The Future Was a Silly Place

One of the most expensive movies of 1930 was a sci-fi musical comedy titled Just Imagine, a silly mash-up of great sets, terrible acting, and a vision of the future fifty years hence that was way off the mark.

Nov. 29, 1930 cover by Victor Bobritsky.

Not that the film ever set out to be an accurate prediction of the future. Nevertheless, it is instructive (or, at the least, amusing) to look back on “yesterday’s tomorrows” to understand the American mind in the first year of the Great Depression.

COME FLY WITH ME…Clandestine lovers LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan) and J-21 (John Garrick) share a romantic moment high above the streets of 1980 New York City. (scifist.net)

Just Imagine borrowed some of its look from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), a dystopian vision of the future that reflected the contentious years of Germany’s Weimar Republic. Just Imagine similarly reflected its time and place — the early years of the Depression — Hollywood responding not with gloom and doom but rather with uplifting fare — comedies, musicals, and escapist fantasies (Flash Gordon came along in 1936). The producers of Just Imagine rolled all of it into one film, and the New Yorker’s John Mosher tried to make sense of the mess:

EYE IN THE SKY…In Just Imagine, technology is advanced enough to have a traffic cop floating in the sky, but he still must rely on his arms and mechanical signals to keep the skyways in order. (YouTube clip)

The floating traffic cop is just one example of the film’s attention to set design. The New York skyline, featured in the opening scene, was constructed in a giant hangar at enormous cost…

(Reddit)

In one of the films weirder twists, vaudeville comedian El Brendel is brought back to life with an electric beam…

SMOKED HAM…Vaudeville comedian El Brendel is zapped back to life to provide the world of 1980 with comic relief. Some of the electrical equipment assembled by set designer Kenneth Strickfaden would be seen again in 1931’s Frankenstein. (scifist.net)

…and Brendel (below, center), proceeds to get drunk on booze pills and spew a series of really bad jokes throughout the duration of the film…

SHOULD HAVE LEFT HIM DEAD…Frank Albertson, El Brendel and John Garrick in Just Imagine. (scifist.net)
MARS ATTACKS…The film also took audiences to the surface of Mars via a phallus-shaped spaceship that would later be used in Flash Gordon serials. Clockwise, top left, the spaceship blasts off surrounded by a crowd of men in fedoras; aboard the spaceship; landing site on Mars; J-21 (John Garrick) encounters the Martian Queen (Joyzelle Joyner). (YouTube/scifist.net)

The movie flopped at the box office, but producers were able to recoup some of the costs by farming out clips of the futuristic sets, and some of the props, to other sci-fi films of the 1930s including the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials.

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Toys For Tots

By mid-November the New Yorker’s “On and Off the Avenue” column had lengthened to include ideas for Christmas shoppers. The Nov. 29 issue offered these ideas for children’s toys from Macy’s…

XMAS IS COMING…Patsy Ann dolls in smart berets, and dollhouses in various styles (a 1930 Triang Tudor dollhouse at right) could be had at Macy’s Herald Square flagship store. (Pinterest)

GRRRR…First introduced in 1922, the revival of “Radio Rex” proved popular to the kiddies in 1930. It was the “high tech” toy of its day, the first to respond to voice commands. Rex the dog would spring out of his doghouse at the sound of the word “Rex,” thanks to a sound-sensitive electromagnet. (ctinventor.wordpress.com)

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A Century-old-Problem

Traffic woes have been around almost as long as there have been cars. In an excerpt from “A Reporter at Large,” Morris Markey explained the challenges facing the city’s police department:

IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME…Traffic clogs Fifth Avenue near 42nd Street in 1930. (Pinterest)

 *  *  *

Speaking of cars, this ad in the New Yorker announced the opening of the annual Automobile Salon at the Commodore Hotel…

…and the magazine was on hand to describe its various wonders. Some excerpts:

POETRY IN MOTION…Top, the Walter Dorwin Teague-designed Marmon 16-cylinder wowed crowds at the Salon, even if few could afford it. The Great Depression limited the production of the luxury Marmon, and less than 400 were produced. The company abandoned the car business altogether in 1933. Below, the sporty Ford Model L Roadster, designed by Raymond Dietrich. (supercars.net/Sotheby’s)

 *  *  *

Maestro Politician 

The New Yorker profiled pianist, composer and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941). Paderewski served as Poland’s prime minister in 1919, negotiated on behalf of his country at the Treaty of Versailles, and had a 60-year career as a virtuoso pianist. A brief excerpt:

 *  *  *

Not For the Moneychangers

Architecture critic George S. Chappell checked in on the progress of three prominent Manhattan cathedrals in his “Sky Line” column:

LANDMARKS ALL…From left, Riverside Church, the still yet-to-be completed St. John the Divine, and St. Bartholomew’s. (MCNY/masonrymagazine.com/dtjoyce.com)

 *  *  *

The theater review section included this illustration of a new play, Roar China, that opened Oct. 27, 1930 at the Beck Theatre.

The staging of Roar China included this reconstruction of the bow of the H.M.S. Europa on the Beck Theatre stage…

(messynessychic.com)

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From Our Advertisers

The holiday season was in the air, and retailers were taking various approaches to entice Depression-era shoppers to consider their wares. The ads have a more conservative bent, when compared to late 1920s, and in the case of Wanamaker’s and B. Altman’s, an appeal to simpler times…

…Macy’s, on the other hand, looked to sell rather expensive lighters “to arouse the youthful enthusiasm among veteran smokers”…

…despite the Depression, New Yorker subscriptions continued to steadily increase — the magazine had nearly 45,000 subscribers in 1930, and by the end of the decade the number would approach 100,000 — below, a house ad designed to entice new subscribers…

…our cartoons include this holiday spot illustration by Barbara Shermund

…and another by Shermund of her parlor room crowd…

Otto Soglow amused us with a couple of tots…

Gardner Rea imagined a confrontation between a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon and Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini

…the balloon Rea illustrated was “The Captain” from the popular Katzenjammer Kids comic strip. Along with his “family,” the Captain appeared in the parade in 1929 and 1930 (and possibly 1931). They were the first licensed character balloons in the parade’s history…

macysthanksgiving.fandom.com

…back to cartoons, book shopping with William Crawford Galbraith

…and some holiday cheer from A.S. Foster

Next Time: Ziegfeld’s Folly…

 

 

 

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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