Just Imagine (1930) El Brendel, John Garrick, Maureen O’Sullivan, Frank Albertson. Dir: David Butler.
A pre-code sci-fi musical romantic comedy? Shut up and take my money! Actually, don’t. It’s on youtube. The best way to watch this is free.
I’m going to dissect this film until you either stop reading in disgust (if that hasn’t happened already) or get to the end and want to see it. Hopefully the latter. I will begin with the people involved. It’s a crazy list. Really.
I’ll start with the top-billed El Brendel. I honestly don’t understand some of the humor that I see in early talkies. How this man had a successful Vaudeville career is beyond me. His fake Swedish schtick just does not work for me, but, fortunately, they give him some lines that are actually funny. Mostly he’s not horrible, but he’s definitely not great.
Maureen O’Sullivan. This is the woman who would go on to become Jane in the Tarzan movies. And mother to Mia Farrow in real life. She’s pretty awful in this movie. And that’s all I have to say about her.
John Garrick. Who? Exactly. He sang real perty though. Mr. Garrick did movies from 1929-1940 and then just stopped. For this I am extremely grateful.
Marjorie White. Here is a treasure. She was spunky and adorable and made everyone around her look positively statuesque. This is because she gave up growing when she hit 4’10” and 3/4. She was a former Vaudeville star who toured with Thelma White; together they were billed as The White Sisters. They weren’t related and White wasn’t her real last name. She played Larry Fine’s wife in the Three Stooges film The Women Haters. Sadly, she died from internal injuries as a result of a car accident in 1935. I feel pretty certain that if she had been around longer, she would be more well-known.
Frank Albertson. You know, the guy who played Freddie in Bachelor Mother and Sam Wainwright (eeyaw eeyaw) in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s adorable. Always. I really feel like he should have had a better career than he did. He could sing, dance and act, and he was good looking too. He usually played small parts in big pictures and big parts in small pictures.
Moving on to the creative team now.
David Butler, the director. He was a big deal as it turns out. He directed several Shirley Temple films and then moved on to Bob Hope films. Then he went to work on Leave It to Beaver. There is no way you haven’t seen something he directed. It’s just not possible.
For story, dialogue, and songs, we have none other than Buddy G. DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson. DeSylva is responsible for such songs as “Button Up Your Overcoat” and “Look for the Silver Lining”. If those aren’t familiar to you (you should get familiar with them!) then you will at least recognize “California, Here I Come” from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Lew Brown gave us “Baby, Take a Bow”, “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries”, and the “Beer Barrel Polka”. Now, Mr. Henderson was no slouch either. He wrote “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue”, “You’re the Cream in My Coffee”, and “Oh You Nasty Man”. Some of the songs I’ve mentioned in this paragraph are written by two or all of the men I’ve mentioned in this paragraph. The point here is that these men were great songwriters. Songwriters. Not so great screenwriters.
Now I’m going to talk about the film itself. And please don’t freak out because, unlike most of my recommendations, I am going to get a little spoilery here. I can’t help it. You have to know. I’m going to tell you the plot now. You have been warned.
The movie takes place 50 years in the future (which is 34 years in our past now) in the year 1980. A man and woman are in love and want to get married but the government said she had to marry another guy and so there’s a 4 month wait to get to the appeal on that decision. This gives him time to become someone of consequence so that the judge will rule in his favor. What better way to gain favor than to be the first man to fly to Mars? He was carefully selected (I will not divulge the criteria) by the world’s foremost inventor to do it. So, of course, why not, just take his roommate along? No big. Now, somewhere in the middle of all of this, a very annoying and stupid man was brought back from the dead after having been struck by lightning 50 years earlier. The movie’s writers get to show the audience what’s different in 1980, without turning to the camera and speaking directly to them, by taking this annoying and stupid man around and playing Show and Tell. Now, this annoying and stupid man, the roommate, and the protagonist astronaut all go on the flight to Mars, whereupon a young woman in a Dolly Parton wig greets them and entices them to follow her to a big place where there are a lot of beautiful and nice Martian people. The queen of the Martians ooga-boogas enough to explain that they are the good guys and that there are bad guys that look exactly like them. Then the bad guys come and kidnap them, and then the good guys help them escape and the protagonist comes back just in time to get to his appeal hearing. I won’t tell you the rest. I think I’ve done enough.
So what’s different from 1930, when the picture was made? Everyone flies airplanes instead of driving cars, buildings are 250 stories high, people get their babies out of vending machines, they have pills for food and drink, they have video phones, they raise people from the dead, the government has to approve marriages, people no longer have names- they go by letters and numbers, spaceships look like penises with fins. What’s the same but shouldn’t be? Pretty much everything else. The clothes have the same shape but are somehow styled differently, the style of music is the same, the hairstyles, and analog clocks. Also, letter writing. With pens and paper. No personal communication devices. For a minute I thought I was going to see a hologram, but no, it was just a beam of light. The sets are unbelievably art-deco.
The songs and choreography for the most part aren’t awesome. There’s one song that Marjorie White and Frank Albertson sing that is quite odd, but manages to be cute, which is called “Never Swat a Fly”. The rest of the music is completely forgettable. El Brendel does a bit from his Vaudeville act at one point which immediately causes one to long for his absence.
If you’re still with me, I will now drive home the idea that you should see this film. Apart from its Academy Award nomination for art design, it’s really bad. It’s awful. It’s laughable. The only thing that isn’t funny about this movie is most of the comedy. This is one of those movies that is so bad it’s good.
And that’s why you should see it. But catch it on youtube. Seriously.