MOON PILOT (1962)
As I roll a little further into the ’60s, Disney leaves behind the drudgery of the Old West and launches into space (or at very least follows an astronaut around for a while while he goes to visit his parents). Directed by James Neilson, Moon Pilot is an odd little movie. Sometimes it’s a spy drama. Sometimes it’s a corny romance. Hell, occasionally it’s even a movie about piloting to the moon (but not very often). Moon Pilot has crash-landed in that tragic valley between being bad enough to mock and being good enough to recommend. Let’s take a closer look.
Moon Pilot descends into so many subplots that it’s somewhat difficult to say what the actual plot of the movie is. By all accounts, however, it seems to follow the hapless Capt. Richmond Talbot (Tom Tryon), a man who has been selected for an important moon-orbiting mission, but only because a chimpanzee stabbed him in the ass with a fork.
A great start to any tale.
Now, at this point you might expect that our titular pilot would start making his way to the moon. You would be wrong. Talbot wants to go home on leave, and there is much hemming and hawing over whether the military will allow him to do so. This all sounds quite dull, and largely would be if Brian Keith didn’t give such a fun performance as the blustery General Vanneman.
This character is a blast and it’s a tragedy that he isn’t in a better movie.
Talbot gets permission to go visit his mom, but the plot thickens (thank goodness, since up till this point it’s been dangerously thin) when a mysterious woman named Lyrae (Dany Saval) begins tailing Talbot with unknown intent. Mostly she just leers at him and offers him some suspicious pills.
You may have noticed that all the screenshots in this article have thus far just been people sitting around. That’s because the majority of the plot unfolds through dialogue. This isn’t a huge problem while the film is getting its exposition out of the way, but once it tries to switch gears into an espionage plot, the lack of action becomes a real drag. Mild jogging is pretty much the extent of the excitement.
There is probably more sidewalk jogging than moon piloting in this film.
After an almost fatally long sequence in which Talbot sits around in the protective custody of Federal Security agent McClosky (Edmond O’Brien), Lyrae returns and suddenly the movie has become a strange romance. Finally the film’s lackluster first hour pays off, and we are treated to a half hour of bizarre, endearing, albeit sedate, humor.
It really is slightly more fun than these screenshots make it look.
Under the surface, Moon Pilot is about that moment everyone must face when they have to choose between following their parents’ instructions and living life on their own terms. Talbot, of course, is our young man, and as he prepares for his lunar flight, the movie practically buries him under authority figures. In addition to the brashly overbearing general and the overprotective Agent McClosky, our unwilling astronaut has to contend with a Senator (Bob Sweeney), the Secretary of the Air Force (Kent Smith), and even a nutritionist (Nancy Culp of The Beverly Hillbillies fame).
He’s literally surrounded.
As he prepares to go off on leave, days before his scheduled launch, these authority figures give him a list of rules that could easily be intended for a teenager going on an overnight school trip: no drinking, no smoking, no messing around with girls, eat nothing but this highly concentrated nourishing paste. Talbot is entirely dominated by his father, the Air Force.
Here he stands, staring sadly at his father’s mighty phallus.
But suddenly, there is another influence in Talbot’s life, a woman who is leading him in a different direction. The moon flight is dangerous, Lyrae warns; without proper protection, Talbot will go mad. Unfortunately, there’s no way the military will take advice on their spacecraft from a suspected spy. What will Talbot do now that he has to choose between obeying the paternal commands of his military and taking the helpful advice of his new crush? Talbot chooses to follow Lyrae’s advice, and eventually gathers the courage to stand up to the general, and the two hash out their differences over the phone.
I feel like every college kid has an angry dad yelling at them over the phone at some point.
Of course, Talbot’s leaving the nest is not entirely approved by the general. Having heard that Lyrae dresses like a beatnik, Federal Security has rounded up an entire lineup of hep individuals, and the general attempts to shame Talbot, asking, “What in heaven do you see in weirdos like that?”
Fun fact: even in a police lineup, beatniks cannot resist snapping their fingers and reciting poetry.
Talbot has grown up and taken control of his own life. Yes, he’s still going to the moon, the path his parents have set him on, but he’s doing it on his own terms, with the extra shielding provided by his future wife. After all, it’s okay to assert your independence (as long as you’re still fighting for America).
WHY DON’T PEOPLE LIKE IT?:
While the film is fairly enjoyable in its thoroughly unassuming way, it’s easy to see why Moon Pilot hasn’t gone down in history as a Disney classic. For every minute of fun, there are two of padding. The acting, while enthusiastic, isn’t very good. And the almost complete lack of space adventure is pretty disappointing. What can you do?
- Tommy Kirk makes an awkwardly brief appearance as Talbot’s brother, in a scene that serves no purpose whatsoever. I can only assume he’s just in there so that Disney can advertise Moon Pilot as featuring the star of Old Yeller and The Shaggy Dog. Hooray.
“Hi! I’m in this movie for some reason!”
MOST REGRETTABLE MOMENT:
I’m not a primate expert, but I’m going to go ahead and guess that smoking isn’t the healthiest thing for a chimpanzee to be doing.
What’s next, Any Which Way But Snus?
I’m not going to lie, I enjoyed Moon Pilot much more than I ever should have. For all its lulls and poor pacing, I found the performances to be thoroughly enjoyable, and there are several great gags sprinkled throughout the film. With a little bit (okay, maybe a lot) of tightening, this could have been the perfect live action movie, but as it stands now, it is a flawed gem. Nevertheless, if you are feeling bored some afternoon, you can rent the film on YouTube. There are definitely worse ways to spend your afternoon and your three dollars.
Bon Voyage! (1962)