Before the Second World War ushered in the atomic age, and all the attendant nuclear angst, science fiction films found many other things to feel angsty about. There was less of rocket and aliens -- although there were some of those too -- but more of the mad scientist trope. There were dystopic visions of the future, but amusing ones too. Electricity, rather than atomic radiation, was the genie in the bottle that could do all manner of wonders (and horrors).
Below, is a collection of pre-WWII films already reviewed on this blog. There are more to add, but this is a good start. The sci-fi films of the 40s will come under a separate post. Enjoy!
Edison's Frankenstein -- This 1910 silent film was the first film made of Shelley's story. It was a loose adaptation, geared for a fixed camera. The film was "lost" for a long time.
Homunculus -- Originally, a six part German film about an artificial human, tormented by his lack of understanding what true love is. While not a direct spin-off of the Frankenstein genre, it is definitely in the family.
Aelita: Queen of Mars -- an obscure 1924 Soviet film about a Russian engineer shortly after the revolution, who creates a ship to travel to Mars. There, he finds a monarchy which oppresses its workers. They spark a proletariat revolution on Mars. The sets and costumes for "Mars" are dramatically Constructivist.
Metropolis -- Fritz Lang's 1927 epic about the world of the future in which the elite's party in penthouse gardens while the workers toil in a grim underworld. The sets, lighting and directing are good examples of the German Expressionist style.
Just Imagine -- 1930 looks into the magical future year of 1980. People have numbers instead of names and everyone has a personal airplane. This is an upbeat, Hollywood, view of the future.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde -- Paramount's 1931 adaptation of Robert Lewis Stevenson's dark tale is a classic. It became the inspiration for many other sci-fi films with its exploration of the good and evil within mankind.
Frankenstein -- James Whale's 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel became a cultural icon. The film itself spawned several sequels and numerous (usually cheap) spin-offs and copies. The undercurrent theme of science-gone-wrong would thrive in the atomic age too.
F.P.1 Doesn't Answer -- Originally a German film of 1932, remade with an English-speaking cast. It is the tale of a mid-Atlantic floating landing strip to facilitate transatlantic flights. However, sinister forces do not want to see the project succeed. Sabotage and treachery await.
The Invisible Man -- 1933 screen adaptation of H.G.Wells' novel. Yet another pre-atomic variation on the dangers of science in the hands of fault-prone human beings.
The Vanishing Shadow -- A Universal serial, running in 1934 that feature's a scientist's invisibility machine as the primary sci-fi gimmick. The heroes use it to thwart crime. But, look for ray guns and a robot too!
The Transatlantic Tunnel -- A 1935 remake (in English) of a 1933 German film (Der Tunnel) which tells of the ambitious project to dig a tunnel to link England and America. The sci-fi element -- a "Radium Drill" gets little screen time compared to a convoluted love triangle and sinister "Syndicate" dealings.
Bride of Frankenstein -- Universal's 1935 sequel to James' Whale's classic. The monster insists that the doctor create a mate for him. The reluctant doctor agrees. This is a rare case of a sequel rivaling the original for classic-ness.
Things To Come -- 1936 British film tracing the history of "Everytown" (London) from the 1930s to 2061. Based on HG Wells book, "The Shape of Things to Come," but actually better than the book. Traces the destruction of old world civilization by a devastating World War and the rebirth of a new world order -- and the launch of a moon mission!
The Man Who Lived Again -- One of four Columbia films (this one, 1936) starring Boris Karloff and dealing with attempts at immortality. In this case, the ability to transfer consciousness from one brain to another. A sinister love triangle goes wrong, killing the mad scientist, but reuniting the young lovers.
Bombs Over London -- A British spy thriller of 1937 ('39 for American release) in which a consortium of arms producers conspire to start a world war (for their profit) by the invention of robot airplanes. These are sent to bomb London and spark a war.
Fighting Devil Dogs -- A 1939 Republic serial about a group of Marines (the Devil Dogs) who try to stop the nefarious villain "The Lightning" and his many techno-gadgets. Lightning is a precursor to Darth Vader.
The Man They Could Not Hang -- The second of Columbia's Karloff-immortality films, this one of 1939. Karloff invents an artificial heart machine that can revive the dead. He uses it to thwart his one execution.
The Phantom Creeps -- Universal's remake of it's prior serial: The Vanishing Shadow. This time, Bela Lugosi is the sinister scientist who uses the invisibility belt for dark deeds.
The Son of Frankenstein -- 1939, and Universal's third in the series. This time the son of Dr. Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) thinks he can revive and fix the monster (played by Boris Karloff) and repair the family name. Watch for Bela Lugosi as "Ygor."
Buck Rogers -- serials ran the late 1930s, remade into a feature film in 1953.