Vaudeville on Mars

In my interpretation of The War of the Worlds, the Martians attack hapless planet Earth not because they need water or are merely imperialistic, but in retaliation for us having sent El Brendel to their planet.Armed with the knowledge of the shtick El Brendel will force upon both his Martian and human viewers, when the 1930 science fiction musical comedy Just Imagine asks us to “just imagine,” it seems more of a chilling warning than a hopeful dream. Once you have experienced the comedic stylings of this one time vaudeville sensation, you will have no choice but to stare directly into the muzzle of that Martian heat ray, shrug, and admit that we’re really getting what we deserve. In fact, we’re probably getting off easy.

El Brendel started life innocently enough, as a normal American guy from Philadelphia. In 1913, he started working in vaudeville, creating a character with a  German accent. Unfortunately for the budding hyuckster, World War I broke out a year later, and although officially neutral at the time, no one in America was all that keen on a comical German stage comedian. Assuming there were very few accomplished linguists in the standard World War I era vaudeville audience, El simply changed his fictional origin from German to Swedish and soldiered on. It was under this increasingly popular guise that he made his greatest contribution to pop culture: inventing the catchphrase “Yumpin’ yiminy!”

In 1926, he started appearing in movies, most notably the silent era classic (and first Oscar winner for Best Picture, though at the time it was called “Outstanding Production”) Wings, starring Clara Bow, and the Louise Brooks film Rolled Stockings (1927). After some success, Brendel decided to return to the stage, but the advent of sound films lured him back, since he was a popular entertainer whose shtick was based largely on a hilarious” accent. Working now at Fox, Brendel appeared as the comedy relief in a number of high-profile films, including the early John Wayne film The Big Trail (1930). That same year, Fox started working on a big-budget science fiction spectacle called Just Imagine, starring John Garrick (The Sky HawkChu Chin Chow), Maureen O’Sullivan (The Thin Man and early Tarzan movies), and headlining it all, El Brendel.


Set in 1980, Just Imagine is full of the wonders of the future. Everyone gets around in airplanes rather than ground vehicles. The cities are vast art deco metropolises. Amid these wonders are two young lovers, LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan) and J-21 (John Garrick — it’s the future, so we all have numbers instead of names) who find themselves forced apart by the laws regarding marriage. Because in the future, the suitability of two people for marriage is determined by a court. J-21 has been judged unfit to fulfill the role of a husband, and LN-18 has been assigned to be the wife of a standard issue rich cranky guy.

While all this melodrama is playing out, a scientist revives a man from the distant past of 1930 (El Brendel). Being a scientist, the man is immediately uninterested in El’s well-being now that the experiment is over, casting the man from the past out on the street. It turns out that the scientist knew what he was doing. El meets and befriends the dejected J-21 and proceeds to engage in a variety of allegedly comical exploits, like getting drunk on booze pills (it’s the future, so all food and drink is in pill form) and falling down a lot. Unlucky in love, J-21 is recruited to join the crew of the first rocket to Mars. Along for the ride is J-21’s best friend and, they discover, the wacky stowaway El Brendel, who in honor of future names has renamed himself Single 0.


Although not specifically billed as such, Just Imagine is a remake of the 1928 Soviet film Aelita, Queen of Mars, albeit one that replaces proletarian intrigue at the beet distribution center with a musical romance; and the accordion-playing Soviet soldier with a slapstick vaudeville comedian. Both films hint at exquisite visual wonders before settling into somewhat trying earthbound drama (though Just Imagine keeps things much lighter of heart). And upon setting off for Mars, both films attempt to make up for somewhat lackluster content to that point by going all-out on wacky costume and set design. And it both cases, the movies pretty much succeed. Because once Just Imagine finally plops its goofball trio onto the jungle surface of Mars, it becomes a smorgasbord of outrageous costumes, bizarre acting, and best of all, El Brendel repeatedly being punched in the face by a hulking Martian strongman.

Watching the movie now, it might be hard to understand why El Brendel would be the headliner. It might be difficult to understand why Brendel’s act ever got popular in the first place. And while I am in many instances an apologist if not an outright, genuine fan of yesteryear’s entertainment, El Brendel is one of those cases where I will throw up my hands and admit that I don’t get the appeal. I mean, this is 1930. We have the Marx Brothers. We’ve had Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton. All of these guys started on the vaudeville stage as well, and all of them became astoundingly popular movie comedians. It just seems wrong that lame ol’ El Brendel should be able to count himself among their ranks.

The massive sets and elaborate miniatures that contribute much to the visual dazzle of the film (when we aren’t focused on El Brendel tripping over a curb or dropping his hat or some other bit of hilarity) made it one of the most expensive films ever made at the time, though it would prove a sound investment. Designed by Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras, the futuristic cityscape, rocketship, and weapons used by the Martians would all be reused in the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials. The equipment used to revive El Brendel would get hastily rolled over to another set, where it became part of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab and was used to revive a considerably more tolerable entity than a vaudeville comedian with a fake Swedish accent.

The costumes were designed by Dolly Tree, one of Hollywood’s most storied designers. If you ever marveled at Myrna Loy’s exquisite array out outfits in the Thin Man movies, that was Dolly’s doing. She outfitted the Marx Brothers movies A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. She designed Mae West’s blonde bombshell look. She was the first woman to design costumes for the scandalous Folies Bergere show in Paris (though she was not responsible for perhaps the most famous costume ever to come from that stage, Josephine Baker’s banana skirt). Although one of her earliest American screen credits, her work in Just Imagine is lovely. Maureen O’Sullivan is better known perhaps for her lack of outfits in the pre-Code Tarzan movies, but here she is swathed in a stunning array of dresses and flight gear that makes up for her character being woefully underwritten (co-star Marjorie White is much more memorable).

But where Dolly’s work truly shines is Mars. And specifically on dancer Joyzelle Joyner, who turns in an utterly crackpot, glorious performance as the wildly gesticulating queen of Mars. Looking no doubt to Aelita‘s Constructivist costume design for inspiration, Dolly Tree dresses her Martian empress in an eye-popping procession of glittering, sparkling, shimmering, and occasionally deadly looking dresses and togas. Coupled with Joyner’s unhinged portrayal — she wrings considerably more laughs out of her shtick than professional comedian El Brendel — the outfits Dolly Tree contributes to the film make it worth forgetting Brendel’s goofball antics.

Although moderately successful, Just Imagine didn’t spark a trend of big budget musical science fiction. It was never meant to. It was more a vehicle to exploit El’s inexplicable popularity than it was a stab at creating a substantial science fiction genre. In fact, the onset of the Great Depression, followed by the Second World War, meant that lavish genre fare like this disappeared entirely from movie screens until the 1950s, or was relegated to the ranks of serial entertainment. As such, Just Imagine was relegated to the realm of cultural curiosity rather than touchstone. As with Aelita, it is a film that forces some slogs upon the viewer in exchange for the wonders it offers. But oh my, those wonders! Those shiny, slinky, salacious Martian costumes! When you measure them alongside the fantastic set design and that musical number where all the astronauts and scientist prep for the flight to Mars by having a big Busby Berkeley song and dance number — well, it makes 1980 a future worth imagining.

Even if El Brendel is still in it.

3 replies »

  1. This is a fairly big spoiler.

    Speaking of the Queen of Mars, when they return to earth and El Brendel says he has evidence that they made it to Mars, I can’t help hoping he’s brought the Queen herself, or maybe that female guard at the beginning. It would be looking ahead to ABBOTT AND COSTELLO GO TO MARS, where Lou TRIES to pull that trick with one or more Venusian women. Instead he’s brought that male guard who has an attachment for him, and who’s the subject of some pretty obvious gay jokes in the story. Oh, well.

    Another clever moment is when one of the male characters is disappointed with the women of 1980, and wishes he knew the kind of old-fashioned girl from around 1930. As he does this, the movie shows images of flappers and similar girls, which of clashes with that description.


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