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Thursday, September 20, 2012

F.P.1 Doesn't Answer

An apropos digression from Der Große Verhau is a much older German sci-fi: F.P.1 anwortet nicht. In 1932, Fox, British-Gaumont, and UFA collaborated to create a science fiction movie, F. P. 1 (FP1), which stood for "Floating Platform One." F.P.1 would be, essentially, a fixed aircraft carrier "island" set in the mid-Atlantic to allow early 1930s aircraft (of limited range) to cross. FP1 is the story of the building of this dream and unseen forces sabotaging it. There were actually three FP1 movies, one in German, one in English and one in French. (More on that below). The screen play was co-written by Walter Reisch and Curt Siodmak (who would soon write the Wolfman stories and later sci-fi movie stories like: Magnetic Monster ('53) and Earth vs. Flying Saucers ('56).

Quick Plot Synopsis
At a black tie party, Major Elissen tells his photographer friend to meet him at the Lennartz Shipyard at 11:00. Claire (Lennartz) overhears this. Ellissen smiles denials and tries to hit on her. She smiles but says no. He keeps her forgotten fan. At the shipyard, Ellissen pulls a fire alarm. When the trucks come, he sneaks in amid the tumult. He takes the plans for F.P.1 out of a file drawer. He leaves. Claire and the Lennartz brothers discover the F.P.1 plans are missing. (It was obvious that they were). Claire finds Ellisen, accuses him of being a thief. He charmingly tells her to have her brother look on his desk. The plans are there. It was all a stunt by Ellissen to make the Lennartz brothers notice the plans, which Ellissen's friend, Droste, designed, but everyone ignored. Claire is charmed by Ellissen. She wants to settle down with him, but he's fixated on aerial adventuring. He's been given a special plane with which he plans to be the first fly around the world non-stop. Claire is very disappointed. Ellissen leaves. Claire throws herself into helping Droste build F.P.1. Several acts of sabotage hint that someone does not want F.P.1 built. Nonetheless, F.P.1 is completed and near its position in mid-Atlantic. Meanwhile, Ellissen returns to Hamburg, a failure. He crashed his plane. He's considering Claire's offer to settle down. Out in the Atlantic, a storm approaches, so Droste opens the ballast valves to take on more sea water and ride lower. Later, when the radio man is taken suddenly ill (poisoned), Droste catches his first mate, Luben, in the radio room. A message comes in, telling of a ship waiting south of F.P.1. Luben was the saboteur. The ship is his getaway. The valves are stuck open because Luben drained all the diesel fuel that runs the generators. Just as Claire is radioing F.P.1 from Hamburg, Droste and Luben have a shootout in the radio room. Droste is hit in the shoulder and down. Claire hears all this. The radio goes dead. (hence the title) She has a plane, but the only pilot available on short notice is Ellissen. He agrees to fly her if it means he still has a chance with her. She kind of agrees. They fly to F.P.1, but break a wheel on landing. Everyone on F.P.1 is knocked out by gas. Claire finds the wounded Droste and cuddles him so affectionately that Ellissen knows he never had a chance. Luben departs in a small boat, with supplies, but the evil unnamed Mr. Big never sent the ship, so Luben is doomed. At the rate water is coming in, F.P.1 has only 17 hours left. Before he left F.P.1, Luben damaged the several planes in the hanger. Droste suggests they combine parts from the planes to make one fly-able plane. Ellissen, in a pity-party gets drunk and rages at life. Yet, when the time came, he flies the jerry-rigged plane with what little fuel they could scrounge up. He drops Claire's fan to the deck with the message, "Goodbye, I'll find you a ship.". He does. Messages are relayed. Help comes, bringing fuel. The generators are started. The water is pumped out. F.P.1 is saved! Ellissen offers to join the crew of the ship he parachuted to. They are on an adventure looking for Andean Condors. Droste and Claire hug as F.P.1 becomes a hub of transatlantic importance. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
There is a special charm to pre-nuclear science fiction. Infusing the story of FP1 is the wide-eyed wonder with which pre-WWII folks viewed the march of science/technology/progress. Here, the marvel of air travel is the background "star" as mankind's ticket to a glorious future. The early 30s fashions are fun too.

Cultural Connection
Aviation always had a magic to it, but after Lindberg's solo crossing, there was a sort of gold-rush fever of enthusiasm for air travel. It had an aura of future-ness, rather like space travel would in the 50s and 60s. The technology for stationary floating platforms was futuristic for the 1930s. Though Edward Robert Armstrong had been promoting the idea of "Seadromes" since 1927, late 20s technology was not up to the task. Floating offshore oil platforms, which would use many of Armstrong's ideas, would be a sort of FP1 fantasy come true, but not until the early 1960s.

Three For One -- In the early days of "talkies", sound synchronization was technically difficult, so dubbing a film into various languages was not practical. To release a film in another language, the production company shot another take, with actors speaking the other language. FP1 was shot with three different casts, speaking three different languages. The english version was titled simply, F.P.1. Later, it would be called, F.P.1 Doesn't answer. This is the title of the German version: F.P.1 antwortet nicht. The French version was titled, i.F.1 ne réspond plus. The scenes are the same. The sets are the same. The model work and distant shots were the same. Much of the dialogue was the same, just in different languages. The casts, however, were completely different. More on that below, but as a quick note, Peter Lorre plays the sidekick photographer in the German version. It's quite a hoot to see Lorre delivering lines in German.

Three Different Heros -- The Ellissen character was played by three different actors: Hans Albers in the German version, Conrad Veidt in the English and Charles Boyer in the French. Each played the role with very different styles. Albers' Ellissen was animated and more the flamboyant playboy (some think to the point of being hammy). Veidt played the role as almost melancholy, the lonely adventurer. Boyer was more stern, stoic and driven (think Mr. Anton in Gaslight '44).

"Extended" German Version -- While the story is exactly the same, the German version runs a little longer. It opens with a montage of air show clips and aerial footage. Under that played a rousing song (band and male choir) "Flieger, grüß mir die Sonne," (Flyer, greet the Sun for me) written by Reisch. The English and French versions omit this intro. Later in the German version, while Ellissen is on FP1 and sulking about losing Claire, he listens to a phonograph record of the song, which both inspires him to fly again, and mocks his self pity. It is his turning point. The English and French versions omit this too. Ellissen just bucks up for no particular reason. (though NOW you know why.)

Savior From the Skies -- The German version had a distinctive scene which was omitted from the French and English versions -- the savior-moment. In the German version, it is German aviation, and particularly two marvels of German engineering, that come to the rescue of FP1. The barrels of fuel are loaded onto German transport planes such as the Junkers G38 and Dornier X, that fly to FP1 and save the day.
Naturally, German audiences in 1932 would be excited to see their native technology as savior of their symbolic future. Also natural that the English and French would be less enthused about including that. Yet, even in the English version, look at the final shot of the FP1 model at the end, surrounded by float planes, etc. Where did they come from? These were the aerial saviors shown in the German version. Aviation as savior of the future would be a recurring element in the 30, such as the movie version of H.G. Wells' Thins To Come ('36).

Glory Is Fleeting -- Armstrong's idea of a mid-Atlantic stopover, which seemed like a wondrous fantasy in 1932, would soon become unnecessary. It only solved the problem that commercial airplanes of early 30s did not have sufficient range to fly like Lindberg did. That techno-shortcoming was also the Zeppelins' brief reason for limelight. By the late 30s, longer-range aircraft would be designed and built that could fly the oceans without stopping. Even if built, FP1 wouldn't have had long before it was irrelevant. Which is exactly the point of our next 30s sci-fi film: The Tunnel.

Bottom line? FP1 is a fun taste of sci-fi before nukes and flying saucers -- when transatlantic flights were as almost-possible as moon flights were in the 50s. FP1 may not be as much fun for viewers who (A) require color films, (B) require lavish special effects, or (C) require monsters/aliens. Fans of old movies can enjoy it. Fans of the classic sci-fi genre can see sci-fi in its pre-nuclear form.


Randall Landers said...

The description of the film's premise was very evocative of "The Tunnel." In both stories, the invention was designed to facilitate Trans-Atlantic travel. In both films, there are obstacles that must be overcome (the mid-Atlantic volcanic ridge in the tunnel, the saboteurs trying to wreck FP1). And in both stories, women figure prominently in helping achieve the success.

My last observation is that I loved the appearance of similar contraptions in later science fiction. CAPTAIN SCARLET's base of operations was a flying platform, and I may be mistaken, but I think the THUNDERBIRDS had to save a flying platform. But then there's my favorite: SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW that has the final realization of the Flying Platform. It was beautiful to behold in that film, and I'm looking forward to seeing F.P. 1 DOESN'T ANSWER!

Nightowl said...

Hey Randall,
You're quite right about "The Tunnel". In fact, that's the movie up next. "Stay Tuned" as they used to say. In the years just after Lindberg, "conquering" the Atlantic was all the rage. Improving aircraft (range, mostly) was far less expensive than floating airports, or tunnels.

You're thinking of Thunderbird 6. It was quite the gizmo. All the more ironic that it was the old Gypsy Moth biplane that saved the day.

SJ said...

Thanks for sharing Classic Sci-Fi Movies posting.
I am also looking for star trek posters.

Nightowl said...

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