|Single O …
|Loko / Boko …
|Loo Loo / Boo Boo …
Just Imagine: Hard to Believe
“Give me the good old days!”
What will the world be like in the future? Picture 1963 and wonder at all we’ve been through since then, and then extrapolate it. Man hadn’t even landed on the moon 50 years ago, and nowadays we haven’t landed on the moon in nearly 40 years because it got really old, really quick.
Perhaps in 2063 someone will go back. Or we’ll all have those flying Google cars that I’m sure someone is working on. Or, heck, we’ll probably all be living in underground cities worshiping nuclear bombs, because that always looked like fun.
I bring this up for a reason (surprise!) and that’s because Just Imagine is just such an observation from 1930. Yes, projecting what the world would be like in the far off future of 1980 involved a great deal of missed guesses, but it’s an interesting bit of speculative fiction.
Oh, and since it’s made in 1930, it’s a musical as well. So a Pre-Code sci-fi musical; it’s safe to say this one’s pretty unique.
After a brief narrative intro where we’re introduced to the New York of 1880 (peaceful and tranquil!) and taken to the New York of 1930 (it’s a nightmare of kinetic energy!), we go to New York in 1980. Believe it or not, any similarity to the 1980 we actually experienced is wholly coincidental.
You see, by 1980 the government has become omnipresent. Every person born is assigned a number, food comes in pills, and reproduction is done via vending machine. Art deco is everywhere, and everyone flies around town in their own nifty little airplanes. Oh, and Prohibition is still on.
Two people canoodling above the New York introduce us to the storyline: J-21 is in love with LN-18. Unfortunately, the government’s marriage tribunal has ruled that LN has to marry MT-3, a rich newspaper magnate. J-21 is given four months to improve his standing in society, or risk losing the woman he loves. Unfortunately, as a zeppelin pilot he’s gone about as far up the ladder as he can get, since, well, he pilots a zeppelin.
Fortune turns his way when he meets Z-4, an eccentric professor who has built a rocket to Mars. To prove he’s worthy to the government for the woman he loves, he and his best pal to blast off, only to find Mars essentially the Emerald City on acid with a lot more nipples.
But as enticing as I’m sure that sounds to you, I left out three important factors in discussing the film.
The first and most noticeable is El Brendel, playing a character who’d been struck by lightning in the 1930s and revived in 1980. Brendel was a vaudeville ethnic comedian who played a less-than-bright Swede. I think he’s pretty inoffensive here (and nowadays its hard to imagine a time where Swedes where regarded as oafs), as most of his humor relies on being a man out of time. He’s surprisingly laid back about the whole resurrection thing, which I certainly can’t say the same about myself.
Brendel dubs himself as ‘Single-O’ and follows our heroes around, popping pills– though, since this is the future, the pills are just illicit booze. An average joke plays out like this:
J-21: “We’re going to Mars.”
Single-O: “Take me with you, I’d love to meet your mother!”
I know, I’ll give you a minute to reassemble your sides.
The next big thing is to understand (and I’ve written about this before), this is a musical from 1930. There was a glut of musicals in 1930 after the success of The Jazz Singer, and time has not been kind to most of them. Believe it or not, in the stunning future world of Just Imagine, they feel shoehorned in. The first is probably the most egregious, as J-21 sings a ballad about how much he wants an ‘old fashioned girl’ like those from the 1930’s. (cough) It’s just watching a dude singing a bad song.
That does bring to a funny point the actual highlight of the film, actress and comedienne Marjorie White. She was a gem in Diplomaniacs, and brings a manic, carefree energy to her scenes. Whether its modeling the new ‘Stay Out’ outfit that is completely reversible or injecting Single-O with life giving medicines via a giant needle into the buttocks, she’s the goofy, sweet center of the movie that makes what parts of it work work.
Also, weirdly, she’s way more of what we’d consider an ‘old fashioned girl’ than the dour and pouty LN-18 to whom J-21 warbles out his ode. And I think that speaks to one of the film’s most notable and interesting failings: despite being set in 1980, all of its characters pretty much behave like it’s still 1930.
There’s something inherently charming about the belief that technology won’t change social behavior in any meaningful way. Imagine watching a film from now where in 2063 everyone is remarking on how weird homosexuality is and how great text messaging is.
The future as the film sees it is interesting, since it predicts the continued elimination of empathy from institutions. The government now mandates every aspect of marriage. Women are accorded to men based on money and power, with women essentially eternally trapped as second class citizens.
When the cabal of scientists bring a Single-O back to life with no regard for what happens afterward, but only for the achievement. After he’s revived, the scientists explain, “If you’re unhappy [about it], I can kill you again!” Another example of this weird casual cruelty: Mars is visited and one of its citizens captured, but no attempts at formal relations are made.
I mean, on some level, you have to love the outrageous nastiness of a fascist bureaucracy that won’t grant a continuance for a man captured by Martians on the very first expedition there. On the other hand, it illustrates how depressing this vision of the future is: the system here is never directly challenged, only sublimated to. But more on that below.
But let’s go back to the film’s looks, which, if it weren’t for the film’s relative difficulty to find in anything but washed out prints, would probably be the best reason to remember it. Other reviewers have often compared it to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but once the film leaves its terrestrial bounds it becomes no less than an homage to George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon.
Mars itself is full of strange creatures, and a lot of women in big wigs who enjoy writhing around. The social order we discover is about as goofy as one can expect, with there being doubles of everyone on Mars, one good and one bad. The good ones have Boko, the adivsor to Queen Loo Loo, who takes an immediate liking to Single-O. When it’s obvious the liking is a little more than just liking, Single-O laughs and notes of Boko, “She’s not the queen, he is!”
Our brave explorer’s complete lack of imagination in this regard is telling as well. While on Mars, they patronize this absolutely bizarre society, and spend most of the trip far more eager to get home than do any exploring. Like with the scientists before, the accomplishment of getting there is all that matters.
This vision of Mars as more progressive and free than Earth is both amusing and kind of sad. In a contemporary film– and I’m not saying that this is any better, mind you– our hero would rise up and at least oppose the wretched regime that rules Earth. The last half century has drilled into our heads a version of science fiction that involves insurrection and heroism.
Just Imagine is instead a romantic drama, travelogue, and, of course, El Brendel’s schtick. It’s not bad or wrong in that way (well, Brendel’s jokes get close on a few occasions), just unsatisfying on some level. We watch conformity win out, with our main couple hooking up because of course, of course, of course.
Not that I think an insurrection would have saved a lick of the movie. It’s too long, the music is bland, and it just uses technology and special effects to cover up a trite and dull plot. I’d explain more, but since these same criticisms apply to the most popular movies in the world right now, I think you know where I’m going.
As a time capsule and curiosity, Just Imagine is unique. But that street goes both ways, and the worst parts of 1930s cinema leak in just as well.
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Prohibition is still on in the future… uh, past. You know what I mean.
- I think literally every other scene Marjorie either strips or is simply lacking her clothing.
- “And he was a son of a– millionaire!”
- One extended sequence on Mars features a bevy of slave girls walking in on the astronauts bathing, and another has them writing all over a pagan statue. It’s really dirty stuff.
- Some risque pics:
Here are some extra screenshots I took. Click on any picture to enlarge!
Trivia & Links
- Mordaunt Hall’s contemporary review for the New York Times is surprising adulatory, including praising El Brendel’s comedy stylings. I also liked this summation of one of White’s earlier scenes:
The television works to perfection, even to discovering D-6 (Marjorie White) in her boudoir. She is able to dart out of vision, however, to add to her momentarily inextensive attire.
- Kyle Westphal deems Just Imagine as “the ultimate early talkie” where “its concerns and methods shaped most decisively by the rudderless abandon of a new plaything.” He also compares the loss of a great time in the silent film era to the emerging talkies and finds the addition of auditory sound to be a fascinating milestone.
- Over at All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!, a Swede analyzes this film’s Swede, is unsurprised he is not actually a Swede.
- Doctor Macro only has one movie still for the picture, but it’s a keeper.
- My obsession with dogs in Pre-Code takes a sad turn this week with our entry.
- Movie Diva gets us all the background information we never knew we always wanted about this one. She talks extensively about El Brendel (or about as extensively as one can, I suppose) and where his style of comedy came from and where it went. Yes, he made a short film nominated for an Academy Award 15 years after this was made. I can’t even imagine…
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This one actually won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction, so it has that going for it.
- This film is actually pretty hard to come by as its never been on VHS or DVD. I found it via YouTube, though you may have to go by the gray market if you want a better print.
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