Moon Pilot Part One: Out of This World

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Advertisement

I’ll be at the Disney Family Museum on Saturday, July 23, where I will be talking about “Walt and Outer Space.” For the month of July, the museum will be showing a largely forgotten Disney live-action film titled Moon Pilot.

Moon Pilot is another of the many live-action films made during Walt Disney’s lifetime that has been neglected when it comes to documentation. It is not a lost gem, but it is a solid, entertaining little fun trifle of a film that has many things to make it distinctive. For one thing, it is the first screen appearance of Academy Award-winning actress Sally Field, who would, in a few years, find fame as the star of the television show Gidget. In the film, she wears an oversized sweater and glasses, reciting pseudo-beatnik poetry on the far-right-hand side of a San Francisco police line-up near the end of the film. The part is so brief that she is not even listed in the credits.

Moon Pilot features three new songs by the legendary Sherman Brothers, although only one is truly heard in its entirety, “Seven Moons of Beta Lyrae.” The film introduced to American audiences a French actress named Dany Saval who had been touted as the “new Brigitte Bardot.” (She wasn’t.) The film also provided the first major comedic leading man film appearance of actor Tom Tryon who had recently gained attention by appearing on the weekly Disney television program as Texas John Slaughter.

Why is the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco reviving this often-forgotten live-action film? (Other than the fact that Ron Miller, the husband of Diane Disney Miller, was an associate producer and received kudos from the trade paper Daily Variety for his efforts.)

Well, for one thing, a lot of the outdoor scenes were shot on location in San Francisco. Landmarks like Coit Tower, the Oakland Bay Bridge, the little Powell Street cable-car line, Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown provide backgrounds as the astronaut and the mysterious girl avoid capture of the Federal Security Agency.

For another, this year marks the 50th anniversary of its original filming, which began May 1961. Finally, Moon Pilot should give me something really interesting to talk about in July—on top of talking about Walt’s interest in outer space.

For those readers not familiar with the storyline, here is a short synopsis of the film:

Astronaut Capt. Richmond Talbot has been monitoring Charlie the Chimp, who has just returned from a space flight. At a high level dinner meeting, Charlie sticks a fork in Talbot’s rear end causing him to accidentally volunteer to become the first man to go into outer space within days. Talbot is allowed to return home to see his mother and younger brother, but is warned to not reveal to anyone anything about the mission on his three day leave before the blast off.

On the plane flight home, Talbot encounters a beautiful, mysterious and somewhat foreign girl who knows all about his mission and is desperate to talk to him about it. When Talbot reports the meeting to his superiors, it is immediately assumed that the girl, known only as Lyrae, is a foreign spy out to brainwash Talbot and sabotage the mission. The Federal Security Agency is brought in to guard Talbot, but their over zealous bumbling allows Talbot to escape his San Francisco hotel room to see Lyrae again in a park across the street.

It turns out that Lyrae is from another planet, Beta Lyrae, that has seven moons, and wants to warn Talbot about a defect in the coating of the space capsule that will cause him to have mental problems just like Charlie if it is not corrected. Talbot is recaptured by Federal Security agents. The Starfire capsule is coated with the new formula. The rocket is successfully launched. Lyrae mysteriously appears in the capsule and suggests a short detour to Beta Lyrae before completing his mission. They sing an original Sherman Brothers song as the film ends and the people in the ground control room are puzzled.

Robert Henry Buckner was a screenwriter for such memorable films as James Cagney’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (garnering him an Oscar nomination), Errol Flynn’s Dodge City and Ronald Reagan’s Knute Rockne, All American. In his later years, he wrote for television shows like Burke’s Law and Bonanza.

In addition, he was a producer on such films as Life With Father and God is My Co-Pilot. He also wrote short stories for prestigious magazines like Redbook, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Punch and Saturday Evening Post. He is credited with three books: Sigrid and the Sergeant (1958), Tiger by the Tail (1960) and Starfire (1960). He died in 1989 at the age of 83.

Living in Palm Springs with his wife, Buckner wrote a lightheaded three-part serial for the Saturday Evening Post that appeared March 19, March 26 and April 2, 1960 titled “Starfire.” A blurb proclaimed: “The hilarious exploits of a bashful scientist and a creature gorgeous enough to send any man into orbit.”

The brief story is remarkably similar to the final Disney screenplay including taking dialogue and gags (like the name of the book Simple Science for Senators) direcly from Buckner’s writing. Buckner’s story does have a few minor differences, like the fact that much of the action takes place in New York City rather than San Francisco. Lyrae is a curly redhead in a simple long white dress and Talbot has a blonde crewcut. Talbot has an older brother rather than a younger brother and FBI agent McClosky is something of a UFO nut.

One thing in the story that brought a smile to my face is what arouses Talbot’s suspicions about Lyrae on the plane flight: “She obviously wore no brassiere…No American girl dressed like that.” Naturally, not even a suggestion of that scene appeared in the Disney film.

The three parts were gathered together and printed in a 139 page Permabook (a division of Curtis Publishing Pocket Books) in December 1960. When it became a Disney film, Permabooks reprinted the novel in January 1962 under the title of movie, Moon Pilot. Disney assigned screenwriter Maurice Tombragel to adapt Buckner’s novel. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Buckner himself had done the adaptation. Tombragel had a long career beginning the late 1930s on “B” movies like the “Boston Blackie” detective series and some westerns before transitioning into television writing in the 1950s with Adventures of Wild Bill Hickcock, Annie Oakley, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and Bat Masterson.

Buckner's first work for Disney was Moon Pilot, although he later helped write Disney’s Monkeys, Go Home (1967), as well as episodes of the Elfego Baca series, Gallegher Goes West and The Treasure of San Bosco Reef for the Disney weekly television series.

James Nielson had directed a lot of television shows including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Wagon Train and M Squad before he was tagged to direct two episodes of the Zorro series for Disney in 1961: “The Postponed Wedding” and “Auld Acquaintance.”

Apparently, Disney was pleased with his work on Moon Pilot, since Nielson went on to direct Bon Voyage, Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, The Moon-Spinners, Summer Magic and Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin. He finished his career directing television shows like Ironside and Adam-12.

Tom Tryon was a ruggedly handsome, hard-working actor who had started his acting career in 1955 with a series of appearances on television. The year 1958 became a turning point in his acting career when he appeared as the lead in a science-fiction film titled I Married a Monster from Outer Space and also landed the title role of Texas John Slaughter on the Disney weekly television show. The Texas John Slaughter series ran for 17 hour-long episodes from 1958-1961 and focused attention on the young actor.

According to the pressbook for the film, “Soon after the series debuted, letters began to pour into the studio praising the new action-drama and its star. Tryon’s fan following reached a record high and he became a new hero of America’s TV viewers.”

While he never performed for Disney again after this film, he went on to a somewhat successful movie career but eventually left acting. In 1971, he wrote his first horror novel, The Other, that was an instant bestseller. It was soon followed by other best-selling novels like Crowned Heads and Harvest Home. Tryon died at the age of 65 in 1991.

Walt Disney felt he needed a good actress but one that no one knew in America to portray the mysterious girl from outer space. According to the pressbook for the film, Walt “personally supervised an exhaustive talent hunt for ‘Lyrae’ that spanned all of America and most of Western Europe. The noted producer and his staff viewed literally thousands of feet of film and interviewed scores of potential ‘planet girl’ candidates at the Disney Studios.”

Co-producer Bill Anderson and director James Neilson spent many days overseas viewing film and interviewing young girls. Supposedly, Anderson saw Dany Saval on a foreign magazine cover and thought the 19 year old might fit the bill. Saval started her career as a dancer, but, at the age of 15, she decided to become an actress. She had starred in eight French films before Anderson and Neilson did extensive black and white as well as color tests of the young actress.

She was called to London for a final film test and given a test script in advance. She and her agent, Isabelle Kleucowsky, spent long hours going over the lines because Saval’s English was extremely limited. She learned the words (some just phonetically) and then worked up actions to suit those sounds. A number of other girls were tested at the same time, but Saval got the part.

“After I read the complete screenplay, I thought of Lyrae as very soft, like an angel. She comes from way up there, and who else but angels do? Besides, Lyrae loves a man and risks a lot to save him. For me, she was an angel and I played her so. But more than that, even, a very funny angel because I am a comedienne. And because the script is funny,” said Saval when the film was released.

Saval made only one more American film, Boeing Boeing (1965) with Jerry Lewis and Tony Curtis where she was a French stewardess. That same year she married distinguished composer Maurice Jarre and returned to France, although they divorced soon after having a child.

There are many chimpanzees named Cheeta who have appeared on television and movies. The Cheeta who played Charlie the Chimp in the film was just 5 years old. Born in Africa and captured as a baby, he was brought to America and sold to Pinky Jackson.

Cheeta could dance, walk a tight wire, ride a bicyle, jump rope, blow up balloons, sign autographs and understand simple words. None of those skills were demonstrated in the film. Oddly, besides simple furniture in his hospital room on screen, there is also a stuffed Pluto doll by the door that was probably use to entertain the chimp during takes. (In the book, he is in a cage with a trapeze.)

Tommy Kirk, then 20 years old, has a brief cameo as the younger brother of Tryon’s character. At the time, Kirk was a veteran Disney performer having been in The Hardy Boys TV series, Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, Swiss Family Robinson and The Absent Minded Professor. His brief appearance was squeezed in between finishing Babes in Toyland and beginning Bon Voyage.

When Moon Pilot was released, American audiences especially were not in the mood for a light-hearted look at the bumbling behind manned space flight. The fabled Space Race between the Americans and the Russians was deadly serious.

The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin was launched into orbit around the Earth first on April 12, 1961. The capsule was operated on automatic mode, but the accomplishment shocked and embarrassed the United States.

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space but did not achieve orbit. He was the first person in space to exercise manual control over many of the spacecraft’s functions. The first Soviet cosmonaut to exercise manual control was Titov in August 1961. A year after the Soviets put a human in orbit, the Americas did so with John Glenn on February 20, 1962.

When the Disney film was released, the conflict between the United States and the U.S.S.R. for supremacy in outer space made it extremely difficult for the Disney designers to get access to necessary information. The blockhouse set was patterned as much as it could be on the real thing as well as a mixture of common sense and good design.

Walt visited the Vandenburg Air Force Base to see the launching of an Atlas missile for himself during the early preparation for the film. With Walt was Marvin Davis who was the art director for the film, and they toured control rooms and other facilities, as well. Davis told writer John West Jr. that he and Walt got to see the actual chimpanzee that had been sent into outer space.

Davis also mentioned to West that the most difficult item for him to create was the space capsule seen in the opening segment of the film because all such information was highly classified. The Air Force also furnished a technical director, made some stock footage available, provided air craft for a scene or two and allowed some limited shooting on the base.

In the original Buckner story, there is a brief interlude of Talbot meeting his ex-girlfriend, Helen, who is still in love with him. The original treatment for the film included a similar lengthy sequence but was cut before shooting began because the script was becoming too long, especially with expanding the inclusion of “beatniks.”

Readers need to remember that this was years before the fabled Summer of Love in 1967 and crazy “hippies” were not the stereotype for kookie characters but “beatniks” from the tail end of the 1950s were. I assume it was hoped that the wild antics of these characters would bring a smile to conservative audiences, but the scene is almost painful to watch today and runs much too long with no final comedic payoff. This scene does not exist in the Buckner book.

The legendary Sherman Brothers had already worked on The Parent Trap producing Hayley Mills' hit single “Let’s Get Together” when they were pulled in to supply some additional songs for Moon Pilot.

Disney hoped for a huge success with the discovery of the young Saval. She recorded the Sherman Brothers song, "The Seven Moons of Beta Lyrae” that was released as a single with a re-release of Annette's “The Crazy Place in Outer Space” on the flip side.

The brothers also produced two “senseless songs of satire” as the pressbook described them for the beatniks: “True Love is an Apricot” and “The Void,” neither of which were really showcased properly for either comedic effect or enjoyment of the clever song writing.

These three “forgotten” tunes are just a few of the many songs the Sherman Brothers produced for Walt around this time, as he was trying to figure out exactly what they could do. He even had them do a song for an episode of Texas John Slaughter that I bet most readers have never heard.

The musical score for the film was the work of the talented Paul Smith. The Daily Variety review from January 15, 1962 states: “A special joy is Paul Smith’ score, which by playing it straight, ehnances the comic favor. Had Smith attempted to compete by inserting his own comic musical comment, his score might have intruded.”

Knowledgable Disney fans will smile when they watch Federal Security Agent McClosky watch a car chase on a black and white television in the hotel room and realize that the background music is a sound clip of the animated Martians chasing after the resourceful secretary in the Disneyland television episode, Mars and Beyond.

There was a handful of tie-in merchandising, including a pocket book reprinting of Buckner’s story, the release of the record single with the Sherman Brothers song, another single called “Moon Pilot Melody” from Tutti Camarata, a DELL comic book with art by John Ushler and a 13 week Sunday-only color comic newspaper strip written by Frank Reilly and with art by Jesse Marsh. There was no plush Charlie the Chimp or action figure Captain Talbot or Lyrae Barbie doll or model kit of the Starfire rocket.

The movie premiered officially February 9, 1962, with a general release April 5, 1962, to capture the Easter vacation market and received good reviews.

Unfortunately, I was unable to locate in my collection the episode of the weekly Disney television series from April 1, 1962 titled Spy in the Sky. The first half hour was a preview of the Moon Pilot (although I don’t think there were any “making of” moments, but just scenes from the film itself) and the second half hour was Eyes in Outer Space, a 1959 documentary looking at satellites and weather.

Next time: I delve deeply into the 22 pages in Walt Disney’s de-classified FBI files to uncover why J. Edgar Hoover was irritated about the making of Moon Pilot and reveal more facts about the production of this film because as the Disney advertisements told us: “When this ‘Down To Earth’ guy meets an ‘Out Of This World’ girl…it’s Hi-Hi-Larious!”

If you’d like to hear me in person, please contact the Disney Family Museum for tickets. Also, the Disney Family Museum has a blog that I occasionally write for.

 

Comments

  1. By jpg391

    Interesting article. I have never heard of this film before or I just don't remember it.

  2. By Ransom

    I bought this movie through Disney Movie Club two or three years ago. It's still famous in our household as the worst movie ever produced by Walt Disney (although I should note we have yet to see: The Light in the Forest; Nikki, Wild Dog of the North; and Emil and the Detectives).

    The first 20 or 30 minutes of "Moon Pilot" were promising, but it went downhill from there...fast!

    It's just a ridiculous schlock-fest.

  3. Discuss this article on MousePad.