FANTASIA OBSCURA: A ’30s Sci-fi That Imagined a Very Different 1980

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, though, a little song and dance will not do you any good…

Just Imagine (1930)

Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Directed by: David Butler

You may be one of those folk who cry, “But I was promised a flying car!”

And if you go on to say, “And I’ve been waiting since 1980 for it!”, well, that makes you kind of special, don’t it…?

If you don’t remember this film, which puts you in the vast majority of people, it takes place in 1980, 50 years in the movie’s future. After a brief segment establishing how fast technology can move with a set of brief scenes (with some not very funny gags baked into them) set in 1880 and its present, we move to a narrated-over title card explaining the situation in that year, along with some shots of New York.

According to our narrator, this city with personal airplanes is one where everyone has a number, not a name, and the government tells you whom you can marry. Which is a problem for the two lovebirds the film focuses on, J-21 (John Garrick) and LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan); his petition to the court to wed his beloved is being turned down in favor of getting her married off to MT-3 (Kenneth Thompson).

And yes, you’re reading that right: The two guys are in court fighting over a woman to marry, a woman who doesn’t get a say in this! Like the creepy feel of referencing this country’s experiments in eugenics isn’t enough of a turn-off here…

Our star-crossed-and-court-banned suitor seeks solace from his friends, roommate RT-42 (Frank Albertson) and LN-18’s confidant D-6 (Marjorie White), who have a moment with him before the three of them go off to another engagement.

Their appointment is to watch a scientific experiment to see if a man who was killed by lightning 50 years prior, in 1930, could be revived. The experiment is a success, but the subject is abandoned as the doctors don’t care about him once he’s revived. The man, who abandons his now-worthless name for the number Single-O (El Brendel), becomes J-21 and RT-42’s companion, and gets shown around the town by the boys.

Hijinks, or something trying to be that, ensue when J-21 tries to visit LN-18 on the down low, which Single-O manages to mess up. Desperate and on the verge of suicide, J-21 is recruited by the famous scientist, Z-4 (Hobart Bosworth), who needs a pilot for his experimental rocket for Mars. Considering that the fame and glory from the trip might help his appeal in marriage court, J-21 agrees.

What makes him qualified for such a gig? Well, it does get mentioned early on that he has a career as the pilot for the passenger dirigible Pegasus, a flying luxury liner. We get reminded of this when he has a scene with his co-workers, during which they go into their… hearty drinking song…?

Okay, how worried should we be that there’s a musical number sung by folks about how much they like to drink? Said folks being the crew of a large passenger-carrying vessel? Would you fly with these inebriants, really…?

It’s this “anything we can” approach that makes it feel very much like Butler and the Jazz Age musical writing team of DeSylva, Henderson, and Brown just threw a lot of stuff on screen, in an effort to go big as they went first. The film is credited as the first ever talkie genre pic, which is hard to dispute, and the first ever genre musical, which isn’t that much to brag about.

Although this is supposed to be a talkie (and a musical to boot), the constant use of title cards to switch a scene betrays a lack of comfort or faith in the new technology. Compared with the model sets built for the film that give Metropolis a run for its money and the shots of spacecraft that get reused later in the original Flash Gordon being so heartily used, this suggests a lack of faith in the use of sound, which can be confused with a lack of faith in the script itself.

The script certainly seemed to have given the cast some pause. Not entirely sure how to project themselves into the mindset of characters 50 years hence, into a world that was hard to fathom, everyone from the future seems to breeze through their lines as though its reading for a commercial. Only Brendel seems comfortable in his role, but as a man from the present who can bury himself in his established vaudeville shtick, he has the lightest load in approaching the script.

And what a script it is, giving modern viewers a dystopia that suggests sourcing from Margaret Atwood via Eddie Cantor. The attitudes conveyed are as dated as the humor; references to the Volstead Act still being in place alongside laws that take assigned marriage partners without a woman’s say-so are more creepy than funny. The fact that this is a pre-Hays Code film with backward attitudes about women while giving off a strange vibe about J-21 and RT-42’s living arrangements seems to have been another not-well-thought-out bit, especially while watching it in the #MeToo Age.

If anyone didn’t think this out well, it was probably Fox. The investment that they made in a beautiful looking mess like this kept them from doing another science fiction picture for years; the next time Fox would produce such a film would be 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. And they would not try another genre musical until 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was a film that didn’t have nearly as problematic a script as Just Imagine did.

Really, it’s hard to walk away from writing that just leaves a viewer numb. Like the throw-away gag about the flying cars that makes a not entirely oblique reference to Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism that pretty well brings the film to a stop in the first act.

This is a comedy? Oy gevalt…

What, you want a flying car that badly…?

NEXT TIME: Not every introduction to Eastern culture in 1966 were as pleasant as “Norwegian Wood;” some were down-right cold-blooded…

About James Ryan 125 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…