Directed back in 1930 only three years after the invention of talkies by David Butler (best known for the fifties musical Calamity Jane), Just Imagine is a truly unique sci-fi musical comedy which attempts to guess what life would be like in the then far off year of 1980. It didn’t get many things right and shockingly failed to predict the disturbing love affair between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but it is a far more appealing and likeable version of reality than the one we actually got, even if the government of the time is undoubtedly way too controlling as well.
It begins with a fond reminiscence of the calm, polite and all rather elegant 1880’s, ignoring the horrendous racism, homophobia and sexism that existed back then, and compares it to life in the 1930’s where everything’s hectic and irritatingly busy with cars dashing all over the place. Then it presents the audience with a very optimistic take on the 1980’s where everyone flies around in their own personal planes, tasty food was available in pill form, and the hassles of romance were removed by the Government deciding who was best suited to each other.
Okay, that last part is perhaps less than ideal, as is the fact that everyone has a number instead of a name, but otherwise it’s the kind of future which looks rather alluring, especially as right at the beginning of the movie death is cured, with a scientist bringing back to life a deceased man (El Brendel) who was struck by lightening while playing golf. As soon as he’s breathing the scientist is bored of him however, not caring that he might feel slightly out of place with everyone around him presumably dead, but our two heroes J-21 (John Garrick) and RT-42 (Frank Albertson) take pity on him and decide to all but adopt the poor confused fella.
What happens next is a fish out of water comedy mixed with a romcom, as the undead man (who goes by the name of Single O in the movie) tries to come to terms with what life is like in the 1980’s, as J-21 struggles with the fact that he’s fallen in love with LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan) – the problem being that the government has decided she should marry MT-3 (Kenneth Thomson). LN-18’s not happy about this either but rules are rules, especially as MT-3 has a higher status than J-21, and the only way the latter has a chance with her is to lodge an appeal and then somehow do something which will impress the world.
As luck would have it there is a way for him to do this, and all he needs is to do is be the first man on Mars. RT-42 comes along with him as he’s a swell guy in general, and Single O stows away without their knowledge, and I guess it’s just lucky that there’s enough food and drink for all three and they don’t end up dying of thirst or starvation. And just when you think this very odd film couldn’t get any stranger they discover that Mars is populated by a bunch of doppelgangers, and their lives are in terrible danger.
It’s packed with a lot of very funny humour, with Single O providing a generous amount of it. He’s the type of character who no longer really exists but back then was known as “A Swedish Immigrant”, an oddball Vaudeville comedy creation who is very happy go lucky despite the strange and surreal future he’s been thrust in to, as well as providing a lot of slapstick as he’s a somewhat daft and silly (and alcohol obsessed) fella too. The mockery of the bureaucracy of the future is effective as well, with the best bit being just how easy it is to adopt a child via the use of a vending machine, and there’s quite a few puns in the film (like when a government official announces “I’m the census taker” only to get the response “I’m sorry but we’re out of our senses today”) which will make you groan and smile at the same time.
It has a surprisingly dark sense of humour on occasion, when Single O is distressed at being brought back to life again the scientist casually says “If you’re unhappy I can kill you again” while when JT-21 is upset about the failure of his relationship a stranger asks “Going to end it all, weren’t you?” only for him to respond “No I wasn’t, but it’s not a bad idea”. The scenes set on Mars become quite surreal, and there’s even one bit which is quite Lynchian, to the extent that it made me wonder if he’d ever seen the film given his fondness for strange and almost animalistic doppelgangers.
The songs are bursting with charm, most are quite laid back very 1930’s style ballads but there’s also a great drinking song which is fantastically staged, while the dance number with the martians in front of a giant moving statue is bizarre yet also very funny indeed. It mostly looks great with the portrayal of Mars especially delightful, and though John Garrick’s a bit of a one note lead and not that engaging the rest of the cast are all fantastic, and extremely lovable, just like the film itself.
You can watch the full movie on Youtube here.