Just Imagine
Cosmic Journey
Things to Come
Weltraumschiff I startet

Sci-Fi Films of the 1930s

These are all Sci-Fi films I first saw later in life. I'm particularly interested in space films, and in their ideas, scientific, social, and stylistic.

Just Imagine

1930 Fox Film Corporation

Single 0El Brendel
LN-19Mareen O'Sullivan (Jane of Tarzan )
RT-42Frank Albertson
J-21John Garrick
D-6Marjorie White
Z-4Hobart Bosworth
MT-3Kenneth Thomson
B-36Mischa Auer
Loko/BokoIvan Linow
Loo Loo / Boo BooJoyzelle Joyner
X-10Wilfred Lucas
Directed by David Butler
Story, dialogue & songs by Buddy G. DeSylva, Lew Brown, Ray Henderson
Sound Recorder Hoseph E. Aiken
Photography Ernest Palmer
Settings Stephen Goosson, Ralph Hammeras
Musical Direction Arthur Kay
Film Editor Irene Morra
Musical numbers staging Seymour Felix
Costumes Alice O'Neil, Dolly Tree

Date 1980

A lot of money and effort was put into various aspects of this film. Unfortunately, storyline and targeting of audience were not among them. While the leading sequences are worth seeing, the rest is a stupid confusion. Nonetheless it influenced many subsequent sci-fi and fantasy efforts.

What is it? comedy? musical? dance-extravaganza? sci-fi? Why not a big movie with everything altogether! Surely that would please everybody!

After the explanation that it's 1980 and things have changed, we're straightaway introduced to the romantic problem, and then the comic sidekick... shortly followed by a further sidekick. The Vaudevillian jokes come fast and furious, interrupted only by song, dance and romance.

The comic relief could be lifted out — it looks like an addition. The musical numbers too, of course. The remains would be the plot and the sci-fi, and it would be very short.

But is it a science fiction film? It's surely a future-fiction film.

Everybody has numbers rather than names, they apply for marriage and are assigned partners (based on distinction). But this isn't science. They take pills rather than eating or drinking. They fly cute little planes rather than driving cars. New babies are orderd from a machine, and come out giggling. That is at least technology.

It should be noted that most people in the film seem quite content with all this new stuff. The malcontents are those who don't get the mates they want, and the guy from the past, who longs for the old days.

OK... so the ideas of people's names being replaced by numbers and people eating pills instead of meals is much older than I though. Where do these originate?

So for science fiction, we've got: technological innovations (flying cars, two-way TV communications, pills instead of food, space-plane), the well-used sci-fi theme of raising the dead, space travel to another planet, and space aliens. These are very thinly applied but I think this qualifies it nominally as science fiction.

They wake a guy up who died in 1930, in a very elaborate set. It is presented as an experiment, with no further explanation. Mary Shelly's idea is distinctly science fiction: the moral consequences of the new breakthroughs in the new electrical sciences. But no moral consequences are explored here — only comic ones. The guy merely proceeds to upstage the other comic relief for the remainder of the film. Think Sleeper.

This pre-dates the first film Frankenstein — in fact, some of the set in the raising-from-the-dead sequence was re-used in that film.

The plot is, guy and girl are in love, marriage tribunal assigns her instead to another guy with more "distinction". (It isn't mentioned what the girl's "worth and accomplishments" are — maybe enough she's cute as a bug.) So the guy has to fly to Mars to get more distinction.

The sets and architectural miniatures are art-deco taken to some sort of limit. This isn't bad, if you care for it.

The women are mostly concerned about romance and the latest evening gowns.

One of the scientists appears to be of Asian origin. The rest of the cast is white.

So the hero, his funny side-kick, and his even funnier comic relief all hop in the scientist's rocket-plane, to fly to Mars. The hero is chosen because he looks like a guy who wants to end it all. It uses the scientist's greatest invention, a "gravity neutralizer". This rocket-plane will be familiar: it was re-used in the Flash Gordon serial. (I think the style of the serial owes a lot to this movie).

There is no concern about lack of gravity, or any of the other issues or worries of space travel. On the quick trip to Mars, the only event is finding the comic relief as a stowaway. On arrival, although they have been warned: "We don't know if man can live on Mars", they just open the door and walk around.

Mars has blond dancing girls in short skirts, who live in a crystal environment like the 1939 Oz. Oh dear... Guys also have short skirts. Much dance and song ensues. Aha. each Martian is born a twin, one good, one bad. Legal proof they aren't human consists of their immunity to being slugged in the face, and their passing into unconsciousness on having their earlobes squeezed. Kind of funny. Not very.

Wikipedia says: due to the flop of this film, Hollywood didn't back another full-length science fiction film until the 1950s.

Космического рейса
(Cosmic Journey or
Space Flight)

1935 Mosfilm

Academician Pavel Ivanovich SedikhSergei M. Komarov
Assistant Professor MarinaK. Moskalenko
young inventor Andriewsha OrlovVassili Gaponenko
Professor KarinVasili Kovrigin
graduate student Viktor OrlovNikolai Feokistov
Directed by Vasili Zhuravlyov
Screenplay by Aleksandr Filimonov
Based on Outside the Earth by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky
Technical advisor Konstantin Tsiolkovsky
Art direction Yuri Shvets, M. Tiunov, Alexsei Utkin
Cinematography Aleksandr Galperin

This Soviet silent film is a must-see for sci-fi film buffs—a long-lost, extremely ambitious early work, with strong scientific foundations and gorgeous artwork. It shows lots of detail on a wide range of scales, heroic architecture, very impressive hair styling.

The film was commissioned by the Soviet "Young Pioneers", which accounts for the prominence of young people, including "Young Pioneers" in the story, as well as a lot of silly humor — which it wears well.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was a consultant for the film, and made 30 drawings of the rocket ships, but died before the film was finished.

Date: 1946

Rocket ships take off from a huge terminal, something like a titanic dirigible hanger, appointed like a fancy hotel. It has auto, bicycle and monorail access. Its sign reads "Всесоюзный институт межпланетных сообщений В.И.М.С." (All-Union Institute of Interplanetary Communication) К. Э. Циалковского.

The large winged rocket ships brandish the names Joseph Stalin and Kliment Voroshilov. They zoom up a huge inclined railway (a meticulously detailed miniature), to be launched at an angle into the sky. Once in space, the nose of the craft flies off, something like staging. They have a big, elaborate control room, with something like a boat steering wheel for guidance.

Passengers don rubber suits, and go into chambers that fill with fluid to protect them from the shock of blast-off and landing.

The crew consists of an older professor with a big white beard (that's a first!), his graduate student, a young female professor, and an intrepid boy.

Weightlessness is depicted by gleefully flying about cabin (which is padded all around for that purpose); they spend a lot of time at this activity.

In a few places, something like a TV is shown.

Small craft lands quite violently on the Moon, on its fins.

On the Moon, they don space suites with four ungainly tubes issuing from the helmet, and heavy boots. Air locks are used for lunar egress. They kick the boots off, allowing them to leap about in the Moon's weak gravity. But where's the Earth? Seems they have set down on the far side from which Earth can't be seen.

The lunar surface is depicted as deeply crevassed and treacherously crumbly.

Stop-action animations are used to show astronauts leaping across very severe lunar surface. These lunar scenes are in places very strange and fancy, and the camera work too is sophisticated.

To send a signal to Earth, they hop to the other side of the moon, (where they see the Earth!) and scatter "flares", which spell out "USSR", for Earth telescopes to see. Then they find the remnants of the lunar atmosphere, in the form of frozen oxygen, thus saving the mission!

The scope and technology of this film are comparable with that of King Kong or Things to Come, for example. However, because in the Soviet Union it was pulled from distribution shortly after release, and was almost never seen in the West, so had little direct impact on other films.

Here are the inter-titles of the film (with imperfect translation).

Things to Come

1936 London Film

as John/Oswald Cabal Raymond Massey
as Pippa/Raymond Passworthy Edward Chapman
as The Boss Ralph Richardson
as Roxana/Rowena Margueretta Scott
as Theotocopulos Cedric Hardwicke
as Dr. Harding Maurice Braddell
as Mrs. Cabal Sophie Stewart
as Richard Gordon Derrick de Marney
as Mary Gordon Ann Todd
as Catherine Cabal Pearl Argyle
as Maurice Passworthy Kenneth Villiers
as Morden Mitani Ivan Brandt
as The Child Anne McLaren
as Janet Gordon Patricia Hilliard
as Great Grandfather Charles Carson
Produced by Alexander Korda
Directed by William Cameron Menzies
Based on a novel by H. G. Welles

This is a big film. The cast, the plot, the scenery, the camera angles, and the dialog are all big and complex. It takes very long shots at visions of various aspects of the future, and tries to ask the right questions.

It begins 1940, in “Everytown” (somewhere in England). War is breaking out.

We’re introduced straight away to the participants in the main ethical dialog. Cabal names Passworthy “Pippa”; Passworthy says Cabal is not “eupeptic”. This defines their relationship.

(Cabal) “If we don’t end war, War will end us!”
(Passworthy) “What can you do?”
(Cabal) “Yeess. What can you do?”

Bad guys have fixed wing aircraft, good guys have biplanes. Cool sleek war tanks (perhaps of the bad guys), are interspersed between WWI tank photos.

A bad guy pilot ridiculously survives a vertical crash, to philosophize about the ethics of gassing civilians.

By 1955, it’s total war, by 1960 civilization has collapsed; people walk about in rags. In 1965, the “wandering sickness” breaks out. Decisive citizens just shoot the diseased. In 1970, things become a little better, and “the Chief” is praised for saving the community by shooting the sick. He wants build an air force, to finally end the battle with the “hill people”. Really, the Chief and his main babe are the best part here.

Then Cabal shows up in a very cool one-man aircraft, with an utterly unnecessarily bulbous helmet. He grimly announces he and his “Wings over the World” are taking over. They are a group of engineers who have created a better society, based on dropping sleeping gas (the “Gas of Peace”) on people from huge aircraft.

“Organize, advance, this zone then that, and at last ’Wings over the World’, and a new world begins.”

Lots of heroic blather and big industrial digging equipment herald in the new age.

2036. Society lives underground in industrial surroundings dotted tastefully with decorative shrubbery. (It’s explained later that people formerly lived on the surface only because they didn’t know how to light their houses otherwise.) The scenes are disturbingly reminiscent of modern shopping malls. The silly futuristic outfits do not compliment Cabal’s slender legs.

Transparent, flat screen TV’s are the one accurate technological vision. Cabal drives a cute little helicopter.

A gargantuan “Space Gun” is to blast people into space, to go around the Moon.

A rabble objects to the gun. Its leader propounds theatrically:

“Progress is folly, and unrestful, and dreary … scientific inventions are perpetually changing life for us … you make what we think great, seem small, … you make what we think strong, seem feeble.”

Cabal says:

“The best of life Passworthy lies at the edge of death. There’s nothing wrong is suffering if you suffer for a purpose. Our revolution didn’t abolish danger or death, it simply made danger and death worthwhile.”

A cute couple, who happen to be the kids of Cabal and Passworthy, are chosen as passengers. They are strapped into bungee-chairs, and advised: “contract all your muscles when the concussion comes”.

Parables: what could I say to add to this? most of Cabal’s dialog is sermonizing and moralizing. I’ll accept the closing lines as a summary:

“All the Universe or Nothing! Which shall it be, Passworthy, which shall it be?”

Weltraumschiff-I Startet
eine technische Fantasie

1938 Bavaria-Filmkunst

as Commodore Hardt Carl Wery
as the TV Reporter Rolf Wernicke
as the technical Director Fritz Reiff
Conceived and Created by Anton Kutter
Cinematography by Gustav Weiss
Sets by Willy Horn
Music by Ludwig Kusche
Soundsystem Tobias-Klangfilm

This short film is half educational, and half real quick action-adventure. The science is right, and some of the space scenes are as good as it got until the late 60s.

In a lecture and a conversation with the Commodore, many of the basic issue of space travel are discussed: where space begins, the difference between flying and space travel, distance to moon, the speed required to get to moon.

In an interview, a professor rules out travel in a cannon shot, for right reasons; surviving the acceleration and atmospheric heating. Discusses basic rocket principles and show some historic films of the time, including some crashes. Solid fuel vs. liquid fuel,

Raumschiff 1 is 30 m long metal, teardrop shaped with short stubby wings, comes out of hangar like a zeppelin but on wheel pods. The front door of the massive hanger rolls down peculiarly. Nice video of the ship from above, supposedly taken from aircraft, really pretty convincing. Except for a televised(!) interview with the Commodore, the inside of the ship is not depicted.

As these things go... the launch isn't bad. The ship accelerates horizontally and then up a ramp (a concession to popular ideas, and the difficulty in imagining such a large object accelerating straight up.) The exhaust at least looks pretty violent, and a lot of effort is put into making the landscape recede convincingly, continuously until the sphericity of the earth is apparent. This is really one of the best depictions of launch into space until the space age, and holds up well against many up to the late 20th century.

A sunrise is shown over the globe of the Earth globe.

Oh wow.... telescopes at Berlin Babelsberg are mentioned... Some are the AIP scopes. My old stomping grounds! Talks about Palomar scope too, as well as a very weird imaginary one on Mt. Kilamanjaro.

The moon is very well depicted (from space only), looking very much like Apollo pictures. (Well, they just use good telescopic photos, but this turns out to be far better than trying to fake it.)

And the Earth sets over the Moon. This, pre-dating Apollo photos by most of 30 years.

The ship surprisingly buzzes the moon at the last instant, like a biplane (a concession to 1930s dramatic expectations no doubt.)

Billboard proclaims: Kolonien auf dem Mars eine technische Möglichkeit