Just Imagine came in an era when talking films were still feeling their way around artistically. Movie makers were experimenting with many techniques. Musicals were popular and the emergence of the comedic 'character actor' came about. Just Imagine was all of these: a musical comedy science fiction film! And what a hoot it is. The plot is simple, in a society where the State determines who's allowed to marry, the hero must prove himself distinguished enough to marry his sweetheart. How? By being the first person to go to Mars of course. There are distractions and little side plots but essentially it's all about our hero going to Mars.
The movie's dialogue is silly and the songs forgettable - none have stood the test of time - but that's not what makes the movie memorable. It's a combination of the idea's presented and for us buffs' of vintage sci-fi flicks, it's the special effects and the fact that many of the props were reused in other movies or footage from the film being reused in other films. One of the idea's presented was that everyone's name was a number - you'l find no Bobs, Franks, or Sally's here. What you get is MT-3, J-21, LN-18 etc. Sound far fetched? Well, here's one for you: up until last year when he transferred out, I had worked with a man whose last name began with 'M' and was 12 digits long and becuase no one wanted to deal with his tongue-twister of a name we called him (you guessed it) 'M12'! Yup, true story. Okay, this is not the kind of thing you'll see every day but sometimes science 'fiction' is not always fiction.
The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Art Direction by Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras and it's the lofty cityscapes with roadways high up in the air and planes flying all about that captured peoples imagination back then. The set design in form of glass pictures and miniatures was done by Stephen Goosson, Ralph Hammeras, Willis O'Brien, and Marcel Delgado (all uncredited). Willis is best remembered for his work on The Lost World (1925), King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949).
Monumental cityscapes was a future vision common in the 1920s and '30s. Below is a screen shot from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Eugen Schüfftan was the special effects expert who created pioneering visual effects for Metropolis. Both films share a heavy Art Deco influence, which at the time was the 'look' of the future.
In Just Imagine traffic cops hang in the air perched in baskets
In this series of screen shots, the two sweethearts meet way up in the sky while flying their personal airships. People fly "Rosenbergs" and "Goldbaums" instead of driving cars. Single-O, the comic relief in the movie, comments that someone got revenge on 'Henry Ford' - a jab at the famed auto maker's well-known rabid anti-Semitism.
They decide to talk to each other and put their machines in hover mode.
Talking to friends in the future is just a quick wing-walk away
I love these shots of the traffic plying overhead
Their talk over with they head home. J-21 is making the descent to his apartment's landing pad.
Nice soft landing
An Art Deco apartment of the 1930s imagined as a 1980s apartment
One gadget I thought was really cool - the hide-away lavatory
The hand dryer is activated by a foot switch
That beam of light is the doorbell
Who's outside the door? Not too unlike our home security systems of today.
It was the census taker who at one time proclaims, "Don't criticize this marriage law. It, like the Volstead Act, is a noble experiment!" (The Volstead Act - aka Prohibition - was still in force when Just Imagine was made. It was repealed in 1933)
For decades film and television show producers tried to make those awkward, bulky, CRT televisions appear as if they were flat panels usually by hiding them behind the walls, framing the screen, and filming the scene in such a way as to not show the curvature of the screen.
In this scene doctors attempt to revive a man who had been struck by lightning 'way back' in 1930.
Per Wikipedia: "The sequence in which the El Brendel character is revived from the dead features the first screen appearance of the spectacular electrical equipment assembled by Kenneth Strickfaden, seen again and more famously in James Whale's Frankenstein(1931). Over fifty special effects shots combining previously photographed backgrounds with live foreground action were accomplished using the Dunning Process. Rear projection technology of the scale and quality required was not available at the time.
Lots of lights and gadgets...
...and our comic relief is revived, still dressed in his 1930s style suit LOL Awesome!
The revived man is given the name 'Single-O'. 'Single-O' is a joke on his out-of-place status in this future world and was a circus term meaning a sideshow featuring a single person or object.
Clips of the cityscape from this movie were later used in the Universal serials Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers
J-21, Single-O, and J-21s friend RT-42 out for a stroll...
...when they decide to get something to eat at the streetside cafe.
Select your meal, put in your money, and...
...out pops a complete meal - in a pill! Okay, we may not have gotten that far yet, but how many of you (us) take vitamins and supplements? Not terribly far off course huh?
According to the filmmaker's, 1980s couples wanting a child simply go to the streetside vending machine, decide what they want....
put the money in...
...and voilà, out pops Junior...
...complete with basket, blanket, pillow, and a full head of hair!! What service!!! hahahahahaha
This is one social commentary I think I'll leave alone :-)
J-21 is contacted by the rogue scientist Z-4 who has built a "rocket plane" that can carry three men to Mars. J-21 takes on the challenge.
J-21 works on the 'air-liner' Pegasus. After a farewell he and RT-42 head off to the rocket for their trip to Mars.
The Golden Age of airships began with the launch of the Luftshiff Zeppelin LZ-1 in 1900 and lasted until the destruction of the Hindenburg in 1937. In 1930 when Just Imagine was made, the lighter than air ship probably appeared to the film makers as the only mode of transportation capable of handling large numbers of people. Airplanes were still so much in their design infancy they probably simply couldn't imagine a future when airplanes would be dominant.
This concludes Part Two of our look at 'Just Imagine' A Prelude to Flash Gordon. Our next installment we'll follow our intrepid voyagers trip to Mars. Enjoy!