For all his rose-tinted nostalgia and love of trains and history, Walt Disney was a genuine futurist. He had ambitious plans for his theme park’s Tomorrowland and would soon begin to formulate an even bigger dream called EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. The Disneyland TV show produced several acclaimed episodes on the space race, including Man In Space, Man And The Moon and Mars And Beyond. A feature film centered around man’s attempts to reach the stars was all but inevitable. But for whatever reason, Walt’s first movie on the subject was a bizarre comedy clunker.
Moon Pilot was based on an obscure sci-fi novel called Starfire by Robert Buckner, the screenwriter of such classics as Yankee Doodle Dandy. (Give the Disney story department credit for this much, they were adept at finding deep cut books and short stories to base their films on.) Maurice Tombragel was assigned screenwriting duties. Tombragel came from the TV side, where he’d written a ton of Disneyland episodes including Texas John Slaughter and The Nine Lives Of Elfego Baca.
Director James Neilson also came from television, having helmed episodes of Zorro and Texas John Slaughter. Moon Pilot would be his first theatrical credit for Disney but not his last. He’d also continue to work on the TV end and several of those projects would be released theatrically overseas, including the pirate adventure The Mooncussers with Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran and Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow. Neilson will be back in this column very soon.
Our story opens in medias res, as cigar-chomping Air Force Major General John Vanneman (Brian Keith in his third Disney outing) monitors an astronaut named Charlie as he attempts the first manned orbit of the moon. It’s a picture-perfect mission and as the crew recovers the capsule, we discover that Charlie is a chimpanzee, proudly carrying on the lineage of Disney Primates from such films as Toby Tyler.
Everyone is so pleased by the mission’s success that they decide to move up their timetable and launch a human astronaut within the week. For some reason, this seems to be the first time anyone has considered sending a man into space and Vanneman asks for a volunteer. Despite the fact that all these men work for the space program, nobody wants the dangerous honor of being the first man to orbit the moon. The Right Stuff, this ain’t.
Charlie takes matters into his own hands by sticking his klutzy trainer, Captain Richmond Talbot (Tom Tryon), in the butt with a fork. Talbot leaps to his feet and Vanneman mistakes him for an enthusiastic volunteer. Talbot reluctantly agrees but first asks for a few days leave to go home and visit his family. Vanneman signs off on this plan and why not? It’s not like that time could be better spent on details like training and test flights.
On the plane home, Talbot meets a sexy, mysterious young woman named Lyrae (Dany Saval). Lyrae knows all about Talbot’s top-secret mission and when she continues to unexpectedly pop up with warnings that his spacecraft isn’t safe, Talbot reports that he’s being followed by a foreign spy. Vanneman orders him back to the base and a “National Security” agent named McClosky (Edmond O’Brien) is assigned to make sure he does.
Lyrae follows Talbot to San Francisco where she reveals that she’s an alien from the planet Beta Lyrae. Why she has the same name as her home planet remains a mystery. She provides a secret formula to protect Talbot’s spacecraft from the dangerous photon rays that have made Charlie more aggressive and unpredictable. As they explore the city, Talbot falls in love with the space girl.
Vanneman and McClosky arrive and interrogate Talbot at the police station. Unable to find Lyrae, McClosky orders a round-up of young beatnik women in hopes that a witness will be able to pick her out of a lineup. One of these poetry-reciting girls, clad in a baggy sweater and glasses, is played by a young Sally Field making her film debut. Field will eventually make her way back to this column, providing the voice of Sassy the cat in the 1993 remake Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and its sequel, but that’s quite a way down the road.
At any rate, Vanneman gets Talbot back to base and even agrees to coat his spacecraft in Lyrae’s mystery compound if it makes him feel better. The launch proceeds without a hitch until, all of a sudden, Lyrae shows up out of nowhere in the seat next to Talbot. Why are there two seats in a capsule designed for a single astronaut? I don’t know but if that’s the only thing that bugs you about this story, you’re not paying close enough attention. Lyrae and Talbot are in love and she invites him to return with her to Beta Lyrae. Talbot changes course and off they go, blissfully singing the space anthem “The Seven Moons of Beta Lyrae” (one of three original tunes composed by the Sherman Brothers, not exactly bringing their A-game) as a thoroughly confused Vanneman listens over the radio and a thoroughly confused audience rushes for the exits.
So where do we start with Moon Pilot? This is meant to be a wacky comedy and that’s fine. I can certainly appreciate a good wacky comedy. Every so often a gag will land, maybe not as forcefully as it should but enough to provoke a smile or two. Bob Sweeney, last seen as the smarmy concession salesman in Toby Tyler, is fun as a smarmy, glad-handing Senator. The beatnik lineup is kind of cute, although it’s basically the same joke repeated over and over as one group of weirdos and oddballs gets replaced by another.
The biggest problem is leading man Tom Tryon. This was Tryon’s first and only movie for Disney after landing the title role in Texas John Slaughter. Tryon looks like he was well-suited to playing the lead in a western but comedy is not his forte. He just isn’t funny. Talbot is a naïve, bumbling guy who gets in way over his head. The part calls for someone like Jerry Lewis. Tryon is stiff and uncomfortable throughout.
Tryon went on to have a pretty interesting post-Disney career. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal and worked steadily in films and TV through the end of the 1960s. By the end of the decade, he’d become fed up with acting and became a successful horror novelist, writing books like The Other and Harvest Home. He died in 1991 at the age of 65, ostensibly of stomach cancer although it was later revealed that he’d been keeping his HIV-positive diagnosis a secret.
Dany Saval was also one-and-done with Disney. She was a rising star in France when she made her American film debut in Moon Pilot. Saval went right back to France after Moon Pilot’s failure to launch, making a brief return to Hollywood for the Jerry Lewis/Tony Curtis comedy Boeing, Boeing in 1965. She retired from show business in the late 1980s.
In addition to Brian Keith, there is one other familiar Disney face in Moon Pilot. Our old buddy Tommy Kirk, billed as a “special guest star”, turns up as Tryon’s younger brother. It’s a superfluous cameo with Kirk picking Tryon up at the airport and giving him a ride home. I half suspect that Kirk really was just picking Tryon up at the airport and they decided to roll cameras on the spot. Honestly, Kirk would have been a better choice to play the lead here. Granted, he was a little too young to believably pull off being an Air Force captain. But believability did not seem to be of utmost concern anywhere else in this movie, so why should that matter here?
Moon Pilot came and went without making much of a dent in April 1962. It made a little bit of money but not enough to promote it into the big leagues. While many contemporary critics found good things to say about the movie, the FBI was less than enthusiastic. They complained about Edmond O’Brien’s portrayal of a bumbling, incompetent agent, even though they’d already forced Disney to change the name of the agency he works for. The Bureau was clearly being oversensitive, probably because they were still nursing hurt feelings over a Disney/FBI collaboration that had fallen apart a few years earlier.
The FBI’s declassified file on Walt shows that they’d had a somewhat cozy relationship. Walt admired their work and the Bureau believed that Walt could be a very friendly asset if necessary. In the late 50s, Walt plotted out a short series for The Mickey Mouse Club that would follow young cub reporter Dirk Metzger’s journey to Washington. Segments were planned on the treasury, the White House and the Congress and a big chunk would be spent on the FBI. The Bureau became heavily involved with those scripts, demanding a whole laundry list of changes even after seeing the rough cuts. As far as Walt was concerned, nobody had final cut approval on his work except for Walt Disney, not even the FBI. So he canned the whole project. Moon Pilot isn’t exactly Swiftian in its satire of the Bureau but it certainly isn’t the piece of rah-rah propaganda he’d been planning before, either.
While Walt would continue to dabble with science fiction, primarily through his gimmick comedies, it’s a little surprising that he didn’t return to outer space in his lifetime. It’ll be quite some time before we see another rocket or spaceship in this column. That’s kind of a shame. The Disneyland episodes suggest that Walt could have made a very good, serious movie on the subject. Although to be honest, I’d be happy if he’d simply made a more successful comedy.
VERDICT: Disney Minus