Retro Hugos: dramatic Presentations in 1943

Don’t know where to start with Retro Hugo nominations? Ian Moore introduces us to the dramatic works of 1943.

As with the contemporary Hugos, dramatic works are also eligible for nomination to receive Retro Hugos awards. In Dublin Retro Hugos will be awarded for works appearing in 1943. There are two categories for dramatic presentations: long (over 90 minutes) and short (under 90 minutes). In both cases, eligible works must be productions in any medium of dramatized science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects that has been publicly presented for the first time in its present dramatic form during 1943. This discussion of potentially eligible works is intended as an assistance to Retro Hugo nominators and is not an endorsement of any of the listed works; readers may well find that their own researches throw up other eligible works more to their taste.

These days films and TV programmes dominate the dramatic categories, which is unsurprising given their global reach. Stage productions are however also eligible in these categories, even if the smaller number of people who can see them makes it much harder for them to win. As noted above, this year’s Retro Hugos will of course be awarded in Dublin. The Irish film industry of the 1940s was relatively small and not particularly focussed on science fiction and fantasy, so it is unlikely that a local film will win either of the dramatic categories. However, two eligible plays were premièred in Dublin in 1943, both written by Flann O’Brien (better known as a novelist or for the surreal humour pieces he wrote as Myles na gCopaleen for The Irish Times). Faustus Kelly appeared on the Abbey Stage and is an updating of the Faust myth, telling of an Irish local politician who sells his soul to the Devil so that he can become a member of the Dáil, Ireland’s national parliament. Rhapsody in Stephen’s Green (also known as The Insect Play) was staged in the Gaiety Theatre and is an adaptation of a play by Josef and Karel Čapek (of robot fame); in this work O’Brien uses a world of anthropomorphised insects to satirise his Irish contemporaries. Sadly, both these plays finished after short runs and it is unlikely that many Retro-Hugo nominators have seen them performed.

Another play that premièred in 1943 was Les Mouches (in English, The Flies) by future Nobel laureate Jean-Paul Sartre. Performed in Paris under German occupation at the Théâtre de la Cité, the play is a retelling of the myth of Elektra and Orestes killing their mother Clytemnestra and her lover to avenge their murder of Agamemnon, their father.

Science fiction pictures as we know them now were still relatively rare in 1943. However, horror films provide a rich vein of Retro Hugo eligible material, admittedly of variable quality. Universal brought out another version of The Phantom of the Opera, with Arthur Lubin directing Claude Rains in the title role. Somewhat unusually for horror films of the era, this film was awarded Academy Awards in the cinematography and art direction categories. At just over 90 minutes it is eligible for the long form dramatic Retro Hugo.

Universal also brought out the short Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, directed by Roy William Neill. This was the first of their films to feature an encounter between two of their monsters. Lon Chaney Jr. reprised his role as the Wolf Man while Bela Lugosi finally played Frankenstein’s Monster, a role he had famously turned down when the 1931 Frankenstein was being cast. Chaney also appeared in the Universal short films Calling Dr. Death (directed by Reginald LeBorg), a lost memory murder mystery, and Son of Dracula (directed by Robert Siodmak), in which he took on Lugosi’s Dracula role. By 1943 Lugosi meanwhile was ageing, but he still managed to play another vampire role in Columbia’s short Return of the Vampire (directed by Lew Landers) and The Ape Man (a short for Banner Pictures, directed by William Beaudine), in which he plays a scientist who transforms into an ape-man hybrid following some ethically dubious experiments.

The short films produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Pictures and edited and/or directed by Mark Robson make for an interesting horror subset. These display an aesthetic sensibility that both looks forward to the emerging film noir genre and back to the German expressionist cinema of the 1920s. Directed by Jacques Tourneur and edited by Robson, the highly-regarded I Walked With A Zombie deals with the zombies of the Voodoo tradition and not the flesh eating reanimated corpses popularised by later films. Tourneur also directed The Leopard Man, whose title suggests that it is a companion piece with his superlative Cat People of 1942; although the film does indeed feature the same black leopard as its predecessor, it takes a different tack and sadly does not involve human-leopard hybrids. The Ghost Ship, directed by Mark Robson, is more straightforwardly psychological horror, barely relevant to Retro Hugo nominators, though its claustrophobic setting and disorienting camera angles give it a surreal air. Robson also directed The Seventh Victim in which a young woman stumbles onto a coven of Satanists in Greenwich Village, who then decide to make her their next sacrifice.

Superman was a popular fellow in 1943, inspiring works eligible in both the long and short dramatic presentation categories. Paramount brought out a number of self-contained Superman cartoons in 1943, all of which are available to view online and are individually eligible in the short dramatic presentation category. Jungle Drums and Secret Agent both see Superman taking on the Nazis (operating in league with jungle dwellers and gangsters respectively). The Mummy Strikes has an Egyptological theme, while The Underground World involves an exploration of caves inhabited by hawk people.

1943 also saw Superman appear in the long-running radio serial The Adventures of Superman, directed by George Putnam Ludlum for the New York station WOR-AM and then syndicated across he USA. Individual story arcs in this are mostly long enough to feature in the long form drama category. Unfortunately, recordings of most of the 1943 broadcasts no longer exist so few nominators will have first-hand familiarity with these serials. The most complete 1943 story from The Adventures of Superman is The Tin Men, of which 14 out of 15 episodes can listened to or downloaded from the Old Time Radio Downloads site, as can other episodes from other less complete stories of 1943.

The popularity of Superman gave rise to parodies, themselves Retro-Hugo eligible, of which the short cartoon Super-Rabbit, is particularly notable. Directed by Chuck Jones for Leon Schlesinger Studios and distributed by Warner Bros, this sees Bugs Bunny develop superpowers.

Other comics characters had their own movie serials in 1943. The year saw Batman’s first onscreen adventures, in the serial Batman directed by Lambert Hillyer for Columbia Pictures. Instead of squaring off against costumed villains, Batman and Robin instead find themselves battling against Axis saboteurs led by a sinister Japanese agent. The tone is considerably more serious than the day-glo 1960s TV version.

Japanese saboteurs are also dealt with by a masked hero in The Masked Marvel, a Republic serial directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet. The year also saw Columbia serving up an adaptation of The Phantom (directed by B. Reeves Eason) the seemingly immortal masked hero who rules and protects tribal peoples in a hitherto unexplored jungle location. The plot involves the search for lost cities and secret agents working for an unnamed power that sounds suspiciously like Nazi Germany.

Numerous short cartoons were released in 1943, many of them sufficiently outlandish in subject matter as to be Retro-Hugo eligible. Despite cartoons’ association with escapist entertainment, the spectre of the world war hung over many of these. Der Fuehrer’s Face, directed by Jack Finney for Disney, presents a nightmare world in which Donald Duck finds himself living in Nazi Germany. Disney’s Education for Death (directed by Clyde Geronimi) is a grim and barely fantastical account of how the Nazis’ education system turned children into brutal and pitiless soldiers.

But US cartoonists were not the only ones producing propaganda. Working for the Geijutsu Eiga-sha company, Mitsuyo Seo directed Momotaro no umiwashi (Momotarô’s Sea Eagles in English), in which anthropomorphic animals join the Japanese war effort. Only slightly too short for the long dramatic Retro Hugo, the film features a furry assault on Pearl Harbour and the animals staging a kawaii paratrooper attack on Japan’s enemies. Imperialist expansion never looked so cute.

The Axis nations were also capable of producing non-propagandistic cartoons. Kumo to Chūrippu (also known as Kumo to Tulip and in English as The Spider and the Tulip), directed by Kenzô Masaoka for Shôchiku Dôga Kenkyûjo tells of a ladybird taking refuge in a tulip from a predatory spider. Scherzo-Verwitterte Melodie (Weather-Beaten Melody), directed by Hans Fischerkösen for Deutsche Wochenschau is ostensibly a charming addition to the anthropomorphic-animals-have-party genre, but there is a slight subversive subtext to the film that may have slipped past the Nazi censors: what happened to the humans whose portable phonograph and jazz records have been left abandoned?

Other non-propagandistic short cartoon films with fantastic elements include Imagination, directed by Bob Wickersham for Columbia Pictures, with its plot involving an evil toy attempting to disrupt the romance of two other dolls. Some of the other shorts from 1943 subsequently nominated for Oscars might also be eligible for Retro Hugos, given the surreal plotting of most such films. 1943 also saw the first appearance of laconic dog Droopy in the Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer short Dumb-Hounded; starting as they went on, this first Droopy cartoon is a Kafkaeqsque nightmare presenting itself as a children’s entertainment.

A surprising number of films in 1943 feature celestial judgment as a plot device, with protagonists having to justify themselves after death to avoid damnation or worse. Heavenly Music, a short directed by Josef Berne for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer sees a 1940s big-band leader being judged after death by the great composers of history, who doubt the quality of his work and thus his worthiness to join them in the corner of Heaven reserved for great musicians. Also from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Cabin in the Sky (directed by Vincente Minelli) boasts a dissolute protagonist killed over gambling deaths who is then resurrected and given six months to turn his life around in order to avoid Hell; the film is notable for its African American cast and Busby Berkeley choreographed musical sequence. The short version of A Christmas Carol directed by George Lowther for W2XWV New York City broadly fits this pattern, though no recordings of this early television presentation survive. The feature-length A Guy Named Joe (directed by Victor Fleming for Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer) also has celestial judgement elements, though the film seems to be more focussed on showing off the hardware of the US air force than in grappling with the fantastic.

Celestial judgment films usually involve the protagonist seeking to prove their worthiness for salvation. The feature length Heaven Can Wait, directed by German exile Ernst Lubitsch for 20th Century Fox, turns this around, with its recently-deceased protagonist arriving in Hell to seek admittance from a sceptical Satan (played with panache by Laird Cregar). The film lost to Casablanca in the best picture and best director categories of the Academy Awards.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the feature length Münchhausen, directed by Josef von Báky for Germany’s UFA. This is not a cartoon and despite being made under the auspices of Josef Goebbels it is apparently not strictly speaking a work of Nazi propaganda. Scripted by Erich Kästner (a controversial choice, as he was known for his anti-Nazi views), the film presented the outlandish adventures of the Baron von Münchhausen (of which his riding a cannonball is most celebrated) and was intended by Goebbels as morale-boosting escapist entertainment. Some of the Nazi leaders however appear to have found the film problematic, with Hitler reputedly instructing Goebbels to make sure Kästner received no further film assignments.

Other films that that could be nominated in the short dramatic presentation category include:

Captive Wild Woman, directed by Edward Dmytryk for Universal Pictures: brain transplantation, human-gorilla hybrid rampage. Trailer & film

Dead Men Walk, directed by Sam Newfield for Sigmund Neufeld Productions: sibling rivalry, evil twin returning from beyond the grave, black magic, etc.; film

Revenge of the Zombies, directed by Steve Sekely for Monogram Pictures: Nazi scientists plot to create a zombie army; film

La main du Diable (known in English as The Devil’s Hand and Carnival of Sinners), directed by Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques Tourneur) for Continental Films: surreal French film about an artist’s Faustian pact; trailer

The Mad Ghoul (also known as Mystery of the Ghoul), directed by James Hogan for Universal Pictures: experiments with ancient Mayan nerve gases lead to rampage by eponymous mad ghoul; film

The Mysterious Doctor, directed by Benjamin Stoloff for Warner Bros.: a headless ghost terrorises Cornish miners, disrupting the British war effort; trailer & film

Other films eligible in the long-form dramatic presentation category include:

El espectro de la novia (The Spectre of the Bride), directed by René Cardona for Films Mundiales: Fu Manchu movie serial from Mexico, featuring problematic stereotypes; clip (in Spanish)

Flesh and Fantasy, directed by Julien Duvivier for Universal Pictures; less saucy than the title suggests, this is a horror anthology film that includes an adaptation of a short story by Irish author Oscar Wilde; trailer

Le loup des Malveneur, directed by Guillaume Radot for Union Technique Cinematographique; gothic French drama based on an ancient family struggling under a terrible curse; film (in French)

Ram Rajya, directed by Vijay Bhatt; Indian film adaptation of the Sanskrit epic, The Ramayana; film (in Hindi)