May 11, 2019
Boom in the Moon – Mexico, 1946
I have to start with an admission. The version I saw of Jaime Salvador’s Boom in the Moon (a.k.a. El Moderno Barba Azul) was dubbed, and this made the experience of watching the film even more frustrating that it would already have been. In the version I watched, a character speaks English to someone who then responds - in English, mind you - that he can’t understand what the other person just said. Then they go to a third person who also speaks English, yet claims that he too cannot comprehend what an English speaker is saying. Thus, they throw him in a jail cell until he learns to speak the language he already speaks. You can see how a version of the film with the appropriate subtitles would have been preferred.
Boom in the Moon has the distinction of being the final starring role of the great Buster Keaton’s film career. He would, of course, appear in other films, yet he would do so in supporting roles and on television. However, calling what he does in the film “starring” is a bit of a stretch, for Keaton’s role often calls for him to just stand around and look as if he is utterly unable to understand what is being said around him. At other times, his character replies to the very people that just moments earlier he found incomprehensible, a discrepancy that the film doesn’t even attempt to explain. When he is finally given time to demonstrate his comic chops, the scenes are gallingly brief. For example, a scene in which he rides on a horse that walks at a snail’s pace has potential, yet ends abruptly when someone arrives to help him move faster. In total, it last about thirty seconds, hardly enough time for it to develop.
In the film, Keaton plays a World War II sailor who finds himself adrift in the Pacific Ocean. After reaching a land that he immediately assumes is Japan, he dons his military garb and hurls a grenade at the lone human being he sees. The shot of the man on the ground looking stunned is supposed to be funny. Eventually, the sailor decides to surrender to the “Japanese” and finds himself in a Mexican jail, mistaken for a serial killer whose victims were six “young girls.” The arresting official seems tickled pink about the situation and orders that he be given whatever he wants. The scene was more off-putting than side-splitting.
From there, the film introduces an additional prisoner, an American (dubbed by an actor whose voice bares a striking resemblance to that of Jimmy Durante) accused of killing a single person, a fact that makes him less of a celebrity than Keaton’s character. Eventually, the two of them are sprung from jail by a bunch of cowboys working for a scientist who has invented a rocket that he needs to find a guinea pig for. Who better, he’s told, than a bluebeard whose only other option is the electric chair. And with that the film begins to resemble Mellies’s 1902 short Le Voyage dans la Lune, yet without the charm or wonder of watching a cinematic genius at work.
And Jaime Salvador is anything but. One mistake he makes is to film Keaton repeatedly from afar, Here was one of the greatest actors of his time, a master at reactions, and in an early scene, Salvador choose to film him from what appears to be atop a hill. The result is that we see his character walking stealthily or surrounded by a parade of strangers, each of whom is greatly amused by the emergence of a foreigner who resembles Rip Van Winkle. However, we don’t get a good look at his reactions. It’s a pity. They were probably quite humorous.
The film becomes slightly watchable in its final act, which takes place on a rocket and on the surface that it lands on. There is a lot of potential in three people being on a planet for the first time. Mellies chose to inhabit the moon with violent monkeys that disintegrated after being hit on the head by an umbrella. Sure, it was silly, but it was also great fun. What happens in Boom in the Moon is much less entertaining, and the script denies Keaton the chance to really show off his comic genius on a strange new world. However, there’s enough of a hint of creativity there to prevent viewers from detesting the film as a whole. I just wish there were more zaniness and less reliance on what were even then extremely obvious comic tropes.
Boom in the Moon is a reminder that stars rarely get to choose their swan song. However, I imagine that wish that someone as great as Keaton would go out on a high note is felt more deeply by fans that by the actors themselves. When the parts dried up, Keaton’s immediate concern was likely for his family and their well-being, not what future generations would think of how his time as an A-lister came to an end. Still, there’s no denying the disappointment that comes after a film like Boom in the Moon closes the door on a storied career. We want one more masterpiece, one more great role, a moment in which the star rides into the sunset with his head held high. Boom in the Moon is far from this. In fact, the final scene in which he flees from his less-than-attractive wife is somewhat cringe-worthy. Again, we don’t get to choose how a star goes out. Fortunately, Keaton’s greatness cannot be diminished by the string of disappointments he made at the end of his career, not even by the massive dud that is Boom in the Moon. (on DVD)
1 and a half stars