Totò nella luna (1958)

‘Pod Creature, stop that! You are the most moronic creature we have ever created.’

Concerned about humankind’s first baby steps to the stars, aliens are working to sabotage experimental satellite launches from Cape Canaveral. Meanwhile, an aspiring young science fiction writer is found to have a substance in his blood that makes him the perfect astronaut and two FBI agents travel to Rome to recruit him…

Genial, knockabout comedy starring Italian National Institution and ‘Prince of Laughter’ Antonio Vincenzo Stefano Clemente. A man of many names but better known as Totò. This star vehicle finds him hopping aboard the 1950s science-fiction space wagon that began roaring across American cinema screens at the start of the decade.

Irascible magazine editor Pasquale Belafronte (Totò) has had his fill of the space craze. Not only do rockets disturb his sleep, he’s also bothered at work where dogsbody Achille Paoloni (Ugo Tognazzi) can’t stop talking about comic strips and his new science fiction novel. Worse still, this loser is the frontrunner for the hand of his beautiful daughter, Lidia (Sylva Koscina). Meanwhile, extra-terrestrials are regarding the Earth with worried eyes and are drawing their plans against us.

The aliens’ beef is the American space programme, which has already progressed as far as sending a chimp into orbit. So they send down Interplanetary Alpha 1 Annelid (played by a pair of disembodied, cartoon eyes) from the Anti-terrestrial Space Control Station to put the brakes on the boffins. Annelid accomplishes this by generating some wibbly-wobbly smoke rings that stream through the atmosphere. These send the US rockets hopelessly off course, and they have to be destroyed, leaving the scientists baffled.

It seems that the extra-terrestrials have the upper hand, but they’ve reckoned without Tognazzi. A casual medical examination reveals that he has Glumonium in his blood, apparently from being brought up with apes by his zookeeper father. For some reason, this makes him the only man who can go into space, and FBI agents contact him in Rome to offer him the job. Unfortunately, there’s a language barrier, and Tognazzi thinks they are offering to publish his novel.

Of course, this is all very silly, with the humour drawn in broad strokes and plot developments largely predictable. The script throws in enemy agents led by Bond Villain wannabe Von Braun (Luciano Salce), who believes Tognazzi’s novel contains a secret rocket formula, which he attempts to recreate with explosive results. He’s assisted in his dastardly schemes by blonde amazon, Tatitana (Sandra Milo), who comes complete with a femme fatale uniform of black dress, big hat, long opera gloves and cigarette holder. Although it’s never mentioned who they are working for, his preference for tall, furry hats is a bit of a giveaway.

A nice wrinkle is thrown in late when the aliens create duplicates of Totò and Tognazzi, but the resulting romantic and comedic misunderstandings are not exactly groundbreaking. Still, it’s good to see Tognazzi’s devotion to all the clichés of the sci-fi pulps, such as giant cockroaches and vile octopus monsters. There’s also an amusing foreshadowing of modern fanboy culture when he expresses his opinion on a newly published comic strip. ‘Everyone knows that the inhabitants of Mercury don’t have four eyes!’ he sneers in contempt. ‘They have 16 of them!’.

The film is firmly earthbound for much of its running time before finally going into orbit in the last fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, by that point, it has overstayed its welcome a little with an insufficient number of events and too many formulaic situations to consistently engage the funny bone. Euro-horror enthusiasts may be surprised to see director Lucio Fulci with a co-story credit, but he cut his teeth in mainstream Italian cinema over several decades before meeting up with the ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ (1978).

Totò was a national institution in Italy, appearing in almost 100 films from 1937 to 1968 when two more features were released after his death in April 1967 at the age of 69. Although primarily beloved as a comedian, he also found success in dramatic roles as a singer and songwriter, writer, and poet. Koscina was more famous as the girl on Steve Reeves’ arm in the first two wildly successful ‘Hercules’ films of the late 1950s but also had a long, five-decade career in which included appearances as the leading lady opposite Paul Newman in ‘The Secret War of Harry Frigg’ (1968), Rock Hudson in ‘The Hornet’s Nest’ (1970) and a prominent role in the Bulldog Drummond spy romp ‘Deadlier Than The Male’ (1967).

Harmless, if somewhat lightweight, comedy vehicle that raises a smile or two.

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