April 1, 2000

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(2/10) In a nutshell: This 1952 musical comedy is a propaganda film made in Austria during the occupation of the Allied forces, intended to promote the withdrawal of international troops and boost the national identity. Set in the year 2000, it follows the proceedings of a prime minister rolling out the greatest hits of Austrian history, art and music in order to convince the leaders of a global police force to finally lift the occupation from the country. Much singing, dancing and historical re-enactment, but very little actual plot. Plus for gathering the creme de la creme of Austrian stage talent, minus for blackface.

April 1, 2000 (1952). Directed by Wolfgang Liebeneiner. Written by Rudolf Brunngraber and Ernst Marboe. Starring: Hilde Krahl, Josef Meinrad, Waltraut Haas, Judith Holzmeister, Elisabeth Stemberger, Ulrich Bettac, Karl Ehmann, Peter Gerhard, Curd Jürgens, Robert Michal, Heinz Moog, Paul Hörbiger, Hans Moser. Produced by Karl Ehrlich and Ernst Marboe for Wien-Film and the government of Austria. IMDb score: 5.9

Curd Jürgens and Waltraut Haas in April 1, 2000.

Curd Jürgens and Waltraut Haas in April 1, 2000.

This is one of the more interesting science fictions films to come out of Europe in the early fifties. That’s not saying a lot, though, as the sci-fi craze didn’t quite catch on in the Old World with the same speed as in Hollywood. With the exception of the British The Man in the White Suit (1951, review), the Europeans really didn’t make science fiction worth noting between 1950 and 1953, when the TV-series The Quatermass Experiment (review) renewed the continent’s interest in the genre. April 1, 2000 (or 1. April, 2000) also has the distinction of being only the third science fiction film to come out of Austria, unless you count The Hands of Orlac, which I stubbornly call a supernatural horror film. Even more interesting is that it was commissioned by the Austrian government. Continue reading

The Flying Saucer

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(1/10) In a nutshell: Despite the media-trolling marketing for this first American UFO film, this early flying saucer warning turns out to be a false alarm. Alien visitors are notably absent from The Flying Saucer, which plays like a really dumb, low-budget cold war spy serial, interlaced with a promotional film for the Alaskan outback. Universally hated by sci-fi fans, and utterly forgotten by everyone else.

The Flying Saucer (1950). Directed by Mikel Conrad. Written by Mikel Conrad and Howard Irving Young. Starring: Mikel Conrad, Pat Garrison, Hantz von Teuffel, Earle Lyon, Lester Sharpe, Russell Hicks, Frank Darien, Denver Pyle, Roy Engel. Produced by Mikel Conrad for Colonial Productions. IMDb score: 4.0

Pat Garrison and Mikel Conrad in The Flying Saucer.

Pat Garrison and Mikel Conrad in The Flying Saucer.

As we all know, the fifties was the promised decade of the flying saucer genre. The flying saucer craze was kicked off by two incidents in 1947. The first was when aviator Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine unidentified flying objects in Washington state, and describing them as ”pie plate shaped” and as flying erratically, like ”saucers skipping on water”. The other was the Roswell incident, in which a farmer reported the crash of a flying disc in New Mexico, and later collected aluminium, rubber and paper debris at the site. The first incident has been explained as a mirage, and the second was, in fact, covered up by the military. That’s because the thing that crashed was a balloon carrying a disc containing microphones used for long-range monitoring of Soviet nuclear tests as part of Project Mogul, then a top-secret US army operation. At the time, the military said the crashed balloon was an ordinary weather balloon. Continue reading

Boom in the Moon

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(0/10) In a nutshell: My very first zero-star review goes to this 1946 Mexican ”sci-fi” ”comedy” starring a down and out Buster Keaton doing his best not to fall asleep on set. The completely ridiculous script has three idiots landing a moon rocket in the middle of a Mexican city, thinking they are on the moon. No, there is no political or philosophical allegory. The best moments have Buster Keaton lifelessly repeating old gags from his silent era. The rest is a mess.

Boom in the Moon (El Moderno Barba Asul, 1946). Directed by Jaime Salvador. Written by Jaime Salvador and Victor Trivas. Starring: Buster Keaton, Angel Garasa, Virginia Serret. Produced by Alexander Salking for Alsa Film. IMDb score: 4.5

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Buster Keaton and Angel Garasa in the abysmal El Moderno Barba Asul, or Boom in the Moon.

Potentially this film could have been awesome. 1. You’ve got one of the powerhouses of Mexican comedy during the so-called golden days of Mexican cinema, Jaime Salvador Valls as both writer and director. Spanish-born Salvador might not ring many bells with international viewers, but this was the man who made close to 20 films with the legendary comedian Cantiflas, a man who on the US game show What’s My Line was called ”the greatest Mexican actor alive”, and whom Charlie Chaplin himself called ”the greatest comedian in the world”. International audiences may know him best from his portrayal of Passepartout in the 1956 film Around the World in 80 Days, a role that was reprised in the infamous 2004 remake by Jackie Chan (where he actually did some pretty awesome Buster Keaton impersonations). The lead in Boom to the Moon is played by an actor who is by many considered to have been the greatest US comedian of all time (Charlie Chaplin fans may disagree): Buster Keaton. And last but not least: the film sets it up to be the first ever full length feature film made in the whole continent of America about a trip to the moon.

Continue reading

Time Flies

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(4/10) In a nutshell: In this breezy 1944 musical comedy from Britain, four friends accidentally travel to 16th century London where they meet William Shakespeare and try to sell America to Queen Elizabeth. Petite American jazz singer Evelyn Dall is the real star of this B movie, since radio comedian Tommy Handley’s horrific puns get old even before they get going. Good production values, the lighthearted tone and nice musical numbers make it worth a watch. Not, however, as often claimed, the first film featuring a time machine. 

Time Flies (1944). Directed by Walter Forde. Written by Ted Kavanagh, J.O.C. Horton, Howard Irving Young. Starring: Tommy Handley, Evelyn Dall, George Moon, Felix Aylmer. Produced by Edward Black for Gainsborough Pictures. IMDb score: 5.4

Tommy and Bill fleeing the police into the time machine in the musical comedy Time Flies fron 1944.

Tommy and Bill fleeing the police into the time machine in the musical comedy Time Flies from 1944.

Filmmakers in the United Kingdom were certainly not too hot about science fiction in the thirties and the forties. Most British sci-fi in the thirties was co-produced with either Germany or France, other films just slightly dipped their toes in sci-fi matter. Science fiction guru H.G. Wells momentarily awakened the British film industry’s interest in the genre with his extremely expensive Things to Come in 1936 (review), directed by William Carlos Menzies. Although it was the most lavish sci-fi production in the world since Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis (review), audiences and critics panned the sluggish and moralistic script and the partly wooden acting brought on by the bombastic, long-winded dialogue. The film nearly bankrupted the studio and made the British industry shun sci-fi for one and a half decade. Continue reading

The superhero serials

The Spider’s Web: ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (5/10)
The Fighting Devil Dogs ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (3/10)
The Green Hornet: ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (4/10)
The Adventures of Captain Marvel ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (6/10)
Superman ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (8/10)
Batman ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (3/10)
Captain America ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (4/10)

In a nutshell: To a varying degree of quality, the superhero serials of the late thirties and early forties laid the foundations of many sci-fi film tropes, although at the time borrowing heavily from urban crime dramas and western serials. 

The Spider’s Web. USA, 1938. Starring: Warren Hull. The Fighting Devil Dogs. USA, 1938. Starring: Lee Powell, Herman Brix. The Green Hornet. USA, 1940. Starring: Gordon Jones, Keye Luke. Superman. USA, 1941. Animated short films. The Adventures of Captain Marvel. USA, 1941. Starring: Tom Tyler, Frank Coghlan Jr. Batman. USA, 1943. Starring: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J Carrol Naish. Captain America. USA, 1944. Starring: Dick Purcell, Lionel Atwill. Produced by Columbia, Universal and Republic.

Tom Tyler flying high as Captain Marvel/Shazam.

Tom Tyler flying high as Captain Marvel/Shazam.

As I have mentioned numerous times when reviewing film serials: I don’t review film serials. The problem is, that if you want to write any sort of comprehensive blog on the origins of science fiction tropes, you just can’t leave out certain serials. Especially during the thirties and forties much of what we take for granted in sci-fi today got their humble screen beginnings as serials. That’s why I’ll use this post and to least take a brief glance on a number of the serials that came out of the States in the late thirties and early years of the forties, including: The Spider’s Web (1938), The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938), The Green Hornet (1940), Superman (1941), The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) and Batman (1943). What sets these apart from previous serials is that they all contain masked superheroes or supervillains. Unlike other posts, though, I won’t go into great detail regarding makers and actors. Continue reading

Sky Racket

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(1/10) In a nutshell: This non-western 1937 remake of the 1936 sci-fi death ray western Ghost Patrol is written and produced by legendary B-producer Sam Katzman, who succeeds in taking a film on my list of awful movies, and remaking it into another film that goes on the same list. Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel is the only good thing in this horrible affair.

Sky Racket. 1937, USA. Directed by Sam Katzman. Written by Basil Dickey. Starring: Herman Brix/Bruce Bennett, Joan Barclay, Duncan Renaldo, Hattie McDaniel, Henry Roquemore, Monte Blue.  Produced by Sam Katzman for Victory Pictures. IMDb score: 4.4

This is the only decent picture of the film I can find online.

This is the only decent picture of the film I can find online.

When someone saw the abysmal 1936 sci-fi aviation western film Ghost Patrol (review), it is no miracle they thought it could use some improvement. Unfortunately the remake Sky Racket (1937) fares no better, even though the western setting is removed. Indeed, the film is more interesting for the fact of who were involved than as a film. Continue reading

Non-Stop New York

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(3/10) In a nutshell: Schizophrenic British comedy/crime drama based on a huge futuristic flying boat. Cringeworthy comedy is mixed with witness drama that manages to be both improbable and generic. Good acting and a steady directing hand saves the film.

Non-Stop New York. 1937, UK. Directed by Robert Stevenson. Written by J.O.C. Horton, Roland Pertwee, E.V.H. Emmett, Curt Siodmak. Based on the novel Sky Stewards by Ken Attiwill. Starring: Anna Lee, John Loder, Frank Cellier, Francis L. Sullivan, Desmond Tester, Athene Seyler, William Dewhurst. Produced for Gaumont British. IMDb score: 6.9

Anna Lee as Jennie Carr boarding the futuristic sky ship in Non-Stop New York.

Anna Lee as Jennie Carr boarding the futuristic sky ship in Non-Stop New York.

Non-Stop New York is science fiction only by the breadth of a hair. In fact, it is a hitchcockian crime melodrama dressed up as a comedy located on a giant Trans-Atlantic flying boat. Flying boats were indeed a reality at the time when the film was released in 1937 – and it is set in the futuristic 1938. But few planes of any decent size at the time were able to make a direct Trans-Atlantic flight from London to New York, as this big luxury liner, neither was there any regular commercial overseas traffic. The plane pictured in the film is more like a flying hotel with spacious cabins, dining halls and even outdoor observation decks. Continue reading

Things to Come

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Screenwriter H.G. Wells, producer Alexander Korda and director William Cameron Menzies take us on an epic journey through the future in this pompous 1936 social prophesy. The most expensive film ever made in Britain in 1936, Things to Come boasts incredible sets and miniatures, great effects, high quality filming and a team of great actors. But ultimately the movie trips on its clay feet, which is the impossibly stiff script, lacking in emotion and real dialogue. Wells is using his biggest sledgehammer to pound in his message, and prevents the audience from doing any thinking for themselves.

Things to Come. 1936, UK. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Written H.G. Wells, based on his own novel The Shape of Things to Come. Starring: Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Cedric Hardwicke. Music: Arthur Bliss. Produced by Alexander Korda for London Film Productions. Tomatometer: 92 %. IMDb score: 6.8

In the future the world will be ruled by stiff philosophers decked out in gowns and big shoulder pads.

In the future the world will be ruled by stiff philosophers decked out in gowns and big shoulder pads.

Things to Come was Great Britain’s most impressively epic science fiction film to date – without even a close rival – when it came out in 1936. It had a budget of about 350 000 pounds, equal to about 21 millions today; an absolutely astounding amount of money to put on a film back in that day. And thus it would remain all the way to 1968 when Stanley Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey in London. Penned by the 70-year old sci-fi master H.G. Wells from his own 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, it was however more an ideological treatise and a futuristic prophesy than a dramatic film. Although time has conjured up a good deal of latter-day apologetics who hail Wells’ vision and – rightly so – praise the production design, the simple truth of the matter stands: Wells was an awful screenwriter. Continue reading

F.P.1. Does Not Answer

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(5/10) In a nutshell: German director Karl Hartl directed this ”subtle sci-fi” film in 1932 in three different languages with a different cast. This review mainly concerns the German ”original”, with some words about the English version. The ”sci-fi” idea of a floating gas station for planes is very dated today, and the rest of the film plays out as a mediocre spy thriller/love drama. At least the German version is saved by some superb acting.

F.P.1. Does Not Answer (F.P.1. Antwortet Nicht), 1932, Germany. Directed by: Karl Hartl. Written by Kurt Siodmak, Walter Reisch. Based on the novel by Kurt Siodmak. Starring: Hans Albers, Peter Lorre, Sybille Schmidtz (Conrad Veidt, Charles Boyer). Cinematography: Günther Rittau. Produced by Eberhardt Klagemann, Erich Pommer for UFA. IMDb score: 6.1/6.2

Filming airplanes for F.P:1. Aviation was still extremely fascinating for filmmakers and audiences alike in the thirties.

Filming airplanes for F.P:1. Aviation was still extremely fascinating for filmmakers and audiences alike in the thirties.

This movie is curious, if not for anything else, then at least because it highlights one of the peculiar (and short-lived) practices of the early days of talking movies, namely the making of multilingual film versions. In the silent era films language boundaries were practically non-existent in the film industry, since it was a fairly simple procedure to change the title cards depending on where the film was shown. This was of course one of the reasons as to why, for example, European movies, other than British, were a serious threat to the American film industry in the early days of cinema – and as a result many influences from the vital and experimental European films scene quickly transplanted themselves to American film. It also opened up for a very collaborative European film industry, as actors, writers and directors could work freely in countries where they understood very little of the language. A cast consisting of Danish, British, French, Polish, Hungarian and Italian actors could all portray wholly German characters without anyone raising an eyebrow. Continue reading

Charleston Parade

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(5/10) In a nutshell: A bonkers short subject by master director Jean Renoir from 1927 shows an African explorer in a spacecraft discovering a white native in a post-apocalyptic Paris, and they dance the Charleston for ten minutes. 

Charleston Parade (Sur un air de Charleston). 1927, France. Directed by Jean Renoir. Written by André Cerf, Pierre Lestringuez, Starring: Catherine Hessling, Johnny Hudgins. Cinematography: Jean Bachelet. Music: Clement Doucet. Produced by Pierre Braunberger for Neo-Film. IMDb score: 6.0

Catherine Hessling and Johnny Hudgins meet each other in Jean Renoir's strange short film.

Catherine Hessling and Johnny Hudgins meet each other in Jean Renoir’s strange post-apocalyptic short film. Hessling’s rather skimpy outfit led to the film being labelled as an erotic film on some occasions (in IMDb, for example).

Considering his experimental streak, it is a bit odd that the French film innovator Jean Renoir didn’t lend his talents to science fiction more often. The only time he ventured into the territory was in 1926, when he filmed the 17 minutes long experimental film Charleston Parade (Sur un air de Charleston), which was released the year after.

The intertitles tell us that in 2028 the world has been ravaged by an apocalyptic war, and the pinnacle of civilisation is now Africa, whereas Europe is now known as ”the unknown area”. An African explorer (Johnny Hudgins) sets out towards this savage and unexplored urban wilderness in his spherical spacecraft, and lands on top of a so called Morris column (advertising column) in the middle of Paris. Here he encounters a scantily clad white native girl (Catherine Hessling), along with her pet ape (uncredited, but wearing one of the worst ape suits in the history of cinema). Despite the sexy native’s alluring gestures, she brushes off the black explorer’s advances, and instead opts to teach him the local custom, the Charleston dance. Continue reading