I’ve always loved all kinds of sci-fi cinema, starting with the “silent” movies, and going right up to the big-budget blockbusters of the modern era. It’s hard to believe that’s it’s over a century since the very first sci-fi film was produced. When Georges Méliès unleashed Le Voyage dans la Lune upon the unsuspecting world in 1902, it was the beginning of a new era.
That film may have been very primitive and very short by modern standards, but it was unique, the first movie of its kind. It must’ve been mind-boggling for the earliest cinema-goers to watch something like this. I reckon that even Méliès, visionary that he was, could never in a million years have dreamed how things would turn out. Imagine the poor man, taken forward in time and sitting in a modern cinema, watching any modern sci-fi blockbuster movie, with all the incredible SFX and pyrotechnics. He would been in complete shock. 🙂
From this point on, the film-making skills and technology improved at an incredible rate, through the earliest efforts of the first decade of the twentieth century, including the impressive Frankenstein (1910), produced by Thomas Edison (yes, THAT Edison), through the glory days of silent European cinema during the second decade of the century, in particular German gothic horror cinema, to the 1920s, when we were beginning to see much more sophisticated “silent” classics like Willis O’Brien’s classic The Lost World (1925) and Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis (1927).
Jump forward another decade to the 1930s, the beginning of the era of “talkies”, and things had taken a quantum leap forward, improving beyond all recognition. Two of the greatest sci-fi movies of that decade, and two of my personal favourites, were Willis O’Brien’s classic King Kong (1933) and Things to Come (1936), directed by William Cameron Menzies, possibly the first two true great sci-fi film classics of the “talkies” era. Let’s not forget that this was also the decade that first gave us the great sci-fi movie serials with heart-stopping cliffhangers at the end of every episode. Starting with Flash Gordon (1936) and its sequels, it mushroomed and spawned an entire industry of movie serials. Kids (and grown-ups) flocked to the cinema every week, to catch up on “The Next Thrilling Installment…” of their favourite adventure serial.
The 1930s also saw the start of a new breed of horror films produced by Universal Pictures, beginning with Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), and stretching out over fifteen years until the movies petered out in the mid-1940s with House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). In between those years, there was a wide range of Dracula and Frankenstein sequels and other new additions such as Werewolf of London (1935), the first (relatively unsuccessful) werewolf film, soon joining the fold. The next werewolf film, The Wolf Man (1941), featuring new lead actor Lon Chaney Jr, was much more successful, leading to several sequels (usually co-starring with the other Universal monsters), and culminating in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), although he did pop up again in the comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
These films made superstars out of B-movie actors Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr.. And even though Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man were the three big stars of the Universal monster movies, there were other classics, such as The Mummy (1932) and its sequels and The Invisible Man (1933) and its sequels. The Universal monster movies were a phenomenon lasting almost two decades through the Thirties and most of the Forties. Actually, they were more like a separate industry within Hollywood itself. I loved those old monster movies. It’s been far too long since I’ve watched any of them.
Aside from the Universal monster movies, a few B-grade horror films, some of the daft comedies, and a very few occasional decent flicks such as Dr. Cyclops (1940) and Mighty Joe Young (1949), the 1940s were a barren wasteland for real sci-fi cinema. The Twenties had Metropolis, the Thirties had Things to Come and a plethora of sci-fi movie serials like Flash Gordon (1936), Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938), Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), and Buck Rogers (1939). But aside from maybe Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe and King of the Rocket Men (1949), I don’t think there was anything produced in the Forties that remotely qualifies as real science fiction (heck, even these two barely qualify either).
The Forties was easily the worst decade for science fiction films. I guess that’s not really surprising, as the entire world was at war for the first half of the decade, and trying to piece things back together again in the second half. Lack of budget during those rough years mitigated against spending money on films with too many technical special effects, plus there was maybe a not-inconsiderable anti-technological, anti-science bias among the movie-going audiences (which is quite normal during wartime). Science fiction on the Big Screen was no longer in vogue. Sure, Hollywood did continue to pump out the films, but there were no real sci-fi classics of note. If I was to write out a list of my favourite classic sci-fi movies of the twentieth century, I think the Forties would be the only decade that I’d have real trouble finding something that I really liked.
It wouldn’t be until the start of the 1950s that things would really start to pick up again. And what a decade that was. The first true Golden Age of sci-fi films, in which real science fiction movies (as opposed to horror) started to predominate. But we’ll leave that until next time.
To Be Continued…