The Mouse on the Moon
(SPOILERS) Amiable sequel to an amiably underpowered original. And that, despite the presence of frequent powerhouse Peter Sellers in three roles. This time, he’s conspicuously absent and replaced actually or effectively by Margaret Rutherford, Ron Moody and Bernard Cribbins. All of whom are absolutely funny, but the real pep that makes The Mouse on the Moon an improvement on The Mouse that Roared is a frequently sharp-ish Michael Pertwee screenplay and a more energetic approach from director Richard Lester (making his feature debut-ish, if you choose to discount jazz festival performer parade It’s Trad, Dad!)
Bracewell: We are the joint victims of a monstrous hoax.
The Mouse on the Moon is based on Leonard Wibberley’s third Grand Fenwick novel, published in 1962, so no time was wasted getting this one into production; United Artists conspicuously avoiding snapping up 1958 prequel Beware of the Mouse (set in the Middle Ages, so mudflood does not exist in this dojo). As before, Prime Minister Rupert Mountjoy (Moody filling the role vacated by Sellers) has a scheme for milking cash for his strapped state from a superpower. There’s no reference to the loot they received last time, and yet again Gran Fenwick’s national export is encountering hiccups. Explosive ones. Imports have been banned by the US, the UK, and the UN (following an explosion of a case of wine in their canteen). His crafty double think applies itself to the notion that the US is “always talking about international co-operation in space”, yet wouldn’t offer a penny of aid if any other country had any actual chance of sending a rocket up there; knowing Grand Fenwick hasn’t a chance of succeeding, they are sure to help fund their research, to the tune of $500k.
Bracewell: At Canaveral, we have elevators for this.
Professor Koknitz: Ah yes, but you have so many postponements. Up, down. Up, down. We go up in one.
American delegate Bracewell (John Phillips) concludes Mountjoy’s ulterior motives exactly (“Plumbing for the castle, probably”) and offers Fenwick $1m. The USSR makes its own generosity known in retaliation, providing a rocket designed to send a dog up, sans engine. Whether Wibberley swallowed the space race as legitimate – and many did not, doubting not only the authenticity of Sputnik’s feats, but also the Moon landings a decade plus later, so let’s not pretend everyone was wowed into blithe gullibility – he does a fine job of persuading you he is entirely cynical about the heightened endeavour in all respects. Soviet and US efforts are portrayed as mutually inept until their hands are forced, with acid remarks about their needing elevators due to all the postponements (something The Right Stuff is good at portraying). Notably, both countries’ heads of rocket engineering are Seig-Heiling Nazis (pretty much spot on), such that you wonder why anyone thought NASA was remotely legitimate in the first place.
Professor Koknitz: We do not reach Mach 2… We do not reach Escape Velocity… Power and not speed is important
The international spotlight cast on Fenwick means they have to feign sending up their rocket, albeit Rupert Mountjoy doesn’t realise his son Vincent (Bernard Cribbins) and Professor Kokintz (the returning David Kosoff) really do intend to go. Of course, everything about Fenwick’s approach is such overtly absurd fantasy that it makes the “real” efforts to get there appear authentic and feasible only by dint of contrast. So Kokintz dazzles with his own science, every bit as legitimate as that of the recognised professionals (he has, after all, got similar form, having invented his own fake superweapon that outdoes their nukes). His trip will take three weeks (“I regenerate air by catalytic disassociation”), and his fuel comes from the explosive properties of Fenwick wine (it contains Pinotium 64, an astonishing radioactive element that lends itself to a formula for stabilising nuclear power). Space food is out. They will have “Fresh eggs on the way up and roast chicken on the way down”.
Vincent Mountjoy: Astronaut. It’s all I’ve dreamed about since they sent up Sputnik 1.
When they finally take off, their competitors swiftly follow. Alas, the latter arrive too late and fail to lift off again (so needing a lift back; eerily prescient, if you take any stock in the idea that the lunar lander did what it’s claimed to have done). The depiction of space travel in The Mouse on the Moon is at least as convincing as the “real” thing. The lunar surface too. In this movie’s the version of the space race, the US is actually reasonably sensible, intent on preserving life rather than sanctioning needless endangerment. The General asserts that, in order to safeguard American boys, he would delay the mission for a thousand years, something his Nazi scientist Von Neidel (John Bluthal) vocally disagrees with. A headline earlier announces “US launches robot at Moon to report on the lunar surface”, so even a lark like The Mouse on the Moon suggests contingencies the actual space force failed to investigate. Of course, the notion that their $20bn budget blackhole may be exactly that isn’t entirely ignored (“The American tax payer has always been deceived. It is his birth right” comments cunning Rupert to his son, who objects to rocket funds being used for the castle plumbing system).
Professor Koknitz: Good evening, gentlemen. Grand Fenwick welcomes you to its Moon.
Vincent Mountjoy: Could I see your passports and vaccination certificates, please.
The Mouse on the Moon also has the drop on current concerns, such as all that (alleged) space flotsam floating around up there (you know, the stuff imminently in danger of landing on us, or of perforating the delicate hulls of space stations, but which never does): “Wherever civilisation goes, garbage is sure to follow” observes Koknitz of all the junk that has landed with them. It’s a nice touch too that, as soon as the Americans and Soviets touch down, the Fenwickians are demanding passports and “vaccination certificates”.
Vincent Mountjoy: Cynthia, will you marry me?
Cynthia: Yes, when you’ve been to the Moon and back.
Pertwee takes a gently scattershot approach with his satire, Fenwick quietly absorbing the decadent values of the more established western forces. Rupert’s niece Cynthia (June Ritchie) is an active protestor against the state on any given subject (“I don’t know. But whatever it is, we’ll fight it”). There also some amusing placards, with “Keep Fenwick off the Moon” followed by “And Out of the Common Market”. Cribbins attempts some slapstick mugging as he tries to pass himself off as a beatnik. Somehow, this is winning to Cynthia.
Rupert Mountjoy: Your great, great grandfather became prime minister at the age of six!
Vincent Mountjoy: Yes, but he was mad!
Rupert Mountjoy: Mad maybe, but one of our greatest prime ministers.
It’s been noted that Cribbins is playing Moody’s son despite the latter being only four years older. You never question this, though. Moody’s on fine form, suggesting a less diabolical Roger Delgado. Cribbins is good value too, if delivering the familiar hapless inept also seen in the likes of You Must Be Joking! and Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. Notably, when he first returns from boarding school in England, dad despairs of his lost potential (he had all the makings of a great politician “As a child, he was fantastically sly and dishonest”) and opines to Cynthia that he should “never have sent him to British public school” (implying it may have turned Vincent a bit nancy).
Vincent Mountjoy: Who do you spy for? The Russians?
Maurice Spender: I say, steady!
Terry-Thomas pops up for a brief section as British spy Maurice Spender, tasked with determining the authenticity of the Fenwick rocket project and duly disarmed by the complete lack of security. T-T is offered a few decent lines and allowed to deliver a smattering of ingratiating cowardice, but this isn’t one of his vintage parts. Having seen the rocket decked out with showerheads and its evident application for castle heating, he reports back in the scoffing affirmative when John Le Mesurier asks “Absolutely no question of genuine space research, then?”
Frankie Howerd: Three weeks? Oh dear! I’ll have to make other arrangements.
There’s a nice dig too at British bereft-ness post Empire, as the news report on the Fenwick Moon mission notes the contributions of the US (money) and Soviet Union (rocket) before proudly advising that the watch worn by Vincent is of British design. Also notable in small roles are Clive Dunn as a bandleader (becoming most distraught at the need to switch between multiple national anthems), Peter Sallis and John Lloyd. Frankie Howerd – as himself – marches on looking for the loo, only to be old it will be another three weeks before he can use it.
Rupert Mountjoy: Why should I be pleased about the blasted bobolinks?
I had in mind that we actually got to see the Bobolinks in The Mouse on the Moon. Further still, I was under the illusion they were a made-up bird, owing to their very silly name. Maurice Binder returns for the animated title sequence while regular Ray Harryhausen’s DP Wilkie Cooper – he also lensed the same year’s Jason and the Argonauts – keeps things colourful. The Mouse on the Moon is a post-Ealing Brit pic probably best suited to a younger audience, despite savouring some sharp targets. It makes for a better kids’ satire, though, than its predecessor does an adult one.