Moon Pilot Part Two: The FBI in Action!by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
As I mentioned last time, 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.
Last week, I talked about some of the background of the production of Moon Pilot. This week, I will explore how this piece of film fluff got under the skin of the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, and resulted in 22 pages of documents being added to Walt Disney’s FBI file.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation monitored several publications and, on February 24, 1961, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent a telegram to the special agent in charge (SAC) of the Los Angeles office. Hoover had seen in Hedda Hopper’s “Hollywood” column in the February 20, 1961 edition of the New York Daily News that actor Edmond O’Brien had been cast as an FBI agent in a forthcoming Disney live action film titled Moon Pilot.
Hoover was deeply concerned as to “the nature of the script and how the FBI agent is portrayed” stated the memo. He was probably also concerned that O’Brien looked somewhat physically like the director himself.
Things heated up even more when copies of The Saturday Evening Post featuring the serialized story were sent to Hoover on March 1, 1961. The synopsis, sent in a memo on March 13, indicated that the Air Force officer was “continually outwitting surveilling agents” who are “generally pictured as bumbling, heavy-footed incompetents.” At one point, “The principal FBI agent, who, it develops, is a flying saucer fan, pleads with the Air Force officer in the final scene ‘…'If you’ll tell me where the girl really came from I’ll promise not to tell anybody, not even J. Edgar Hoover, on my word of honor.’”
In a memo dated March 16, Hoover wrote to the SAC contact in Los Angeles:
“You should arrange to personally confer with Walt Disney concerning his proposed filming of the story Moon Pilot. Tactfully point out to him the uncomplimentary manner in which FBI agents are depicted. Advise him that the Bureau will strongly object to any portrayal of the FBI in this film. As you will note from the story, FBI action basically involves guarding of the Air Force officer who is to make the first flight to the moon. Suggest to Mr. Disney that since FBI jurisdiction does not extend to the guarding of individuals that this action can be better represented by another government agency. Handle diplomatically.”
A day earlier, the SAC representative (recorded in a March 17 memo) had already met at the Disney Studio with associate producer (and Walt’s son-in-law) Ron Miller who “inquired concerning any limitations or regulations which exist in connection with the portrayal of FBI agents or reference to the FBI in film productions. Miller commented that the studio wants to submit the script, which will not be ready for several weeks, to the Bureau for its review and reaction. He will contact this office when the script is ready for submission.”
The SAC agent firmly informed Miller of Public Law 670, a Federal statute that essentially prevents the commercial exploitation of the name of the FBI or to use it in any way that implies a commercial endorsement by the Bureau. There are memos that suggest that Walt had consulted with the Disney Studio legal department and been informed that such a challenge could not successfully be used in court to stop production but it did indicate the FBI’s displeasure.
On March 24, the SAC representative talked personally with Walt at the Disney studio and tried to tactfully point out that the FBI felt that the portrayal of FBI agents in the film was not complimentary.
In a March 27 memo recounting the meeting for Hoover, the SAC contact wrote:
“Disney said that if Bureau objects, he would change the script to eliminate the FBI and substitute another security agency but he feels that this would be unrealistic since the situation, in his opinion, properly warrants portrayal of the FBI. He stated that there have been changes in the script and that the treatment of the FBI is most complimentary to the Bureau and depicts the FBI as solving the case. He requested that Director Hoover review the script before the final decision. Disney pointed out that the situation involves espionage, which is under FBI jurisdiction, and states it would be an inaccuracy to call in any other agency. Disney stated the script would be available within a week or two. He stated that he would never portray the FBI other than in a favorable light due to his esteem for the Director and the Bureau.”
Six weeks pass and no Moon Pilot script is sent to the FBI nor has one been sent to the Motion Picture Production Code office for approval. However, production on the film started on May 8 with filming in San Francisco.
A memo to Hoover on May 10 notes that filming has begun and that William (Bill) Anderson, the executive producer, has informed the SAC contact that the shooting script has been amended to portray the previously described FBI agent as “a government security officer and no reference is made to this Bureau in the film…According to Anderson, actor Edmond O’Brien is portraying the role of the security officer and filming is expected to be completed in about four weeks.” (Actually it took roughly three months of filming to complete the film.)
Also in the May 10 memo is the following comment: “The Air Force is cooperating with the studio on this film, and some shooting is being undertaken on location at Vandenberg Air Base near Lompoc, California.”
There is no further documentation in Walt’s FBI file until a memo from January 17, 1962 after the finished picture had been released. The memo states:
“The Air Force has a problem. They cooperated in this movie to the extent of furnishing a Technical Director, making some stock footage available and furnishing air craft for a scene or two. The credits now gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the Air Force and, from the discussion among Air Force officers present at the showing of this film, it is apparent that they feel the public will identify them as having approved the film. They do not approve and were discussing means of getting a change made since the film sent to them is the final print. Of course, no comments or suggestions were made to them by our Agent."
The memo also includes the following information that was more of interest to Hoover:
“The investigators identify themselves as ‘Federal Security’. The public would not identify these people with the FBI. The portrayal of ‘Federal Security’ is entirely slapstick. There are no references which would indicate that the name ‘Federal Security’ is a cover up for FBI. There are lines reflecting referring of material to the Laboratory but what Laboratory is not specified. Credentials are exhibited only one time and the face of the credentials are never seen. Only the leather cover is observed and it is in bright red.”
In a stern letter dated April 24, 1962, after the film had gone into wide release and been reviewed, agent DeLoach wrote the following:
“It was my understanding that Mr. Disney had originally intended to portray FBI Agents in this movie and he has done so to all intents and purposes, despite our protests, even though the Agents are not named as such. Needless to say, the Boss (Hoover) was amazed that Disney would produce such a picture which carries implications or criticisms of the FBI. I can only hope that the general public, in viewing this film, will not interpet the investigative efforts depicted as representing the work of the FBI as some movie reviewers have done.”
Attached to the letter was a copy of James O’Neil’s review of the film in the Washington Daily News on April 26, 1962:
“Air Force brass are mutton-heads, and the FBI is as ineffectual as the DAR…Walt Disney’s targets in Moon Pilot are not, actually, anybody in space. The boys he’s leveling his humorous rifle at are members of Congress, the Air Force, the FBI and French movie starlets….’Moon Pilot’ is a lot of fun and the kids ought to adore it. They won’t even understand where Disney’s pot shots are aimed.”
This review is in Walt Disney’s FBI file along with a hand scribbled note identified as by Hoover himself: “I am amazed Disney would do this. He’s probably been infiltrated.”
In 1962, Hoover had become very protective of his own image and that of the Bureau that, of course, anyone who would treat his organization with such humor must be a communist sympathizer.
Another Washington newspaper, The Evening Star, in a review from Jay Carmody dated April 23, 1962 stated:
“Walt Disney is in an impudently comic mood in ‘Moon Pilot’, an Easter offering to moviegoers in which he takes an irreverent glance at space exploration. By the time, he has finished with the subject in the film, space itself is strewn with such awesome casualties as NASA, the Air Force, the FBI and even the astronaut team which is sowing the seeds of a truly universal traffic problem. These are not actually identified in every case but they could not be more thinly disguised in what is intended as innocent fun. Well, fun…. It is all very slapstick and impertinent but Tom Tryon as the astronaut, Dany Saval as the girl and Edmond O’Brien as the intelligence genius and Brian Keith as the general make it quite hilarious.”
Interestingly, no mention of the FBI or a thinly veiled reference to that organization appeared in the “Daily Variety” review of January 15, 1962. It praised the light production with statements like:
“Filmgoers in general will accept this picture as light, gay, infectious diversion. For those who probe deeper and detect something more significant at the core, so much the better. The upshot, at any rate appears to be another moneymaker for Disney. Absence of surefire marquee magnetism (outside of the Disney banner itself, that is) may tone down opening response but word-of-mouth will build momentum on this one and secondary engagments are likely to be especially strong…and additional bow to co-producer Bill Anderson and associate Ron Miller for a job well done.”
A master storyteller, Walt Disney knew that an audience always enjoyed the tweaking of authority. In fact, it was the foundation for many of the films of Charlie Chaplin, an inspiration for Walt. However, neither Hoover nor the FBI had much of a sense of humor.
It is important to realize that this was during the Cold War, that most (if not all Americans) believed the government knew what it was doing and always did things in the best interests of the public, and that a very serious space race was going on between the United States and Russia with the Soviets seeming to be winning.
In addition, Walt may not have been completely innocent. There is no indication that Walt ever sent a copy of the final shooting script to the FBI for review.
In addition, one of the newspaper advertisements (displayed in the official pressbook) had cartoon caricatures of Edmond O’Brien, Brian Keith and Tom Tryon all in space helmets straddling a flying rocket ship pursuing a floating cartoon caricature of Dany Saval. The copy for the advertisement was:
“The F.B.I. thought she was a SPY!…The General thought she was a KOOK!…The Astronaut thought she was OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD!…and she was OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD! (She’s from a planet that has 7 moons…all made for LOVE!)”
Yep, the advertisement clearly indicated the bumbling character played by O’Brien was from the F.B.I. not the Federal Security Agency and it appeared in newspapers around the country.
Oddly, this advertisment never made it into Walt’s FBI file nor any memo commenting on it. Believe it or not. However, the FBI really got upset with one of Walt’s next live action films, That Darn Cat, but that is a story for another column.