Imagine a world where you commute to work by hoverplane, consume all your food and drink via a digestible tablet, and use a sequence of letters and numbers as a name. That’s the speculative setting of Just Imagine, the 1930 sci-fi musical that takes place in the far-off future of… 1980. Aside from that veneer, it’s a simple enough story: boy loves girl, girl loves boy, but girl’s engaged to another man. But the veneer is really what makes this film memorable—for better or worse.
J-21 (John Garrick), a pilot in this brave new world, loves LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan), but a government tribunal has decided to award the marriage rights to a rival suitor (MT-3), as is their custom. J-21 is allowed a single appeal, so he must find a way to prove himself worthy of LN-18 in the eyes of the government before then. Meanwhile, he and his buddy, RT-42 (Frank Albertson) witness a scientist bringing a man who died in 1930 back to life. They take this man under their wing, and he quickly becomes their wise-cracking sidekick, dubbing himself Single 0. When J-21 is offered a chance to man the first flight to Mars, he jumps at it, hoping he’ll survive the journey and distinguish himself as a suitor in the process.
The 1980 of the film is, of course, hilariously off the mark—especially looking back from 2014, where the real 1980 seems positively archaic in some regards. The technology predictions were a little too generous (sadly, most cars have not been replaced by personal hoverplanes yet, nor have we sent a crew to Mars), but funnily, the societal changes were much too conservative—in this new world, Prohibition is still being enforced, and women can’t apply for permission to marry men, or even make suggestions on whom the court should choose. There’s an interesting discord there, which is part of what makes the film so awkward at times—it’s easy to imagine ever-improving technological advances perhaps, but a bit harder to picture a complete overhaul of your society mores.
Space travel in particular is a bit laughable for a modern audience, with the interplanetary explorers standing around in the spaceship without so much as a seatbelt on during take off. Upon landing on the planet, they simply walk out of their ship onto the planet’s surface, breathing in some of that crisp, cool Mars air. (I immediately thought of Sam Rockwell’s classic bit in Galaxy Quest at that moment.) On Mars, they meet some aliens of the Star Trek variety—namely, pretty women with exposed midriffs and big hair. The travelers soon discover that, despite being initially welcomed by the aliens, everyone on Mars has an evil twin. So they must fight off the evil horde, at times seeming to forget what they’ve just deduced and wondering why the alien queen is being so mean to them. They do eventually make it back onto the ship (after a long, slow fight sequence between Single 0 and the evil king) and finally make it to their way back home—only to discover neither J-21 nor RT-42 remembered to bring back any proof that they’d actually made it there. Luckily for them, Single 0 ends up having something up his sleeve.
As a musical, the songs range from the somewhat boring (piano-side love song) to the bizarre (“Never Swat a Fly,” which includes two puppeted houseflies making “hey hey”). One actual stand out is “The Drinking Song,” a kind of Berkeley-esque number with two rows of men sitting at a table making vaguely kaleidoscopic motions with their arms and praising the virtues of rum and rye. (Clearly, a Pre-Code entry here.) Alternately, the low for me was probably Single 0’s very vaudeville tune about a farmer boy and a farmer girl, a story he conveys by switching hats, wigs, and voices. It’s at about the same level as other early musicals like Broadway Melody of 1929, a little awkward before the musical films really got their rhythm as the decade progressed.
By the way, Single 0 is played by “Swedish” dialect comedian El Brendel, whose style can be pretty grating if left unabated, as it is here. He has something of a running schtick (I hedgingly qualify that declaration only because it happens three times in about 5 minutes, and then never again) of seeing some new futuristic gadget, then declaring, “I don’t know boys, give me the good old days!” It’s not particularly funny, but there’s something so unfunny and robotic about the way he does it, in exactly the same intonation every time, that I will certainly deem it accidentally hilarious.
In any generation, there will always be people who yearn for the past, while conveniently ignoring the niceties and progressions of modern living, so there’s a nice message in the film about staying true to your own time. The gorgeous Art Deco set decoration, by Oscar-winner Stephen Goosson, is a dazzling spectacle—I’d happily live in his vision of the future, any day. The hilarity, for the most part, comes from the awkwardness of the depicted technological modernity as it combines with the preserved 1930 culture and humor. Plus, the over-the-tope vaudeville style of the music and comedy probably seemed dated even to contemporary audiences—who’d be treated to the elegance of Fred and Ginger just a few years later—which likely added to its often forgotten status through today. But it’s an amusing, charming endeavor, and if you can’t quite believe a sci-fi musical could combine that with Oscar-nominated set design and vaudeville comedy stylings, well: Just Imagine.