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.)