Critics attacking Michael bay’s TRANSFORMERS pictures as imaginatively bereft, inhuman, bloated multi-million-dollar celebrations of cheap plastic toys merely display their own lack of historical awareness, for, you see, long before the Hasbro toys were dreamed up, TRANSFORMERS was already a movie, 1934’s Warner/First National production, THE TRANS-FORMERS. Tragically, the movie was shelved after the Production Code came in, as Joe Breen objected strongly to the sight of Joan Blondell, as Optima Prime, shooting missiles from her nipples. The film is now considered lost, and only these stills of costume tests survive.

The 30s was in some ways a better age for strong female characters, and THE TRANS-FORMERS reflected this in making many of its protagonists robotesses. Optima was envisioned as a curvaceous platinum giant with the ability to turn into a Model T Ford. The model cities built as her stomping ground reputedly rivaled those constructed for JUST IMAGINE and DELUGE. Blondell’s Optima was joined by the sleeker Kickback, embodied by Glenda Farrell as a silvery version of the robot Maria from METROPOLIS, with a shiny front grille and the ability to turn into a Model T Ford, and by the aptly-named Ned Sparks as Wreck-Gar, thumbs welded into the pockets of his brass waistcoat, who has the ability to shoot lightning from his scowl and turn into a Model T Ford.

We can never really know what this lost classic was like, although the casting of Eugene Pallette as Unicron suggests it was lighter in tone than subsequent versions. We know the shoot was troubled — David Manners developed an allergic reaction to the lead body paint he was required to wear as Cliffjumper, and had to be replaced by Phillips Holmes, on loan from Paramount. (Manners’ allergy was severe, causing him to lose the use of his head. Fortunately, a prosthetic replacement was manufactured by Perc Westmore and Manners was able to continue his career unhindered.) The pioneering use of “animatronics”, a new special effects technique whereby elaborate mannequins were jostled about on tyres by burly stagehands, led to budget overspends, and the movie far overshot its original schedule of three weeks. Script alterations were made to help get the out-of-control production back on track, resulting in the deletion of Frank McHugh’s role as Ultra Magnus, the wrought-iron Irish-American with the ability to turn into a Model T Ford.

Some say the project was inherently limited, and could never have been a hit, since the scenarists had given their heroes the power to transform into cars, but not the power to transform back.

(Stills actually from MADAME SATAN [top] and the first version of THE GREAT ZIEGFELD.)

11 Responses to “RoboYeggs”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Joan Blondell shooting missiles from her nipples?! THE TRANS-FORMERS sounds like the long-lost ancestor of THE TENTH VICTIM (Ursula Andress) and AUSTIN POWERS (Liz Hurley). Is there really nothing new under the sun?

  2. Don’t forget Chesty Morgan.

  3. Andreas Says:

    OH MY GOD this is hilarious. I love it. Especially the fact that its audience is inherently limited to people with an appreciation for early ’30s Hollywood in-jokes.

    Would “More than meets the eye” be sung by Blondell during an elaborately kaleidoscopic dance sequence? I feel like it would have to be.

  4. I’d say so!

    My aim is to get a niche audience as small as possible. The Phillips Holmes reference is one I’m particularly pleased with.

  5. “Joe Breen objected strongly to the sight of Joan Blondell, as Optima Prime, shooting missiles from her nipples”

    Alas, it was shelved, but the Blondell-robot legend lived on, and no doubt it inspired Aphrodite A:

  6. Joan Blondell’s nipples are the pegs from which the entire pre-code era depends.

  7. Christopher Says:

    Ned SPARKS as Buck Rogers..hairdresser in a galaxy of stars

  8. Jeez — that’s the guy who contacted the Self-Styled Siren when she expressed similar confusion re the name. No political sympathy for him, but 44 is too young.

  9. David Boxwell Says:

    No directors were credited, but Roy del Ruth, Lloyd Bacon, Howard Bretherton, Mervyn LeRoy, Archie Mayo, Michael Curtiz, William Dieterle, and Busby Berkeley all shot footage according to the recently recovered studio logs. It was all a bit of a fiasco, really. Curtiz quit after just one day on the set.

  10. The Warners approach is fascinating because it both proves and disproves the importance of the director. Someone like Curtiz could impose his style over a whole film just by shooting part… but that meant you could replace him with a lesser talent and allow the lesser material to be subsumed by the great bits.

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