Frank Capra, “Rendezvous in Space” (1964)
A promotional industrial film made for the Martin Marietta Corporation – a precursor of Lockheed Martin – this curious documentary, looking rather like a collage of hard-boiled rocket launches, short mini-cartoons for children and a B&W newsreel of interviews with members of the public, is notable for being the last film made by former Hollywood director Frank Capra, famous for films like the perennial Christmas classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Mr Smith Goes To Washington”. By the early 1950s, Capra had become disillusioned with Hollywood culture and values, veering away from championing the common man, democracy and individualism, and becoming obsessed with (as he saw it) cynical, self-indulgent ideas such as hedonism, pursuing pleasure at the expense of morality and shocking the audience for the sake of shock; along with changes in the film industry and in the public mood following World War II which did not favour Capra’s own preferences for supporting the poor and the disadvantaged, Capra left Hollywood and began making science-based education documentaries, of which “Rendezvous in Space” was the last.
Jumping from a series of photos of parts of the Earth as it rotates, taken by a 1960s Mercury capsule with an astronaut on board, the film lavishes considerable attention on a series of rocket launches before settling on a short animation in which the moon (voiced by actor Jim Backus of “Gilligan’s Island” fame) complains about all the rockets zipping by from Earth. Next thing you know, film narrator Danny Thomas interviews various people in the street who are nonplussed by the idea of travelling in space. Another animation about the Chinese invention of rockets and fireworks follows which leads into a narrative about humans advancing into space and towards the heavens, and what future travel and working in space might be like in an extended animated sequence. A whimsical little sequence of cartoon flowers trying to follow the sun and figure out what is up and what is down is very amusing if rather lowbrow. At the end of the film, Thomas reappears to confidently predict how space exploration and the knowledge gained from it will benefit people’s lives. As the sun lights up the planet, Thomas proclaims that the light of “Man’s mind” will illuminate and give meaning and purpose to the universe.
While the film’s visual style and audio soundtrack might seem very outdated to contemporary audiences, and not a little jarring – Mel Blanc voicing various animated characters may remind modern audiences of old Looney Tunes cartoons – the documentary makes some surprisingly accurate predictions about what space exploration might be like: the sequence of humans working on a nuclear-powered research laboratory foretells the International Space Station. The space taxi is a forerunner of the space shuttle. Thomas’s final words might seem rather preposterously arrogant but they reflect Capra’s belief in the inherent goodness of humanity and his faith in US scientific and technological advancement at the time that such progress will ultimately benefit all humans and put an end to poverty and injustice.
The inconsistencies among the various sequences in the film, with some looking more serious and others rather silly, might reflect some confusion in the brief that Capra was given by the film’s sponsors in making the documentary. Some of Mel Blanc’s voices are no different from the voices he used for the characters of Bugs Bunny in the Looney Tunes cartoons or of Barney Rubble in the famous “The Flintstones” animated sitcom. The interviews on the street look staged. To be fair to the film, it was originally made for New York City’s World Fair in 1964, to be shown together as part of an exhibit with moving robot models, which would explain apparent gaps within the film’s narrative and the jumps it takes from one topic to another.
The film clearly isn’t a patch on the other, more famous feature movies and the science documentaries Capra had made. That “Rendezvous in Space” was the last feature Capra made, when he could have continued making Hollywood films, seems to me to be a sad footnote to what should have been a very long and illustrious career.
The irony that the film with its faith in human intelligence and reason that overcomes mental and emotional obstacles as well as physical obstacles to reach out into space was financed by a corporation later to become part of Lockheed Martin, one of the largest global defence contractors and a stalwart of the US military-industrial complex, is surely not lost on astute viewers.