Space Films Before 1950
To be sure, it is also likely that the space films before 1950s that I have not seen or considered will prove to be insignificant, from the perspective of the spacesuit film; because virtually all films involving space travel prior to 1950 tended to follow certain conventions. While they might seem moderately plausible in depicting the building of spacecraft and the preparations for launching, in light of then-current technology, they tend to become less and less realistic the further they get away from Earth. In particular, space travelers are never concerned about possible dangers in outer space: during their flights, they wear either street clothes or outfits modeled on the clothing of early aviators, like jackets and goggles; they never experience zero gravity or worry about meteors; and when they land on another planet, they step out of their spaceships completely unprotected, confident that they will encounter a breathable atmosphere, suitable temperature, and beings that usually look and act exactly like humans.
The first of these films, George Méliès's Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902), is generally characterized as completely farcical, but this is not entirely true, since this short film does begin with a somewhat serious discussion amongst learned astronomers regarding how a flight to the Moon might be accomplished, and subsequent scenes depicting the construction of the space gun and the vehicle for the space travelers seem reasonably well grounded in the available technology of the time as it might have been applied to the challenge of space flight. However, having a chorus line of beautiful girls push the vehicle into position to be launched signals a weakening impulse to project any aura of authenticity, and once the capsule is shot into space, a decisive shift to pure fantasy is announced by a scene in which the capsule buries itself in the eye of an animated Man in the Moon, followed by equally unrealistic scenes involving the travelers moving about on the Moon in street clothes and encountering fantastic creatures. Still, one can recognize this brief film as a precursor to two later film traditions involving spacesuits: its generally comic tone anticipates the humorous spacesuit film, while its menacing Selenites (eventually defeated when it is discovered that they disintegrate when struck) are arguably the first of the space monsters that will later epitomize the horrific spacesuit film.
To consider three later films of a similar nature, Méliès soon made another film featuring space travel, Le Voyage à Travers l'Impossible (The Impossible Voyage) (1904), which is more fanciful in all respects, in that it involves a group of travelers who voyage to the Sun inside a runaway train. However, it might be noted that the way the train is sent flying through space, by speeding it up a high mountain, is not unlike the ramp employed to launch a spacecraft in When Worlds Collide (1951), and the film has one evocative scene of the train speeding through the blackness of space, passing by the planets, before the train is swallowed by the mouth of the Sun's face and the travelers land upon a hot but absurdly habitable Sun. There is also a little-known curiosity, Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomón's Excursion dans la Lune (Excursion to the Moon) (1908), which is for the most part a blatant copy of Méliès's Le Voyage dans la Lune with a few interesting variations. The projectile here is loaded into the space cannon not by scantily-clad women, but more realistically by uniformed soldiers; the capsule does not hit the Man in the Moon (portrayed by an actual human face) in the eye, but is rather swallowed by him; and while the residents of the Moon again include costumed acrobats who vanish at a touch, the visitors are also entertained in the court of the lunar king by a group of lovely female dancers, anticipating later films like Cat-Women of the Moon that would similarly inhabit the Moon with beautiful women, and one of them is abducted by the Earth men and taken back to Earth with them. A better-known film inspired by Méliès was British director Walter Booth's The ? Motorist (1906), in which a motorist drives his automobile up a building, through the sky, on top of a cloud, around the Moon, and around the rings of Saturn before he falls to the Earth in the middle of a courtroom. In these and other short films providing fanciful sequences of space travel, including Chomón's Voyage sur Jupiter (1909) and Enrico Novelli's Un Matrimonio Interplanetario (1910), however, there was never any effort to portray space travel plausibly.
A later silent film, Yakov Protazanov's Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), was reasonably realistic in envisioning a spaceship to Mars being constructed by an engineer named Los (Nikolai Tsereteli), based on plans he had carefully prepared. However, while the spacecraft's exterior looks plausible enough, the interior appears identical to a spacious room in a house, despite pieces of equipment in the background, and the conclusion of the flight seems as fanciful as A Trip to the Moon: the ship crash-lands on Mars, but the three crew members emerge unharmed into a completely Earthlike environment and immediately encounter Martians who seem exactly like human beings. (A few Martians do wear costumes and helmets that resemble spacesuits, but they cannot be protective in nature, since other Martians survive perfectly well while wearing normal, or very little, clothing.) After Los has a romantic encounter with the Martian queen Aelita (Yuliya Solntseva), who had been longingly observing him from Mars, and after his crewmate Gusev (Nikolai Batalov) leads a Communist revolution of the oppressed Martian workers, the entire flight and the landing on Mars are revealed to be nothing more than Los's dreams, which completely invalidates any idea that the film was arguing in favor of the practicality of space travel. The significance of Aelita is that, along with Himmelskibet, it anticipates a third tradition of spacesuit films, the melodramatic spacesuit films, in which space travelers encounter aliens who are identical to human beings and become embroiled in situations that are exactly like conventional conflicts on Earth.
What may be the first talking film to depict space travel, Just Imagine (1930), is generally described as the first science fiction musical, though by modern standards it would only be considered a romantic comedy with a few musical numbers. Its central story involves a man of the year 1980, J-21 (John Garrick), who is being forbidden by law to marry the girl he loves, LN-18 (Maureen O'Sullivan), because he is deemed insufficiently accomplished. To win his appeal of the decision, he agrees to become the first person to fly to Mars in an experimental spacecraft built by renowned inventor Z-4 (Hobart Bosworth); accompanying him are his best friend RT-42 (Frank Albertson) and a man from the past, 1930, Single O (El Brendel), who has recently been brought back to life after he was struck by a lightning bolt in 1930. While the film's focus is usually on the mildly amusing antics of vaudeville comedian Brendel, the film is momentarily serious when Z-4 tells J-21 why it is important for someone to undertake this mission:
[Z-4] Thousands of years ago, man wondered what was across the river. Then he went over and found out. Later, Columbus wondered what was across the ocean, and he went over and found out. Since then, men have sought for and learned every secret of the Earth—on the land, in the water, in the air. But there is one secret, the greatest of all, that remains a mystery.This qualifies as an interesting early argument in favor of space travel, contextualizing such endeavors as a natural continuation of humanity's ancient quest to learn about new and distant realms.
As for the spaceship itself, while it is powered by an otherwise-unexplained "gravity neutralizer," it looks very much like a standard rocketship, although it blasts off horizontally like the rocketships of later serials. Furthermore, the travelers do not wear spacesuits or experience zero gravity, but there is one touch of realism during their journey, an image of distant Earth against a black sky filled with stars. Once they reach Mars, though, a spirit of absurdity returns, since they find the planet inhabited by a mixture of friendly and hostile humans wearing odd, skimpy costumes (all Martians, they deduce, are twins, one good and one bad); but the Martians at least do not speak English, and there is a rare acknowledgement that conditions there are different than Earth when the travelers effortlessly move their large spaceship around into position for liftoff, an ability explicitly attributed to Mars's lower gravity. That lower gravity would necessarily mean a thinner atmosphere, naturally, is never acknowledged.
Another film, Things to Come (1936), is more serious and realistic than these predecessors, which is natural enough given that its screenplay was based on a novel by, and written by, renowned science fiction writer H. G. Wells. Yet this chronicle of humanity's future only involves space travel in its concluding scenes, wherein an advanced future civilization undertakes the construction of an immense "space gun" to launch a manned rocket, resembling a cross between a spaceship and a bullet, which is designed to circumnavigate the Moon. Interestingly, the drama of these scenes involves a mob of people who are determined to prevent the flight, which makes this one of the first science fiction stories to envision opposition to space travel and foreshadows the efforts to prevent a pioneering space flight which will be observed in Destination Moon. However, the film entirely avoids the question of what might actually happen to its passengers during the flight by ending the story with the rocket's departure being observed by two speechifying spectators, Oswald Cabal (Raymond Massey) and Raymond Passworthy (Edward Chapman). Still, despite the fact that its two space travelers do not wear spacesuits, this classic film merits some attention in this survey because Cabal's final speech offers a singularly eloquent vision of a human destiny to conquer the universe which, in a sense, makes it the first film to present the full potential range of possibilities in the spacesuit film:
Rest enough for the individual man—too much, and too soon—and we call it death. But for Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its winds and ways, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.Strangely enough, at the precise time that the British Wells was articulating this glorious vision of humanity's glorious future in space, American filmmakers were in the process of presenting space travel solely as a novel pathway to the sorts of juvenile adventures that had long appealed to young audiences. Taking their inspiration from two popular comic strips of the day featuring space adventurers, they produced four Saturday-morning serials, three starring Flash Gordon (Flash Gordon , Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars , and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe ) and one featuring another hero, Buck Rogers (1939), which all were later reedited as feature films for television and videocassette release. These four narratives deal with space flight entirely by means of brief transitional scenes displaying squat rocketships, with sparks emerging from their rear ends, that take off and fly horizontally through the sky more like an airplane than a spaceship; these are always viewed in flight only against the backdrop of an atmosphere, and never the blackness of outer space. Furthermore, the alien worlds visited in these serials may be inhabited by exotic but humanoid creatures like the Hawk Men and Rock Men encountered by Flash Gordon or the Zuggs that Buck Rogers meets on Saturn, but the planets' environments were otherwise identical to Earth; we may be told that Saturn's atmospheric pressure is ten times greater than Earth's, but visiting humans breath normally while on the planet, and while the evil Ming's minions may at times wear metal masks over their faces, these are clearly not airtight and are in no way related to actual spacesuits.
Evaluated as portrayals of space travel, the Flash Gordon serials are the silliest: Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) and his colleagues Dale Arden (Jean Rogers, Carol Hughes) and Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) never wear any special clothing when they fly into space, their spaceship features an incongruous periscope borrowed from the design of a submarine, and their adventures tend to involve a single space flight to another planet, either Mongo or Mars, where they stay to struggle against the schemes of the villainous emperor Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton) until they finally triumph and return to Earth. During these sojourns, they may occasionally get into their spaceship or battle against Ming's spaceships, but these vehicles always stay within the atmosphere.
The Buck Rogers serial was marginally more realistic; if they are not wearing spacesuits, Buck Rogers (Buster Crabbe) and his crew at least are dressed like aviators of the day, a modest acknowledgment that space travel might demand special garments, and their efforts to defeat the future Earth's dictator, Killer Kane (Anthony Warde), with the help of virtuous but easily deluded Saturnians involve several trips from Earth to Saturn and back, with the story's shifting locales signaled by establishing shots of either Earth or Saturn, observed against a black background with stars, which fleetingly provided an authentic image of outer space. Finally, amidst a crisis during Buck's first flight into space, there is a brief mention of the ship's "oxygen tanks," though these appear to be there as part of the propulsion system and not to help the space travelers breathe during their journey.
It is easy to laugh at these serials when they are viewed today, but their lasting impact cannot be denied: they served as the model for a number of melodramatic spacesuit films and television programs of the early 1950s (as will be discussed), including series featuring Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and their influence can also be strongly felt in what became the major space franchises of recent decades, Star Trek and Star Wars. (Indeed, after the success of his American Graffiti , George Lucas had initially planned to film a new version of Flash Gordon, and it was only when he proved unable to obtain the rights to the character that he decided to instead develop the original space adventure he would call Star Wars .)
However, for whatever reasons one might have for celebrating these serials and the other early space films, there were only three films before 1950 that were truly breaking new ground in offering plausible predictions of human space travel: Danish director Holger-Madsen's Himmelskibet, which acknowledges the potential dangers of outer space by having its space travelers briefly don crude spacesuits; the German Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou's Frau imMond, accurately described by David Wingrove as "the first realistic space film about a journey to the Moon" (Science Fiction Film Source Book 47); and a less renowned Russian successor, Vasili Zhuravlev's KosmicheskiyReys, which drew upon the expertise of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. It is with these films, which demand more detailed attention, that the saga of the spacesuit film truly begins.
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