(3/10) In a nutshell: A visually stunning, but ultimately sloppily written, stiffly acted and boringly directed science fiction musical comedy, with unfunny comedy, bad music and bad sci-fi. This utterly strange concoction just has to be seen.
Just Imagine. 1930, USA. Directed by David Butler. Written by Lew Brown, G.G. DeSylva and Ray Henderson. Starring: El Brendel. John Garrick, Maureen O’Sullivan, Marjorie White, Frank Albertson. Cinematography: Ernest Palmer. Produced by Lew Brown, G.G. DeSylva and Ray Henderson for Fox. IMDb score: 5.6
Just Imagine! In 1980 New York will have 250 story art deco buildings, will be built on nine different planes and be littered with suspending roads, and everyone will have their own airplane to go get the groceries with! Just Imagine! In 1980 prohibition will still be in effect, and everyone will be getting loaded on alcohol pills! Just Imagine! In 1980 the food comes in pill form, airplanes are built on conveyor belts and even babies come from slot machines! Just Imagine! In 1980 people have letters and numbers instead of names, and governments will decide on who gets to marry who! Just Imagine! In 1980 dead people from the past can be resurrected! Just Imagine if one of those dead people happened to be 1930’s vaudeville comedian El Brendel who turns out to be an alcoholic and goes off to Mars and gets cosy with a gay captain of the Martian guard! Just Imagine what kind of film that would be!
Or, you don’t have to imagine, just watch Just Imagine, the first science fiction comedy musical, made in 1930. Or you can read this review. This film is about as bizarre as it gets. In 1930 the Great Depression had just hit USA, and people wanted light-hearted entertainment to ease their troubles. In 1927 The Jazz Singer introduced both the sound film and the musical film, and by 1930 a shitload of film musicals had been made, one of them, Sunny Side Up (1929) had been a huge hit and featured songs by a trio named Lew Brown, G.G. DeSylva and Ray Henderson, who were a force to be reckoned with on Broadway. They got called in to write new material for Just Imagine, a film inspired by Austrian director Fritz Lang’s futuristic masterpiece Metropolis (1927, review), the budding pulp sci-fi magazines and, more than anything, musical comedies and vaudeville.
The grit of the matter is this: J-21 (John Garrick) wants to marry his girlfriend LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan, later known as Tarzan’s Jane) – but alas, the mean MT-3 (Kenneth Thomson) has already filed for her marriage with the authorities, and since he is of higher rank in society LN-18 will have to marry him. This exposition conversation takes place above the Manhattan skyline in two hovering airplanes, no less. J-21 complains to his friend RT-42 (Frank Albertson) that he would have to advance in his career in the next three months in order to win the hand of LN-18.
Oh crap, let’s just call them Jack, Bill, Bob and Lucy. I’m getting all confused myself from all these numbers.
So, Jack complains to his friend Bill that he would have to advance in his career in the next three months in order to win the hand of Lucy, otherwise she has to marry Bob. But, says Jack – he is a zeppelin pilot. And as he already pilots a zeppelin, it’s pretty darn difficult to advance in that job. Enter D-6 (Marjorie White – henceforth Betsy), Bill’s girlfriend, a sparky, modern girl with loads of spunk, who also happens to be a nurse at the clinic where dead people are revived. Jack comments to Bill that Betsy isn’t of his taste, as she is much too modern – he likes good old-fashioned girls. This lead to one of the most bewildering lines in movie history: ”No, I like my girls like my grandmother used to be”. This take the Oedipus complex to whole new spheres. And sadly, this also leads to the first of many bland 1920-styled musical numbers, as Jack picks up a guitar and sings a longing ballad about the old-fashioned girls of the thirties.
Enough of that, Betsy seems to think while showing off her new outfit that can be folded inside-out, and drags the melancholy Jack and Bill to the lab where they are about to revive some dork who got struck by lightning in 1930 while playing golf. This turns out to be El Brendel, the hugely popular vaudeville comedian who became famous for doing a routine with a bad imitation of Swedish, and despite his stage name was completely American, with an Irish mother and a German father, and whose real name was Elmer Goodfellow Brendel. After a brief shock he starts to pop booze pills and doing excruciatingly bad jokes. Here’s a teaser:
– We’re going to Mars, says Jack.
– Take me with you, I’d like to meet your mother, replies Brendel.
Please don’t laugh so loud, you’ll wake the neighbours.
It is quite clear that this film was made before the production code, or Hays Code, was strictly implemented, because of the not so subtly implied homosexuality of Loko, who immediately takes a liking to Brendel, who isn’t slow to capitalise on the humour of the situation. It is also clear that men of the early thirties were terribly frightened of women, since both Bill and Brendel promptly refuse to remove their clothes for bathing as long as there are women in the room – they are downright terrified of the thought. Getting undressed by a huge burly homosexual in s/m gear seems to be perfectly fine, though. There is also a brilliant scene in which scantily clad Martian women crawl around a huge mechanical idol that scoops up the near naked girls in his mechanical arms after a short dance routine. This scene would later turn up in the first Flash Gordon serial (1936, review), and is just one of the spectacular visual elements of the film.
The explorers are then kidnapped by the evil twins of the good Martian society, led by Boo Boo and Boko (Joyner and Linow again), some not very inspired chase and fight scenes ensue, and the hopeless Brendel turns out to be the hero who defeats Boko and helps the trio return to Earth just in time for Jack to marry Lucy.
This film is a perfect time capsule for the confusing time between 1927 and 1931 when films were still getting used to sound. It was also a time when much of America had been confused by the rapid technological advance of technology, as well as by the female liberation that came with the suffrage and the sexual and moral liberation that gave rise to the flapper. If the god-awful songs in the film seem dated today, the only consolation is that they were dated even in 1930. By this time the first fad of musical comedies were already waning and this was definitely not the best work of songwriters and producers Brown, DeSylva and Henderson. Silent films were an art form all to themselves, and sound films demanded a whole new thinking. Many producers tried to imitate what they already knew of entertainment with sound, like radio, theatre and vaudeville, which was one reason as to why many vaudeville acts got stuck in the movies.
For some it was a lucky break but others had their careers ruined. A vaudeville act might tour America with the same numbers for years and never have the same audience, so his or her act was always fresh. But with films the act was there for all to see, which meant that if it wasn’t spectacularly good, it was henceforth unusable. El Brendel had originally started his show with a German accent routine. But because of the steady rise of Nazism in Germany, he was forced to change it, and for some reason came up with his character of an oafish Swede, and for some reason that is beyond me, ot was hugely popular, so much that Fox decided to give him a central role in one of their most expensive films of the year. It is gruelling to watch. It is not only outdated, it was outdated at the time of Plato. The jokes are so bad they make you cringe, and joking really is El Brendel’s only talent, since he doesn’t even sound Swedish (I should know, it’s my first language, even though I’m Finnish).
The themes are also a strange concoction. We move about in this futuristic world with Metropolis-inspired sets, video phones and huge societal changes. But everyone still dresses like 1930, and they even behave like 1930. Women are still supposed to be meek and quiet among men, especially fathers and husbands. All people with prestigious occupations still seem to be male, and for some reason New York in 1980 is completely Caucasian. An Asian-looking doctor does flicker past the camera at one point, but there’s isn’t a single black person in the city, it seems. So we have this strange future city in which a man sits and sings a longing songs about the women of the past, and how they were good and old-fashioned. In actuality, it is all of course a representation of 1930, and the film rather looks back to the time before the Roaring Twenties, back before the flapper and the moral liberalism. In the end, although having been to Mars, where there seems to be equality (a female ruler), free love, and all sorts of good things, the explorers don’t really seem to make much of it. Although Jack has done nothing else during the film than complained about the current system on Earth, where one can’t freely choose who one marries, in the end he doesn’t give a fiery speech at the magistrate. He simply complies with the rules, now that they are on his side. It is an awfully conformist film.
What works, though, are the sets. The film opens with the gigantic Metropolis-inspired New York skyline, built in a huge hangar by 200 people, with 15 000 light bulbs, at a staggering cost of 250 000 dollars (massive for the day). The airplanes are nicely designed, as is the spacecraft (which was later re-used in the Flash Gordon series in 1936, as were the strange looking handguns on Mars, and the scene with the Martian women and the idol). Mars is also very nicely rendered, although we are in a very fantastic world, far from the angles of Metropolis. The Martian costumes are downright stupendous. What feels so strange watching this film is that it feels like a parody of Flash Gordon, even though Flash Gordon was made six years later. The film also sports the first successful use of rear projection. The New York city skyline from this film would be reused in a number of later sci-fi films and serials.
The actors are all stiff and dull, except El Brendel who is awful. The only actor that lights up the screen is comedienne Marjorie White playing Betsy. She is a mouthful, a classic hard-nosed, cheeky, independent flapper, and she brings some very much needed energy to the film, and is a complete contrast to leading lady Maureen O’Sullivan, who does little more that pout and hush throughout the whole film. And credit must be given to Ivan Linow who also adds some nice touches – although he does play the gay captain very stereotypically. But at this point you really take all the humour you can get – any humour – in this awfully unfunny comedy science fiction musical with bad music and bad sci-fi.
The awesome design of the film was made by Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras, both Academy Award winners or nominated. The practical miniature work was led by the duo of Willis O’Brien and Marcel Delgado, who created the stop-motion effects and creatures for films like The Lost World (1925, review) and King Kong. This was the first film that presented the iconic electrical equipment of Kenneth Strickfaden (in the resurrection scene) – that would later go on to great fame in the 1931 film Frankenstein (review). Unfortunately Brown, DeSylva and Henderson produced and wrote the screenplay for the film. Director David Butler was a quite successful director until the fifties, directing Doris Day and Shirley Temple in a number of films.
To be fair to actress Maureen O’Sullivan, she did not have much to work with in this film, and later showed that it was the writing, rather than the acting that was at fault. 1932 she got her big breakthrough playing opposite Johnny Weissmüller in Tarzan of the Apes (based on the novel by prolific adventure and sci-fi author Edgar Rice Burroughs [A Princess of Mars, John Carter of Mars, At the Earth’s Core, Tanar of Pellucidar, etc]), and reprised the role six times. In the thirties and early forties she had a number of high profile roles in films like The Thin Man (1934), Anna Karenina (1936) and Pride and Prejudice (1940). She took a break from acting in 1942 to tend to her sick husband, director John Farrow, and her family. One of her six children, renowned actress and activist Mia Farrow, was born in 1945. She returned to acting in the fifties, both on stage and in film, and one of her most famous later roles was in the star-studded Woody Allen film Hannah and her Sisters (1986), with Mia Farrow playing the title role. Farrow was also Allen’s long-time girlfriend (and there was the scandal with Allen marrying Farrow’s adopted daughter, but let’s not get into that now).
The feisty Canadian Marjorie White started out as a vaudeville act, most known for her duo with Thelma Wolpa (”Thelma White”) – The White Sisters. Wolpa/White was later immortalised as Mae in the legendary anti-marijuana propaganda film Reefer Madness (1932). Marjorie White is best known for Just Imagine, The Movietrone Follies of 1930 (1930), and the Three Stooges short Woman Haters.
Frank Albertson was a well-employed character actor, mostly playing supporting roles – perhaps best known from Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936), Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). He also appeared in Lon Chaney Jr’s sci-fi horror debut Man Made Monster in 1941 (review). Hobart Bosworth, playing the professor Z-4, who builds the space ship, was a famous theatre actor and one of the biggest names in early Hollywood, starring in what is believed to be the first adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1908, for example.
Mischa Auer, a Russian émigré, would later become a staple in comedic roles, and playing different European nationalities, often in high profile films, like My Man Godfray (1936), for which he was nominated for an Oscar, and the Best Picture winner You Can’t Take it With You (1938). He appeared as the villain Hanns Krug in the 1932 horror film The Monster Walks, and in 1933 he appeared alongside the future Flash Gordon – Buster Crabbe – in a Tarzan serial. He was directed by the early sci-fi experimentalist René Clair (The Crazy Ray, 1924, review) in 1945 in his filmatisation of Agatha Christie’s And then There Were None (1945).
Joyzelle Joyner was primarily a dancer, but also acted in about 30 films after her debut in Just Imagine. She is best know for her dance scene with lesbian overtones in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932). Ivan Linow’s real name was Janis Linaus, and her was a Latvian wrestling champion who later turned to acting, very much like the later B-film legend Tor Johnson. He appeared in over 50 films in the States, and is perhaps best known from the 1929 sound remake of Tod Browning’s classic Unholy Three, starring Lon Chaney.
As someone else wrote: it is a bit disconserting that this is the first real all-out science fiction film of USA, (if you don’t count the ”dystopian” 1924 comedy The Last Man on Earth [1924, review] as such). It wasn’t a complete flop, as some sources claim. In fact, many reviewers liked it. But the audience just didn’t buy in to it with the enthusiasm that the studio had hoped – and budgeted – for. It proved a financial loss, but not a big enough such to discourage Fox to remake The Last Man on Earth three years later – as a musical comedy! Oh boy… That was the film that then finally put the cap on sci-fi epics for 16 years for American filmmakers. But of course American sci-fi didn’t completely die. It moved along with Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical equipment to Frankenstein’s laboratory, where it continued to crackle and burn Boris Karloff at a steadily diminishing intensity all the way to 1950, which marked the starting point of the so-called golden age of American sci-fi films.
Just Imagine! 1930, USA. Directed by David Butler. Written by Lew Brown, G.G. DeSylva and Ray Henderson. Starring: El Brendel. John Garrick, Maureen O’Sullivan, Marjorie White, Frank Albertson, Hobart Bosworth, Joyzelle Joyner, Ivan Linow, Mischa Auer, Kenneth Thomson. Art & design: Stephen Goosson, Ralph Hammeras. Editing: Irene Morra. Cinematography: Ernest Palmer. Produced by Lew Brown, G.G. DeSylva and Ray Henderson for Fox.