Saturday, July 25, 2015

Just Imagine (Fox Film, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Just Imagine, a 1930 science-fiction musical — yes, you read that right (though long-term readers of this blog will recall an even weirder mash-up from five years later: Mascot/Republic’s The Phantom Empire, a 15-chapter serial that was a science-fiction musical Western starring Gene Autry in his star-making performance!) produced at Fox pre-20th Century merger (and therefore, like virtually all the pre-merger Fox films, woefully ignored by the people Rupert Murdoch has in charge of their home-video department — important or just plain interesting movies like Allan Dwan’s 1931 Wicked, Rowland V. Lee’s 1933 Zoo in Budapest, Henry King’s 1934 Marie Galante, Erich von Stroheim’s 1933 Hello, Sister! — his last film as a director, and like virtually all his extant directorial efforts only a pale shadow of what he intended, but fascinating anyway — and perhaps the prize of the bunch, William K. Howard’s 1933 The Power and the Glory, with a script by Preston Sturges that anticipates Citizen Kane and the finest performance Spencer Tracy gave in his years at Fox, remain frustratingly unavailable) and put out on a DVD of uncertain provenance that, though I bought it through, has about the quality level of a better-than-usual download from Just Imagine came about, I suspect, because its creators — the writing-songwriting-producing team of Buddy de Sylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson — had just released Sunnyside Up, one of the biggest musical hits of the early sound era and a film that was a blockbuster success, generated three hit songs (“Keep Your Sunny Side Up,” “If I Had a Talking Picture of You,” and “I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All?”) and also offered one of the most exciting, spectacular and visually inventive production numbers of the pre-Berkeley era, “Turn On the Heat” (filmed in Howard Hughes’ short-lived Multicolor process but, alas, extant only in black-and-white).

Sunnyside Up had been such a great success that the people running the Fox studio (basically a consortium of finance-company executives after its founder, William Fox, had run aground financially due to the Depression and his ill-advised overextension of his resources, including a nearly successful attempt at an unfriendly takeover of MGM) gave de Sylva, Brown and Henderson carte blanche to do whatever they wanted to do for their next project. What they wanted to do was a bizarre science-fiction fantasy at least loosely inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis — they avoided the muddled class-struggle politics of Lang’s and Thea von Harbou’s script but art directors Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras copied the look of Metropolis so closely stills from Just Imagine have appeared in film reference books attributed to the Lang/von Harbou film! It starts out with a comic prologue set in 1880, when vehicles were still pulled by horses, saloons still existed and life was quieter and slower-paced. Then it moves to a sequence set in the present — 1930 — in which a Pete Smith-style narrator gives us a blow-by-blow account of a pedestrian trying to jaywalk across a New York street, and he seems to have dodged all the cars until one hits him right when he’s almost across. After that we get a title saying that if we think there’ve been dramatic changes between 1880 and 1930, “Just imagine — 1980!” (The title comes from a beautiful ballad de Sylva, Brown and Henderson had written for their 1927 hit stage show Good News, which was enough of a hit at the time it got several recordings, though the most lovely version is Judy Garland’s incandescent one for her 1955 album Judy, arranged — beautifully — by Nelson Riddle; but MGM had already bought the movie rights to Good News and the song “Just Imagine” doesn’t appear in the film Just Imagine.) In 1980 people have numbers — actually alphanumeric combinations — instead of names, all applications for marriage licenses have to be approved by a government bureau which says yea or nay on the basis of how “important” the prospective groom is, airplanes and hovercraft autogiros have replaced cars as the standard means of transport — there’s an incredible early scene in which the traffic is being directed by a cop who’s delivering signals from a pod hanging in mid-air — and if a couple wants a baby, they just put some money into a vending machine and order one.

The film’s star is El Brendel, the Swedish dialect comedian who’s cast as a man who in 1930 was put under suspended animation when he was struck by a lightning flash while playing golf. His body has been recovered by a famous doctor who intends to bring it back to life with some unsurprisingly Frankenstein-esque high-tech gizmos (though Just Imagine was actually released November 23, 1930, almost a year before Frankenstein came out on November 21, 1931); when he does so Brendel is a Rip Van Winkle-esque character who has trouble adjusting to his new world. He also needs a new alphanumeric name to replace his old one, and he settles on “Single-0” (which, according to one “Trivia” poster, is also the name for a carnival act featuring just one person). One of the odder conceits of the de Sylva-Brown-Henderson script (they’re credited with music, lyrics and dialogue, while the film’s director, David Butler, is given credit for “continuity”) is that Prohibition is still very much in force; when the male lead, J-21 (John Garrick, whose stentorian voice, pleasant personality and lack of much in the way of acting chops mark him as a sort of beta version of Nelson Eddy), tells Single-0 that soon they might get around to legalizing light wines and beer, Single-0 says, “They’ve been saying that for 50 years!” Instead of eating the way we do now, people in this version of 1980 take all their nourishment via pills — though they still get the sensation of old-fashioned meals — and the bootleggers offer their wares through highly potent pills (one of the weirder ways in which the predictions of Just Imagine have come true; one of today’s worst substance abuse problems is the illegal distribution of prescription pills). Another good call: after you wash your hands in 1980, you dry them with a hot-air dryer (though then you do something that didn’t happen: you press a button to make the sink fold back in the wall once it’s no longer needed.) One of the film’s funniest moments — though you have to be familiar with the background to appreciate it — is that all the manufacturers of airplanes, both airliners and private ones, have Jewish names: Rosenblatt, Pinkus, Goldfarb. “It looks like someone got even with Henry Ford!” Single-0 comments — a joke that had Charles laughing uproariously even though you’d only get it if you knew that Henry Ford was a notorious anti-Semite (he bought a small weekly called the Dearborn Independent to turn into a vehicle for his articles attacking Jews, and then compiled the articles into a book called The International Jew that Adolf Hitler cited as a source — which made it grimly ironic that the first commercial TV showing of Steven Spielberg’s anti-Holocaust film Schindler’s List was sponsored by the Ford Motor Company).

Anyway, the plot of Just Imagine concerns the frustrated love of J-21 for his girlfriend LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan), frustrated not by her — she’s as in love with him as he is with her — but by her father, who encouraged another man, MT-3 (Kenneth Thomson), to apply for her hand instead of J-21. Since MT-3 is more “important” by whatever criteria the marriage tribunal uses (we’re never quite clear on that, though there’s a funny bit in which J-21 is railing at a woman census taker who comes to his home about how unfair the marriage law is, and she replies, “It, like the Volstead Act, is a noble experiment!,” a reference to then-President Herbert Hoover’s defense of Prohibition as “an experiment noble in purpose”), they rule that LN-18 must marry him instead of J-21, the man she really loves. There’s also a subsidiary romantic intrigue between J-21’s roommate, RT-42 (Frank Albertson) — a name which can’t help but recall the robot R2-D2 in a far more famous Fox movie, Star Wars, 47 years later — and his inamorata, D-6 (Marjorie White, playing a typical dumb-blonde character, though at least she and Albertson do some hot dance duets together and she’s cute and charming instead of oppressive), though since there aren’t any rival claimants for her hand their relationship runs along without discernible complications. J-21 makes a dangerous Romeo-style attempt to visit LN-18 by climbing up the high-tech split-level walls on the outside of her apartment building, but he’s caught when Single-0 comes in and “outs” him while he’s trying to hide from her dad and MT-3. Despondent, J-21 goes for a walk around the city and stops at a bridge — where he’s accosted by B-36 (Mischa Auer, dressed oddly in a Dracula-style cape that makes one wonder if this future contains vampires that have reached a modus vivendi with the normal people à la Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series), who asks him if he’s planning to commit suicide. “No, but that wouldn’t be a bad idea,” J-21 says. It turns out that B-36 is the assistant to the legendary scientist Z-4 (Hobart Bosworth), who’s building a spaceship to travel to Mars. It’s powered by an anti-gravity substance he’s invented, and he needs someone to fly it — and J-21, who’s an airline pilot in his work life (though he’s never shown actually doing that), is the perfect choice. J-21 begs off at first until Z-4 convinces him that if he really flies to Mars and back, he will be the most “important” person on earth and therefore the court hearing his appeal of the marriage case will have to let him marry LN-18. If the spaceship looks incredibly familiar, it should; Universal later bought the full-size exterior and interior sets of it, as well as the models, and used them in the Flash Gordon serials.

The only wrinkle is that Z-4 makes J-21 and his roommate RT-42 keep the destination of their flight secret until they actually take off — only J-21 writes LN-18 a letter and solemnly instructs her not to open it until 4 the next morning, when the ship will take off. Of course, she pushes the clock hands forward and opens it anyway, freaks out when she realizes what her man wants to do, and races to the field where the takeoff is supposed to be (Maureen O’Sullivan’s performance when she reads the letter and freaks out over its contents is oddly overacted for this normally restrained player, though the rest of her acting is quite good and shows why, out of all the Just Imagine cast members, she’s the one you’re most likely to have heard of today, even though it does seem a bit odd to see her carrying a torch for a normally-dressed near-future human instead of a hot guy in a loincloth in the jungle). Fortunately, she misses the takeoff — the ship flies and she’s knocked down by the exhaust (luckily she’s not harmed by it) — and J-21 and RT-42 get to Mars. Alas, they find out they have a stowaway on board; like the ones in Aelita before him and Lost in Space afterwards, Single-0 got on the ship and hid out in a storage box. When they get to Mars the Red Planet is full of exotically costumed creatures (all but two of whom seem to be female) who spend their days staging big production numbers in front of elaborate sets (the giant idol in front of which they dance looked oddly familiar and it also may have turned up in Flash Gordon), including Queen Loo Loo (Joyzelle Joyner, who according to was one of only two cast members of Just Imagine who lived long enough to see the real 1980; Maureen O’Sullivan was the other) and her consort, Loko (Ivan Linow), who’s so nellie that even someone as resolutely un-butch as El Brendel can’t help but comment, “She’s not the queen — he is!” Indeed, he does seem to take a shine to Single-0’s dubious charms, and despite the language barrier (de Sylva, Brown, Henderson and Butler did not bother to invent a universal translator, telepathy or some other gimcrack that would have allowed the Earthlings and the Martians to communicate with each other) he bonds with Single-0.

Alas, it turns out that every Martian is a twin — one good, one evil — and Our Heroes fall into the clutches of the bad queen Boo Boo and her bad consort BoKo (also Joyzelle Joyner and Ivan Linow), until the good Loko rescues them through a professionally constructed tunnel that appears to have lain under their cell the whole time (“Who do they think they are — Mexican drug lords?” joked Charles) and they fly back to Earth. J-21 arrives just in time for his marriage appeal to be heard by judge X-10 (Wilfred Lucas, whom I’m sure I’ve see play judges in contemporarily set films). He announces that he’s just been to Mars and back, and naturally MT-3 challenges him and says, “Prove it.” Luckily he can, because unbeknownst to the three Earthling astronauts, Loko the good Martian giant had such a crush on Single-0 he stowed away in the ship on its way back, and he emerges in the courtroom, J-21 wins his marriage case, he and LN-18 end up together and there’s a funny tag scene in which an ancient man with a full white beard comes up to El Brendel and introduces himself as his long-lost son. Along the way we get at least six de Sylva-Brown-Henderson songs, none of them particularly distinguished — though at least one is a romantic ballad, listed on as “(I Am the Words) You Are the Melody,” though I’ve seen it elsewhere called “Song of Love” (“I am only the words, you are the melody/But it takes the two to make a song of love”), which became at least a minor hit in 1930. The film also includes a drinking song — remember that the “drinks” are not great steins of beer but little vials of pills — a hot dance duo for Albertson and White, and a truly odd song called “Never Swat a Fly” that was obviously, shall we say, inspired by Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” but gets taken in an unusual direction as we actually get an extreme close-up of two flies, who seem to be doing little more than coexisting adjacently on a table but are supposedly making love (which according to the song is why you should never swat a fly — because you might be interrupting its love affair with another fly; who knew de Sylva, Brown and Henderson were unwittingly writing a hymn for Jainists?).

It also features absolutely stunning and utterly convincing special effects, as well as an overall insouciance that’s quite appealing if you can accept this film’s total weirdness, its mishmash of standard clichés and odd future speculations. Remember that at the time this film was made “science fiction” basically meant Jules Verne and H. G. Wells — the great outpouring of writers into the pioneering sci-fi pulps of the 1930’s and 1940’s hadn’t happened yet — and so there wasn’t that much of a cliché bank for wanna-be sci-fi writers to tap into. Just Imagine is an historical curio in more ways than one, and I doubt if it actually made money ( lists its budget of over $1 million but doesn’t say whether it earned it back); as it stands it’s a good film, but as I watched it this time (I’d seen it many years before, in the early 1970’s) I couldn’t help but indulge my tendency to recast classic (or not-so-classic) films with other actors around when it was made. What, I kept asking myself, if Fox had borrowed Buster Keaton from MGM and cast him as Single-0? Keaton’s monotone voice (which has been criticized but I’ve always thought a perfect analogue to his “great stone face” impassivity) would have played the comic dialogue at least as well as El Brendel’s Swedish accent, and in terms of the physical comedy, there’d have been no contest. I couldn’t help but think Keaton would have eaten up the challenge of creating and performing comic business with and around those spectacular futuristic Goosson-Hammeras sets — this is the man who made The Electric House, after all — and with Keaton in the comic lead Just Imagine might have turned into a masterpiece instead of a curio. According to the “Trivia” posters, Just Imagine was the first science-fiction talkie ever made, as well as the first science-fiction musical, and the only big-budget science-fiction film from a major studio until The Day the Earth Stood Still 21 years later. The last seems a bit hard to believe (though I’ve racked my brain for a contradictory example and so far haven’t come up with one), but it’s certainly a film that deserves an audience if for no other reason than its sheer unusualness!