Photos from Heinlein's lost moon movie

Bill Higgins sez,

The 1950 film Destination Moon, attempting to use the most realistic possible science and technology, dramatized an imaginary landing on the Moon. Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein collaborated on the screenplay, and served as technical adviser; space artist Chesley Bonestell designed sets, spacecraft, and background paintings for the film.

A trove of unpublished photos, depicting the filming of Destination Moon, has turned up in Google's recently-added archive of photos from Life magazine. Photographer Allan Grant spent a lot of time on the soundstage. Four of his photos were used in the April 24, 1950 issue-- but Google has over 200 others, never before published.

Checking the film's production callsheets in the UC Santa Cruz archive of Heinlein's papers, I believe Grant shot these during the first two weeks of December 1949. Bill Leininger and I were cruising the archive and discovered this collection. It's a fantastically detailed look behind the scenes of a classic science fiction movie.

LIFE Discovered on Moon!


  1. The best part is that NASA got to save on production costs by using the same props and sets when they faked the whole thing 19 years later.

  2. I’ve seen it too. Unfortunately, Hollywood quickly grew tired of the actual science in these movies and replaced them with movies of astronauts landing on exotic planets populated exclusively by beautiful women.

  3. Nelson.C, the movie’s not lost. The photos were lost. Or, anyway, locked up in the gloom-ridden vaults of Time, Incorporated.

    (I didn’t write the headline, kids.)

    Let me assure you that Destination Moon is a well-known movie that has been on TV a lot and is easily available on DVD.

    But I was excited to find this stack of soundstage snapshots lurking within Google. More Destination Moon than you wanted to see, perhaps.

    Anonymous, I link to the Google Books page on Requiem in my blog entry.

  4. No, the film isn’t lost at all, and can be seen at any time simply by putting it in your Netflix queue. That’s how I saw it recently (first time since I was a very small child). I even wrote a whole apazine about putting together a DVD double-feature of Destination Moon along with Rocketship X-M.

    There’s a long story about these two films. Destination Moon was going to be the most expensive movie ever made (by 1940s standards), and George Pal did not have a long resume of big-budget movies behind him. In the 1940s, he was best known for his Puppetoons, which were stop-motion animated short subjects. He sold the concept of the picture on the strength of his experience in special effects and had the brilliant idea of shooting it with a new color process and depicting the expedition with as much scientific accuracy as possible. He lured Heinlein to Hollywood so he could help secure financing for his Moon project. Though still considered a hack science fiction writer, Heinlein commanded some respect in the market for his skills, and his juveniles were wildly popular, so his first screenplay was a hot property. Early drafts ended up being leaked all over the studio community and it wasn’t long before he got his first “Hollywood Haircut” thanks to producer/directory Kurt Neumann and blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who hastily rushed XM into production as a quick turnaround black and white feature.

    Rocketship X-M was shot so quickly and with minimal special effects that it ended up in theaters months before Dstination Moon, and the many publicity efforts George Pal used to promote his film (the LIFE Magazine article was only one such gimmick; Popular Science also published a long article about the movie), only served to help Rocketship X-M make even more money.

    But it is quite interesting to compare the films as they were crafted by two very different writers. Heinlein’s film makes many references to getting a base established on the moon before the Russians try the same thing, and his ship is fueled by nuclear fusion. RAH was a well-known critic of communism, and many of his stories from this period depicted the red menace of the Russian threat. For a more blatant example, check out Project Moonbase, another less successful SF film from 1953 that he wrote while in Hollywood.

    Dalton Trumbo was, of course, one of the blacklisted screenwriters accused of being a member of the Communist Party, so he could not get much work during this time, and had to write under a pseudonym. Rocketship X-M is launched as a moon expedition, using an experimental rocket fuel, but is knocked far off-course by a “meteor shower” and ends up landing on Mars. Scientific accuracy was of no concern for these adventurers, and they don’t have any problem with zero gravity, since they walk around their spaceship just fine. The Mars they explore however, appears to have been devastated by a nuclear war, and only scattered ruins remain of an advanced civilization.

    But watch the two movies back to back and you can see where Trumbo pulled scenes directly from Heinlein’s script (take note that both films prominently feature a harmonica).

  5. Harmonica! LOL!

    That’s a common non-technical-person mistake.

    The instrument used in both movies is actually an Atomic Harmonicoscillator.

  6. I’m surprised no one mentioned that this was actually a brilliant episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The sexism is annoying, the science is ok if occasionally silly, the riffing is perfect. Just sayin’.

  7. This was one of the earliest sci-fi movies that attempted to look realistic. No bug-eyed monsters. No fantastic stretches. But not much of a plot.
    Chesley Bonestell Was a wonder. Everything he did was well designed and based on our current knowledge. Everything was in proper proportion and perspective. He later did the matte paintings for the original War of the Worlds.
    His collection of solar system paintings inspired the kids who became the space program scientists. They brought him from his home in the Santa Cruz mountains to see the images from the first fly by of Jupiter.

  8. _Destination Moon_ is far from lost, I have a DVD copy that cost a whopping $10 at Best Buy a few years ago.

    On the documentary _The World of George Pal_ DVD there is a bonus feature that is a segment from an early Los Angeles TV show called _Talk of the Town_ (or something like that) that is a series of interviews made on the set of _Destination Moon_. The rather long segment includes appearances by cast and crew, George Pal and even Robert Heinlein himself. This is the only time I’ve ever seen (or heard) Robert Heinlein on film. To me this “extra” was worth more than the rest of the disk (and I liked the rest of the disk…)

  9. I have now seen the interview on The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal. (The 3-disk set contains the same DVD.) Thanks again to Commieneko for the tip.

    This is a kinescope from TV station KTLA in Los Angeles, which in 1949 sent a mobile unit out every Wednesday to a different part of the city. “The City at Night” would do a live remote broadcast.

    This one was from the surface of the Moon. They spend about 20 minutes looking at all the sets for Destination Moon. They interview Pichel, the director, Pal, the producer, Heinlein, Chesley Bonestell, the artist, and Ernst Fegte, the production designer. We see the lunar surface and the control cabin of the Luna, and a bit of the exterior hatch set. Quite a lot of detail is pointed out on the sets, and one can see some of their placement within the soundstage building.

    The four main actors in the movie are standing around in spacesuits, with their helmets off. They don’t say much, and the camera pays little attention to them. I infer that they were interviewed in the early part of the broadcast, which has been chopped off.

    Everyone seems to be smoking all the time.

    The Eagle Lion guys allowed the KTLA crew to use their camera boom, so there are fine shots from a variety of heights.

    Heinlein only speaks for about a minute, earnestly explaining translunar trajectories to the hostess. She appears to only pretend to understand, but she has a smile ready for all occasions.

    Near the end of the show, Heinlein interrupts the hosts to get a Navy lieutenant on-screen for a brief word. Apparently RAH had engineered an opportunity to say a word about rocket research– as an ex-naval-officer, he was always looking out for good PR for the Navy.

    It’s not only a great look at DM, but also a fascinating glimpse at 1949 TV production.

    Heinlein wrote a great article about the film, “Shooting Destination Moon,” which you can find in the book Requiem, among other places.

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