Once in a New Moon
What makes us watch a movie for the first time?
Often it’s because of our favorite stars. Perhaps a notable director. It can be from the recommendation of a friend. But sometimes all I need is an interesting plot description.
That was the case for Once in a New Moon, a 1935 British sci-fi film that was unfamiliar in every way. There wasn’t one recognizable name in the cast that included Eliot Makeham, Rene Ray, Morton Seiten, and Mary Hinton. I didn’t know the director/writer Anthony Kimmins even after I looked at his lengthy filmography.
But the synopsis – oh, that was irresistible:
“When the small town of Shrimpton-on-Sea is dragged out into space by the force of a ‘dead star’ passing Earth, the populace try to organise a local government based on equal rights for all, but conflicts arise between the local aristocracy and the villagers.”
What? A village is pulled into outer space? Fantastic! My mind was reeling with the possibilities of what I would see. Here’s where I admit I was so excited over the “dragged into space” bit that I glossed over “organise a government” which turned out to be a big part of the movie. I had too many questions.
Did it leave a hole in the Earth?
Could you fall off?
How could the villagers survive the lack of gravity or oxygen? What would happen to the animals? Would everyone float out in space?
So many questions. Yet, the charmingly odd little film doesn’t even pretend to answer them.
Once in a New Moon is exactly as described. There is a small town with the very British name of Shrimpton-on-Sea and a “dead star” that broke off a meteorite and is hurtling toward Earth. (Every time they said “dead star”, my mind changed it to “Death Star” which added to my viewing pleasure and confusion.) And there will be a fight over the organization of a new government. That’s the description and that’s the movie. There isn’t filler.
I discovered the quirky film streaming on Amazon Prime Video from a British distributor called Renown Pictures which is devoted to classic British cinema. The films are mostly low-budget, B-movies and it can show. Many, like Once in a New Moon, are roughly an hour-long so they are worth the time even when lacking cool special effects to pull off their ambitious stories.
The Earth in danger has become a conventional plot in sci-fi movies (When Worlds Collide, Meteor, Deep Impact). It always goes like this: A lone scientist discovers an impending danger of never-before-seen proportions; he/she goes to great lengths to warn people and is greeted by disbelief and laughter; danger strikes and the disbelievers go to the scientist for help.
In this film, it’s not a scientist but the village’s postmaster (!) Harold Drake (played by Eliot Makeham) who discovers the problem via headlines in papers from around the world. (He also has a telescope on his roof, so that helps.) Of course, his warnings are ignored.
Then a storm arrives. Waves are crashing. A dog hides in his little house. Darkness falls. Two circular objects in space pass each other. What does it mean?
The dawn rises, but phones are down and roads are washed out. The rich folk, eager to get “to town” (London), are upset. On a church rooftop they see the impossible: “Heavens, England’s gone!,” one yells.
They think a tidal wave has wiped away everything and left them isolated. There’s not even a ship to be seen. So the rich folks do what rich folks do: they form a committee. But in the middle of the meeting the sun sets – at 10 a.m.! Stars come out. Confusion sets in.
In London there’s panic. Newspaper headlines shout that Shrimpton is gone without a trace. Earth is befuddled. This is getting fun.
Meanwhile, back at Shrimpton . . . they form a subcommittee. (There is a humorous bent to the film.) Finally they ask Mr. Drake for help. A stargazer, he has been making calculations and asks them: “Where is the moon?” It has disappeared and he posits the idea that the moon and dead star have collided, crushing the moon and splitting the Earth in half. He has his calculations and proves his hypothesis.
And that is that. Shrimpton has been hurled into the “celestial void” that is circumnavigating the globe. Somehow this 6-mile long, 4-mile wide island has been ripped into space with just a few crashing waves and heavy winds. Yet everyone is fine. They’re still drinking tea out of china cup.
Up to now, the film has been fun to watch as they told us it would be in the opening crawl. We’ve got our terrified proclamations (“It’s the end of the world!”). There is a panic and the requisite scientific mumbo-jumbo (albeit from a postmaster). Storms set the atmosphere.
But then a class struggles breaks out when the rich people nominate themselves to head the new government. (To be fair, they are nice people – except for the haughty Her Ladyship who has been called a “hard-bitten conservative” by her son. That son, by the way, is in love with the postmaster’s daughter, adding to the tension and giving the film a romantic subplot.) Without getting too much into modern politics, the characters in this 1935 film are saying things familiar today. When the poor ask for their share of rations, it’s called “rank socialism”; they want a general election (a president, not a dictator) and equal rights. By the time the two sides talk of war, I’m thinking “I want my sci-fi film back.” But I understand this clash between classes was important to the filmmakers in 1935.
So we don’t get aliens – like I was hoping. And it’s not terrifying. So why am I writing about this in a column called Monsters and Matinees? Because when it comes to sci-fi and B-movies, this is one of the most awesome plots ever and I needed to share. Plus it’s important that when we find a new source of classic movies, like Renown, to let others know. So let your imagination run wild as the waves are crashing about, signifying that Shrimpton-on-Sea is now Shrimpton-in-Universe.
3 more to watch
Here are short looks at horror films distributed by Renown.
Castle Sinister (1948)
The first film I watched via Renown was this “old house movie,” a favorite genre of mine. Honestly, it looked like I expected: low production values with uneven sound, lighting, and acting. But there was something about it. It was clearly shot on location near the water and the black and white photography added a grim look. Though it started slow, I really got into it. The family that inhabits Glynnie Castle in Scotland has been haunted by reports of the murderous ghost of a former lord. An officer is sent to the castle when there are sightings of a masked figure who may be responsible for a new series of murders. This masked figure isn’t shy about being seen and it’s immediately apparent it’s not a ghost. Still, it’s eerie when his head looms out from the shadows over the shoulder of an unsuspecting person. I never came close to figuring out who it was and what was going on, which adds bonus points for this horror mystery.
The House in Marsh Road (1960)
If a house is in the title, we know something bad is inside. Struggling author David and his wife, Jean, are going from town to town scamming landlords with fake money. When Jean inherits money and the country house of her aunt, she’s eager to start a new chapter. Hubby only sees dollar signs, but Jean falls in love with the house, despite it being haunted. The aunt and long-time housekeeper (who has named the poltergeist Patrick after her hubby) “understood” Patrick and lived in peace with “him.” But, he can “be very nasty to people who don’t take him seriously.” (Guess who falls under that last category?) They repeatedly refer to Patrick as a poltergeist, but he’s quite playful with Jean (moving chairs around). He’s not so nice to David, however, who spends most of his time at the village bar, has an affair with a soon-to-be-divorcee and steals his wife’s money. When they plot to kill Jean, Patrick is watching and ready to protect her. There’s a great scene where loud alarms go off every time Jean starts to sip a poisoned drink. Slowly the realization of what is happening dawns across her terrified face and it is chilling. This is where the film turns from mild ghost story to suspenseful horror-thriller and Patrick goes full-on poltergeist. Note: Known in the U.S. as Invisible Creature.
The Monkey’s Paw (1948)
Based on a 1902 short story by W.W. Jacobs, this is a deceptive little movie with a Twilight Zone-ish ending. It opens with a shadowy scene in a curiosity shop where the owner weaves the tale of a monkey’s paw that will grant 3 wishes but then brings bad luck and tragedy. The man hearing the story – an antique dealer – can’t resist and buys the paw. Cut to sunshine in an Irish village where the Trelawne family runs a small store: Mr. Trelawne (Milton Rosmer) who is in debt because of horse racing, his wife (Megs. Jenkins) and their son who wants to buy a motorbike to race. There’s also the fast-talking Kelly (a scene-stealing Michael Martin Harvey) who seems to do odd jobs. (Watch this guy carefully.) There’s talk of superstitions and whether things are coincidence or fate (also important). I couldn’t figure out where this was going until that dealer shows up with the monkey’s paw. It sends Kelly into a panic as he cries “the terrible monkey’s paw,” and tells of witnessing the tragedy the paw can inflict. Still, without his family knowing, Mr. Trelawne buys the paw setting a series of events into motion. What comes next is an unexpected edge-of-your-seat finale that’s very intense. I was impressed.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.