The Sunday Intertitle: Not-so-fresh Hell

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I watched the 1924 Fox Film Corps DANTE’S INFERNO for my new Forgotten By Fox column, but found it not good enough, partly because the only copies on YouTube are grim fuzzfests in which squinting gains you nothing, partly because the pisspoor telecine job is not rigorously incompetent enough to wholly erase the film’s script, co-written by Edmund Goulding.

The movie is actually one of the great poetic work’s more faithful adaptations — if you can call something faithful that omits two whole books of the Divine Comedy. But it folds its expensive and ambitious hellscapes — more like reconstructions than adaptations, since Mr. Alighieri’s travelog is low on narrative development, especially if you chop off purgatory and paradise — into a silly Scrooge plot in which a slumlord on the verge of a nervous breakdown is scared straight by the epic poem, hallucinating a hellish comeuppance for himself before it turns out to have all been a dream.

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The inferno itself isn’t quite as impressive as the one in the 1935 film — Fox again, this time inserting the Stygian depths into a moral narrative about an ambitious carny played by Spencer Tracy. The thirties hell is a place of gliding camera movements, whereas the earlier one, directed by one Henry Otto, adopts the more sedate tableau style, the better to craft artful multiple exposures, which time, and Grapevine Video, have done their best to occlude.

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My favourite Bad Moment is when, in his catastrophic nightmare, “Mortimer Judd,” the Ebenezer figure, orders his invalid wife to leave the house. Then he goes out, and upon his return learns that she’s now dying. Leading his son to say:

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Not great, Edmund Goulding. NIGHTMARE ALLEY’s better.

There’s also a butler character in blackface, but on the other hand the most “famous” person in it is Noble Johnson, Skull Island chieftain, as “demon whipping girl.”

The IMDb reports, sadly, “An incomplete nitrate print (missing Reel 2 out of five reels) survives in the UCLA Film and Television Archives, and is not listed for preservation.” One might argue that, given its many inadequacies, the movie should be listed for destruction, but those hell sequences are pretty special, and it upsets me that we’re apparently losing them forever.

3 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Not-so-fresh Hell”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    Disney’s “The Black Hole” led to a presumed heaven and hell, all effects work and carefully devoid of theism or meaning of any kind.

    Very, very few films or shows attempt a serious, literal Paradise. Soundstage heavens are generally comedic or emphatically metaphorical, if we see them at all. So are many Hells, but at least some — as in the “Inferno” movies — want to be taken seriously. Maybe because there’s a consensus that eternal torture is bad, while there’s no popular or theological agreement on what would constitute the opposite.

    “It’s a Wonderful Life” sends Clarance down from some talking stars. “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” offers a transfer flight between Earth and Heaven. “A Matter of Life and Death” signals we’re just playing by equipping Heaven with a Coke machine for the American arrivals. “Defending Your Life” proposes a modern, efficient afterlife for upscale Americans.

    Interestingly, Heaven doesn’t figure in Dickens’s “Christmas Carol” or in any adaptation I can think of. Death is the ultimate horror for Scrooge; his happy ending is that — for now — he’s not dead.

    Not having a logical wrap-up point, herewith a trivium: The shipwreck that ends the 1934 “Inferno” turned up as stock footage in one of the Green Hornet serials from Universal. Early on Britt Reid (alias you know who) is returning home on a boat, and disaster strikes. It would have been gratifying if the Green Hornet had a cliffhanger in Hell.

  2. I was watching the 1930s Inferno very carefully to see if its elegant camera moves included anything like the terrific pull-back in The Black Hole. It didn’t, but there’s still a definite influence going on.

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