Apres le Deluge

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.

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21 Responses to “Apres le Deluge”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    The real disaster was Shannon’s life–dead from cirrhosis before she was 35. She was stunning-looking in this film.

    I wonder what Feist did between THE DELUGE and his 40s and early 50s film noir career (I love THE THREAT, THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE, TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY (with Steve Cochran as a 35 year-old virgin), and the weirdest film of Joan Crawford’s prime-time career, THIS WOMAN IS DANGEROUS, which plays like a warped rendition of MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, with gangster moll Joan losing her vision and undergoing torturous eye examinations and surgery, with doctor love and spiritual redemption as a bonus!)

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    “Where did you find her?” A shout out for one of Hollywood’s greatest little weasels: Ralf Harolde. Always great to watch.

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    Harolde played two of the very worst doctors in Hollywood history: Dr. Milton A. Ranger (Wellman’s NIGHT NURSE) and Dr. Sonderborg (Dmytryk’s FAREWELL MY LOVELY) and these skinny sleazebags:

    Lips Haggerty; Slick Wiley (opposite Mae West); Jerry the Mug (against Cagney); Legs Davis; Carp; Trigger Stone; Lefty Phillips; Moxie McGrath; Stud Rocco; and Henchman Halliger.

    He OWNS “The Chiseler” website, IMHO.

  4. Time The Chiseler called on this oleaginous skeleton, perhaps.

    Poor Peggy — all I spotted when briefly fact-checking her was that her career was short and seemed to fizzle. I hoped she married a millionaire or something.

  5. When I think of Ralf Harolde, it’s always with a needle sticking out of his arm. Did anyone else play a junkie as often as Harolde did in precodes? I also thought that his Dr. Sonderborg, um, indulged a bit also.

    I was always surprised when I found an actor or actress I knew well from older films died early, like David Landau or Sidney Fox. Unless they got to be big stars, actors often died without wide notice, ensuring you have to look up their IMDB listing for the reason they dropped out of films.

  6. The poor reception given to Eastwood’s HEREAFTER is yet more evidence that you shouldn’t *start* your film with an earthquake or tidal wave. Everything that follows is by definition anti-climactic.

  7. I love 30’s Sci-Fi. Personal Favourite is “Transatlantic Tunnel”
    Thanks for an interesting post.

  8. David Landau I didn’t know about. Sidney Fox I don’t really know.

  9. Coincidentally (?) – as noted on Facebook by “Classic Images” writer, Laura Wagner – today is Felix Feist’s 101st Birthday.

  10. That is an AWESOME coincidence! Happy birthday, FF, whatever grave you lie mouldering in.

    I *think* I have a copy of Transatlantic Tunnel around somewheres, plus the German take on the theme, Der Tunnel. Ever since Woman on the Moon, German sci-fi tended to be about vast engineering projects, didn’t it?

  11. Fox was in Murders In The Rue Morgue, The Mouthpiece, and Strictly Dishonorable, along with Once In A Lifetime. She was in a bad car wreck and her career seemed to go straight downhill from there, and she finally took the Lupe Velez way out, also Arthur Edmund Carewe, the junkie from Mystery of the Wax Museum did the same. Sam Hardy was another early death, character actor who did good work playing a director in Make Me A Star. Seems illness or suicide (or both, illness then suicide) were the ways most went, which is why Thelma Todd was considered such a fascinating case, it was sort of a sound version of the Thomas Ince death.

  12. “Ever since Woman on the Moon, German sci-fi tended to be about vast engineering projects, didn’t it?”

    Seems like it. Looking forward to your review of “F.P.1 antwortet nicht” (Floating Platform No. 1 Doesn’t Answer). Peter Lorre in a film partly scripted by Curt Siodmak? It has to be great.

  13. Christopher Says:

    Sidney Fox was just the cutest thing..

  14. Oh, look forward no longer! Look BACKWARD: http://dcairns.wordpress.com/2009/02/16/fp1/

    The one version of the Thelma Todd murder that just seems highly unlikely is the mob hit theory: unless anyone knows of other gangster crimes staged to look like suicide at that time.

  15. David Boxwell Says:

    Off-topic: deaths reported of Jane Russell and Annie Girardot today. 89 and 79 years of age, respectively.

  16. Fox was very funny in Once In A Lifetime, playing an untalented girl complete with pushy mother, ready to storm Hollywood. Her idea of a good piece to audition is reciting Kipling’s “Boots”.

    Shockingly, I didn’t realize Jane Russell was still among us.

  17. Oh, I thought Jane would last forever: she just seemed so invulnerable.

  18. This film, though I’ve never seen it, is in my DNA, because when I was a kid I owned four or five copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland, and one of them covered in typically hyperbolic style the rediscovery of Deluge as though it was the missing reel from Ambersons. My introduction to Film History thus skewed, I was ready for a world where Lionel Atwill was a God, and Fay Wray his handmaiden. This site is as close as I’ve found in the real world, so far.

  19. I too had a few issues of that magical mag: walked into a corner shop while on holiday with the family, aged ten or so, and found a whole rack of them. It was obvious I’d never see such a trove again, so I begged to be allowed to buy them all, but was told three was the limit. Obviously it took a VERY long time to choose…

  20. Some of that “Deluge” disaster footage showed up in one of the Republic serials. “Commando Cody” perhaps?

    I read at one time (on the internets? some old reference book?) that some of the earthquake effects were achieved by building the model city on a gurney, strapping the camera to it, then sending it down a hill!

  21. Wow — the gurney thing seems unlikely, but it does seem like they might be moving the landscape about on a couple of wheeled tables, in order to make the chasm open up and swallow everything. I think the camera needs to remain stable though.

    But sure, maybe they TRIED rolling downhill. Then they probably bought a camera to replace the one they’d trashed, and shot what we see in the film…

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