Teach me about 1930s bad fantasy films

I’m not sure how to describe the genre I’m interested in exactly, except that King Kong was sort of an example. I’m interested in knowing more about pulpy adventure stories with fantastic elements that were made into movies during the 1930s. What traits did these movies have in common with one another? What were the studios like that made them? How popular were they? What were some of the best titles out there (both figuratively–that is, the best movies–and literally–that is, the most fun titles to say)?

I’m running some roleplaying games that center around the cast and crew of such movies, and I’d like a bunch of flavor to throw in.



You think King Kong was an exemplar of bad 1930s fantasy effort? :eek:

I might sort of understand if you were thinking of Flash Gordon serials, but… King Kong?

I don’t think communication is possible across such a gulf. :stuck_out_tongue:


Hell, dude, I practically live in the 1930s. I Love Adventure!

1930s fantasy/adventure/sci-fi films are just existentially awesome. I don’t know if it can be explained. I could go all Joseph Campbell Pretentious-As-Fuck, but it probably wouldn’t help.

Men are men, women are women, and giant rampaging robots are giant rampaging robots. What’s not to like?

Instead of going through the catalog of Republic Pictures, it’s probably easiest to approach it through what’s familiar:

What do you like about Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Star Wars, or The Mummy? This is what makes 1930s adventure films so awesome. Back then it required a little more suspension of disbelief, but that’s marginal.

First off, I will admit to some confusion, as your title seems to ask for one sort of film, but the actual post for another sort.

Just Imagine, from 1930, is not an adventure film, but 1) it has fantastic elements, and 2) it is somewhat notoriously strange, in the way that any DeSylva/Henderson/Brown musical set in a futuristic 1980 would end up.

As for adventure films, rather than giving examples in terms of titles, I would recommend much of the genre of the serial (an incomplete list of which is located here) as being of interest.

I’m sure there were plenty of bad fantasy/adventure movies made in the 1930s, but they tend to be forgotten. The good ones – like The Most Dangerous Game, Island of Lost Souls, She, Lost Horizon, etc., are still very entertaining.

This is the one I came here to recommend. Hylarious! No cars; airplanes. The whole “city of the future” thing, only done as a bizarre '30s love farce musical. Brilliantly bad. Maureen O’Sullivan, of *Tarzan *and The Thin Man, plays LN-18; the lead male characters are Single-O and J-21. Remember, the thirties was the era of art deco; sleek steel and glass design. So you can just imagine the exaggerated art deco that passes for futuristic design in this movie. It’s not available in any form, but it shows up on the Fox movie channel from time to time. If you know someone who can TiVo it for you, by all means. I erased it before I DVD-R’ed it, and of course I regret this immensely.

There are a lot of wonderful websites devoted to bad movies. Here’s a good place to start, the movies are in chronological order:


The best looking one on that list for your purposes, I think, is The Thief of Bagdad (1940).

This site is reviewing the serial “The Phantom Creeps.” Bela Lugosi is an mad scientist, and there’s plenty of cliff hangers with plummeting planes and flaming train wrecks.


If you’re willing to stretch yourself to 1944, here’s a movie about identical twins - one good, one evil. The evil one is the high priestess of the cobra cult on Cobra Island.


Yikes. Ignore the title, please–I realized halfway through the post that the word “bad” was not what I was looking for, but I forgot to edit it.

The suggestions for titles is very helpful. Part of what I’m looking for, though, is some of the cultural background. While the game will be drawing directly on elements of the movies themselves, it will also be focusing on characters who create these movies, as actors, stuntmen, scriptwriters, etc. I’d like to know what their world should be like.


A good place to start would be reading about the life of the people who made those great adventure films, Meriem C. Cooper’s life is enough to make you realize how little you’ve accomplished.

I love the original King Kong. From a “lame special effects” standpoint, well…we’ve come a long way, but it doesn’t take away from the essence of the movie.

Lost Horizon is a great movie, too. http://imdb.com/title/tt0029162/ This is a tough one to catch on cable. I think it may have been on recently, but it’s rarely broadcast. If you can buy it, it’s worth it.

Also, Enchanted Cottage. God, but I love this movie. There are a couple versions of it, but the Robert Young version is the one I’m familiar with. http://imdb.com/title/tt0037671/

“Lame special effects”? We’re just jaded – they invented new effects just for that movie, and hugely exploited recently-developed ones – acetate back-screen projection, miniature rear-screen projection, statis and travelling mattes, animation of the camera itself (in those swooping POV shots of the planes attacking Kong). Effects have come a long way since, but if you compare Kong to its immediate predecessors by the same team – the Lost World and the aborted Creation – you can see how far they’d come in a short time. Have a look at Goldner and Turner’s 1976 book the Making of King Kong (Goldner was part of the effects team that worked on the film)

Some fantast films of the 1930s, good and bad:
The Mystery in the Wax Museum, starring Lionel atwill and King king’s own Fay Wray. It was thought to be lost for years before being rediscovered in the 1970s. Later remade as the 3D House of Wax, with Vincent Price in the lead. This 1930s film was in Technicolor. Intersting, too, in the use of the tough female reporter, whose role disappeared in the remake. The actress who played her went on to make a whole series of tough-female-reporter films.

Doctor X – another Columbia color horror film. Prettty dumb, but also pretty to look at.

The Return of Dr. X – in black and white, and not really a sequel, but worth looking up because it features Humphrey Bogart as a vampire!!
The Phantom Empire — prime 1930s cheese!!! Gene Autry plays a singing cowboy at the "Radio ranch (talk about playing against type) . With his cronies he discovers a lost empire of atlantis, sunken under the earth (at his ranch, IIRC) with cheesy robots looking the like ones in Flesh Gordon. They have metal hats! There’s a Queen of atlantis! At the end, the Empire gets destroyed by the cheapest-looking earthquake you’ve ever seen. (I think they “painted” a picture of it out of wax and just melted it in slo-mo for the effect). Highly recommended!

The special effects of King Kong, no matter how they may look today, are still way better than the dialogue and the acting.

Agreed. That’s why I put it in quotes. :wink:

Say what!?

That’s some of the best dialogue ever written, terse, hard-boiled and snappy! Not a wasted or unnessesary line in the whole script.

The acting is first-rate in my opinion as well.

During the 1990s there was a period when TV seemed to be having a resurgence of 1930s style fantasy adventures. There was Hercules, Xena, Sheena Queen of the Jungle, The Lost World, Cleopatra 2525, Legends of the Gold Monkey, Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Jack of All Trades, Witchblade, and others I can’t remember offhand, as well as some standard SF like Star Trek, Farscape, Lexx and others. As far as I’m concerned, it was the best television EVAH! But they all got wiped out around 2000, and I mean, all of them.

The Mask of Fu Manchu , includes a 1930s-style death ray

Were the 1930’s style death rays an improvement over the more popular 1920’s style?

Very good dialogue. “Hey, is this the motion picture ship?” has got to set some kind of record for most setup information conveyed in one sentence. :slight_smile: A lesser movie would’ve shown you every step (conceiving the idea of a trip, chartering the ship, etc) at excruciating length; King Kong cuts right ot the heart of the matter.

Bah! “It was beauty killed the beast” has to be one of the worst wrtitten and delivered lines ever. Except for Fay Wray, the actors sound like they’re reading off of cue cards.

Various death ray movies

Agree to disagree.