Oh, wait, that’s only 15 minutes into the movie. So, steel yourself against creaky ethnic humor and buckle up for liturgical dance orgies on Mars.
A bizarre pre-Code genre hybrid of sci-fi and musical comedy, David Butler’s Just Imagine presents a vision of the future that’s both optimistic and pessimistic—and neither fully utopian nor dystopian.
This disjointed curio is no masterpiece, but you need to see it at least once in your life, if only to convince yourself that it exists.
Unlike an earlier talkie sci-fi extravaganza High Treason (1929), Just Imagine spares us a sanctimonious message. This movie knows it’s ridiculous, but I wonder if it knows it’s that ridiculous. Warning: your camp-o-meter might break.
City on the Edge of (Yesterday’s) Tomorrow
The film opens with a comical comparison between a sleepy New York street scene in 1880, where “you can even hear the rustle of a bustle,” and the claxon-screeching, hectic city in 1930.
From there, we jump ahead another 50 years—to 1980. (Somehow the writers failed to foresee the big hair, shoulder pads, and synth music. Like I said, it’s not a dystopian future. Although U2 does get a mention at the end. That’s pretty prophetic.)
As a narrator informs us, now “everyone has a number instead of a name and the Government tells you whom you should marry.”
The screen abruptly cuts from a title card to a Metropolis-esque New York of the future, towering with sleek, glistening skyscrapers and teeming with chrome-plated planes
purposefully buzzing along. Minutely detailed and elegant in its uber-urbanity, the skyline of the city no doubt elicited gasps from audiences in 1930. The models and sets, designed by Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras, remain stunning accomplishments even today.
Out of the air traffic, two angular planes come to our attention. As they move towards each other, high-angle shots let us see other aircraft crisscrossing below and cars edging along bridges further below still, adding breathtaking verisimilitude to the dreamlike city. The pair of planes meet and hover mid-air.
These dizzying heights serve as a trysting place for the conflicted couple—literally and figuratively up in the air—who will dominate our story. As the boy and girl discuss their problems, planes continue to dart in and out of the frame around them.
At its best, Just Imagine engages the viewer on two levels: the technical marvels make us wonder how special effects wizards achieved the illusion while the winning personalities of the leads encourage us to identify with them. Although largely expositional, this opening scene deftly demonstrates this balance, cleverly juxtaposing a striking modern backdrop with the age-old theme of thwarted love. If only the rest of the movie lived up to that promise.
Our Plot Such as It Is
LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan) and dashing airman J-21 (golden-voiced tenor John Garrick) want to get married. Unfortunately, the government marriage tribunal has ruled in favor of LN’s other suitor, MT-3, a haughty, vaguely sinister newspaper editor, granting him preference because of his elevated professional position. Unless J can raise his status enough to outrank his rival within 4 months, in time for a tribunal appeal, he’ll lose the girl of his dreams.
Meanwhile, famous inventor Z-4 is planning to launch the first rocket to Mars and gives J the chance to become the new Lindberg by piloting the spaceship. Our intrepid protagonist accepts the mission… and the risk that he may never return from the daring expedition.
J blasts off with his best friend RT-42 (Frank Albertson) and their bumbling sidekick Single-O (El Brendel). Together, the trio encounters friendly martians—and their evil twins—and swings home just in time to reverse the tribunal’s decision.
Not-So-Brave New World
In the universe of Just Imagine, nobody seems particularly concerned with fomenting revolution or changing the system. Instead, the characters fight for their own personal happiness within the system and largely play by that system’s rules. The message here isn’t so much “Down with Big Brother!” as “Big Brother, pretty please let me marry who I want?”
The focus on individual outcomes as opposed to social change betrays the movie as a traditional romantic comedy with sci-fi trimmings. The movie’s lack of interest in revolution also reflects the fearful hesitancy of an America still reeling from the stock market crash. As a result, Just Imagine is too much of a light-hearted romp to deliver the cataclysmic, let’s-burn-this-************-down finale that I crave from retro sci-fi. If nothing goes up in flames—or the reaper doesn’t show up—I’m disappointed.
Spectators in 1930 were disappointed, too. Despite earning positive reviews, this sci-fi flick, which cost over a million dollars to product, flopped at the box office. Ironically, by playing it safe, Just Imagine may have lost out on an audience ready for a more radical future.
Lack of conspicuous upheaval notwithstanding, the script throws in a few sly jabs that seize on fictional, futuristic premises to criticize the realities of Depression-era life. For instance, a grotesque, matronly census-taker compares the oppressive marriage law to the law that enforced Prohibition (predicted to still be in place in 1980!): “Don’t criticize this Marriage Act,” the crone insists. “It, like the Volstead Act, is a noble experiment!”
Only meddling, sexually-frustrated bureaucrats try to regulate love and booze, Just Imagine implies.
Perhaps the most startling and forward-thinking line of commentary-laced humor targets the rampant anti-semitism of the 1920s and 1930s. As Single-O looks up in the sky, J-21 and RT-42 explain that everyone flies Rosenblatt and Goldfarb planes; hardly anybody drives a car. “It looks like someone got even with Henry Ford,” Single-O laughs, alluding to the inventor’s well-publicized and vicious hatred of Jews.
The future doesn’t belong to Ford and his kind, the film suggests, but to the very people he wanted to persecute. Pondering a movie where the world of tomorrow feels uncomfortably conservative, I can’t help but appreciate that, in this case, the joke is made at the expense of those with ugly prejudices. Now that’s what I call progress.
Nostalgia for Now
On the whole, Just Imagine envisions a future that’s suspiciously nostalgic for the past, specifically for the halcyon days of 1930. Why, the movie even embeds a denizen of yesteryear into the plot as a surrogate for the contemporary audience.
Doctors miraculously revive Ole Petersen, later rechristened Single-O, who was struck by lightning 50 years before and preserved in a state of suspended animation. (The real miracle, however, is that the doctors don’t put him out of his misery the moment he starts talking.) Through his quirky, exaggerated reactions, Single-O, a time traveler in spite of himself, provides cues telling the viewer how he ought to feel about all that future shock.
For instance, when Single-O learns that food and alcohol come in pill form, eliminating the sensual enjoyment of eating and drinking, he waxes poetical about the pleasures of roast beef and beer. Technology has even taken all the fun out of making babies, now neatly dispensed by vending machines. “Give me the good ol’ days!” Single-O wistfully repeats again and again.
The fact that Single-O winds up as the film’s hero, carrying his companions back to the spaceship on Mars and taking a husky martian captive, affirms Just Imagine’s true purpose: bolstering the egos of 1930s audiences. “See?” You can practically hear the fedora-wearing fellows of 1930 muttering to themselves, “We may not have video telephones or rockets or personal planes, but dammit, we’ve got gumption.”
In its clumsy way, Just Imagine synthesizes a strain of sci-fi designed primarily to edify the era in which the film was made. Most of the great sci-fi movies criticize (allegorically or directly) the direction of modern civilization. By contrast, Just Imagine launches a fantastic thrill ride to Mars in order to assuage the anxieties of an America troubled by the prospect of no frontier left to conquer—even while it hints that the modest joys of 1930 trump the wonders of 1980. This nifty but silly Fox musical sought to feed the confidence of its original audience. These are the good old days, it insists.
Although, come to think of it, one could argue that the concept of a humorous, feel-good sci-fi flick established by Just Imagine, once liberated from its overwhelming nostalgia, finally found success almost 50 years later… in Star Wars.
J-21 longs for a simpler time and an uncomplicated romance. As he confides to his wingman RT-42, “I like a girl like my grandmother used to be. That’s why I like LN. She’s an old-fashioned girl. I should have lived back in 1930.”
From there, J picks up a sort of ultra-modern lute and begins to croon “Give Me an Old-Fashioned Girl.” Meanwhile RT-42 fantasizes about those hot tomatoes of times gone by in a series of humorous vignettes. A dame in a slinky evening gown ecstatically mixes a cocktail shaker in her kitchen. A peroxide blonde succumbs to a forceful kiss from her beau, first beating on his back then slowly giving in. A young mother rocks the cradle with her foot while puffing on a cigarette and reading a risqué novel.
Each wordless flashback emphasizes a combination of pliancy and naughtiness as the essence of femininity. The message: past, present, and future, women should serve and do so perkily at that. Apparently the caveman mentality wasn’t expected to die out in the space age (and, alas, it hasn’t yet in 2015).
Indeed, the alarming future foreseen by Just Imagine grants women even less agency than they had in 1930. The government decides their mates for them based on the suitors’ statuses. And, (un)funnily enough, even though the characters complain about the mannish “modern woman,” this vision of tomorrow didn’t open up many new careers for women. For example, RT-42’s girlfriend D-6 (Marjorie White) works as a nurse, flitting around in a costume that I think you can buy at fetish shops nowadays (not that I’d know, of course), for a crew of entirely male doctors.
Only the odious female census-taker, who looks like a bluestocking caricature, circa 1912, complains about gender injustice in the year 1980—and, in so doing, turns into a punchline. “Why, you men have all the best of it. For instance, you can file an application to marry me which I can accept or reject, but I can’t put in an application to marry you,” she explains to RT-42.
His reply: “Not such a bad law at that!”
Wait, Did you hear that? Oh, it was the audible thud from that joke. Ugh.
Though woefully underused, the major female characters of Just Imagine, LN and especially D-6, endow the film with its rare glimmers of pathos and rebellion.
For example, in one memorable shot, echoing the work of sci-fi pioneers like Méliès and Zecca, Maureen O’Sullivan’s face appears superimposed over planet earth. Abstracted into a kind of symbol for suffering sweethearts everywhere, she forlornly recites the lyrics of the song “You Are the Melody,” beseeching her lover to return home. Despite the goofy sentimentality of having to speak the words to a song monologue-style, O’Sullivan conveys a world of melancholy (pun intended) and her tender rendition lifts the banal speech to the level of genuine poignancy.
Old-fashioned or not, D-6, played by the effervescent and tragically short-lived scene-stealer Marjorie White, refuses to stand idly by while a cruel system marries her best friend off to some entitled jerk. If I enjoyed Just Imagine, and I’d say I did, White deserves much of the credit. She walks away with the picture. For a sample of her peppy charms, check out the best musical number in the film: White’s duet with Frank Albertson, “Never Swat a Fly.”
The bounciest, cutest little minx ever to challenge the patriarchy, D-6 ultimately saves the day by holding up the court proceeding until J-21 can return victorious from Mars.
Rushing to the front of the courtroom, she flips into full-on melodrama mode and accuses MT-3 of being the father of her (nonexistent) children! Were I ever in a jam, I’d want this futuristic flapper feminist on my side.
Life on Mars
Some of the advances Just Imagine predicted have only come true (or at least become widespread) since 1980, like video calling and electric hand dryers, aka the scourge of the new millennium. We’ve yet to land on Mars, of course, but that’s okay. The red planet would probably be a huge let-down after this movie.
I’d be positively remiss if I ended this post without briefly touching on the gratuitous pre-Code mayhem that is the Mars segment of this film. Apparently, martian civilization consists of leatherboys and dominatrixes in silver-foil headdresses. This peaceful race of people greets visitors by forcing them out of their clothes and into a walk-in bath.
The beefy martian warrior king, tricked out in a loincloth and studded leather shoulder armor, even puts the moves on Single-O in the presence of the Queen, no less. The sidekick giggles, “She’s not the queen of Mars. He is!”
And that’s just the good martians. Their evil twins spend their free time in frenzied trance dances around a giant idol, climbing all over its arms and writhing against it in skimpy proto-punk get-ups. Well, what do you know. I guess they did get something right about 1980, after all…
This post is part of the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark. Please consider donating towards the restoration of a one-reel silent comedy, Cupid in Quarantine (1918). If you love old movies, support them. Click the image below to make your contribution to the National Film Preservation Foundation now!