Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Just Imagine on Youtube

I don't like recommending movies that either aren't coming up on TV, or aren't available on DVD. But as I mentioned at the end of December, quite a few old films seem to be showing up in their entirety on Youtube; films that probably don't have much commercial value to the studios and would at best be a candidate for a MOD release. I don't want to get into a discussion of how long copyright should run for, but it does need pointing out that the copyright length has been repeatedly extended, such that a lot of the old movies whose posting to Youtube is technically a copyright violation wouldn't be a copyright violation if it hadn't been for the last round of copyright extension changing the term from 75 years to 95 years. (Cynics will say this term will get extended again just before Steamboat Willie is about to enter the public domain.) One of these old movies that's so bizarre I get a huge kick out of it is Just Imagine.

Just Imagine was made in 1930, and begins with a brief exposition telling the audience to "just imagine" the world of their grandparents, 50 years earlier, in 1880. We then get a few scenes that must have looked as curiously old-fashioned to the audience of 1930 as something from the early 1960s would look to a lot of young people today. Fast forward to 1930, and a scene showing how modern the people of today are, or fancy themselves to be. Not so fast. The film quickly asks people to "just imagine" how the world will look in the distant future, 50 years hence, in... 1980! (OK, you can all stop laughing now.)

As you can just imagine, Hollywood's view from 1930 as to what life would look like in 1980 is thoroughly inaccurate, but that's part of what makes Just Imagine so much fun to watch. People no longer have normal names as they did back in 1930, but instead are named by letter-number combinations. (How this happened is never mentioned.) John Garrick plays J-21, an airline pilot who flies the transatlantic route and, when he's not flying lives with his roommate RT-42 (Frank Albertson). J-21 has a girlfriend, LN-18 (Maureen O'Sullivan, two years before she'd go on to play opposite Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan). J-21 would like to marry LN-18, but there's a catch. There's another man, MT-3, who would like to marry LN-18. Whatever authoritarian changes mandated that people no longer had real names but these license plate-style appellations also stated that women couldn't choose for themselves whom they wanted to marry, and so the two lovers have gone before a tribunal to decide who gets to marry LN-18, with the judge choosing MT-3 on the grounds that he's more prestigious. The only thing is, the transatlantic flights have gone as far as they can. What's a man to do?

There's a parallel story line. J-21's roommate RT-42 is in love with LN-18's friend D-6 (Marjorie White), who plays a laboratory assistant to a scientist who's got a big experiment: he's working on reviving a man who was hit by lightning and killed back in 1930 while playing golf. The revival is a success, at least to the extent that the man (El Brendel) actually comes back to life. But now we've got a man from 1930 who has no idea how to survive in the society of 1980, and a scientist who thinks nothing of ethics, but that his only job was to revive the guy. So J-21 and RT-42 take the man in, and name him Single O. There are quite a few opportunities for humor in the "fish out of water" not fitting in with a time 50 years in the future, and unsurprisingly Just Imagine takes the opportunity to make those jokes, some of which may be lost on viewers of today.

But when J-21 is resigned to losing LN-18, there's an opportunity presented to him. A different prominent scientist from the guy who brought Single O back to life, Z-4 (Hobart Bosworth), has been working on a rocket ship that could take people to Mars. Flying the first manned mission to Mars would certainly be prestigious, and if J-21 could do it, he'd be certain to come back famous enough to convince the tribunal to let him, and not MT-3, marry LN-18. J-21 and RT-42 decide to take the mission, and they find that Single O has stowed away after the rocket takes off. When they get to Mars, the three find a strange world where everybody seems to be a bipolar twin. That is, everybody's a twin, with one twin being the diametric opposite in terms of character from the other twin. There's also the dancing (a number which has to be seen to be believed) and the skimpy outfits. The Bad Martians hold the three Earthlings hostage, but Single O and some of the good Martians are able to save the day. Can J-21 get back to earth before MT-3 marries LN-18?

Just Imagine is a movie that will probably sharply divide opinion. It's an early talkie, which as always presents technical problems that can make films look stagey and dated. The movie also has some plot problems. It's not so much plot holes as with a lot of other movies, but instead a movie where the filmmakers seemed to have the idea of trying anything they could think of to throw at the viewer, with the result that the movie looks at times like a mishmash. There's one big musical production number thrown in for no good reason, for example. And combining science fiction with romantic comedy is a daring move that would probably be looked at as odd even today. On the other hand, there's a lot about the movie that's charming, and the mishmash is just so bizarre that I can't help but love it. Marjorie White is great, stealing the show at the end and getting some wonderful pre-Code lines. The Mars scenes are so screwed up, but still a lot of fun. And it's nice to see a movie looking at the future that doesn't suffer from the post-1970 cynicism that's given us a bunch of dystopic conspiracy-theory looks at society, both those of the present (The Parallax View) or those of the future (Soylent Green).

Since I mentioned at the beginning of the post that Just Imagine has made it to Youtube, I would be remiss in not including the Youtube link. Note that whoever put the movie up on Youtube claims that Just Imagine has made it into the public domain, but I don't believe that's the case.


Tom said...

Thanks for the recommendation; this sounds like a film I would enjoy

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