Boom In The Moon

Director: Jaime Salvador  
Buster Keaton, Luis G. Barreiro, Guillermo Bravo Sosa

If you have been reading my site for a while, you have probably noticed a common thread shared by almost every review I have written right up to this point. You will have noticed that with just about every movie I have reviewed has been made in the past forty years or so. I've explained this factor before, but I'll explain it again in cast you have forgotten my reason. Since I have been alive for the past forty or so years, I think it should be understandable that I am more drawn to movies from that time period. I have experienced all the fads and other kinds of popular culture of this period, so I am more inclined to review something of a period I feel most comfortable with. But please don't think I exclude watching older movies. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I find myself watching a number of old movies each month, even if I don't plan to review them. In fact, one of my favorite movie genres has come from watching these old movies. That genre is the silent comedy genre. You name the comedian from the era, you can be sure I have seen at least some of his work and enjoyed it. Harold Lloyd... Fatty Arbuckle... Charley Chase... Laurel and Hardy... Charlie Chaplin.... I love them all. That old stuff never gets old, if you know what I mean. But I think the silent comedian that I enjoy the most is Buster Keaton. There are several reasons why he is my favorite silent movie star. I get a kick out of how his characters approach anything - even the most absurd things - with his trademark stone face. I love the fact that Keaton had the knack for coming up with surreal and cartoon-like gags. Recently I watched his classic silent short One Week, and I remember how it kept me chuckling with its large scale gags that seemed to predict how gags in animated short subjects would be like in the next few decades to come.

As you've probably guessed (that is, if you didn't read the cast list at the top of this review), Boom In The Moon, the movie I am reviewing here, is a Buster Keaton-starring movie. But it is much different in several ways than the Buster Keaton movies you are probably familiar with. To properly explain the differences, and why Keaton would be in such a different project, it is first necessary to travel back eighteen years. In 1928, Keaton was at the top of his game. In the previous year, he had scored two bullseyes with the release of two of his most famous silent comedies Steamboat Bill Jr. and College. Then disaster struck - producer Joseph M. Schenck, who held Keaton's contract, sold Keaton's contract to film studio MGM, which at the time was headed by Schenck's brother. Actually, for a while it seemed like it would be business as usual for Keaton - he next turned out the silent comedy feature The Cameraman, which was a funny movie that could stand up to his past efforts, then afterwards did his last silent comedy, the respectable Spite Marriage. But after that point, things went downhill fast for Keaton. Keaton was used to having creative control for his films, but MGM slowly squeezed out Keaton's power, and soon forced him into starring in sound comedies that film historians agree were nowhere as funny as Keaton's silent works. It must also have hurt Keaton to some degree that unlike some of his silent movie classics (like his masterpiece The General, a notorious box office disappointment), these inferior sound comedies he appeared in and had no control over were very popular with audiences and big moneymakers.

Also, it didn't help that Keaton's alcoholism started making him a nuisance on the MGM lot. Finally, in 1933, MGM fired Keaton after one problem too many. For the next decade or so, Keaton did his best to find work anywhere he could, making and appearing in comic short subjects for a low-budget film company, getting the occasional bit part in a feature film, as Boom In The Moonwell as being a screenwriter and a gag man. (Strangely, a lot of his writing work was done back at MGM.) Then in 1946, Keaton got an offer from Polish-born film producer Alexander Salkind (who later produced Superman and The Three Musketeers.) It was not only work in front of the camera, but it was a starring role - something that Keaton hadn't had for ages. The project was a Mexican movie called El Moderno Barba Azul (English translation: The Modern Bluebeard), retitled Boom In The Moon during its (scant) U.S. release. Today it's an obscure and hard to find movie, despite Keaton being the star. Before finding a copy of the movie at a thrift store, I had heard there was a good reason the movie was unknown, but I decided to see for myself if the movie deserved its reputation. In Boom In The Moon, Keaton plays a fellow adrift at sea during the end of World War II. He washes up (eventually) on the shores of Mexico, and makes his way to a small Mexican town, where the local law enforcement believes that he is the person wanted by the big city police for murdering several women. Keaton is arrested and thrown in jail with another fellow, and faces the electric chair. But both men get a reprieve - a Mexican scientist has built a rocket, and needs a crew to take it to the moon. This risky-sounding assignment sounds better than execution, so both men agree to pilot the moon rocket. To make a long story short, several days after the rocket launches with the two men and the scientist's niece, it successfully lands. No, not on the moon, but in the outskirts of town, which all three of the rocket's passengers mistake for the moon. Let the hilarity begin!

I think that most people reading that plot description will think that it sounds a little thin, and they would be right. Even though the movie (at least in the print that I watched) runs only about sixty-nine minutes long, the movie is so relentlessly padded that at times it feels that there is more padding than actual story. It takes a long time for the movie to make up its mind as to what its central story is going to be. First it promises the audience it's going to be the wacky adventures of a victim of shipwreck (or an airplane crash - it's never explained how Keaton's character found himself adrift at sea in a tiny rubber raft.) Then when Keaton washes up on the shores of Mexico, not knowing that World War II has ended while he was at sea, the story turns into the tale of a dolt who thinks he's landed in hostile Japan (despite bumping into plenty of Mexicans in sombreros who aren't speaking Japanese.) Then the movie turns into a tale of someone falsely accused of murder, even though Keaton's English-only speaking character wouldn't be mistaken for a Mexican fugitive by anyone with common sense in real life. And then the movie takes another turn out of left field and finally settles on a story that goes on to the end of the movie, about the hijinks of people traveling to the moon. The movie is as big a mess as it sounds. Although only two people are credited with the screenplay, the movie plays out like it was assembled from the ideas of several others, with only one of these ideas expanded into something resembling an idea that has been sufficiently exploited.

Not only is the screenplay a mess, it misses how the best of Keaton's silent comedies worked. In those superior films, there was always some kind of plot going on as Keaton struggled along, and as Keaton struggled to succeed we got caught up in his plights and laughed and sympathized with him. As it is here, it seems like they are just making things up as they go along. It's harder to laugh at someone in a movie when they don't seem to have a goal or ambition in mind, which this movie is guilty of before they finally introduce that rocketship. But there's more problems finding humor with Keaton's character, and some of them have to do with Keaton himself. Admittedly, Keaton was somewhat older than when he did his silent classics (he was fifty-one when he made this movie), so you couldn't expect him to be as energetic and flexible as he once was. But even then, his appearance here is unflattering and sad. No doubt due to being ravaged by all that alcohol he drank, his face makes him look ten years older than he actually was at the time. He is also dressed badly, wearing suspenders that pull up his pants up past his belly button in a way that you would associate with the stereotype of an elderly man. And while Keaton in his heyday was know as The Great Stone Face, because he showed no emotion in whatever he was doing, here he shows emotion throughout - and not in a good way. In scene after scene, Keaton keeps switching back between two expressions on his face, mostly tiredness, but also on occasion showing complete bewilderment towards whatever may be happing in the scene he is in.

Both of those emotions can be explained just from watching what Boom In The Moon thinks is funny. It is clear that Keaton had little to no creative input to the finished product, so it is no wonder that he was so unenthusiastic in his role. Scene after scene goes by where he get to do or say little to nothing, with the movie instead relying on the other characters to do or say things that advance the little plot there is in the movie. So when Keaton gets a comic moment of his own, he puts no life or energy into making it funny. There are some moments in the movie that could have been straight out of his funny silent comedies (climbing from his rubber raft into a larger boat, accidentally getting onto the back of a bull, and trying to get on the back of a saddled horse with a broken stirrup) had Keaton or the director been trying, but instead they come out as abrupt and sluggish instead of slowly but surely building laughs. As for moments when Keaton appears bewildered, it comes from the script's often odd ideas of what is funny and/or true. It's odd, for one thing, that Mexican filmmakers would portray Mexicans with the same unfunny comic stereotypes (wearing sombreros, riding burros, police officials that are corrupt and guzzle tequila, etc.) that angered Mexican moviegoers when Hollywood used these same stereotypes in their movies. Also, I think even children in the 1940s knew that you can't drink sea water, that it's unlikely a scientist would use an accused criminal with no training to pilot a spacecraft, and that wearing wizard costumes would not protect you from the volatile environment of the moon, but the movie tries to make you believe things such as those. The movie strains credibility so often in the movie that even for a movie that aims to be nothing more than a silly comedy, your intelligence feels greatly insulted by the end. This "boom" is a bust, one that even die-hard Keaton fans would be better off skipping.

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See also: Don't Die Too Hard!, Torrente, Up To His Ears