Just saw RKO’s other 1933 special-effextravaganza, DELUGE, and wanted to write about it — a pre-code sci-fi disaster movie! But also realized that possibly the terrible Earthquake in New Zealand makes this a sensitive time to be dealing with a very trivial manifestation of the subject of earthquakes. What I suggest is that you don’t read on if you’re not in the mood for a discussion of a 1930s end-of-the-world movie.
As insensitive as I am, seeing this movie in the wake of the TV images of real-life destruction made things slightly queasier than they would otherwise be. I can’t help but feel that, exactly as with any Roland Emmerich movie, the intended emotion as New York is swamped by tsunami is “Wow! Look at that!” And the special effects are both weird (the sheer unreality of the process shots has the power of nightmare) and staggering (those miniature skyscrapers must have been BIG, and there are so many, and how did they get them to collapse like that? And they must be filming in really slow motion. We all know that water never looks entirely convincing in miniature — there’s no special effect that can alter its surface tension, as Peter Jackson remarks on the commentary track of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS — but the waves here are as impressive as any I’ve ever seen. Certainly better than the sploshing in RAISE THE TITANIC, where one can’t help notice the slo-mo droplets flying from the White Star liner’s hull, each large enough for a small family to climb inside.
Apart from the awesome effects sequence, which comes about ten minutes in, what does DELUGE have to offer?
Oh, lots! First there’s the movie’s weird history. Despite the fortune spent on it, it went missing, probably because it couldn’t be re-released after the Production Code — more on its pre-code content in a mo. A print eventually turned up in Italy in the 80s, and of course the Italians had dubbed it. So here it is, an American film dubbed into Italian and subtitled in English. (Dubbing it back into English might make a fun project for somebody.)
I hadn’t realized director Felix E. Feist, who made a bunch of noirs later on(eg THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE), started so early. He pulls off a snappy shot at the start, weaving amid histrionic scientists reading data reporting the impending apocalypse, then settles down to B-movie stultitude, but what’s striking is the way this movie doesn’t obey the dictates of Hollywood structure. I strongly suspect some cuts have affected the story — we don’t seem to meet any of the heroes until things are well underway, apart from the champion swimmer played by Peggy Shannon.
Since the majority of the story takes place after the end of the world, recalling Sam Goldwyn’s line about wanting a story which starts with an earthquake and builds to a climax, we’re by definition in anti-climactic terrain. The majority of the plot concerns a family separated by the flood (in circumstances never made clear). The husband thinks the wife dead, and vice-versa, and both are tempted by newcomers. He, played by Sidney Blackmer (good old Roman Castevet, “Satan is his father!”) rescues the sexy swimmer from a fate worse than gang-death, while she is gently wooed by a nice chap in the township of survivors. Fans of pre-code incorrectness will be glad to know that among the survivors of the biblical catastrophe is at least one comedy negro. This fellow fails to buy the Venus de Milo for a quarter (“Her arms are broken”) and another bucolic sort makes off with her for two bits. “Winter’s coming. You ain’t got no imagination,” he states, to general laughter. Nobody in this post-apocalyptic landscape acts bereaved, except the heroes, who it turns out aren’t. And not even the Mona Lisa is safe from unwelcome attention — those tidal waves must’ve been pure testosterone, since the bulk of the plot now deals with the threat posed by violent male sexuality. What began as 2012, 1933-style, is now THE ROAD.
Rapiest of the nasty survivors is the tousle-haired Jepson, played by a Sternberg favourite, Fred Kohler, bad guy in UNDERWORLD and two lost JVS classics, THE DRAGNET and THE CASE OF LENA SMITH (wonder if he’s glimpsed in the surviving fragment? And why isn’t it on YouTube?). If the sight of Peggy Shannon washed ashore in her undies isn’t startling enough, Kohler’s censorable pawing of her upper regions will pop open the most jaded of eyes. And his eventual demise at her hands, walloped by a two-by-four sprouting a huge masonry nail, is likewise extraordinary. As Shannon steps back in horror, the handle-end of the stick remains hovering in mid-air, leading us to infer that the other end is embedded in Kohler’s skull. Ouchy.
The love quadrangle is settled by reaffirming the importance of marriage in a post-apocalypse world, and poor Peggy ends by swimming off towards a matte-painted horizon, an act which certainly feels like suicide, and a slap in the face to liberated, independent woman swimmers everywhere.
Still, her earlier eagerness to “see what’s out there” holds alive the hope that she might make landfall in some more conducive environment. Let’s see, it’s 1933 — somewhere, a tribe of Broadway gold-diggers have established their own primitive society on a nub of land that once held Sardi’s Restaurant. With an economy based on large, wearable coins, pig latin as their official language, and a tradition of human sacrifice to the mighty goddess Djinn-Jah Raw-Jazz, they will welcome her into their satin-draped bosom.