The year 1959 more or less marked the end of not one, but two eras, and the beginning of another. The Fifties were a fruitful decade for the genre of science fiction film. Among the high points were The Day The Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet, and big-budget adaptations of Jules Verne (Journey to the Center of the Earth) and H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds), to name just a few of the more notable cinematic works of SF that graced the decade.
Of course, it was also an era that saw the release of such steaming heaps of dung as The Robot Monster, The Killer Shrews, and The Giant Gila Monster, not to mention a certain Ed Wood epic that saw his inept cast tracking flying pie plates and kicking over cardboard gravestones. But, given the sheer output of SF films during the Fifties, it’s no surprise that a few duds cropped up along the way.
By 1959, the flood of SF flicks was beginning to dwindle, never really to reach such levels again, even though the following decade would see the continuation of the adventures of Godzilla and his ilk and the birth of Kubrick and Clarke’s Star Child.
It was around 1959 that another era was also getting underway. This, of course, was the era of space flight, and it was the real stuff this time around, not the pulp variety. Though the groundwork for this development had been laid over the course of several decades, it could safely be said that it began on October 4, 1957, with the Soviet launch of Sputnik. Following this epic event, there was a mad dash to the heavens, and rockets, capsules, satellites, and flying monkeys garbed in spacesuits became familiar concepts to many citizens of planet Earth.
And then there were the Three Stooges. Most would agree that, by 1959, the Stooges’ best days were behind them. Unfortunately, like so many successful artists who have done great work, the Stooges, or at least Moe and Larry, didn’t seem to grasp that the best way to preserve your mystique is to call it a day before you’ve gone too far past your peak—or to die.
Moe’s brothers, Curly and Shemp, the first two to fill the crucial “third Stooge” slot, had already had the good grace to do just that. Curly died seven years earlier, in 1952, and Shemp followed him to the great Nyuk, NyukLand in the Sky three years later, sparing them both the indignity of having to have anything to do with Have Rocket, Will Travel.
It’s a sure sign that a genre is losing its kick when the parodists start to gang up on it. In the early Thirties, Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and others kicked off a decade of mostly Universal horrors, but as the chronometer rolled on over into the Forties these mighty monsters were reduced to caricatures in films like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.
Similarly, it could be said that the Stooges' Have Rocket, Will Travel, sounded the death knell for Fifties SF, though the patient was certainly ailing prior to this development.
The story, what there is of it, opens with a montage of stock footage overlaid with narration more suited to an educational film. If you’ve seen a few low budget Fifties SF flicks then you know the drill—launching pads, rockets streaking skyward, bustling control rooms, and a lot of military types milling about.
Before long we cut to a military base’s hard working maintenance crew—guess who—and wouldn’t you know it, they’re sleeping on the job, soon to be wakened by an errant rocket plummeting to Earth.
As the shaky plot unravels, the boys pledge to give their all to assist Dr. Ingrid Naarveg, a rather icy foreign scientist and “electronic genius.” The doctor has been given an ultimatum—solve the rocket’s fuel/thrust problem or hit the unemployment line. Oh, and Naarveg also has man trouble, in the form of Dr. Ted Benson, who resents the fact that she is married to her work and not him. Benson is played by Robert Colbert, who would go on to a starring role in another work of dubious SF—Irwin Allen’s clunker of a TV series, The Time Tunnel.
As the wacky trio pitch in and help, hijinks naturally ensue. Before long said trio find themselves in the rocket, which is on an “automatic course to Venus.”
After the ship cleverly manages to land itself and after Curly Joe’s (a.k.a. Joe DeRita, the fourth of four “third Stooges”) telling remark that Venus “looks like Death Valley,” the threesome appears in space suits that would have done Flash Gordon proud.
Only to be menaced by a giant fire-breathing spider and encounter a talking unicorn that looks a lot like a poorly disguised horse. An appalling musical interlude follows and then an air car appears, from which the gang are “beamed” (half a decade before Star Trek) to the lair of a boxy computer with four arms and a serious superiority complex (almost a full decade before HAL 9000).
Mr. Nasty Computer, who has already turned the Venusians into electrical energy, creates robotic clones of Moe, Larry and Curly. For what reason, I couldn’t quite figure out, and the comic potential of not three, but six Stooges is never fully realized, though not for lack of trying.
Fortunately the real Stooges manage to escape back to Earth, where they are given a hero’s welcome and are guests of honor at a lavish high society ball.
As one conditioned by a lifetime of Stooge watching, I realized that this might represent an opportunity for the boys to wrap it up with some semblance of style. But though I teetered on the edge of my seat, waiting for the seltzer bottles to be unleashed and the air to thicken with flying whipped cream pies, the film closes with a rather lackluster brawl and a sort of cliffhanger return of the ersatz Stooges.
Have Rocket, Will Travel fails on several counts. It’s not a very good Stooges film and, given the fact that they had done their best work in chaotically paced, explosively zany shorts, one has to wonder why they ventured in the world of feature length films at all.
Many of the tried and true Stoogeisms are trotted out during the course of this seventy-six-minute film, but few seem to have any zing. Moe and Larry look old and tired and seem to be going through the motions. As for Curly Joe, well, he was certainly no Curly and, for that matter, he didn’t even measure up to the lesser antics of Shemp.
Have Rocket, Will Travel also fails as a science fiction film, not that anyone would have expected otherwise. Though it should be noted that it didn’t fail much more spectacularly than some of the other SF turkeys that flapped and squawked their way through the Fifties. Director David Lowell Rich had a lengthy career, mostly in television, but apparently had no experience working in SF. Writer Raphael Hayes had one relevant credit—a 1951 adaptation of Heinlein’s The Green Hills of Earth for Out There, a pioneering televised SF series from the early Fifties—but had no other experience with the genre.
Have Rocket, Will Travel appears to be a stinker of rather magnificent proportions, but the Stooges, in this incarnation, actually went on to make five more features, films that found them tangling with outlaws, Snow White, Hercules, and Phineas Fogg III. In 1962, they took another crack at SF, this time with The Three Stooges in Orbit. In this adventure, the boys have to deal with a sort of mad scientist and some Martians who are intent on destroying the world and…well, you get the point.