Thursday, May 7, 2020

Cult Flops - Just Imagine

Fox Studios, 1930
Starring El Brendel, Maureen O'Sullivan, John Garrick, and Marjorie White
Directed by David Butler
Music by Ray Henderson; Lyrics by B.G DeSylva and Lew Brown

With musicals still doing big business early in 1930, many studios were experimenting with the format. Even now, science fiction musicals aren't exactly common; in the early sound era, the mere idea may have been insane. Fox built a gigantic, heavily detailed futuristic model city and early special effects, some of which still look good to this day. The rest...well, let's start with a prologue detailing the changes in the world from 1880 to 1930, and then from 1930 to the glittering future world of 1980, and find out...

The Story: In 1980, all humans now have letters and numbers for names, and all marriages are sanctioned by the state. The marriage tribunal sanction the union of LN-18 (O'Sullivan) to wealthy but nasty MT-3 (Kenneth Thomson), but LN really loves J-21 (Garrick). Meanwhile, scientists have revived a man who was struck by lightning in the past, a Swedish immigrant now known as Single-O (Brendel). J-21 and his buddy RT-42 (Frank Albertson) take Single-O under their wing and introduces him to the pills that are now their dinners and drinks. They visit LN and her best friend D-6 (White) at their apartment. Her father went out with MT, but the despicable suitor thought there was something wrong and returned. Unfortunately, Single-O, who is addicted to liquor-pills, gives the men away.

Hoping to prove himself worthy of LN, J-21 joins RT on a three-man ship heading for Mars. Single-O stows away, hoping to snitch more of those liquor pills. On arrival, the trio discover the natives-like Queen LooLoo (Joyzelle Joyner) and King Loko (Ivan Linow) and their tribe. In the middle of an opera put on by Martian orang-outangs, the King and Queen's evil twins invade the country. Turns out that everyone on Mars has an evil twin, and the royals are no exception. Now these strange visitors from another world have to figure out how to stop the uprising and make it home in 4 days, before J-21's beloved LN marries the wrong man.

The Song and Dance: I give Fox's art direction department credit. This movie still looks incredible, and at a time that's way before computer effects. The detailed city was done entirely in miniatures, with amazing details, down to flickering lights and things that did come pass like warm-air hand dryers. The sequence where the scientists revive Single-O is equally cool and detailed, even managing a little suspense. The Martian invasion is also fairly detailed and action-packed.

Favorite Number: Garrick gets the first number, as J-21 explains why he loves his sweetheart so much in "There's Something About an Old-Fashioned Girl." Garrick gets the ballad "(I am the Words) You are the Melody" to woo his sweetheart in her room; she sings it later before he leaves for Mars. Marjorie White and Frank Albertson duet on the sole hit from this score, the cute "Never Swat a Fly," at the party for the two Mars explorers' departure.

Trivia: The miniature city was so big, it took a team of 205 technicians to build it over five months in a former balloon hanger, was wired with 15,000 miniature lights, and cost Fox $168,000.

By the time the movie came out in November 1930, musicals had fallen rapidly out of fashion. The sci-fi angle alone wasn't enough to save it, and it wound up being one of the year's bigger flops. Fox finally got their money out of the movie by renting the miniature city out to other studios, including Universal for their Flash Gordon serials. The studios wouldn't try a major sci-fi movie again until 1950.

The equipment that revived Single-O was also rented to Universal later in the 30's. If it looks familiar, it's the equipment that helped bring Frankenstein to life in the 1932 film version.

What I Don't Like: For all the elaborate sets and futuristic details, this is pretty much a standard romantic triangle. The dialogue is stiff and the acting is worse. The characters, especially J-21 and LN-18, are dull and cliched, and between Joynelle's scanty costumes and the oddly stereotyped native business, the entire Mars sequence comes off as more weird than anything. The score is just as cliched, with only "Swat a Fly" coming off well. Brendel was a wildly popular comedian during the late silent and early sound years, but a lot of his Swedish hayseed gags haven't dated well and makes him more annoying than funny for most audiences now.

The Big Finale: If you want to check out a musical that's truly unique or are a fan of early sci-fi, this is worth digging around for at least once as a curiosity.

Home Media: This is another rarity that at press time can only be found at museums and on YouTube.


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