I started to write this piece quite a while ago, but got distracted. I was reminded of it while chatting with a coworker who is a big time Star Wars and scifi fan.
Having gotten tired of insanely high cable tv bills, I cut back to internet-only several years ago. But I did have an apartment-style antenna, which pulls in broadcast stations like Comet TV for free. Comet shows all sorts of low-budget sci-fi, fantasy and horror films, many of which I have blogged about here already. A year or so ago, I happened across a 1960 spacefaring film called First Spaceship to Venus (FSTV).
FSTV’s plot was that an artifact found within an asteroid implied belligerent intentions on the part of intelligent beings on Venus. Earth’s scientists organize a truly international crew – African, American, Chinese, French, German, Indian, Japanese and Russian – to investigate. This diverse crew predated Uhura, Sulu and Chekov on Star Trek by five years. Unfortunately I fell asleep halfway through and woke up towards the end. But I was intrigued.
Some research revealed that the film’s original German title translated to The Silent Star, and was based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, The Astronauts, or Astronauci. Lem wrote on the other side of the iron curtain, which explains why I had never heard of him during my peak sci fi reading years. Lem is famous for Solaris, which spawned three movies, but many of his other works are still difficult to find translated from Polish to English.
I also found that the East German and Polish co-production of The Silent Star (SS) had been heavily edited for American audiences. Crew nationalities were changed and all references to the US atomic bombing of Japan had been removed. That sort of piqued my curiosity. Amazon was no help, but DEFA, an East German film club at U Mass Amherst, offered a DVD in the original German with English subtitles. https://ecommerce.umass.edu/defa/
I stayed awake this time, and found that SS was a very solid space opera with an antiwar, antinuke message. It wasn’t as flashy as Forbidden Planet, but comparable in quality to The Angry Red Planet.
Sometime later Comet showed Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, from 1968. Even the title sounded cheesy, but I watched it. Scenes of a serious space voyage to Venus were interspersed with scenes of Mamie van Doren and other pretty blonde women lounging on a seaside wearing tight white slacks and clamshells over their breasts. These native Venusians were supposedly mentally monitoring and challenging the male intruders, but they never actually came into contact with each other.
I had to look this one up, and found that one of Peter Bogdanovich’s first jobs was to remake the 1962 Soviet film, Planeta Bur, or Planet of Storms, into something they could show at American drive-in theatres. So Peter airbrushed out the Soviet logos, and inserted all the blondes. Amazon did have Planet of Storms, in Russian with English subtitles in a bundle with two other Soviet films, A Dream Come True and The Sky Calls. All of these arrived just in time for my Christmas vacation, so my wife got to watch them, too. Wasn’t she happy!
Planeta Bur was a very solid space flick, again, not too different in tone from The Angry Red Planet. It was interesting in that the crew’s robot saved crew member’s lives, but was ultimately unwilling to sacrifice itself to save them again. The Sky Calls was about a race between a government ship and a corporate ship to be the first to get to Mars. The corporates are in the lead, but falter, and the crew is saved when the cosmonauts do the right thing and rescue the corporates instead of going for the glory. 1963’s A Dream Come True (Mechte Navstrechu) involves cosmonauts going to rescue aliens from another system stranded on Mars.
At the time I would have seen these cosmonauts as the Enemy, but after all this time I could see that they mostly had the same hopes and dreams for technology and the future that we did in the US.
I added the 1952 film, Umberto D, to my Youtube TV watch list months ago, and finally watched it last weekend, commercial-free thanks to TCM. The title character was a retired public servant trying to maintain a precarious life for himself and his little dog, Flike, as the lire in his fixed pension were rapidly devaluing. Afterwards I tweeted, “Boy, things haven’t changed much.”
The film is in Italian with subtitles, and I didn’t realize that neorealist director Vittorio de Sica regularly cast non-actors in all the roles until reading reviews. Reportedly de Sica searched for months to find just the right man to play the lead.
A few days later, TCM was showing 1973’s Harry and Tonto, which I had seen years ago. But this time, the opening scenes of an old man living with and talking to his cat, Tonto, couldn’t help but remind me of my own father who lived with and talked to his white cat, Mu. The cat lived a very long life, but passed away several years ago. My Dad followed him a year or so later.
Mazursky and Greenfeld wrote a fantastically touching road movie, but even though he was evicted from his apartment, retired teacher and widower Harry was wealthy and successful compared to Umberto. Even though 1973 was the beginning of a period of stagflation, Harry (Art Carney) had benefited enough from the post-FDR period of prosperity that he could travel across the country, buy a used car and eventually loan one thousand dollars to his son struggling in LA.
Yet, if they made a similar film today, I suspect it would play more like de Sica’s. Some old man, or woman, would have lost everything in the Great Recession, and would be fighting a losing battle against opioids and homelessness.