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Just Imagine

Entry updated 8 July 2022. Tagged: Film.

Film (1930). Fox Film Corporation. Directed by David Butler. Written by Lew Brown, Butler, Ray Henderson and Buddy G DeSylva. Songs by Brown, DeSilva and Henderson (credited) and/or Hugo Friedhofer (uncredited). Choreography by Seymour Felix. Cast includes Frank Albertson, Mischa Auer, El Brendel, John Garrick, George Irving, Joyzelle Joyner, Ivan Linow, Wilfred Lucas, Maureen O'Sullivan, Kenneth Thomson and Marjorie White. 109/113 minutes. Black and white.

As a viewing experience, Just Imagine must be imagined to be seen, so rough and seemingly gap-filled are its known surviving versions, which may have been photographed from 16m prints; the best song, "Never Swat a Fly", was only recovered in recent decades. What remains, befogged and bedraggled, does in any case convey a sense that the original may have been almost as hard to parse, both as visual display and as an attempt to exploit some poorly grasped sf topoi in order – it may be – to release some of the tension of living in 1930. The nightmare of the Great Depression, which had taken hold only a year before filming, can be felt here through what might be called an averted gaze: Just Imagine just fails to look at the world it almost imagines: a deliberate incompetence, it may be. It is moreover almost certainly the first sf musical (see Music) – few original-score musicals of any sort precede this example – and its book-and-song structure, with musical extravaganzas inserted almost at random, is not fitted to carry content that might itself require explanation.

Despite all this, and some stage routines from the featured El Brendel (1890-1964), a rather lovable vaudeville comedian (see below) whose unfitness for film is manifest here, Just Imagine conveys between the wooden slapstick and the belted hit-parade-bound tunes (none ever arrived) some identifiably Dystopian glimpses of a moderately distant Near Future 1980 America. And when Brendel learns that the most popular flitters have names like Rosenblatt and says laughingly "Someone got even with Henry Ford", a moment of Satire – Ford was a blatant anti-Semite – does hint at a film that never quite existed. But the trip by Spaceship to Mars, which takes over the final third of the action, adds little to the comedy, and nothing to any underlying argument. In the end, the sf content is here to take your mind far away.

The action begins with a three-part montage: a pedestrian navigating a neighbourly Manhattan street in 1880; a pedestrian buffetted by Manhattan traffic in 1930; and then via a silent-era style intertitle that introduces us to ...

"New York in 1980 ... when everyone has a number instead of a name, and the Government tells you whom you should marry!"

... the most spectacular sf sequence of the film follows. There are no pedestrians left. We are given sight from on high of an extravagant vista of 1980 New York, far above multi-lane boulevards (lots of cars but no traffic jams), each of these vast limited-access roads lined by great skyscrapers. Darting everywhere through this panorama sweep orderly parades of what look to be airplanes but are in fact autogiros able to hover (the only subsequent sf film to plump for autogiros as a solution to traffic woes may be The Fifth Element [1997]). The architectonic of the spectacle that opens Just Imagine is clearly not much influenced by the centripetal, claustral vision of a transmogrified Wall Street that figures prominently in the previous sf film to be set in an enormous City of the future, Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926). Just Imagine's vision of what the future has come to – it is the only sustained representation of the future that the film affords – seems very likely to have been extrapolated from the epiphanies of a radically modernized Midtown Manhattan laid down by Hugh Ferriss (1889-1962) in his greatly influential The Metropolis of Tomorrow (graph 1929). In both book and film, familiar Icons like the Statue of Liberty are absent from the totalizing vision of sweep and verticality of this opening conspectus. There can be no glimpse in Just Imagine of anything quite like the actual Empire State Building, which was only completed in 1931: but the sublime Art-Deco banality of King Kong's future home – see King Kong (1933) – hovers over all in the mind's eye, streaks upward like Shazam.

The story begins. Everyone is identified by serial numbers far too short to enumerate a population; these may have served as a mild nod to their heavily-loaded use in Yevgeny Zamiatin's We, whose first world publication, in the 1924 translation by Gregory Zilboorg, had already had some impact. At the end of the opening panorama, the romantic leads, J-21 (Garrick), a professional pilot, and the ingenue UN-18 (O'Sullivan) couple their autogiros together far above the boulevards, where UN-18 tells the man she loves that a marriage tribunal is about to award her hand in marriage to the loathsome businessman MT-3 (Thomson); this is duly announced, but the decision is subject to appeal on Eugenic grounds: if J-21 can prove he is more worthy to breed, he gets the girl. Meanwhile, J-21's buddies, RT-42 (Albertson) and D-6 (White), express their indignation by breaking into song-and-dance (White and Albertson are film-savvy, funny, and as "adult" as circumstances permit). Meanwhile, a scientist brings back from Suspended Animation a golfer who had been struck by lightning in 1930; he turns out to be a goofus, who dubs himself Single-0 (Brendel) and is adopted by RT-42 and D-6; they help him order Food Pills, show him how new-born babies are dispensed at automats, and introduce him to the romantic leads. Meanwhile, J-21 sees his chance to prove his worth when he is recruited by famed scientist X-10 (Lucas), who has just invented a Spaceship, to pilot it on humanity's first flight to Mars. RT-42 tags along, Single-0 stows away.

Mars is inhabited by troupes of almost naked (pre-Hays Code) dancing women ruled by Loo Loo (Joyner), whose evil twin Boo Boo (also Joyner) causes difficulties only resolved when the humans learn that everyone on Mars is twinned: one twin being good, one twin evil. Slapstick shenanigans ensue. The extraordinarily camp Loko/Boko twins (both Linow), who rule troupes of almost naked male dancers, are/is captured by Single-0, and is brought back to Earth, where the marriage appeal is in full swing: Loko/Boko's presence proves that the pals have indeed traveled to Mars, demonstrating the marriageworthiness of J-21, and the lovers embrace.

This collapse into comic twists and turns does not quite drown out the spectacular vision of Manhattan that begins Just Imagine; even though this exceedingly expensive set – created by Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras at a cost of perhaps $250,000 – is never seen after the first five minutes, memories of its uplift invigorate the subsequent musical extravaganzas (Seymour Felix's choreography is sometimes gripping, and can stand comparison with Busby Berkeley's almost exactly contemporaneous work), in which uniform chorus lines tend to dissolve into virtuoso turns. It is here that Metropolis may fairly be instanced as an influence: in the sense that the regimented hellishness of that film is here danced away.

In any case, despite its blockbuster budget, the film tanked; this may or may not have seriously deterred other filmmakers, though sf like Frankenstein (1931) or King Kong (1933) et cetera (see Cinema) emphasize Horror in SF; The Phantom Empire (1935), on the other hand, despite its rampant illogic, is indeed sf, though of the lowest order; and a British film like Things to Come (1936) even climaxes in sight of a Spaceship. The most remarkable feature of Just Imagine may be its oneiric capacity to open gates of imagination that would be accessed by later film makers, while not in itself saying anything at all of any interest. Like a dream, it can only almost be remembered (the use of some of the more expensive footage in several later films may add to this sense of a dream surfacing). Like so many dreams in the dream kingdom of twentieth-century cinema, Just Imagine is something undying from below. [JC]


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