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New York, 1980: airplanes have replaced cars, numbers have replaced names, pills have replaced food, government-arranged marriages have replaced love, and test tube babies have replaced ... well, you get the idea. Scientists revive a man struck by lightning in 1930; he is rechristened "Single O". He is befriended by J-21, who can't marry the girl of his dreams because he isn't "distinguished" enough -- until he is chosen for a 4-month expedition to Mars by a renegade scientist. The Mars J-21, his friend, and stowaway Single O visit is full of scantily clad women doing Busby Berkeley-style dance numbers and worshiping a fat middle-aged man. Written by
Jon Reeves <firstname.lastname@example.org>
JUST IMAGINE (Fox, 1930), directed by David Butler, goes on record as being first science fiction motion picture of the sound era, in fact, the first science fiction musical, but like many Hollywood firsts, starts off cleverly with originality and potential, but in conclusion, a bitter disappointment. While the story and screenplay could have been lifted from legendary science fiction writers of Jules Verne or H.G. Welles, the credit for this futuristic comedy goes to songwriters B.G. DeSylva, Ray Henderson and Lew Brown, who have previously scored successfully the Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell musical, SUNNY SIDE UP (1929).
The opening minutes start off quite promisingly in documentary style with newsreel footage showing what New York City was like in the year 1880, calm and peaceful, with a pedestrian seen being given the right of way from a horse and buggie driver; then shifting fifty years later to 1930 showing the more modern New York City, more crowded with congestion of automobiles driving down Fifth Avenue at a faster pace with a lone pedestrian trying to cross the street in between the passing cars (so far, no different from the New York of today); concluding with, just imagine, as the title cards indicate, New York City fifty years into the future, 1980, where names are changed to numbers (practically true in that respect in today's society since identification to an individual's name can be traced through Social Security numbers), and means of transportation from buses and automobiles in 1930 replaced by space cars flying through the air, along with communication not by telephone but through a television transmitter (or picture phone). The central characters in this story are J-21 (John Garrick), an air pilot for a Transatlantic Airliner, and his best friend/ roommate, RT-42 (Frank Albertson). Jack, or better known as J-21, is deeply in love with LN-18 (Maureen O'Sullivan) while RT-42 finds comedic romance with a perky blonde named D-6 (Marjorie White). J-21's marriage to LN-18 has been ruled against by the Tribunal Judge (George Irving) in favor of MT-3 (Kenneth Thomson), a much wealthier and more distinguished rival, much to the disappointment of the young couple. Then there is Ole Petersen (El Brendel), who was struck by lightning in 1930 while playing a game of golf, found by a group of scientists who use him as a scientific experiment by reviving him with the use of machines after being dead for fifty years.
While much of the story is set in the year 1980, the movie fails to capture the essence of 1980 by looking very much like 1930, ranging from hairstyles, spoken dialogue and methods of singing and dancing, which is forgivable considering the writers didn't have any foresight to what was to be in 1980, yet could have stretched to the imagination of things to come, but who could have imagined in 1930 that by 1980 the world not only had gone through a second World War, has been introduced to a new craze of music called rock & roll or disco; entertainment through watching color television, traveling via jet airliners, as well as having man rocketing to and walking on the moon by 1969 (instead of Mars in 1980 as indicated here). Had this been a story that opened in the year 1980, leading the central characters through an invention such as a time tunnel finding them transferred to the year 1930, JUST IMAGINE would have succeeded by today's standards. However, movie goers of 1930 were more interested as well as amazed by the eye-view structure of 1980 than with 1930. As it now stands, JUST IMAGINE plays more like a bad 1950s science fiction fantasy spoof that simply falls apart with numerous song interludes and one production number, choreographed by Seymour Felix, set on the planet Mars.
The songs and production numbers presented in the order as they appear include: "There's Something About an Old-Fashioned Girl" (sung by John Garrick); "Mother Ought to Tell Their Daughters" (sung by Marjorie White); "I Am Only the Words, You Are Melody" (Sung by John Garrick); "I Am Only the Words, You are Melody" (sung by chorus); "The Drinking Song" (sung by John Garrick and male chorus); "Never Swat a Fly" (sung by Frank Albertson and Marjorie White); "Romance of Elmer Stremingway" (sung by El Brendel); "I Am Only the Words, You Are Melody" (recited by Maureen O'Sullivan); and "The Dance of Victory" (danced by aliens from Mars). Of the handful of songs, "There's Something About an Old-Fashioned Girl" ranks one of the more listen-able tunes in spite of its corny structure and John Garrick's style of singing while facing the camera and later envisioning his own idea of numerous old-fashioned girls of his dreams. Frank Albertson and Marjorie White bring life into the story with their peppy "Never Swat a Fly" number which comes off as both enjoyable and amusing. Supposedly deleted from the final print by the time it reached the theaters in New York City, the number has been restored, moving up the standard length from 102 to 109 minutes.
True, JUST IMAGINE does not hold up very well, considering its handful of out-of-date vaudeville routines and musical numbers combined, or the possibility of El Brendel's brand of humor lacking to stir up some chuckles, but this is an oddity worth viewing once mainly for its concept, a look into the future that for now, has past. So far, it has never been distributed on either video cassette of DVD. JUST IMAGINE can be seen and studied whenever shown on cable television's Fox Movie Channel. Seeing is believing, and JUST IMAGINE is something to see to be believed. It's not great, never was, never will be, but what a creative idea this was. It's certainly something that modern filmmakers could remake today, minus the musical numbers, to amend the errors made in 1930. Just imagine? (**)
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