George Pal - Part 1

Hey Colonel! You forgot your toothbrush!Whereas the world of Star Trek is set in a future with existing modes of space travel, the fifties sci-fi dramas of producer/director George Pal either took place in the present day, or jumped ahead to a fuzzy future where things looked contemporary, but somehow we humans managed to put up a big space donut in Earth’s orbit.

Pal’s origins lay in a series Puppetoons shorts before he hedged his bets with director Irving Pichel and made a family film about a squirrel – The Great Rupert – and the 2001: A Space Odyssey of the fifties, Destination Moon. Both were made in 1950, but it’s the space film that ignited a Technicolor interest in what man could do with rocket fuel and the industrial machine at full throttle.

Destination wasn’t as abstract and head-scratching as 2001 – the plot was basically a bunch of guys going rogue and flying off to the moon – but the special effects were revolutionary and still look impressive (at least when you can’t see the studio lights reflected in the helmet visors). Pal’s film also has a unique angle involving the relationship between military and private industry, which makes it more intriguing that your average fifties space exploration drama.

Destination was followed by When Worlds Collide (1951) and the amazing War of the Worlds (1953) – both to be reviewed shortly – and the space quartet more or less ended with Conquest of Space (1955), the lesser of the lot for a number of reasons that include dreadful dialogue, familiar plot points, and a religious zealot you really wish would get socked in the nose and shut up.

These films are very much rooted in the fears and hopes of the fifties, as well as a kind of idealism that’s just not present in contemporary sci-fi, but there is a common view that sometimes we go too far, and the risks may be too great for the spacemen as well as the human race.

Conquest has more sophisticated effects than Destination, and that may be due to the influence of MGM’s own Forbidden Planet (1953), which stretched out craft landings and takeoffs into gorgeous montages. Conquest has some beautiful shots of spinning planets, and there’s an asteroid sequence that must have looked awesome on the big screen.

Destination is in dire need of a real restoration, and the bulk of Pal’s other productions (mostly for Paramount) deserve the same, as was done for War of the Worlds. If Paramount has any foresight, they should use the eventual DVD release of the new Star Trek to exploit their sci-fi catalogue, if not their George Pal films (and that includes the Puppetoons) because in spite of the hokiness and fanciful concepts of the future, the Pal films are landmarks of the genre that deserve to be seen in the best possible state, and worn prints with hazy colours on the current DVDs just don’t do it.

The other major component in the success of these films is the work of Cheseley Bonestell, whose matte paintings (see top of this post) are truly hypnotic. The vivid details and haunting images of desolate planets and moons were integral to the mood of Pal’s films, and Bonestell later produced his own series, Men Into Space (1959-1960) which apparently ran for a season before disappearing from TV. That’s another rarity in need of a proper DVD release.

This is what the home video industry does best: exploit like-minded or similar-styled titles languishing on the shelves when a major hit is in the consciousness of fans and enthusiasts.

Instead of repackaging and reissuing, focus on a bit of restoration and rescuing.

It’s good karma, you know.



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