Olive Films, has released on Blu-ray BLAST-OFF, the amiable 1967 British science-fiction period comedy (released here by American International Pictures) produced and co-written by the notorious Harry Alan Towers, written by Dave Freeman, directed by Don Sharp, and starring Burl Ives, Troy Donahue, Gert Frobe, Hermione Gingold, Lionel Jeffries, Dennis Price, Daliah Lavi, Stratford Johns, Graham Stark, Jimmy Clitheroe, Judy Cornwell, Edward de Souza, Joan Sterndale-Bennett, Allan Cuthbertson, and Terry-Thomas. Known in England and internationally as JULES VERNE’S ROCKET TO THE MOON, and initially released here in the States as THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS, BLAST-OFF was the second title AIP tried with this mock-epic “all star” Victorian comedy, when it died at the box office and was quickly re-released with almost a half hour chopped out of the original version. Happily for fans, this Blu-ray contains the original, full 119-minute cut, including the proper THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS title card in the opening credits (...so why, curiously, did Olive use the edited version’s re-title—and only Burl Ives on the new cover art, instead of say, Terry-Thomas—for this disc?). No extras here besides a beat-up original trailer, but the newly struck HD 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is hard to beat.
Victorian England, during the flowering of the Age of Science, or perhaps more accurately, the Age of Trial and Error, as engineers like The Duke of Barset (Dennis Price, THEATRE OF BLOOD, THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN) and Sir Charles Dillworthy (Lionel Jeffries, OH DAD, POOR DAD, MAMMA’S HUNG YOU IN THE CLOSET AND I’M FEELIN’ SO SAD, WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO?) put forth great works like electrified houses and great steelworks bridges for the glorification of their monarch, Queen Victoria (Joan Sterndale-Bennett, THE SPIDER’S WEB, DECLINE AND FALL...OF A BIRD WATCHER)...only to see their experiments spectacularly fail. Things are no different in other parts of the civilized world. In Germany, Professor Siegfried von Bulow (Gert Frobe, GOLDFINGER, I KILLED RASPUTIN) successfully invents the helmet cannon...and almost kills himself in the process; in France, young American engineer Gaylord Sullivan (Troy Donahue, MY BLOOD RUNS COLD, SWEET SAVIOR) works on designing a return rocket...while almost crashing his balloon, along with his French girlfriend Madeleine (Daliah Lavi, THE WHIP AND THE BODY, CASINO ROYALE); and in America, famous promoter Phineas T. Barnum (Burl Ives, THE BRASS BOTTLE, TWO MOON JUNCTION) escapes to England after dodging creditors when his “Greatest Show On Earth” circus burns to the ground. When Barnum visits the Royal Society for the Advancement of Science, and hears von Bulow give a lecture on bolovite, a new explosive that could theoretically shoot a manned projectile to the moon, the American promoter smells money. Proposing a company made up of von Bulow, the Duke, and Sir Charles, Barnum hopes to raise $10 millions to make the moon launch happen, with little Colonel Tom Thumb (Jimmy Clitheroe, THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN) as the pilot. However, nefarious deeds are developing behind the scenes when crooked Sir Charles is convinced by his even more bent brother-in-law Captain Sir Harry Washington-Smythe (Terry-Thomas, SPANISH FLY, THE BAWDY ADVENTURES OF TOM JONES), to start embezzling funds from the company. Washington-Smythe, a cad and a bounder, soon takes bets against the moonship successfully launching, leading him to plot sabotage with Sir Charles.
According to a few sources, AIP’s edited down BLAST-OFF (which clocked in at 95 minutes) wasn’t any more successful at the U.S. box office than their originally monikered, longer-running THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS. However, knowing how infamous exploitation producer Harry Alan Towers (99 WOMEN, THE BLOODY JUDGE) worked, I’m betting this inexpensive “all-star” Victorian comedy was already internationally pre-sold and in the black before it ever hit theaters (Towers also stated that every movie that director Don Sharp helmed for him made money, so...). Coming towards the end of the big all-star ensemble comedy kick (as well as fantasy and sci-fi genre outings loosely based on Jules Verne titles), BLAST-OFF didn’t make anywhere near as big a mark with audiences and critics as predecessors such as AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, THE GREAT RACE, THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES, or 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE WORLD and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. No doubt the fad for this kind of large-scale family entertainment was fading by 1967, but BLAST-OFF’s lack of truly big stars probably didn’t help, either. Bing Crosby was originally supposed to headline...but even he was past it at the box office by ’67, while internationally recognized players like Ives, Frobe, Jeffries, and Lavi were never headliners (Terry-Thomas had by this point moved into lucrative supporting roles in international outings, while one-time Warner Bros. A-lister Troy Donahue was already D.O.A. at the box office).
A lot of viewers from around my age bracket have a soft spot for movies like BLAST-OFF. These kinds of titles used to show up with regularity on TV back in the early-to-mid 1970s. Simple in their comedy/action aims and broadly constructed, they naturally appealed to undemanding kid audiences, while their episodic nature fit in perfectly with all those commercial interruptions (you could play a three hour Monopoly game or build a model airplane at the same time and not miss a thing). And it was still a kick back then to see a large cast of recognizable faces assembled together in the hopes of multiplying the movie’s fun (stars are so crappy and ordinary today...who cares how many are stuck in one movie?).
BLAST-OFF isn’t nearly as funny or as exciting as other examples of these mixed genres, but it does have a genial, measured standoffishness to it that’s weirdly appealing—true British reserve, perhaps, filtered through a big, ungainly, mechanically-based movie comedy. Director Sharp (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU) manages the stately gait of a pseudo-epic here, with an end result that doesn’t overwhelm, but merely tickles the funnybone. BLAST-OFF is a “goof” in the best sense of the word, a trifle executed by pros who aren’t exactly being stretched, but who mostly seem in on the joke (everyone but poor, stiff, clearly dissipated Donahue, that is...). For a cheapo Harry Alan Towers production, the look of BLAST-OFF is surprisingly rich (made readily apparent by this new sensational widescreen Blu transfer), with epic-looking Irish location work, and nicely detailed, colorful sets. And the skilled cast, considering the budget, is generally upmarket (I kept waiting for Ives to go “large,” but he’s fairly restrained here, unfortunately, while expert muggers Price, Jeffries and T-T effortlessly wring giggles from something as simple as a pained reaction shot).
A common complaint of BLAST-OFF is that it’s simply not funny enough—but I was laughing or at least smiling through most of it. The opening series of mechanical disaster set pieces (underneath Anthony Woodruff’s amusingly deadpan, ironic narration) gives BLAST-OFF a nice sense of scale, before the steady string of whimsy begins. Certainly there are missed opportunities here in Dave Freeman’s (CARRY ON BEHIND, TV’s THE BENNY HILL SHOW) script. There should have been a lot more of the amusing Judy Cornwell as Price’s looney daughter (her boyfriend Graham Stark, by association, is also thus limited), while the delicious Lavi was frequently set up in promising situations (locked up with a lascivious T-T; locked up in a home for “wayward girls”) only to have those scenes fade with no discernible payoffs (the Russian spy angle would have benefited from a bigger comedic star than Joachim Teege, too). Still, it’s difficult not to laugh at BLAST-OFF’s nicely executed cartoon violence: Frobe being blown through a wooden door; T-T’s crooked billiard table; that extended cannon sequence with Stratford Johns’ beautifully put-upon Warrant Officer (“I was blown up, sir,” “Yes...but you’ve come down, haven’t you? Now get fell in!”). It’s not all broad. Sly, smart moments like Queen Victoria wondering where Prime Minister Gladstone is (when they’re looking for someone to be shot into space), or a French gendarme explaining to bridegroom de Souza why his shotgun isn’t loaded (“I did not know it was that kind of a wedding”), are interspersed with agreeably surreal British humor (Frobe’s hilarious gibberish-producing hand-cranked “electric speaking trumpet” is the movie’s best, most bizarre gag). BLAST-OFF may not blow you through the roof...but it’s an amusing ride, all the same.
I was fairly shocked at how crisp and clean and vibrant Olive Film’s Blu-ray transfer of BLAST-OFF looked. The HD AVC 1080p 2.35:1 anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer looks as if it was shot and printed today, not 50 years ago. Fine image detail is minute (you can count the red hairs on Frobe’s head), while colors are richly valued. Depth of image is awesome at times, while grain is filmic and super-tight. Few if any anomalies, and no artifacting or compression issues. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 split mono English track, however, is another story: it was clean enough, but it also sounded as if Olive re-recorded it here at a lower-than-necessary level. I had to really jack up the volume to get a read close to normal. English subtitles are included. An original trailer—with no mention of the movie’s title onscreen—is included. (Paul Mavis)
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