In July I participated in the 2007 Blogathon for charity. During the 24-hour Blogathon I “live blogged” two movies, one of which was “Just Imagine” (1930). I didn’t finish it that night, so I decided to finally do the film justice and finish it here. You can read my two Blogathon entries about “Just Imagine” here and here. The film is not available commercially, but it does show on Fox Movies occasionally. The copy I have is borrowed from a friend who taped it off the Fox Movie Channel a few years ago.
“Just Imagine” is a unique American film. Made in 1930, it’s a romantic musical science fiction comedy set in the then-futuristic year of 1980. It was designed to be a vehicle for comedian El Brendel, as well as an entertaining, uplifting version of the future for audiences in the middle of the Depression and Prohibition.
The problem with “Just Imagine” is that it pretty much fails as romance, musical, and comedy. It was a solid hit in its day — modern accounts that claim the film was a flop are simply incorrect — but Fox rightly realized that while El Brendel was popular, he certainly couldn’t carry a film as a leading man by himself. They took a risk using Brendel as the lead in such an expensive project, and it paid off this time; it probably wouldn’t pay off again.
The film begins with one of its more interesting features: title cards. This holdback from the silent era stands out in a 1930 film, and while the title cards at the very beginning are narrated, later ones are not. Even though the film had quite a budget, it’s clear they cut corners, as the use of title cards show. These introduction cards ask us to compare the New York of 1880 to the current New York of 1930 and, once the audience realizes how different New York 50 years ago was, they’re asked to imagine a New York 50 years hence. We fade to a spectacular view of immense skyscrapers and crowded skyways, all in a gorgeous art deco style. This super futuristic world of 1980 features numbers for names, personal flying machines, and a government that decides who gets to marry.
Fortunately, the numbers for names don’t get much in the way. The leading lady, Maureen O’Sullivan, is LN-18, or “Ellen” for all intents and purposes. Her boyfriend (John Garrick) is J-21, or “Jay”. The numbers-for-names bit seems to have been an attempt at humor more than social commentary, but I often suspect that the writers of “Just Imagine” didn’t actually know what humor was. Take this poor shaved dog for example (pictured). Have you ever seen anything more sad? That unfortunate, humiliated dog has been shaved in the name of humor, and it’s not funny.
But back to the movie. The secondary couple is D-6 (Marjorie White) and RT-42 (Frank Albertson). We’re immediately informed that LN’s boyfriend has been trying to marry her, but is unable to because she signed a marriage contract with another man, MT-3 (Kenneth Thomson), before she met J. A decision had been made by the court that day that LN would marry MT-3, not J, but J has a chance to appeal in 4 months.
“Just Imagine” gets a few things right about the future, most notably hand driers and the fact that men’s suits don’t change much. What it doesn’t get right is the fact that the world isn’t divided into 2 groups of “white men” and “everyone else” anymore, and as such women are treated as “everyone else” throughout the film. LN doesn’t know anything about what’s going on with J’s attempt to marry her, and she claims to have been told to sign the contract with MT-3 because her dad told her to. Aim high, sister. LN’s wimpishness wouldn’t rankle so much if O’Sullivan was a better actress. This is early in her career and while she’s cute as a button, she’s clumsy and unfocused in her performance.
J goes back to his gorgeous art deco bachelor pad — everyone has a gorgeous art deco pad — to sulk about the court’s decision. While there he laments about modern women, how they’re allowed to be officials and think for themselves and have their own keys and opinions. Well, okay, it’s not that bad, but when a female census taker arrives, J’s roommate RT-42 makes fun of her. She’s made to be unappealing, as she’s stern, outspoken, and approves of the Volstead Act (i.e. Prohibition). However, she rightly points out that women aren’t allowed any part of the decision-making process when it comes to marriage. Men and the courts hold all the power. She finds it unfair, but in this film, equal rights are considered just as ridiculous as Prohibition.
J then launches in to the first song of the film, “Old Fashioned Girl”. He longs for the days of the 1930 party girl, which means “flapper”, not the strong, no-nonsense working woman of the 1930s. This bit made me realize that “Just Imagine” was filmed in that brief period where the 1920s hedonism hadn’t been completely replaced by 1930s practicality.
RT’s girlfriend, D-6, arrives to show off her new outfit, which is nothing more than a reversible dress. Actually, it’s just an excuse to show Marjorie White in her undies. White is game for most of the unfunny comedy, and she adds some much needed zing to the film, but ultimately her character falls flat. (Her talents were put to better use in other films of the era, but sadly, White died in 1935 in a car accident.)
The reversible dress isn’t spectacular, but many of the costumes are. The famous Dolly Tree was one of the costume designers on this film, and you can tell. Several dresses are quite lovely, including one of my favorite dresses from a 1930s film (on O’Sullivan, pictured), and the otherworldly costumes are beautiful and elegant.
D tells the boys that the doctor she works for is bringing a man back to life. This was a man who died in 1930 while golfing, and since no one has ever been brought back to life before, RT and J rush over to see the unveiling of … well, of a dead guy.
The doctor’s lab is crammed with large gadgets, bright with chrome and neon. The set for this lab is really lovely, and it’s no wonder “Just Imagine” was nominated for an Academy Award for set design. The cityscapes mentioned above, the lab, and the later Mars sets are spectacular. Some online reviewers have confused some sets from “Just Imagine” with “Metropolis” (1927) sets, and while I don’t doubt that many of the same techniques were used, there are no shared sets between the two movies. However, some of the “Just Imagine” sets and props were later used for Flash Gordon serials.
The dead guy is brought back to life with little or no effort, and we discover it’s El Brendel, popular Vaudevillian comedian. Brendel is dressed in his Sunday finest (most certainly what he was buried in) and he thinks he’s still golfing. Eventually he realizes he’s in the future and that the doctor who resurrected him doesn’t plan on helping him one bit. “I don’t care about you. You were just an experiment,” he says, in some of the worst dialogue written for the screen.
El Brendel immediately begins yucking it up with his faux Scandinavian accent and one-liners galore. Many people hate El Brendel. No, that’s not the right word… many people nowadays loathe El Brendel, but he does bring some funny to this movie. The first real laugh I had was at El Brendel’s distraught reaction when he decides he’ll get help from the Elks, only to realize he is no longer a member.
After getting a shot in the hinder to keep him alive, Brendel hooks up with J and RT. They tell him all about this brave new world, including numbers used for names. RT tells him he can’t get a number, because “they’re all taken.” (In the future, math is still hard.) Brendel chooses “Single-0”, an old reference to a type of single-performer circus act, and they go about their way. First Single-0 gets something to eat, and discovers they eat only pills. (Silly movie: people don’t eat pills until the 22nd century! Don’t you watch “Star Trek”?) Single-0 looks at the pill and laments the loss of the “good old days”.
Turns out there’s still Prohibition in 1980 — how depressing — but there’s an abundance of liquor pills. Again, Single-0 wishes for the good old days. When they stumble across a couple buying a baby out of a machine instead of making it the old-fashioned way, guess what Single-0 says? Go ahead. Guess.
Now you know what the humor is like in this film: labored and clumsy. But the film trudges on, and so shall I. Back at LN’s house, she feigns a headache with the help of her friend D, just so she can skip a date with MT. She wants to see J instead, of course, and her ruse works. Her father and MT and leave while J and RT sneak in to see the girls. J and LN sing another slow, plodding song, “You Are the Melody”, but their time together is cut short when MT comes back early. J and his friend hide, but a completely sloshed Single-0 accidentally blows their cover.
Despondent, J leaves to sing and sulk. It’s a good thing John Garrick is good at both, because he does an awful lot of both in this film. After a depressing round of “Without a Melody” — a riff on the “You Are the Melody” duet he sang moments earlier — a stranger (a simply beautiful young Mischa Auer) approaches him and suggests he meet with an important man who can change his life. J agrees and meets with Professor Z-4 (Hobart Bosworth, who looks a lot like character actor John Hoyt), who tells him about a super secret mission to Mars. He needs astronauts, and J agrees to go on this dangerous mission, in hopes that it will distinguish him and win points with the court during the marriage appeal.
J and RT both sign up for this mission, but don’t tell their girlfriends where they’re going. It’s assumed they’re doing something dangerous, so their military regiment — did we even know J and RT were in the military? — sings them a rousing drinking song and throws them a huge party in their honor. The party is just an excuse for the movie to throw in more crazy “entertainment”, the kind of song-and-dance stuff audiences loved back in the early 1930s.
At the party, El Brendel talks with a beautiful woman, who cheerfully points out the latest fashion on a woman across the room: her dress is so low in the back most of her hinder shows. El Brendel is impressed and says, “Nuts to the good old days!” This offends the beautiful lady near him, though I can’t imagine why. Then RT and D do an embarrassing musical number called “Never Swat a Fly”, and Single-0 takes the stage to do a hat-changing bit that must have been a hit in 1919. It’s amusing enough, though, and the double entendres were chuckle-worthy.
J and RT leave for their secret mission late that night. The rather phallic rocket (pictured in the Photoplay ad) may look familiar, as it was later used for Dr. Zarkov’s rocket in Flash Gordon serials. Again, it’s another example of terrific science fiction design, and is one of the few things this film got right. LN discovers what J is up to and quickly flies to the launch site, where she ineffectually runs towards the rocket, trips, whines, whimpers, then trots over to the rocket again, but is too late, of course.
Inside the rocket we see J and RT covered in some very silly latex suits. They quickly realize Single-0 has stowed away on the ship with them, and they don’t much mind. When they arrive on Mars they are greeted by a scantily clad Martian woman, and Brendel again makes me laugh by pulling out a bow tie from his pocket and putting it on to impress the lady.
The planet is not only filled with half-clad ladies, but is ruled by a beautiful queen, played by dancer Joyzelle. I think it’s interesting to see the “queen of the planet” staple of 1950s science fiction appear so early in film. The queen and other Martians speak another language (take that, Star Trek!) but it’s a silly language, sounding a lot like “Ging gang galla gacka.” The queen takes a liking to J, of course, and calls for her personal guard to meet the Earthlings.
The guard Loko (Ivan Linow) immediately takes a fancy to Single-0, causing Brendel to quip, “She’s not the queen, he is.” If you think Loko’s outfit looks like it’s covered in nipples, you’d be right. Brendel tweaks one later in the film, and because this is a pre-code movie, he gets away with it. The guard calls some lovely ladies over and they all go into a back room, where J, RT and Single-0 are apparently supposed to be bathed. J stays behind to mack on the queen a bit while RT and Single-0 get embarrassed over gorgeous women trying to undress them. They have no problem with the gay guard Loko undressing them, though. After they get in the water, they express relief that those icky girls didn’t touch them, then are horrified when more gorgeous women… er, I mean icky girls arrive to dance for them. RT and Single-0 hide under the water.
That night is entertainment, and El Brendel is escorted to the dinnerby his new pal Loko. Single-0 and Loko are best buddies through the rest of the film. The entertainment starts and it’s clear that this Martian society is modeled after a pseudo-African society. That’s why it’s so creepy that the entertainment is a bunch of people dressed up as monkeys. Fortunately war breaks out, which is a lot more tolerable. Everyone fights everyone else with spears and you realize that it’s twins fighting each other. The Earthlings are taken prisoner and brought to a queen who looks exactly like the previous queen, but she hates them immediately, and Loko’s twin has no use for Single-0. They’re thrown in a prison but must escape, as they have only 4 days to leave the planet before their opportunity to fly back to Earth is gone.
Outside their prison window they see more entertainment, this time from the evil Martians. Lots of nearly-nude ladies dance around an enormous idol, a kind of mash-up of Asian, Indian, and African cultures. The dancers eventually end up writhing all over the idol, and while it’s titillating, it’s not particularly well done. One of the dancers accidentally falls off the idol and has to scramble back up onto the statue, where she jumps right back into the writhing like nothing happened.
Loko shows up to rescue Single-0, who in turn rescues J and RT, who have been knocked out cold. They make it back to the rocket but not before Single-0 ends up fighting with the evil Loko twin. Much slapstick ensues. He finally gets on the rocket and launches it himself.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, LN is upset that J isn’t back yet. B-36 (Mischa Auer) speculates that if they aren’t back by now, they won’t be back, but at the last minute the rocket arrives. J is late for his marriage appeal, so D goes to stall the judge with a lot of embarrassingly corny one-liners. J finally arrives and tells the judge he’s late because he’s just been to Mars. MT accuses him of lying, so J brings in Single-0 with some proof that they were on Mars: Loko’s evil twin. No one believes that Single-0 beat up the burly man, until Single-0 shows everyone that a Martian can be defeated by a simple squeeze on the earlobe.
The day is saved! J gets the girl! Meanwhile a really old man reading off cue cards and glancing at the camera recites some clumsy lines at El Brendel. The old man is El’s son, which is funny. Except it’s not. It’s also impossible, because this man is about 329 years old, yet El’s son would really only be in his 50s. Looks like someone forgot the movie was set in 1980.
While the set designs and the early examples of standard sci-fi plots are interesting, this film just really stinks to high heaven. Don’t get me wrong, I love bad movies more than I love really good films. However, it’s hard to watch the film without getting irritated at the poor acting, half-hearted jokes, and maudlin songs. It’s worthwhile to note that the film was marketed as a silly lampoon (see the Photoplay ad above), so perhaps the bizarre tone of the film was intentional. It’s a film that fans of science fiction simply have to see, though, so hopefully it will be released in an official DVD soon.
LINKS & SOURCES
Photoplay ad (December, 1930) scan and publicity still courtesy amy_jeanne at LiveJournal
YouTube fan-created video of “credits” from the film – very fun!