Alphabetical Index of Column Topics

Click here for index.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Astronaut Comedies (originally published 11/97)

As it happens, the premise of "Rocketman" coincided exactly with my reading of Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff." Although I'd seen Philip Kaufman's film adaptation, I somehow had never gotten around to reading Wolfe's book until now. Considering that I was as caught up in the drama of Project Mercury as any child of the sixties, it's amazing that I took so long to get around to it.

Apropos of "Rocketman," Wolfe's account reminded me that the space program, for all its high adventure and drama, also had its lighter side right from the beginning. Comedian Bill Dana made endless hay out of the risks faced by astronauts by turning his onstage alter ego, Jose Jimenez, into a cowardly astronaut who wanted no part of the hazards of space travel. Astronaut Alan Shepard, the first man to ride the Redstone rocket, was so amused by Dana's routine that he used to impersonate the hapless Jose himself for the amusement of his cohorts. Not surprisingly, there were comic movies on the subject as well. If "Rocketman" has tickled your funnybone, you might want to look for these earlier astronaut comedies on video.

"Abbott and Costello Go To Mars" (1953). This late Abbott and Costello film was nevertheless too early to be inspired by Project Mercury. Instead, it was inspired by the success of a film called "Destination Moon," scripted by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. "Destination Moon" sought to portray rocket travel to the moon in a rigorously realistic way. Bud and Lou responded by portraying it in an utterly ridiculous way. Despite the title, the boys never do quite make it to Mars. Their first landing takes them to an exotic place inhabited by creatures with unearthly faces. They assume, reasonably enough, that they are on Mars, but it turns out that they've only landed back on Earth, in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. A second foray takes them to the planet Venus, which is inhabited, as so much of the solar system seemed to be in B-movies of the period, by dead ringers for human beauty contest finalists.

"Moon Pilot" (1962). Walt Disney movies are not generally known for their biting satire, but this largely forgotten little gem definitely has an edge to its humor. Tom Tryon stars as a reluctant volunteer for the first moon launch. Actually, it's the second moon mission, since an orbital flight around the moon has already been made by a chimpanzee. As Wolfe points out, this was a sore point among the real astronauts. Every pioneering step they took was a step down a trail that had already been blazed by a monkey. This was the source of considerable good-natured ribbing among the fraternity of test pilots. Disney gleefully rubs salt in the wound by making the astronaut chimp a significant presence in the film. In fact, it is a playful fork in the ribs from the chimp that causes Tryon's character to jump up when volunteers are solicited, thereby committing him to a job he didn't really intend to ask for.

"The Reluctant Astronaut" (1967). Following his tenure as Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show," Don Knotts did a series of films in which he translated the broader aspects of Deputy Fife's inept buffoonery to the big screen. In between playing a timid reporter facing the supernatural in "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" (1966) and a tenderfoot dentist facing the wild west in "The Shakiest Gun in the West" (1968), Knotts portrayed an acrophobic astronaut in this gentle spoof of the space program. Roy Fleming (Knotts), an apprentice janitor at the space center, wins the competition to man an upcoming rocket launch. It isn't quite the honor that it seems to be, however. To prove the efficiency of their spacecraft, the flight controllers have decided to man it with the least qualified applicant available. If it can fly with Roy aboard, the rocket will be officially pronounced foolproof. Even in this inoffensive little movie, then, we can detect a small satiric barb. As Wolfe points out, one of the criticisms aimed at the Mercury astronauts by their test pilot comrades was that they weren't really pilots, just passive passengers in the capsule.

Like "Rocketman," each of these astronaut comedies deals primarily in low comedy, so don't expect Shavian wit. We're not talking about the right stuff here - just the light stuff.

No comments: