Saturday 18 July 2020

On YouTube - John Baxter retrieves from obscurity the first sci-fi musical JUST IMAGINE (David Butler, Fox, USA, 1930)

Maureen O'Sullivan as LN-18,
Just Imagine
In Germany during the silent era, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Frau im Mond, and even lesser films such as Karl Hartl’s F.P.1 Antwortet Nicht/F.P.1 Fails to Reply, about a platform in mid-Atlantic allowing planes to refuel (and thus putting ocean liners out of business),looked seriously at the impact of technology.

         In Hollywood, however, science was more often an ingredient dragged to enliven a film in some unrelated category. Horror films indiscriminately swapped brains and re-animated the dead. A serial called The Phantom Empire adapted it to the western, with singing cowboy Gene Autry tooling around his Texas ranch, unaware that survivors from the lost continent of Mu have created a civilization under his feet, complete with lumbering robots (borrowed from MGM, which built them for a routine in Joan Crawford’s Dancing Lady.) 

There was even a science fiction musical. Directed by David Butler in 1930, Just Imagine was the brainchild of Tin Pan Alley trio DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, who owned up without shame to having created its story, dialogue and music. Buddy DeSylva went on to a career as producer, but first, with Lew Brown and Ray Henderson, he collaborated on such hits as You’re the Cream in my Coffee, Keep Your Sunny Side Up and the atypically morose The Thrill is Gone. 

Like the leisurely road trips and scenic tours that used to space out the sex scenes in porn features, the futuristic elements of Just Imagine serve mainly to keep the songs apart. Another composer turned producer, Arthur Freed, did the same thing with considerably more skill in Singing’ in the Rain and Meet Me In St Louis. Posterity has been less kind to Just Imagine, for reasons evident from a typical number such as NeverSwat a Fly, with its memorable lyric “Never spray a nit/With a great big can of Flit/He may think some nit has It/The way I do with you.” 

Maureen O'Sullivan, John Garrick, Just Imagine
Set in 1980, Just Imagine weaves a story from the more fanciful technological speculations of the day. Its sky-scraping New York owes a lot to Metropolis, but instead of driving, people travel in individual inflatable flying vehicles. Thanks to them, John Garrick and Maureen O’Sullivan as illicit lovers J-21 and LN-18 (numbers have replaced family names) can meet surreptitiously high above Manhattan.

El Brendel, John Garrick, Frank Albertson, Just Imagine
Using the same idea as Woody Allen in Sleeper, scientists revive comic El Brendel, who has been in suspended animation since 1930. J-21 and his friend RT-42 (Frank Albertson) assign him the name “Single-O”, ie. zero, and take him on a tour of the period’s bad guesses about future technology, including meals in pill form and babies supplied by vending machine. Among the inventions are a few that succeeded, such as videophones and the air-blowing hand dryer.

Joyzelle Joyner as Loo Loo and Boo Boo
Just Imagine
A pioneer trip to Mars occupies the last third of the film, which is tinted a murky sepia. The Red Planet is inhabited by tribes of overweight showgirls, led by the lissom Joyzelle Joyner, who appears as both Loo Loo, queen of the Martians, and her evil twin Boo Boo (Don’t ask...)  Her exaggerated art deco costumes are upstaged in a number where dancers clamber over a giant idol with moving arms and eyes. (The sequence turns up again in the 1936 serial Flash Gordon, where it’s an entertainment performed for Ming, The Merciless.) 

As in many pre-Code comedies and musicals, topical references abound, not to mention bits of racist or sexist humour. Aside from jokes about Prohibition, shortly to be repealed but at the time regarded as a permanent social change, all cars and aircraft are produced by Jewish manufacturers, a gibe at the undisguised anti-Semitism of Henry Ford. The Martian costumes and dance number are probably meant as references to the avant-garde Denishawn dance company of Ted Shawn and Ruth St Denis, and to William Van Alen’s iconic Chrysler Building, which opened in 1930. In one of the film’s more puzzling numbers,the crew of the dirigible Pegasus, patterned on the Graf Zeppelin, harmonise on what sounds and looks like a Nazi drinking song, complete with rhythmic stamping and table-pounding. Although the song’s in English, between verses a young man of Teutonic appearance shouts “Ach du lieber! Gott in himmel !”.

El Brendel was a well-known vaudeville comic of the time, whose exaggerated Swedish accent (“Yumpin’ Yimminy!”) made him popular with emigrant audiences. For their benefit, he clowns through some broadly camp scenes with the giant Martian Loko (Russian wrestler Ivan Linow). Most prints lack his one solo, however, the comic recitation The Romance of Elmer Stremingways. Announcing unexpectedly that he was in show business before his accident, Single O performs this set-piece from his stage act, a rhymed account of a rural love affair. Vaudeville audiences enjoyed the lightning changes of hats Brendel used to indicate the various characters but moviegoers were less accommodating, and Fox dropped it. However, it is back in the version you can watch now on YouTube.

In the seventies, when Just Imagine was all but forgotten, I screened it for the group that formed around prolific pulp magazine veteran Nelson Bond, and known – false modesty was not one of Nelson’s faults – as The Nelson Bond Society. At the conclusion, Bond announced “Never has a film more richly deserved its obscurity.” On the whole, history agrees. However, thanks to the copy on YouTube, complete with tinting, we can decide for ourselves.

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