Friday, June 22, 2007

Just Imagine!

by Geoff Collins

Are you sitting comfortably? Let me tell you a tale. Long, long ago, when I first became interested in old movies, I often encountered references to Just Imagine, a 1930 DeSylva, Brown and Henderson sci-fi musical-comedy taking place "fifty years in the future" i.e. in 1980. Photographic evidence all pointed to the indisputable fact that the art direction and set designs were astonishing, easily the equal of the Flash Gordon serials of a few years later: space travel, video phones, food pills - and a fantastic New York skyline obviously inspired by Metropolis. Yet despite my enthusiasm, deep down I felt that I'd never get to see this epic; it was considered one of the Great Lost Films. The real 1980 came and went; so did 1990, 2000, 2005.... Yet finally, after all these years, the good news is: it isn't lost - and I've seen it. The bad news is: it isn't great.

There's inevitably a letdown with the recovery of a Lost Classic. ("Oh - is that it?") Yet in 1930 DeSylva, Brown and Henderson could seemingly do no wrong. They were the kings of Broadway's Golden Age: Follow Thru, Good News, Hold Everything, all crammed with snappy hit songs. They even provided the stodgy old Fox studios with a bright, fresh, original movie musical, Sunny Side Up; and so, inevitably, a follow-up was needed. Dipping into Fritz Lang territory, they came up with a science-fiction comedy about a dope who's struck by lightning in 1930 and revived in 1980 - a perfect part for an appealing Broadway/Hollywood Top Banana ("By the looks of this guy, he was dead even when he was alive!") Just Imagine who could have played this role, and how they would have handled it: Wynn, Keaton, Cantor, Healy, Wheeler, Lahr, Cook, Clark, Langdon..... Jolson.... Stop! It's breaking my heart - for this was the Fox Film Corporation, and who was their Top Lemon in 1930? Yumpin' yiminy - the phony Swede, El Brendel.

It's quite appropriate that when the heads of this most convention-bound studio decided to make an entirely unconventional movie, they picked a star comedian with the narrowest range in the world. We really have to do a huge Just Imagine in order to imagine just how highly regarded Brendel was in 1930. At least he was consistent; he stuck with that annoying fake-Swedish characterization for years, and he was evidently very successful with it. But as we all know, there's Comedy For Now, and there's Comedy For Ever. For a start, we never believe he's a real person, not for one second. As soon as he's been brought back to life after fifty years, he launches into inane, thudding one-liners; it doesn't seem to occur to this buffoon that he's skipped fifty years and that as a consequence his family are probably all dead - not until right at the end, when he's reunited with his ancient son. After the briefest of pauses, while the truth dawns on him, all he can say is "Climb upon my knee, Sonny Boy!" A cheap laugh to end this dreary picture.

And ohhhh God, is it dreary. Fox did Adventurous less adventurously than anyone else. The casting could hardly be worse. The British leading man was born Reginald Dandy, and appropriately he chose the much duller name John Garrick for his musical-comedy stage career, which was quite distinguished - although you'd never guess it from his singing. (Aaron, spot-on as usual, calls it gassy mewling. That's settled it; for me, John Garrick will always be Gassy Mewling. And Eddie Cantor will always be Whiny Bitch - but that's another story.) One of his numbers, a piece of horrendous drivel about an old-fashioned girl, is belted out straight-to-camera. You sit transfixed by the awful noise and his scary dead-eyed stare, as you wait patiently for the song, or your life, to end. Either of those would do. What did his girlfriend see in this drip? Maybe she's British as well. Yes, she is; it's Maureen O'Sullivan. There must have been a machine in this "1980" that sucked all the charisma out of the British. Don't ask me how it worked! Maureen's lovely in A Day At the Races, and indeed she's lovely here; but she had a long way to go. Her love scenes with Garrick are wooden, gloomy and interminable.

Speaking of the Marxes, Just Imagine's second-lead is also Room Service's second-lead, Frank Albertson. Unfortunately he's a total dead loss, blander than the blandest Haley. The sole bright spot in this cast of clodhoppers is Albertson's girlfriend Marjorie White, a sassy, funny little blonde sexpot. There's a definite attempt here to duplicate the chemistry of sarcastic wimp Jack Haley and zippy tornado Zelma O'Neal in Follow Thru, even to the extent of giving White and Albertson a "comedy song". And what did the collective genius of DS, B & H come up with? "Never Swat a Fly". Marjorie gives it her best shot, and what an attack she has, but phew.... "Button Up Your Overcoat" it ain't.

Oh, those songs, those dopey, inept Fox musical numbers. They are grim. Did the writers think that this was what popular music would be like in 1980? You can forgive them for not predicting rock, but some jazz wouldn't go amiss. This movie has even less jazz than King of Jazz, and that's saying something.

However, just when you think it couldn't get any worse, it actually gets better. Following the fatuous "Fly" duet by Albertson (a ninny) and White (sexy!), El Brendel, out of nowhere, provides a recitation: "The Romance of Elmer Stremmingway". Our trepidation slowly turns to pleasure; for this is a Star Turn. For once in this movie El is charming and funny, and the mystery is solved as to why he was a vaudeville headliner. It's the same with Jolson, Sid Field, Max Miller: they were the Real Thing, but the camera rarely caught it. Here, it does. "Now, folks," he announces, "I'm gonna sing a little song like I sang in vaudeville, vay back in 1930!" and it's clear that El's character in the movie was a stand-up comedian. Suddenly we've moved from Musical Comedy to Social History, as El gives us an "authentic" vaudeville routine (not too authentic, as DS, B & H wrote it for the film, but it'll suffice) performed in front of a real audience. It's a musical monologue about innocent farmhand Elmer (Stremingway, not Brendel), his rocky romance with Fanny Lee, and the disastrous intervention of Victorian villain Silas Pratt. Each time a different character is mentioned, El changes hats with lightning speed. There are some great lines ("I von't give up my Fanny - you'll never be a Pratt!") and it all accelerates into a maelstrom of hat-changing, not helped by the fact that the Fanny hat's fake curls obscure his vision, and the Silas hat has a clip-on Wicked Moustache which catches him under the nose. When Silas' would-be bigamy is exposed, El "gets rid of him" by knocking his hat off sideways with a sort of deadpan nonchalance. Naturally there's a happy ending and the scene fades out on much-deserved applause; three minutes of joy amidst ninety minutes of dross. El redeems himself but he can't redeem this movie.

A classic hat-changing routine? Sounds familiar? Despite the efforts of O'Sullivan and Garrick to convince you otherwise, we Brits do have a sense of humour, and a vast treasure trove of Nice Tasty Comedy (as Arthur Askey called it). Although we've rarely seen El's Elmer recitation due to its long-term unavailability, we cherish a similar routine frequently performed by that huge, lumbering "bad magician" Tommy Cooper (1921-84). Its authorship is disputed: Tommy's biographer John Fisher traces it back to the early 1950s, a joint effort written by Freddie Sadler and Val Andrews with fuller origins in the late-Victorian "chapeaugraphy" of Felicien Trewey. (Fuller Origins? What a great act that was!) Just Imagine isn't mentioned, but Tommy was a notorious magpie for comedy material. It's an almost identical structure, a corny recitation involving hat-changes for all the characters, and it all speeds up into a hilarious, confusing mess.

But Tommy's version adds some surreal touches. During a rehearsal, he genuinely lost his place, went back to the beginning and quickly mumbled his way back through the first few lines, for his own benefit, using all the hats, until he'd worked out where he was in the routine. He had to be persuaded to include this in the finished version; he genuinely didn't realize how funny it was. He also adds totally irrelevant hats: ("a little schoolboy!") and a huge, furry rabbit-eared thing ("I don't know who that is!") This is the difference between the two interpretations: El's version is slick and polished, an almost-too-perfect performance from this supposedly-dim Swede; and he's enjoying himself immensely. Tommy's version is also slick but with an added dimension, the terrified desperation of the amateur performer when things start to go wrong. Of course Tommy was no amateur - all those cock-ups were flawlessly timed and rehearsed - but he always came across as a man about to face a firing squad.

Tommy's "Hats" routine is rightly accepted as a classic in these 'ere parts, and Tommy himself has long been acknowledged as a wonderfully unique comedian. El Brendel is remembered, if at all, as a minor dialect comic who was funny in 1930 but isn't now, the man who intruded, irritatingly, on the last sad shorts of Harry Langdon. (Don't ever forget, that was Columbia's fault, not El Brendel's. When your career's slipped that much, you'll take anything.) At least once, in Just Imagine, El gives us a glimpse of why he was a Top Banana then, and also why he's a Third Banana now. Maybe more than once; In Delicious, yet another Fox retread of Sunny Side Up, he performs a song especially written for him by (prepare to be astounded) the Gershwins. Don't get too excited; it's called "Blah Blah Blah".

It's not a perfect world, and Just Imagine is far from perfect; but for a few minutes El Brendel almost makes us forgive him for his Columbias - almost.

Just Imagine; Annoying, occasionally striking, dull but somehow endlessly fascinating so you'll always want to sit through it all just one more time. It should have been made by Paramount, with Ed Wynn, Jack Haley, Zelma O'Neal.... but it's not a perfect world.

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Blogger East Side said...

One of the all-time movie disappointments. The first time I watched it, I fell asleep when El & Co. landed on Mars. The second time, I regretted not falling asleep.

By the way, Rob Schneider is the El Brendel of our time.

8:45 AM  

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