THE BOOTLEG FILES: “BOOM IN THE MOON”

In 1946, Buster Keaton’s career hit rock bottom.  The one-time star of the silent comedies was reduced to bit parts in B-Movies and working as an uncredited gag writer at MGM, the studio where he was once the reigning comedy king.  Problems with alcoholism and Keaton’s inability to adapt his silent movie persona into the sound medium compounded his fall from grace, and the only substantial on-camera work he had seen was a series of mediocre two-reelers for Columbia Pictures produced earlier in the 1940s.

In 1946, an unexpected offer came from Alexander Salkind, the Polish-born producer who was then living in Mexico, to star in a comedy feature to be shot in Mexico City.  Keaton grabbed it, since this was the first time since 1935’s “The Invader” that he had the opportunity to star in a feature film.  It would also prove to be the last time he was given this kind of stellar treatment.

The film was “El Moderno Barba Azul” (“The Modern Bluebeard”), which was retitled “Boom in the Moon” for the U.S. release.  Over the years, “Boom in the Moon” gained a reputation of being a Grade-A stinker.  Even noted British film historian Kevin Brownlow piped in by stating it was the single worst film ever made.  This is hardly the case, and much of the animosity directed at “Boom in the Moon” is based on how it uses (or misuses) Keaton.

The film offers Keaton as a U.S. soldier in World War II who survives a plane crash and is drifting in the Pacific Ocean in a tiny liferaft.  He is unaware the war has ended while he is at sea, and when he washes up on a beach he assumes he is in Japan.  It turns out he is in Mexico, but even when he discovers a population wearing sombreros and panchos he still thinks he is in Japan.  The concept of the film is admittedly dumb and it is further diluted in the English-dubbed version when everyone is speaking the same language, which leaves Keaton’s confusion with what is being said around him to be an exercise in stupidity.  (The original Mexican version has Keaton speaking broken English, which makes the language gap more understandable.)

In any event, Keaton had been so long adrift that he grew a beard that makes him look like a Biblical prophet.  The local police believe he matches the description of a fugitive wife-killer who also has a long beard.  Keaton is shaved and confined in a cell with a petty criminal (Angel Garasa), and the two men are quickly handed over by their rural jailers to a scientific group who are building a rocket to send Mexican astronauts to the moon.  Keaton and Garasa, along with a pretty young lab assistant, accidentally blast off in their Mexican rocket shop ahead of schedule and land in a remote desert section of Mexico that they mistake for the lunar surface.  Their spacesuits are, inexplicably, sorcerer’s robes and conical caps decorated with stars and crescents.  They encounter a bee-keeper and mistake him for an alien, while the bee-keeper makes the same mistake of them.  Eventually, all of the nonsense gets sorted out, Keaton and Garasa are abruptly cleared of the charges against them, and Keaton’s “wife” (a horrible gargantuan woman) comes to claim him, to which he decides he’d rather be in a Mexican jail than her arms!

Admittely, this is several levels below “The General” or any of the prime Keaton films of the 1920s.  Keaton had no control over the screenplay or direction, and his only creative input here are a handful of sight gags half-heartedly recycled from his earlier flicks.  While Keaton’s demeanor gave him the nickname of The Great Stoneface, his trademark stoicism can barely hide his utter lack of enjoyment at being involved in this production.

But truth be told, “Boom in the Moon” is not such a terrible film.  The comedy is more silly than funny and the cheap special effects and cardboard sets suggest the film’s budget was the equivalent of dinner for four at a neighborhood Mexican eatery.  Yet the film is not unlike any of the breezy, loose-limbed comedies that were churned out by the Mexican film industry during this time (think of the endless frothy foolishness that Cantinflas created).  Mexican comedy movies were not a source of artistic genius or profound intellectualism, but rather they were the product of a fun factory that sent out rough-charmed distractions that kept audiences entertained.  Expecting a “great” film to come out of the Mexican film business circa 1946 simply because Buster Keaton was plopped into it is totally foolish.

“Boom in the Moon” was barely noticed when it had its 1946 release and was virtually forgotten until it appeared for a very short time on U.S. home video in 1987.  Keaton enthusiasts have kept the film alive via “collector-to-collector” video sales based on this brief commercial video offering; the quality of the videos are fine.  The original Mexican version is available on DVD from a Spanish distributor and can be found on several European DVD e-commerce sites.  However, this version does not have English subtitles.  Since the film is widely considered to be a flop, there are no plans to release it on DVD in either the dubbed version or in the original version with English subtitles.

Three years after returning from Mexico, Keaton began to experience something of a comeback thanks in large part to an influential article by James Agee in Life Magazine that celebrated him and the other three giants of silent comedy (Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon).  Keaton remained highly active throughout the remainder of his life, appearing in many television shows and making memorable guest appearances in high profile films including “Sunset Boulevard,” “Limelight,” and “Around the World in 80 Days” (sharing scenes with Cantinflas, ironically).  Today, Keaton’s genius as an icon of screen comedy is universally observed.  Yet poor little “Boom in the Moon” (the project which kept Keaton working at a time when Hollywood was ignoring him) is relegated to The Bootleg Files–unwanted, maligned, and barely seen.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on January 16, 2004 in Features by
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