“New York, 1980: airplanes have replaced cars, numbers have replaced names, pills have replaced food, government-arranged marriages have replaced love, and test tube babies have replaced – well, you get the idea. Scientists revive a man struck by lightning in 1930 and he is rechristened ‘Single O’. He is befriended by J-21, who can’t marry the girl of his dreams because he isn’t ‘distinguished’ enough, until he is chosen for a four-month expedition to Mars by a renegade scientist. The Mars J-21, his friend, and stowaway Single O visit is full of scantily clad women doing Busby Berkeley-style dance numbers and worshiping a fat middle-aged man.” (courtesy IMDB)
During the late twenties, film studios panicked when they found out that audiences actually preferred talkies to silent films and, almost overnight, the style of cinema changed. The fluid visuals of the typical silent film were replaced by static scenes in which actors, no longer able to venture outdoors, huddled together in rooms and talked into plants or furniture containing the all-important microphone, and talked and talked and talked. The problem lay in finding something for them to talk about. In silent films many actors simply moved their lips, repeating words like ‘rhubarb’ or mouthing the alphabet.
Suddenly screenwriters were required to fill countless pages with dialogue, which is unfortunate, because most of them could barely write their own names, let alone an entire hour of dialogue. Frantic film producers were desperate for suitable talkie material, and theatre seemed like the ideal solution because, in stage plays, there was always a lot of talk and, more importantly, took place mostly indoors. This meant that, for a time, films relying on visual spectacle fell out of fashion. Willis O’Brien, for instance, was unable to generate any interest in his animation projects for several years, but filmmakers soon found a way to combine sound and spectacle, so cinema could return to its normal low-minded self with the emphasis on action rather than ideas.
With sound came the musical, which rapidly developed into one of the most popular film genres ever. The first major science fiction film of the thirties produced in Hollywood was, indeed, a musical. Just Imagine (1930) was directed by David Butler, whose first film was The Fox Movietone Follies Of 1929 (1929) and later went on to direct many of Shirley Temple‘s movies. Lavish and terribly expensive at US$1.1 million, it concerns a man struck by lightning while playing golf in 1930 who wakes up to find himself in 1980 New York, where everyone has numbers instead of names. He names himself Single-O (El Brendel) and is befriended by two young men – J-21 (John Garrick) and RT-42 (Frank Albertson) – who show him around the city and all its marvels.
The gigantic miniature of New York is really the film’s most interesting aspect. Obviously inspired by Metropolis (1927) but far more elaborate than the city in Fritz Lang‘s film, the distinctive Art Deco city-scape was built in a former Army dirigible hangar by a team of two hundred technicians over five months. With skyscrapers supposedly 250 storeys tall and a canal big enough for ocean liners, the giant miniature cost US$170,000 to build, lit by seventy-four huge arc lights and fifteen thousand tiny lightbulbs.
The futuristic wonders include vending machines dispensing pills for both nourishment and alcohol, video phones, automatic doors, heated hand-dryers, personal aircraft and a vending machine that produces test-tube babies at the drop of coin. However, the film’s main concern isn’t the future but the romantic problems of J-21 who has fallen in love with a girl named LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan) but, due to 1980 laws, if two men wish to marry the same girl, she must choose the one with the most accomplishments. This depresses J-21, but luckily he meets scientist Z-4 (Hobart Bosworth) who has just constructed a rocket plane that can carry three men to Mars.
After a farewell party on the dirigible Pegasus, the rocket blasts off carrying J-21, RT-42 and stowaway Single-O. Landing on Mars, they are received by Queen Looloo (Joyzelle Joyner) and the tough-looking but rather effeminate King Loko (Ivan Linow). That night, Looloo and Loko take them to see a Martian opera in which trained Martian monkeys dance about. They are suddenly attacked by Booboo and Boko, the evil twins of the King and Queen, and we soon learn that everyone on Mars has an evil twin (not unlike here on Earth – mine is Geoff Peterson). In a highly farcical scene our heroes manage to escape and return to Earth. Now distinguished as the first man to step foot on another planet, J-21 is permitted to marry LN-18, and the film ends with Single-O reunited with his now-geriatric son, Axel (Wilfred Lucas).
All this is interspersed with too many forgettable musical numbers by Ray Henderson, Buddy DeSylva and Lew Brown, including such anti-classics as The Romance Of Elmer Stremingway, Old Fashioned Girl and Never Swat A Fly. Strangely enough, of all the songs in the film, Never Swat A Fly has been covered several times since, by McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in 1930, by Jim Kweskin in 1967 and more recently by artists such as Doc Cheatham. Another liability is the performance of comedian El Brendel as Single-O, and his ‘ignorant immigrant’ routine has not improved over the years, and his accent quickly becomes annoying.
The film also contains many in-jokes that have become extremely dated over the years, with a lot of forgotten references. Single-O is an old term for a one-person circus sideshow, for instance. Hearing that people fly ‘Rosenbergs’ and ‘Goldbaums’ instead of driving cars, Single-O says they finally got revenge on car-maker Henry Ford, who was well-known for his anti-Jewish sentiments. To the surprise of all at Fox Studios, Just Imagine fared very poorly at the box-office, but the Fox executives refused to acknowledge the awful story or the crappy songs, and heaped the blame solely on the science fiction elements. Until the double-barrel box-office boom of Star Wars IV A New Hope (1977) and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977), it had long been believed in Hollywood that the quickest way to lose money was to make a fantasy movie and, without doubt, this latest failure confirmed it.
There was only one other American science fiction musical around at that time, It’s Great To Be Alive (1933), which also flopped at the box-office. This is all terribly unfortunate because, if Just Imagine had been a success, it might have actually resulted in a wider variety of real science fiction films being released. Instead, science fiction cinema became almost exclusively confined to horror movies. Indeed, the year after Just Imagine saw Universal Studio‘s version of Frankenstein (1931) which was a success and once again firmly linked science fiction with the Gothic. For the next two decades science fiction cinema, with a few notable exceptions, was dominated by mad scientists and their unholy creations. Speaking of Frankenstein, the scene in which Single-O is revived features the first appearance of the spectacular electrical equipment assembled by Kenneth Strickfaden, seen again (and more famously) in the James Whale film.
Film serials were the exception to this trend, however. The first Flash Gordon (1936) serial had an unusually large budget for its time, and The Phantom Empire (1935) starring Gene Autry was a science fiction musical of sorts. Speaking of serials, you’ll also witness an array of props, models and footage in Just Imagine later used in both Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers (1939). By the way, only two actors in Just Imagine lived long enough to see the actual year of 1980: Maureen O’Sullivan (LN-18) who had a long and productive film career up until her passing in 1998 including giving birth to actress Mia Farrow; and Joyzelle Joyner (Looloo) who essentially retired in 1932 but managed to live until 1980, passing away the very same week Just Imagine celebrated its 50th anniversary. Not everybody hated Just Imagine – contemporary critic Mordaunt Hall thought it was “Clever, highly imaginative and intriguing,” and praised the costumes and set design, which was nominated for an Oscar.
More than fifty special effects shots combining previously photographed backgrounds with live foreground action were accomplished using the new Dunning Optical Processor, and the glass paintings and miniatures were done by Stephen Goosson, Ralph Hammeras, Willis O’Brien and Marcel Delgado, the latter two going on to create the biggest monster of the thirties, Clark Gable! I mean, King Kong (1933)! It was King Kong that set up a matrix for the monster genre in which many monster movies are molded even today. Much has been written about this film, and its epic story has been interpreted in many ways – sexually, politically and racially. It’s so full of striking imagery that it’s easy to see symbolic undertones in almost every frame, but that’s another story for another time. I look forward to your company again next week when I have the opportunity to freeze the blood in your veins with more sickening horror to make your stomach turn and your flesh crawl in yet another fear-filled fang-fest for…Horror News! Toodles!