Just Imagine…1980

This one came out of nowhere.

The year is 1880. A crystal baritone narrator reminds us of how far we’ve come in 50 years. No more horses and buggies cluttering up New York City. No more frilly clothes. And no more drunks stumbling in and out of saloons. No, siree. We’ve come a long way since 1880. Now in 1930 we are at the very height of style, efficiency, and modernity.

…or are we?

Our narrator quickly challenges our perceptions of modernity and dares us to see 50 years into the future: 1980!

just imagine 1

Yes, folks, that grand, stream-lined future utopia with flying cars over Manhattan, government arranged marriages, flights to Mars are underway, immigrants from the past are being thawed out in laboratories, you can order a baby like ordering a sandwich, and we’re that much closer to ending Prohibition. Yes, folks, the possibilities are endless. Remember, this is the year 1980!

Just Imagine (1930), directed by David Butler, is exactly what you’d expect from an obscure vintage science fiction musical romantic comedy rife with racial stereotypes and bizarre space-age predictions. I think. It’s hard to think of what that wild genre-bending combination might look like without some semblance of precedent.

I’ll square with you. The movie isn’t half as good as its premise. It’s actually a bit of a mess, but that might be part of the reason I liked it. There’s a reason why this movie is largely forgotten, but there’s also quirky anthropological reason enough to watch it today.

just imagine 5

Here’s some of the plot. J-21 (everyone in the future has numbers instead of names) is in love with Jane Parker from the Tarzan movies (Maureen O’Sullivan), but the government will not approve their marriage and so she is sentenced to marry another fellow. Enter one recently thawed immigrant from 1930 (El Brendel) to help our lovestruck protagonist. I like that the scientists who wake him up don’t have any further interest in him. It’s like they just did it as part of a science wager. His savior even threatens to kill him again when the dazed relic inquires as to what he should do now that he is awake and 50 years in the future.

The immigrant guy is given the name Single-0. He befriends J-21 and thus a solid comaraderie is forged. Some forgettable songs, awkward Vaudeville era jokes*, and then somehow we wind up in a spaceship to Mars. Naturally it is inhabited by scantily clad women. Seems to have been an epidemic in films from this era. Every other world is ruled by near-naked feminists who need a wooden male character to set them free from their own oppression.

*Not to besmirch Vaudeville but the writers and performers in this movie are just not up to Marx Brothers/Laurel & Hardy/W.C. Fields standards.

just imagine 4

I honestly have already forgotten most of the plot and what the characters actually did. But I do remember flying cars, a trip to Mars, and one or two shots that look to be inspired from Metropolis. It’s not that substantial or memorable of a movie apart from its premise, but it’s not bad. It’s just dated. But its datedness is what makes it so interesting. Just Imagine is a fun alternative view of a space-age world that is both their (1930’s) optimistic future and our wildly inaccurate past. And that makes it kind of cool.

The most fascinating aspect of this weird movie concerns the view on Prohibition. In 1930 Prohibition was still on. It would be only three more years before the Twenty-first Amendment, but they didn’t know it in 1930. In their version of 1980 Prohibition is still in effect and people keep hearing that it’ll end in another few years. Single-0 says that’s what they said back in 1930. The best song in the movie concerns astronauts being able to drink in space. I mentioned this film’s future outlook as optimistic, but it’s actually a bit more of a give and take. Some things are better while others are not. We have gained efficiency but lost a little humanity along the way, but the human spirit carries on with effervescence and optimism.

Just imagine 2

So what is Just Imagine? It’s an awkward transition into talkies. It’s an underwhelming musical. It’s a creaky romance. It’s not a great comedy. But it does have enough of its own quirky energy to keep you entertained. It’s fun to think about the future and it might be even more fun to think about what previous generations thought the future would be.

A Man for All Faces

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

My biggest regret in tackling this article is that I have not seen more of Mr. Lon Chaney, Sr.’s (1883-1930) work. Of the handful of films I’ve seen of his, none have disappointed and all have been wonderfully twisted. Lon Chaney—father of the Wolf Man, Lon Chaney, Jr.—was one of the biggest icons of the silent era. Praised alongside silent legends such as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Mary Pickford, Theda Bara, and Rudolph Valentino, Chaney was every bit as talented and engaging. Chaney’s trademark, however, is what separated him from his contemporaries. They loved Chaplin for his comic humanity; Fairbanks for his swashbuckling acrobatics; Pickford for her beauty and the dramatic chances she took; Bara for her exotic, seductive persona; Valentino for his rich, foreign good looks; they loved Chaney for playing grotesques and psychotics. His real claim to fame was that not only did he portray gross villains and sympathetic monsters, but also he designed all of his own makeup and prosthetics to astounding effect.

lon slapped

He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

Lon Chaney, Sr. made his living by playing some of the most demented characters in movie history. He was known for the incredible emotional power he could evoke even beneath layers of makeup and for his amazing facial and bodily expressiveness. Both his parents were deaf-mutes, so he had to learn at a young age how to express himself without words.

From mad doctors, to amputees and deformed deviants, to bent Chinese patriarchs, to tragic clowns, to insane killers and criminals, Chaney played them all.

Mr. Wu (1927)

Mr. Wu (1927)

The first film of his I ever saw was the classic 1925 horror flick, The Phantom of the Opera (directed by Rupert Julian). This is easily his most famous and well-known role. Naturally, he plays the diabolical and disfigured eponymous phantom. He wears a most unnerving rubber face-mask with a crude veil over his mouth to hide his hideousness. The best scene of the film occurs when his lovely muse, Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), is taken to his secret lair beneath the streets of Paris and her curiosity spurs her to approach her musical master while he plays the organ and she removes his mask to reveal his true ugliness. Chaney’s reaction is one of the most memorable few seconds you are likely to see on film. This movie also boasts a colored Masque of the Red Death segment. Although the lavish film presents the Phantom as a deranged killer out for revenge, Chaney brings a darker, more tormented side to his performance. He is the character we see the rest of the film through. We recognize his sorrow and—on those wonderful occasions—cavort as he executes his judgment on the little people of the opera house. We catch ourselves sympathizing with this murderous monster and even rooting for him.

Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Besides the Phantom, Chaney played a very noble Quasimodo in Wallace Worsley’s  The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), again implementing his own inventive makeup effects. In 1922 he was a pretty solid Fagin in a silent version of Oliver Twist (co-starring The Kid star Jackie Coogan). He played a deranged and possessive Chinese patriarch in Mr. Wu (1927) (he actually plays a double-role and Anna May Wong has a small part). Chaney received much acclaim for his performance as a tough Marine Sergeant in 1926’s Tell It to the Marines. He played a brilliant scientist whose heartless betrayal at the hands of his mentor and his fiancée, drive him to become a tormented circus clown whose sole act consists of being slapped in the face in Victor Sjostrom’s bizarre carnival tragedy He Who Gets Slapped (1924). Chaney played another conflicted, tragic circus clown in Herbert Brenon’s Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928). He joined the circus again for Tod Browning’s (Dracula, Freaks) The Unknown.

The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown is a particularly strange movie. As only a sample of the weirdness of some of these plots, I shall explain. Set in Spain, Chaney plays a wicked fugitive with double-thumbs, who stuffs his arms in a corset-like device so he can join the circus as Alonzo the Armless, the amazing knife-thrower (he uses his feet…or rather Chaney used the feet of real-life armless wonder, Paul Desmuke). He falls in love with a beautiful circus girl, Nanon Zanzi (Joan Crawford) and—in order to ensure that she will love him instead of the circus strongman—he psychologically bewitches her into developing a phobia human arms. Alonzo kills and creates general mayhem while he dreams of how he will make this poor girl his own…until his sidekick reminds him that if they were to marry, Nanon would find out he really has arms and be repulsed. Distraught, Alonzo devises a plan. He cashes in on a favor owed him by a shady doctor and has the doctor amputate his arms. While Alonzo recovers in the hospital, the strongman gets cozy with Nanon and cures her of her fear of arms. When Alonzo meets Nanon again she is engaged to the strongman and Alonzo becomes quite mad. He sabotages a circus stunt to have the strongman ripped apart by horses on treadmills. It goes awry and Alonzo gets fatally trampled.

London After Midnight (1927)

London After Midnight (1927)

Chaney worked with Tod Browning on several projects, including the most famous lost movie in film history, London After Midnight (1927). The original The Unholy Three (1925) was another great film Chaney collaborated with Browning on. He played a circus ventriloquist who turns to crime along with a strong man and a dwarf (played by Freaks star, Harry Earles). Chaney dresses as an old granny who runs a parrot shop and the dwarf poses as a baby. Together the trio act as jewelry thieves. The film is wonderfully peculiar and a must-see. Chaney’s final film was the 1930 remake of The Unholy Three.  It was Chaney’s first and only “talkie” and he performed five different voices in the film. Apparently “the man of a thousand faces” (as he was so dubbed for his talent with makeup) was also ready to become “the man of a thousand voices” when he died of lung cancer in 1930 at age 47.

The Unholy Three (1925)

The Unholy Three (1925)

I think Chaney was at his best when paired with Tod Browning because it seemed Browning was about as messed up and screwy as he was. A few other Chaney-Browning films I really enjoyed were The Penalty (1920), The Road to Mandalay (1926), and West of Zanzibar (1928). Both are awesome and West of Zanzibar might be among my favorite movies. Yeah. It’s that pulpy, strange and great. Imagine if he hadn’t died and Browning had cast him as Dracula instead of Bela Lugosi. I don’t know if it would have been better, but our understanding of vampire motifs would be quite different today.

After making well over 150 films in his lifetime and establishing himself as a true master of his craft, Lon Chaney, Sr. stands as a real treasure that film has been able to make immortal. Chaney’s films are quiet oddities, psychotic marvels, and horrific tragedies and deserve to be celebrated. His performances have been highly regarded for decades and are still just as enchanting today. If you like movies and have never seen anything with Lon Chaney, Sr., I strongly recommend you remedy this, and if you’re like me and you’ve seen several of his films already then I needn’t hesitate to tell you to see more. My hat’s off to you, Mr. Chaney. Thanks for giving us so much.

The Penalty (1920)

The Penalty (1920)

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 29, 2009