaption instead.
7-minute clip: http://tinyurl.com/pt7nadd
It’s having 1.5 Nowty Ducks out of 5
ThereWolf, September 2013