The Fashion of Sci-Fi Part 2 – 1920-40s

Posted: July 27, 2013 in Uncategorized

1920s – 40s
As we move into the next few decades of the 20th century, the style changes once again, with the notion of the metropolis and the daring heroes of pulp. Would the technology of the future according to 1920s and 30s mentality lead us into a Flash Gordon-like style of art-deco space-ships with sparklers at the back?


The first science fiction feature films started to appear during the 20s. Post World War 1 there was a notion that technology was becoming a destructive force and that technological advancements had gone mad.

This mistrust of technology can be seen in one of the most innovative and well regarded sci-fi films of all time Metropolis. Set in the year 2000 this was Fritz Lang’ expressionistic, techno-fantasy masterpiece. Considered by many to be the most innovative sci-fi film of all time (aspects and influences of the film can be seen from Blade Runner to Star Wars to Batman) the film is set in a socially-controlled futuristic city where an evil scientist Rotwang and his beautiful but creepy female robot Maria (who looks like a female C3P0)

With a focus that seems to reflect the social outlook at the time (oppression, industry and a subdued society) the beautiful original, futuristic sets, mechanically based society themes and a gigantic subterranean flood not only pushed the boundaries of sci-fi storytelling but was a visual effects and design – Metropolis really is a visual feast and innovative far beyond its time.

Metropolis influenced so much – from the backdrops of Gotham City to the jet-pack heroes such as the Rocketeer to the Cybermen the visual tropes and style of Metropolis has influenced

Gordons Alive

Space exploration was of course decades away however space adventures and the daring doings of outer space heroes shot their way onto cinema screens during the 30s. With the growth of cinema these heroes were perfect characters to make the jump from pulp to the silver screen. Created by Universal from the Alex Raymond comic strip first published in 1934 the serialisation of the adventures of Flash Gordon were produced on a relative shoestring budget but translated the fantastical worlds of Mongo and the innovation of anti-gravity belts and alien races with such great effect that seeing things like lizards and crocodiles with glued on spines, sparklers and washing up bottles as space-ships and household appliances as laser guns it didn’t matter – people had never seen anything like this before and marvelled at the strange new worlds translated to the screen, action packed episodes and climactic cliff-hangers

Flash Gordon checklist

Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers (1936), 13 episodes – later re-edited as the feature film Flash Gordon: Rocketship

Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938) – 15 episodes

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), 12 episodes

Horror Sci-Fi

It was just Fritz Lang who drew from the nightmares and suspicion at the time of ‘science gone mad’ and while with one part of Universal Pictures was busy producing Flash Gordon’s sci-fi adventures and wowing audiences with far off interplanetary escapades another part of the studio were busy tapping into the terror and fear of the population, building sets and labs for the oncoming storm of vampires, monsters and mad scientists.

With directors like James Whale tapping ‘classic’ horror with films such as Frankenstein Universal became the pioneers of ‘science gone mad’ style of film-making and crossed over sci-fi with horror and fantasy. Using other classical books from authors such as HG Wells Universal gave us Invisible Men, monstrous mummies, lagoon dwelling gill-men, charismatic vampires and sultry undead Brides and showed the worlds the talents of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr via the use of camera trickery, optical effects and layers upon layers of special effects make-up

With the Universal catalogue of mad scientists and artificially-created monsters that ran amok killing people the studio flourished and the growth of the film and magazines, (with people having money to spend on both the printed page and cinema) led Sci-Fi into the mainstream.

The Aesthetics

This was the time of Alex Raymond, space adventures and of course Batman – this is time would we be living in a Fritz Lang/Gotham city of the future full of airships and towering edifices, using Dick Tracy watches to communicate with fellow ‘Futurists’

Where the menaces came from outer space or from the minds of a mad scientist or from forbidding eastern European castles it was a time of innovation where the enemy could be seen and defeated – but this of course all changed in the 1950s where the paranoia of an invisible enemy reared its foreboding head and atomic power changed the world.


Metropolis (Fritz Lang)
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (Stuart Paton)

Cinematic serial:

Buck Rogers (Ford Beebe)
Flash Gordon (Frederick Stephani, Ray Taylor)
Superman (Max Fleischer)

Podcasts and Blogs


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