Queen Victoria (Joan Sterndale-Bennett) has been busy lately, seeing to the unveiling of various new innovations of her age, though they do not always turn out as well as hoped, such as the first electric house that sparks and burns down when the power is switched on, or the up-to-date bridge that collapses once the ribbon is cut to declare it open. But the world's inventors have their sights set higher than that, as rumour begins to spread that a plan to visit the Moon is in the offing - this generates interest that will assemble the greatest minds around to solve such a problem. Or they believe they're the greatest minds, anyway...
Harry Alan Towers was the cash-in, public domain king of cinema for around four decades, moving on after a successful career in radio to make a fortune in the movies, and if he could wangle his way out of paying the taxes on his productions, so much the better. Most of his efforts were mid-budget at best, but for some reason he pushed the boat out with Rocket to the Moon, though that was probably to appease his array of investors who all wanted their territory's stars a fair whack at stealing the limelight from their co-stars, all the better to make it more lucrative around the globe. The more recognisable actors here, the better.
Therefore what you had was a romp that started promisingly with the various disasters in the presence of the main characters, then quickly settled into a cycle of throwing up random shit for the cast to do just to justify their presence and their paycheque, whether it had anything to do with advancing the plot or not. Most of these characters were opportunist rogues of the kind Towers knew all too well, because he was one himself, leaving a lightly confessional air to the piece, little wonder when he was responsible for writing the script's "original story" - far more so than the titular Jules Verne had to do with it, to be plain.
Knowing Towers essentially produced his work as a way of making profits rather than art, you might imagine it was all worthless on an entertainment level, yet he does have his fans, just as aficionados are drawn to the exploits of the criminal classes as long as they don't need to have direct dealings with them. What was interesting here was that many placed Rocket to the Moon alongside the Victoriana and Edwardiana movements of the nineteen-sixties, works like Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, that flirted with the culture of decades before that had now become chintzy and sentimental. There was a lot of that, and if you merely cast your eye on a scene or two in isolation you would completely link the film to that.
But the essential cynicism of Towers was shot through the proceedings as, if you know anything about this film, you would be aware it was all set-up and no pay-off. Had you previously enjoyed the Ray Harryhausen H.G. Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon (which shared Lionel Jeffries with this) then you may have been anticipating that kind of science fiction. Except despite its inherent promises, Rocket to the Moon was not a science fiction movie, indeed there was barely an image of the Earth's natural satellite to be seen throughout its bloated two-hour running time; you know that observation about how audiences can spend a movie waiting to get to the fireworks factory? Well, there was no fireworks factory here, simply a lot of running about and contraption-based humour. This cast were too accomplished not to wring something of worth out of even a Towers item, and Burl Ives as P.T. Barnum was a nice idea, but unless you were amused by Towers' chutzpah, the "all mouth and no trousers" nature of it may prove disappointing except to star spotters, who will be amply rewarded. Music by John Scott.
[StudioCanal's Blu-ray has these special features:
New: Interview with journalist and film historian Matthew Sweet
New: Interview with journalist and film critic Kim Newman
On the set of Rocket to the Moon - Silent footage from British Pathe]