Review: Destination Moon (1950)

Composer: Leith Stevens

Label: Citadel Records

Catalogue Nr.: STC 77101

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George Pal's ambitious science-fiction movie project Destination Moon was one of the first space films during the 50's that tried to put the emphasis on science instead of fiction. Together with director Irvin Pichel and special effects magician Lee Zavitz, he worked for two years on the most realistic cinematic depiction of mankind's journey into space and first landing on another planet to that date. Considering that the film was almost two decades ahead of Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon and one decade ahead of the space race between the US and Soviets it still got the scenario surprisingly close and seems to represent the pinnacle of what was considered as common scientific fact about space travels at that time. The message of the film was both striking and close to what would later become reality: The nation that reaches the moon first to built missile stations there will benefit from a militaristic advantage - an idea that would become the driving force in the real space race. Therefore, it almost feels like a propaganda flick when you watch it today but nevertheless it was an important film for the world of sci-fi cinema.

The score:

Responsible for the musical course of Pal's cinematic space flight was composer Leith Stevens who has mainly worked for radio during the 40's and Destination Moon clearly marked his big break in the world of film scoring. Both, producer Pal and composer Stevens would later move deeper into the world of science fiction with legendary films such as the apocalyptic When Worlds Collide (1951) or the first big screen adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel The War Of The Worlds (1953). For that reason you may suffer a musical deja-vu when you watch these films since Stevens' scores for this unofficial Pal-sci-fi trilogy are barely distinctive from each other. In fact, if you heard his score for When Worlds Collide you will already know what his score for The War Of The Worlds is all about while the music for Destination Moon stands out as being more subtle.

Stevens' opening 5-note space motif as heard in "On The Earth" is a typically cheesy 50's composition with screaming muted trumpets, nervous woodwinds and a descending line for strings accompanied by light percussion like Xylophone to create tension and curiosity as the film's opening credits are sliding slowly across the screen. The track builds up until a fanfare notes the launch of a test rocket with a disturbing sound effect of the engines at the end. "In Outer Space" comes as a juggernaut suite of almost 20 minutes of underscore that covers music from various scenes such as the mission preparations and construction of the rocket before launch during the first 10 minutes of the cue. A noteworthy moment is a passage for muted trumpets that rises into a glorious and full orchestral motif as we fade from a small rocket model to the actual ship. The strings continue with the motif accompanied by busy Xylophone to underline the immense activity on the construction side. Dramatic music for strings and horns rises as the police is coming to prevent an earlier launch of the rocket while the actual launch sequence is left unscored entirely.

The middle section of the cue is focused on the actual journey to the moon with a glorious horn statement descending into the 5-note space motif for muted trumpet to express the beauty and loneliness of space. The crew's daily life in space in scored with light-hearted strings and woodwinds and stops in the film when astronaut Sweeney starts playing a harmonica. A magical figure for flute combined with suspenseful strings accompany the crew's attempt to go outside the rocket for repairs. Risings strings full of tension appear when a crew member is slowly drifting into space and a lengthy passage for dramatic and nervous music follows, including some grim brass fanfares when the others are trying to rescue him. Suspenseful statements of the space motif take over at the end of the cue and accompany the beginning of the landing on the moon. Quiet strings create a weird and alien mood in "On The Surface Of The Moon" which goes into a strong and brassy statement of the space motif for the entire orchestra as the panorama of the alien landscape is revealed and the cue ends with rising strings as the crew finally sets foot on the moon.

"Escape From The Moon" actually follows the crew's work on the surface with whirling flutes accompanying the men's jumping at the end of the cue. Another lengthy cue of underscore and suspense comes with "Finale" that goes on for 13 minutes and accompanies the tricky launch from the moon. When the rocket finally launches from the surface, the music becomes glorious again and the score ends with a good orchestral climax.

 

RATING:

Score as heard in the film: 70%

Score as heard on CD: 62%

TOTAL: 66%

 

The presentation:

First of all, what really sparkles about Citadel Record's re-release of the score is the excellent sound quality. I have hardly heard a better sounding film music recording from the 50's. The sound is clean, bright and stereophonic. Maybe a little thin at times but definitely superior to the film mix. The album's arrangement, on the other hand, is not so perfect. It is chronological and features all 42 minutes of the score but especially the endless second track could have been divided into smaller cues. Nobody wants to fast-forward such a lengthy cue only to reach one or two good moments. The now hard to find release still deserves credit for the very good sound but we better don't talk about the wishy-washy artwork.

Presentation by the Label: 61%

 

Summary:

There are certainly some nice moments of good scoring in Leith Stevens' work for Destination Moon but the way the album is arranged can make it really complicated to discover these moments because the score is mainly a mood-setter and you will have to dig through two lengthy cues with lots of underscore that does not really achieve much separated from the film. The score is much more subtle than Steven's latter work for the genre and moves very slow, which was probably intended and it all works perfectly with the images, but it does not really make a fluent listening experience. It's one of those scores that can quickly float away and starts to drag, which is even more true if you are not used to scores from that time period. Nevertheless, I would recommend all fans of sci-fi scores to take a listen or, even better, to watch the film. Sure, the sound quality on CD is so much better but it is really one of those scores that hardly works well if you don't know the movie. If you liked what you heard in the film then it makes sense to keep an eye open for the now OOP and hard to find CD.

 Review by Andreas Creutzburg

 

                             Tracklisting:

1. Earth (02:58)
2. In Outer Space (19:27)
3. On the Surface of the Moon (04:14)
4. Escape from the Moon (03:01)
5. Finale
(13:00)

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