History of Sci-Fi Cinema 4: “Just Imagine”

04-JustImagine-TitleJust Imagine (1930)
Written (story, dialogue and songs) by DeSylva, Brown & Henderson
Directed by David Butler
Starring John Garrick, Frank Albertson, Maureen O’Sullivan, Marjorie White
Fox Film Corporation

In undertaking this blog project, I expected to hit all the “biggies,” all the accepted (and expected) classics. But I also wanted to discover some of the rarer gems, some of the peculiarities, in the history of sci-fi. And boy, did I find one: a science fiction romantic comedy musical. In fact, its a movie I’d never heard of until putting together this list of films to review.

Made in 1930, this film begins with a request: Just look at how much progress 50 years can bring. Why, in 1880 we had nothing but horse-drawn carriages and good manners. Today, it’s all hustle and bustle. “Just Imagine” what another 50 years will bring: What will life be like in the far-flung future of 1980…?

Well, according to Just Imagine, the answer to that question is: we don’t use cars anymore, we all have personal jets. We order lunch from a wall panel on the street and consume food in pill form. No one has a proper name any longer, everyone is assigned an alpha-numeric code. Couples order a newborn baby from a vending machine whenever they want. And things still aren’t too great for women: They’re basically still property of men. Men can apply for a marriage license with a stated purpose of marrying a certain woman. The woman is free to reject the marriage proposal, but she has no freedom to file for a license with her intention to marry a man.

04-JustImagine-CastOur story revolves around J-21 and his bid to marry the lovely LN-18 (“Jay” and “Ellen”), along with J-21’s best friend RT-42 (“Artie”). J-21 has a rival in MT-3 (I guess he’s “empty”), who has also filed for a marriage license for LN-18. As MT is the more distinguished of the two, the court approves MT’s request and denies J. J has appealed the decision, but as he isn’t as distinguished as MT, he has little hope of winning it. J is then recruited by the famous inventor Z-4 who has built a plane to travel to Mars. The journey will only take 3 months and 25 days round trip (allowing 5 days on the surface of Mars). Great news! That means that J can get to Mars and back in time for his appeal, and with a far more prestigious accomplishment. Then, the court will rule in J’s favor, and he and LN can be together forevah!!

But hang on … early on we’re told that a woman can accept or deny any wedding proposal she’s given. So why doesn’t LN simply not accept MT’s proposal? Then, with it off the table, she’s free to accept J’s proposal. Of course, that would have made for a very short and very boring movie. As it is, J and his best friend RT, with whom he lives, set off to Mars. And why is RT going? Oh, just ‘cuz. See, he and J have been “pals — real pals — ever since we were little kids. Why we’ve gone through everything together! There’s no reason why we should stop now. If you go, I go!” Never mind that neither has any training as an astronaut (of course, that doesn’t seem to really factor into this story). The scene is played with so much enthusiasm that it actually comes across as a little bit gay. But then, there are numerous scenes in which the boyishly attractive Frank Albertson seems to swoon over his roommate J, even in the presence of his spirited and spunky girlfriend D.

04-JustImagine-MarsZ-4 admits that this is a risky venture, as no one knows if humans can exist on the surface of Mars or not (in fact, they walk around without any protection from space suits). But the plane takes off, and with a stowaway on board. One of the comedic characters in this pic, alongside D, is Single 0, a man called Ollie (or Oleg, can’t tell by the way it’s pronounced) Peterson who was killed by lightning in 1930 and revived in 1980. He provides stimulating contrasts with the world of 1980, usually in the form of “I don’ know boys, give me de good old days!” He comes in handy on Mars, as the party meets the King and Queen of Mars and the King takes a special liking to Single 0 (leaving him to comment “She’s not the Queen … he is!”). The Mars inhabitants are a pretty special lot, as every Martian has an evil twin double. Every one of them. This leads to supposed hilarity in the farce tradition of being chased around Scooby Doo style, with near-misses, captures and clever escapes.

Predicting the future is always problematic. There are two things that you can never predict accurately – music and fashion. Unfortunately, this being made in the 1930s, the music all sounds very precisely like the 1930s. Setting the film in 1980, the filmmakers were wholly unsuccessful at creating a music that sounds like the Talking Heads, the Knack, Iron Maiden, the B52s or even Loverboy, much less the impending dominant force of the 80s, Duran Duran. In fact, I envision a retro remake of this movie using only songs from the actual 80s. That is a thing that needs to happen.

The film boasts a pretty great cast, with Frank Albertson (later to appear in It’s a Wonderful Life, Psycho, The Plainsman and Bye Bye Birdie), Maureen O’Sullivan (a stunning beauty most famous for her role as Jane in the Tarzan movies of the late 30s and early 40s, and for being Mia Farrow’s mother), and John Garrick (Charlie Chan Carries On, To Catch a Thief, Suicide Legion) all giving enjoyable performances. Sadly, the music and dance is competent but nothing standout, and the comedy isn’t terribly funny. In fact, the science fiction element isn’t even that important or well executed, as its mainly a vehicle for its star to win over the girl he loves, much like Edward Malone in the superior and far more entertaining The Lost World

04-JustImagine-LabWhile I wouldn’t call this a very good example of either musical, comedy or sci-fi, where it does excel is in the set design. The lab equipment will resurface in Frankenstein and various props and scenery — including Z-4’s Mars plane — will get reused in Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials later in the 30s.

I did enjoy the experience of discovering it for the first time. I don’t think it’ll ever make it into my regular rotation, though.

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