coding just for fun
by Douglas Messerli
Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson (book, music, and lyrics), David Butler (director) Just Imagine / 1930
As we can observe from his 1953 Doris Day film Calamity Jane director David Butler had a way of coding his films that not only contradicted the surface plot but at times even “frustrated” it, slowing it down as it spiraled into its own logic that then would suddenly snap back into the ordinary heterosexual frame in which the film was embedded.
But in his film of two decades earlier, he and his cowriters Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, Ray Henderson inexplicably created a far more complex LGBTQ coded work in Just Imagine (1930) that, along with the various genres it employed, resulted in a movie that on one level was a blatantly corny heterosexual musical love comedy with one foot still in vaudeville, while on another level functioning as a rather sophisticated story of a series of rather campy male same-sex relationships that, dominating the center of the work, still had be jettisoned by the movie’s end so that it might fulfill the predictable expectations of its overriding frame.
Perhaps it would help if—like the doubling of the film’s story and images itself—I describe the narrative of this work twice, the first being the plot that the general audience might perceive and the second a more experienced, openly gay, or even prurient viewer might recognize. Neither reading is superior to the other, and indeed, the general reading was necessary for any box office success and certainly required given the moral codes of the day, even if in 1930 the Hays Code, proposed in 1927, had not yet come into full effect.
I have to say that even my ordinary plot description in this case is going to sound rather extraordinary. For Just Imagine is a sci-fi film made in 1930, that begins in 1880 with a brief prologue that establishes the grace and quietude of New York City in that day. In the very next scene, however, the film projects a vision of that city in 1980 that, if at times laughable, is fairly convincing in its representation of a world where the tenement houses have morphed into 250-story buildings, connected by suspension bridges and multi-lane elevated roads. In this vision, however, the skies—much like those imagined in Clyde Cook’s What’s the World Coming To? (1926)—filled with planes, blimps, and other flying vehicles, having basically replaced Ford’s automobiles, in which the movie takes some pleasure.
His bachelor roommate RT-42 (Frank Albertson) and his girlfriend D-6 (Marjorie White), who works as a nurse for a famous doctor, invite the saddened J-21 to join them as observers of a new experiment her boss is conducting by attempting to revive a man from 1930 who was struck by lightning while playing golf and killed. The operation is successful, and suddenly the man from the past—in the film also a “act” from the past represented by the popular vaudeville performer El Brendel who had made famous the stock figure of the Swedish immigrant hick—is unleashed upon the movie forcing us to also suffer his definitely dated jokes, which evidently were still popular in 1930 (in interviews Butler recounts that at the film’s premiere at the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles audiences laughed from several moments at his repeated insistence that he like the “old fashioned” way of producing babies and were enchanted with his vaudeville skit “The Romance of Elmer Stremingway” in which a young Swedish yokel wants to marry a local Swedish girl named Fanny consisting of El Brendel quickly donning and removing a series of hats as he plays out the narrative) but have not survived the passage of time.
Once this vintage character is brought back to life, however, the doctor utterly ignores him, the poor fool having no one to care for him in a strange new world into which he’s awakened. J-21 and friend RT-42, taking pity on him, invite him to come and live in their apartment, taking him first of a trip through the city in which they explain to him and to the audience the new realities of the visionary world of 1980.
They begin by explaining that instead of names, every now is given a number; without such a number, the dislocated man takes on the name Single O (although pondering the humorous possibility, given our perspective, of taking on the name Double O). On their tour of the town, he discovers much of which we’ve already gleaned about the modes of transportation and the production of children, and new information revealing that all meals are ingested through pills and that, although Prohibition is still very much in effect, you can get quite drunk on pills that simulate the experience of alcohol, a stimulant to which Single O quickly becomes addicted.
Still in a funk about losing the love of his life, J-21 decides to make an illegal visit to LN-18, who apparently shares an apartment—still very much in the 1930s sleek Art Deco design—with D-6. Pretending to be ill, LN-18 bows out of a theater event with her new fiancé MT-3 and her father, while D-6 acts as her nurse. The minute the men have left the room, their lovers J-21 and RT-42 sneak into the highrise, kiss, and sing the movie’s major song, “(I Am the Words) You Are the Melody” by Buddy G. DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson (together and separately the composers of major popular songs such as April Showers," "Button Up Your Overcoat," "Look for the Silver Lining," "California, Here I Come," [DeSylva]; "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," and "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” [Brown]; and “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” and “Five Foot Too” [Ray Henderson]):
I am only the words, you are the melody
And we need the two together to make love.
Tell me what the words are without a melody,
They are like the earth without a sun above.
Suddenly, suspicious of his fiancée, MT-3 returns early, the girls forced quickly to hide their gentleman callers. It almost works, but for the fact that the boys’ new friend Single O, who they have left behind outside, somehow in his drunken state scales the towers and appears on their terrace to ask to where his new friends have gotten to. J-21 appears to challenge his girlfriend’s suitor at the very moment that RT-42 falls out of the Murphy bed in which he’s been hidden. Evidently, his criminal act of visiting the woman to whom the state has declined his relationship may result in some severe punishment; but instead of calling for the police, MT-3 forces his future wife to tell J-21 to go away and never return, thus breaking off the relationship through the words of LN-18 herself.
The trio of friends now heads on home, but J-21, deeply depressed, insists he must take a short walk to deal with his suffering. Despondently looking out over the river, J-21 is suddenly brought back to real life by the presence of a young man, B-36 (Mischa Auer) who, recognizing the young man’s depression suggests he has a cure for it: his employer is planning a secret voyage which may solve all his problems. J-21 joins the interloper on his sufferings to visit the renowned scientist Z-4 (Hobart Bosworth) who tells him of his plans for a voyage to Mars for which J-21, given his feelings of despair and his experience as a pilot, seems to be the perfect man to travel to the red planet and bring back news of any life there—that is if he survives the voyage and his encounters on the mysterious planet. The voyage there and back will take almost the same amount of time that he has between the marriage tribunal’s final decision, and if he succeeds, he will suddenly become one of the most famous men on earth, surely worthy of marriage with his missing “melody,” LN-18. Believing, as the cliche goes, he has nothing to lose and everything to gain, he agrees, and in only 7 days will be flying to Mars.
When he shares his news with RT-42, his friend, with whom he has been pals since childhood, insists on joining him and, with Single O to look after their bachelor pad, and after permission from Z-4, the duo are about to travel, celebrating on what might be there last night on earth. Having sworn his squadron friends to silence until after the ship thrusts off, the two give their goodbyes to their male companions and sing their squadron drinking song performed, astonishingly, a bit like a Busby Berkeley cinematic productions using a crane camera, but in this case instead involving showgirls replacing them with small single-shot bottles of alcohol manipulated into geometric patterns through the pilot’s hands, arms, and other body parts, a work not easily forgotten.
Once in the air, the two men realize that they have a stowaway aboard, Single O, who has mistaken their destination for a visit to Ma, instead of Mars, and thinking they’re simply off to see their mothers, and preferring the old-fashioned ways of doing things, has joined them. His doubts about the trip are now all too late.
A month or so later their arrive on Mars to be met by beautiful half-clad chorus girls like ones missing in the earlier all-male Berkeley-like choreographed number—although these chlorines dance more in the manner of the Denishawn (named after the modern dance choreographers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn) than Berkeley or even Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire’s dancing collaborator—an apparent Queen Loo Loo (Joyzelle Joyner) and her consort Loko (Ivan Linow). Loo Loo attempts to explain to J-21 and his friends something they cannot yet comprehend; but what they do quickly discover is that her consort Loko has taken a shining to Single O, and while she goes off with J-21 Loko takes away RT-42 and Single O for a bath, something, particularly with several of the females in attendance, makes them shy.
But no sooner have festivities begun than a ruckus occurs, and the visitors are taken away to a similar space with seemingly the very same people, but this time treated like prisoners instead of esteemed travelers from another planet. Even the previously smitten Loko treats Single O with hostility, and soon all three a trundled off to a jail cell where they are kept for several weeks, J-21 despairing of being able to return in time even if they could reach the rocket and successful launch it back to earth.
Gradually her perceives what Loo Loo was attempting to tell him on first meeting. They are now the prisoners of Boo Boo and Boko, the evil twins of the friendly pair. Indeed J-21 begins to realize, everyone on Mars is a twin, one good and one evil. This fact is brought home with Loko breaks into their cell to help them escape, giving special attention to his friend Single O. But midway he is discovered by Boko who knocks him out and immobilizes J-21 and RT-42. Only Single O survives the blows, being dragged back and forth between Loko and Boko until he finally determines to carry off his two friends by himself to the hidden rocket, fending off the evil Boko in a push-and-pull match that finally ends when he realizes that the ear and heart are the Martians’ point of weakness, the word and melody of which J-21 has sung being the clue in how to subdue the awful Boko—in his case by pulling and pounding on both which renders him immobile.
The trio escape back to earth arriving just on time for J-21, as now a famous astronaut, to rightfully claim his prize, LN-18. Things are momentarily held up, since it appears they have no evidence that they have actually travelled to Mars—which can only remind us of the fanatical beliefs of many that Apollo missions to the Moon were stage events that did not truly occur. Luckily Single O has brought back the best evidence he possible could have, Boko, over who he now has control. So everything ends up happily as J-21 and LN-18 are declared legally married.
So why is such a preposterous tale included in My Queer Cinema and could such a patently heterosexual plot truly be coded? Better to ask why would it be coded, what could have possessed four presumably cis-male heterosexuals to even want to insinuate that something else was going on in their rather rag-tag and often simply corny sci-fi musical love comedy?
I have simply no answer for that. There doesn’t seem to have been a secret text whose remnants have somehow made their way into the final product. And the four rather clever creators of music and cinema could not have been simply carried away by the mythos of such a preposterous story. Sometimes, you just have to suspect that such men simply what to challenge or shake up the authorities. Although not yet mandatory, as it would become in 1934, the Hays Code had laid out the territory, based on the basic principal that:
1.No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral
standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the
audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-
doing, evil, or sin. 2. Correct standards of life, subject
only to the requirements of drama and entertainment,
shall be presented. 3. Law-divine, natural or human-shall
not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its
violation (Lev 87).”
Vulgarity, sex, murder, obscenity, profanity and religion had fairly precise ways that they were to be represented. When shooting a murder scene, it was imperative that, “the technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation [and] brutal killings are not be to presented in detail.” In the case of sex, it was deemed that the “sanctity of the institution of marriage.….shall be upheld.” Scenes of passion, seduction, excessive kissing and even sexual relationships between different races were forbidden. Homosexuality of any kind was banned, in part, because of the clause concerning the sanctity of marriage.
Yet Butler, DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson clearly did code their work. Let us begun with what I’ve already stated concerning the condition of the Martian world, that everything, good and bad, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual (as we shall soon more explicitly see), and lawfulness and lawlessness has its twin; it is a world of twins, doubles, or mirrors.
I have already written in several previous essays of the importance of the double, the mirror, and twin in LGBTQ cinema previously (see my essays, for example, “Conflicted Selves” on The Student of Prague (1913), Norman McLaren’s Narcissus (1983) and my several writings of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the double is represented in the man and his portrait.
Things, however, also pair off in other ways that you might not expect. Clearly the two boys, J-21 and RT-42 are a bit more than simply good pals who share a bachelor pad. The scene in which RT-42 listens to the sad song J-21 sings to his would-be lover, show him with more than a little sympathy for his buddy. He almost visually gushes with admiration. It appears he is more moved by the song than even Maureen O’Sullivan is able to project or her character express. Later, when RT-42 hears of his friend’s plan to travel to Mars he hardly lets a moment pass before he’s busy arguing for an opportunity to join him:
RT-42: You’re not going anyplace without me.
We’ve been pals, real pals ever since
we were kids together. There’s no reason
why we should stop now.
J-21’s almost immediate response suggests that the scene is even a little bit more than gay: “All right, we’ll go together.”
Moreover, when I hear two passing bachelors almost immediately ready to share their apartment with a man brought back to life from the 1930s, who is now all but homeless, my ears prick up. These sophisticated air pilots are not the kind who simply invite the new boy in town simply to crash on their living room couch. And as we will soon see in Mars, this same man assigns himself the name Single O, which literally defines him as an unmarried man, a loner, or even a person devoted to celibacy—or to translate into LGBTQ language, not of “the marrying kind,” a gay man. As Ella Fitzgerald crooned in Johnny Mercer’s song of that title:
Single-o, all the way
Rain or shine
Gonna stay single-o
'Til you're mine
Like the peach, at the top of the tree
Gonna stay single-o
'Til it's me
Single O, moreover, as we quickly perceive is himself a fast learner. Seeing J’s problems with his girlfriend, Single O comments: “So women are still causing problems. You’d think in 50 years they could have found a good substitute for them.” to which RT responds, “Come on, let’s go home.”
It is not accidental surely, given what we observe of J-21 and RT-42’s relationship that half of one equals the other.
In the very next scene, moreover, our writers take the gay sexual bead-dropping just a bit further as we see the lonely J looking over the river, a broodingly dark figure suddenly approaching him. Their conversation is fraught with the language of a gay cruising, in which one attempts to pick-up and take home the other. First the stranger suggests that or his friend appears to be “heartbroken,” which when J-21 asks, “How did you know all of this?” he answers. “Your youth tells me. You were going to end it all, weren’t you?”
“No, I wasn’t, but it’s not a bad idea.”
You’re just the man I’m looking for,” responds the stranger, B-36. “I can give you your heart’s desire.”
“Who are you?”
“What does this matter? I can solve your problems.”
He continues, “It’s worth a chance isn’t it? Come.”
And our innocent friend simply follows as if hypnotized by the tall dark-eyed man, who later on in the movie—when D-6 jumps into his arms in celebration of the arrival home of J-21 and RT-42 from their voyage—makes it quite apparent that he cannot abide women.
Even J-21 and RT-42’s high-flying cohorts seem, from the evidence of their favorite drinking song, to be a bit more than jolly in their readiness to embrace their fellow men, reminding me a little of the song the sailors on leave sing in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Cesar! (2016):
We’ll drink to soldiers and drink to sailors
We’ll drink to butchers and even tailors
Of individuals to keep on drinking
Come on and drink
sarsaparilla or ink.
Once again they see things in pairs. And the fact that they play out a kind of all male version of Busby Berkeley-like scene, using the liquor miniatures a bit like the chorus girls as they whisk them offstage and on with sleight of hand, J-21 eventually crawling hands and knees down the table in the bower of their raised hands, adds to the campy delight of this scene.
Right off the start when the group meets Queen Loo Loo, she seems to be luring them in with her long fingers, but suddenly in the midst of her gestures screams out “Boo Boo,” scaring them half to death. When she calls what I have described as the King or her Consort Loko—who may simply be her head guard since his position in the court is not fully established—everyone realizes quite quickly that he has taken a hands-on interest in Single O, literally stroking his cheeks, rubbing his head and smiling intently with delight. As I mentioned earlier, this man from the 1930s is no slow learner but gleans the situation immediately, almost giggling with delight to his friends, “She’s [pointing at Loo Loo] not the queen, he is!”
As Loko drags him away to the baths, he demands R-42 stick with him. The two, as I mentioned above, are simply too conventional to undress in front of the women but seem to have no problem whatsoever disrobing under the eyes of the drooling Loko.
Yet all the good times in store for them, promising to include the sexual, disappear once they are kidnapped by the idol-loving violent twin society. Much like the Moloch of Fitz Lang’s great Metropolis, the women here seem happy to give themselves up to a vast beast to whom they willingly feed themselves, leaping upon his open palms as if waiting to be eaten alive.
As in other contemporary musicals with LGBTQ subthemes, Stage Mother and Myrt and Marge, both from 1933, female sacrifice was represented quite literally, whether you were traveling across the US, performing on the Broadway stage, or even living on Mars.
Who knows, our boys may have been next. But at least if they’d been able to stay on with Loo Loo and Loko they might have received some pleasure in return, but here in the evil mirror, they are locked away in a world that is closer to an S&M fantasy than a gentle family sci-fi musical which Just Imagine pretends to be. Once Loko returns to try to save them, for Single O there is no turning back; even if the boys have been knocked out he’ll bring life back to them. As he gamely tries to lift the two men and drag them to safety and back to the rocket, he proclaims what has to be one of the most obviously gay camp lines of all time: “Don’t worry boys, I get you up. And if I can’t get you up I’ll lay down with you.” Can you imagine that the brilliant wordsmiths DeSylva and Brown weren’t aware of such puns they’d bothered to write?
By finally capturing and bringing back Boko, Single O finally has got his man, but instead of being controlled by him as he might have been by Loko, he is now in control. Having passed out of the looking glass, J-21 and RT-42 have no choice but to return to “normalcy.” Yet the writers still hint of further perversions, as Single O is introduced to his bearded elderly grandson, another male who he can now dangle upon his knee with glee. Ridiculous as it is, El Brendel not only gets the last laugh but in this upside down world of the future becomes the movie’s hero.
Los Angeles, August 3, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (Augusst 2021).