1910s & 20s * 30s * 40s * Pre-50s * Frankenstein * Atomic Angst * 1950 * 1951 * 1952 * 1953 * 1954 * 1955 * 1956 * 1957 * 1958 * 1959 *
1960 * 1961 * 1962 * 1963 * 1964 * 1965 * 1966 * 1967 * 1968 * 1969 * 1970 * 1971 * 1972 * 1973 * 1974 * 1975 * 1976 * 1977 * 1978 * 1979

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Just Imagine

Next up, we go back 40 years to see a sister film, of sorts, to THX 1138. But where THX was the dark and gloomy twin, Just Imagine (JI) is the bright and happy twin. In late 1930 -- in the very early days of "talkies" -- Fox Film Corporation released their wild sci-fi fantasy comedy musical. JI featured extravagant sets, lavish costumes (for the martians) and several elaborate dance numbers. It starred El Brendel, a popular vaudeville comedian. Whether JI was too over-the-top, or The Great Depression squashed the market, it would be many years before a big budget sci-fi movie was done again.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A narrator shows views of New York in 1880 with light traffic of pedestrians and carriages. 50 years later, in 1930, the streets are so full of cars that people can't cross the street. What will things be like in another 50 years? Just Imagine. In 1980, personal airplanes have replaced cars. People have numbers instead of names, and the Government regulates personal relationships. J-21 loves LN-18, but the Tribunal rejected his application for her hand, in favor of MT-3. To take his mind off it all, J-21's room mate, RT-42 and his girlfriend D-6 take him to see scientists revive a man struck by lightening in 1930. The experiment works, but the scientists have no further use for Ole Peterson. J-21 takes him in. Ole adopts the new name-number of Single-O. They show him the marvels of 1980. Food and drink in pill form, televiewers and baby vending machines. Still dejected over LN-18, J-21 is recruited by the famous scientist Z-4. He has a rocket plane to fly to Mars, but needs a pilot. J-21 needs notoriety to win his appeal over MT-3. RT-42 goes along, and Single-O stows away. Once on Mars, they find martians (mostly young women, scantily clad) and are taken to the Queen. She and her people are welcoming. Via gestures, she tries to explain that on Mars, everyone has a bad twin. Later, the boys are captured by the bad twins and imprisoned by the bad queen. They're treated to a big dance number in front of a giant idol. The good queen's aide, Boko, help the boys escape, but only after some comic confusion in the tunnels. Single-O has to help J-21 and RT-42 to the ship since they got hit with knock-out gas. Single-O has to fight Loko (Boko's evil twin). He wins and they blast off. Back on earth, D-6 and others try to stall the appeal hearing. What proof has he that he went to Mars? Single-O brings in Loko as proof. J-21 arrives just in time. His new notoriety sways the judge, so J-42 is allowed to marry LN-18. Single-O meets his son, Axel, now a silly old man. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The fanciful expectation of what 1980 would look like is fascinating. They got so much wrong -- or else, we did. Where is my personal airplane? The sets and props are a joy to behold for classic sci-fi fans. The tradition that outer space, and Mars in particular, was populated by young women in skimpy outfits, apparently has a long history.

Cultural Connection
In the pre-atomic age, the future seemed bright. The zeal of the Art Deco age bordered on conceit. Compare JI to the "Rhythm of the Day" dance scene from Dancing Lady ('33) in which the 1930s smugly imagined themselves as the epitome of modernity and progress. Seems each era feels that way about itself, only to be branded as "old fashioned...passe..." by the next era. But from JI you can almost feel the overflowing optimism the 30s felt for what mankind could accomplish. Contrast this with the 1971 film, THX 1138 which had similar elements, (numbers instead of names, love regulated, manufactured babies, etc.) but was totally pessimistic and full of gloom. By the 70s (let alone 1980), American culture was not so sure mankind could do anything right.

Silent Traces -- JI was produced at the cusp of the transition from silent films to "talkies." Musicals, strong on song and thin on plot, were a popular genre for the new sound films. Some of the directing shows traces of silent film techniques -- broad gestures, close-ups on expressions, etc. Viewers will also note the use of inter-titles, as silent films did. But in JI, a narrator reads them to the audience. Some formats took awhile to completely fade.

Swedes. In. Space! -- El Brendel stars as Single-O. A vaudeville comedian from before WWI, Brendel had an act as a German immigrant bumpkin character. With the war, he shifted his exaggerated accent to be a politically acceptable character and became a swedish bupkin. In the 20s, he was famous for his Simple Swede act and his catch phrase, "Yumpin' Yimmie." His acting can seem overly hammy to modern eyes, but that's vaudeville.

Hat Trick -- To entertain J-21's fellow air line pilots, Single-O does one of Brendel's vaudeville gags -- a one-man telling a melodrama story with different hats for each character. It's a nice glimpse at vaudeville.

Budget Berkley -- Busby Berkley was the choreographer who made famous those big production numbers using dozens (if not scores) of showgirls. His signature look featured varying geometric patters and kalidescope-ish effects. Berkley probably had nothing to do with JI, but whoever did the choreography (uncredited) was certainly working in the Berkley style. This is most evident in the idol dancers scene, which does nothing for the plot. It appears to exist solely as extravagant entertainment.

Joke of the Day -- Many of the jokes in JI were products of their day. For instance, all of the air-o-plane models that J-21 lists off are jewish names: Goldfarb, Rosenblatt, etc. This is a dig at Henry Ford, who by the late 20s was gaining some dark notoriety for anti-Semitism. Prohibition was still all the rage in 1930. It wasn't repealed until 1933. This explains the old census taker woman pronouncing grandly that "The Volstead Act is a noble experiment." This being the law in 1919 that ushered in Prohibition. By 1930, the noble experiment was pretty universally seen as ignoble. Later, when Single-O is asking for other drink pills, J-21 says that the authorities say they'll be getting light wines and beer next year. Single-O says: "Are day still saying dat?" Funnier in 1930.

Pre-Owned Rocket -- the rocket "plane" used to fly to Mars and back in JI, found another life in the Flash Gordon serials later in the 30s. Pictured here is Z-4's rocket plane on the fanciful art-deco martian landscape. Who knew that Flash drove a pre-owned rocket?

Bottom line? Just Imagine is very old fare from the early days of "talkies." Since sound itself was still the big selling point, the story was not as important, and it shows. Modern viewers may find it shallow -- if not silly. The sets and props, however, are not to be missed. This was Art Deco on a sugar high -- before the Dust Bowl and Soup Kitchens. JI is an important ancestor to late 30s and 40s sci-fi, which itself forms the foundation for sci-fi's Golden Era.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

Looks like one to add to the list of films to find...