Sunday, September 1, 2013

'Just Imagine' A Prelude to Flash Gordon on Film - Pt 1

Sunday's here on Toys & Stuff have almost always been about cartoon and comic book themes and I had begun to call it 'Sunday Comics Sunday' to honor not only the comic books, but the large cartoon supplement always found in that huge Sunday newspaper we used to get when I was growing up. Growing up back in the '50s and '60s Sunday's were always about spending time with family and kickin' back, often times enjoying a comic book, reading the Sunday newspaper comics, and enjoying TV with its wonderful assortment of cartoons, serials, and bad 'B' monster or sci-fi flicks. But over the past year or so it seems as if Sunday here on Toys & Stuff has become the exclusive stomping ground for Batman toys, not really a bad thing because there are so many neat Bat-toys out there, but it's good to take a break from them for a bit.

Just when you thought we were through with Flash Gordon we're going to take a small trip back to 1930 with a slight diversion into the background of science fiction in a very truncated way - the field has become far too vast to give it much more than a cursory overview.

Today we're looking at a largely forgotten, but landmark, film that has several themes intertwined with it. I'm really not prepared to do a doctoral thesis on the various aspects but certainly we can attempt to explore some of them. The movie is called 'Just Imagine' from 1930 and it is an interesting, funny, and quite frankly, really goofy, look at what the world of 1980 would be like as seen through the lens of 1930's America. As a sci-fi flick it fits into our kickin' back theme for Sunday's but there are so many layers present here it's difficult to get a handle but let's try.

Let's start with the basic genre of film: science fiction. Science fiction is not about the impossible (at least as we understand the 'impossible' today), but rather the possible. Can we extrapolate from science ways of doing things that were once thought impossible, thereby moving from fantasy to reality? Writers have been wrestling with this concept since ancient times, but the fantastical tales of heroes sprouting wings and flying to the moon, or genies popping from bottles were the realm of fantasy. The word 'science' wasn't even coined until 1841 and the concept of 'science fiction' not explained in writing until 1851 when William Wilson defined it in his book A Little Earnest Book upon a Great Old Subject: "Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true." (courtesy: Science Fiction: TheEarly History by H. Bruce Franklin)

The Industrial Age brought a multitude of changes and life itself was constantly evolving. The old ways were dying and, for some, industrial progress promised a better life while for others it promised a nightmarish existence. It's hard to believe now but Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' was first published in 1818! It was one of the first of the genre, a genre which at the time was so new it didn't even have a name attached to it. Edward Ellis' 'The Huge Hunter aka The Steam Man of the Prairies'  (1868) is considered the first dime novel science fiction work. The dime novel was the most popular form of American literature for decades especially those years between the Civil War and World War I and would have a great influence on sci-fi as a genre. While Edward Ellis was an American, the most notable early science fiction writers were European. One of the giants of early sci-fi of course was Jules Gabriel Verne (1828-1905) from France who wrote some of the most prestigious early works such as  Journey to the Center of the Earth (Voyage au centre de la Terre) (1864), From The Earth to The Moon (De la terre à la lune) (1865), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers) (1870), and Around the World in Eighty Days (Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours) (1873). How many of us remember seeing the Disney films based on these classic works?

Which brings us to - The Movies! (open curtains, cue Busby Berkeley dancers, and grab the popcorn)

While moving images were available as early as the 1830s by placing photographs on revolving discs (the Phenakistoscope), the first movie cameras didn't arrive until the 1880s (Étienne-Jules Marey invented a chronophotographic gun in 1882) and the first films made with them were little more than carnival novelties. As movie makers experimented and refined this new gimmick of moving pictures it was W. K. L. Dickson invention of the fully developed Kinetograph (while working under the direction of Thomas Alva Edison) in 1891 which really got the movement (pun intended) going. The first public showing of the Kinetograph's work was in 1893 at the Chicago World's Fair. But Edison wasn't the only one developing moving pictures and others would follow. From 1895 - 1906 moving pictures would evolve from novelty to an established industry. The first science fiction moving film is credited to Georges Melies whose 1902 A Trip to the Moon (approx 11 minutes) amazed audiences with its trick photography (for download click here: A Trip to the Moon )

The first motion picture space ship!

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was made into a movie in 1910 and in 1916 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was made into a film. Fritz Lang's seminal 1927 silent classic Metropolis was just one of many sci-fi films to come out in the silent film era but it remains one of the most memorable.

Adding sound to film had been a goal since the early days of the silent film era but it wasn't until Warner Bros. film studio came out with its "Vitaphone" system that a new era in motion pictures arrived and Warner Bros. release of The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, in 1927 ushered in the new age. By the end of 1929 nearly every film was a 'talkie'. 

Fast forward to 1930 and the world's first talkie sci-fi movie, Just Imagine hits the theaters. The 1920s and 1930s were a time of dreaming about the future, a future in which flying cars would land on rooftop garages in America's cities. When aircraft would land on platforms above impossibly high skyscrapers to drop off passengers. When space travel was being dreamed of as a real possibility. If there were any doubts, all you had to do was pick up an issue of Amazing Stories, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Mechanix Illustrated, or other popular magazines of the day and get your fix of the future. Buck Rogers was first released  in the August 1928 issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories as Anthony Rogers. In the March 1929 he appeared in a sequel, The Airlords of Han. (While Flash Gordon didn't appear until 1934 a very iconic part of the Flash Gordon mystique is to be found in Just Imagine).

June 1926

March 1930

In Part Two of our coverage of  'Just Imagine' A Prelude to Flash Gordon on Film, we'll see just what marvels of the future are revealed to us, through the eyes of 1930s film makers. Enjoy!