Do rediscovered ‘lost’ movies always disappoint? This Depression-era pre-Code science fiction disaster thriller was unique in its day, and its outrageously ambitious special effects — New York City is tossed into a blender — were considered the state of the art. Sidney Blackmer and a fetching Peggy Shannon fight off rapacious gangs in what may be the first ever post-apocalyptic survival thriller.
KL Studio Classics
1933 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 67 min. / Street Date February 21, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Peggy Shannon, Lois Wilson, Sidney Blackmer, Lane Chandler, Samuel S. Hinds, Fred Kohler, Matt Moore, Edward Van Sloan .
Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Film Editor: Martin G. Cohn, Rose Loewinger
Special Effects: Ned Mann, Williams Wiliams, Russell Lawson, Ernie Crockett, Victor Scheurich, Carl Wester
Original Music: Val Burton
Written by Warren Duff, John F. Goodrich from the novel by Sydney Fowler Wright
Produced by Samuel Bischoff, Burt Kelly, William Saal
Directed by Felix E. Feist
Deluge has appeared in more lists of ‘movies one cannot see’ than I can remember. Every time a few of its spectacular special effects are excerpted in an another movie, usually a Republic Serial, I’m reminded of grainy images in old film books, and one impressive still of a forlorn Sydney Blackmer wandering at the edge of the ocean, like The Last Man On Earth. I skipped seeing the print found in Italy, dubbed into Italian, even when Wade Williams made it available on VHS, years ago. Now it surfaces courtesy of Lobster Films of France, in good to excellent shape with a decent English track. We’ve had this experience before, suddenly seeing excellent prints of reportedly lost pictures. This is a big one, not necessarily because the film is a classic, but because it’s the forerunner of the science fiction sub-genre that’s remained in vogue ever since the ‘sixties — the post-apocalyptic survivalist drama.
End-of-the World movies received a major push when the Great Depression came along, with surges in religious revivalism adding to the social hysteria. Both the French La fin du monde by Abel Gance and the astral collision catastrophe When Worlds Collide carry a heavy dose of Old Testament fury. Collide was prepared in the ‘thirties but not filmed ’til the ‘fifties, and another go-round for global catastrophe pessimism. Deluge begins with a Bible quote, but with exception of a brief shot of a minister at a pulpit, the rest of the movie is distinctly secular. Not a single person is seen begging God for salvation.
The story of the (apparent) destruction of most of the civilized world is told through just a few characters. With only an unscheduled eclipse given as a possible cause, scientists (Edward Van Sloan, Samuel S. Hinds) warn that crazy weather and geologic conditions spell disaster. Warnings go out to ships at sea and the public in general, but they do little good. Earthquakes and tidal waves of unprecedented magnitude sweep North America from West To East, wiping out entire sections of the country in an afternoon. When the catastrophe reaches New York, hundreds of Manhattan skyscrapers topple, and then giant waves wash over everything. Civilization as we know it is gone. Attorney Martin Webster (Sidney Blackmer) loses his two children and his wife Helen (silent star Lois Wilson). Champion distance swimmer Claire Arlington (Peggy Shannon) survives but is taken prisoner by Norwood and Jephson (Ralf Harolde & Fred Kohler), opportunistic thugs that fight for sexual possession of her. Claire uses her swimming ability to flee from Jephson, and washes ashore near the shack where Martin has been collecting survival supplies. They think they’re forty miles from where New York used to be.
The rest of the show is a battle for survival between our newly formed romantic couple and a group of killer scavengers that have already raped and murdered one woman. Jephson joins the mob, and they lay siege to Claire and Martin, who hide in a cave-tunnel. Not far away is a group of survivors that have gathered at an old resort. They lack leadership but are basically decent; a fair man named Tom (Matt Moore) gathers them together to form a defense militia against the criminal group. Tom is trying to get another woman survivor to forget her husband lost in the deluge, and marry him. It’s Helen Webster, and she refuses to believe that her husband is dead.
Did the disaster-film formula begin right here? Proving the influence of any particular film on another is difficult at best. Deluge couldn’t have influenced much of anything that followed — we’re told that it was withdrawn from circulation not long after its initial, lackluster release, and suppressed as part of the deal when RKO sold its spectacular stock footage to Republic Pictures for use in their serials. From the late ’30s on, Deluge couldn’t be seen anywhere. After the enforcement of the Production Code, some of its racy content might have prevented its being reissued, anyway.
The Amazing Miniatures
I had always assumed that RKO produced this show, and expected that it would have a ‘look’ similar to that of its contemporaries King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game. The excellent commentary on this disc reveals that Deluge was actually an independent pickup from BKS Productions, namely, Samuel Bischoff, Burt Kelly and William Saal. They went radically over budget due to the expensive special effects showing the destruction of New York. What look like hundreds of large (14 feet and more) model skyscrapers were cast in plaster and engineered to fall apart in pre-cut patterns. They were most likely mounted on shaker platforms and fitted with structural devices that could be withdrawn on cue. The effect is startling, even if not particularly convincing – most of the skyscrapers crumble like piles of building blocks, as if they had no steel skeletons. Clever rear projection setups show office walls falling to reveal vistas of tumbling edifices. Stunt men try to stay on their feet, and are buried by rubble, suddenly drop out of the shot, or both. Ned Mann’s work here was so impressive that he was immediately given a contract with Alexander Korda in England, for Things to Come and The Man Who Could Work Miracles.
True, after decades of more sophisticated special effects, Deluge’s shake ‘n’ soak inundation of The Big Apple is definitely not state of the art. Yet plenty of modern destruction effects done on this scale are equally preposterous. The art of traveling mattes was at best experimental in 1933, and without a fancy optical department (like RKO’s) the shots of foreground crowds running in panic are pretty crude. Yet they’re graphically effective. They appear to be optically combined with hand-painted mattes that are rough at best.
The full five-minute New York sequence continues with its most impressive shot, a God’s Eye overhead view of a very large miniature of the New York waterfront engulfed by monster waves. Does it look real? ‘Real’ meant something completely different in 1933. Nothing as ambitious as this would be tried again until Toho’s 1962 Gorath. It’s likely that MGM’s Slavko Vorkapich studied this sequence when preparing his sublime earthquake scene for 1935’s San Francisco. (There I go again, suggesting an influence relationship between movies with similar content).
The other effects in the movie are not as spectacular. A frenetic series of optical montages up front illustrate the worldwide panic, and numerous matte paintings help depict the shattered post-apocalyptic landscape. Genre film fans will be surprised to see the Bronson Caverns tunnels used extensively in the film’s second half. I’m told that the Bronson quarry shows up in silent pictures, but I’ve mostly seen it used in postwar movies. It looks different here, a decade earlier. The show makes extensive use of both ends of the main tunnel, sometimes with matte paintings. The East end of the tunnel may still have only one exit instead of three.
“One Woman for Ten Men and No Law but Desire!”
Even contemporary reviews pointed out Deluge’s problematic story structure, which like RKO’s Cimarron begins with its best material, after which nothing remotely as exciting happens. The mass destruction scenes are over at the nineteen- minute mark, leaving the rest of the movie to a small-scale struggle not unlike a vigilante western, with a fairly clumsy romantic soap opera taking precedence over other issues. Tyro Felix Feist doesn’t bring much of anything notable to the film’s direction. His dramatic scenes are barely adequate, albeit hampered most by a screenplay lacking sophistication of any kind.
The film never tackles larger post-apocalyptic issues and instead busies itself with a surprising emphasis on the rough time women will have in the post-civilized landscape. Lawlessness is expressed through brutal suggestions of rape and bondage. We’re shown the naked limbs of a dead women, still bound by rope and bleeding. A similar concentration on rape wouldn’t appear until 1962’s Panic in Year Zero!
The notion that women immediately become chattel when civilization breaks down extends to later post-apocalyptic fiction, even superior novels by John Wyndham and Ward Moore. And it’s true that whole lines of pulp fiction indulged in puerile sexual fantasies of this kind, whether in lost civilizations or outer space. This sexist undertow is balanced somewhat by the progressive Claire Arrington character. Top-billed Peggy Shannon shows an interesting personality (and really great hair): she remains knowingly independent even when being propositioned by the thoughtful Martin. Claire is also an assertive fighter. She doesn’t surrender when tied up and mauled by the disgusting Jephson, whose shaggy haircut reminds this viewer of Gibson Gowland in Von Stroheim’s Greed. Claire is a pretty daring pre-Code heroine. Her weapons include a rifle, a knife and a club with a spike driven through one end. She strips to her underwear to swim. At one point Martin carries her about when she’s apparently topless. The Code would eliminate even suggestions of such activity.
As a survivalist hero Sidney Blackmer’s fairly imaginative lawyer doesn’t do too badly either. He adjusts to the loss of his family far too easily, but compensates with his leadership skills. The rest of humanity boils down to packs of thoroughly rotten male scavengers, and a random bunch of survivors from the city that seem incapable of rebuilding anything without a strong leader. The nice intro to the new community shows barbers and other service-oriented folk working for free in a share-all spirit. Martin’s big contribution is to re-introduce the concept of money, to give relative value to those services. It’s what needs to be done, but in a few weeks they’ll likely be back to giving predatory mortgages, and foreclosing on those rickety shacks. Disappointingly, the film introduces a black survivor and then uses him for a couple of jokes about how lazy and cowardly he is.
The script just skips what ought to be essential scenes. Not only does Martin have no scene where he realizes he’s lost his family, his reunion with his wife happens off-screen as well. As the old rule of passive femininity dictates, Lois Wilson’s Helen Webster calmly accepts whatever Martin decides. We remain on Claire’s side even though she responds to her new rival in a completely selfish manner. We keep expecting the triangle to be resolved through action, with Helen sacrificed to something violent, a bullet or a volcano. Since Claire can swim to safety through a tsunami, she would seem the fitter of the species. Either that, or both women could surely find mates more rugged and attractive than the rather ordinary Mr. Blackmer. Although the info is repeated ad infinitum elsewhere, most of us know Blackmer very well from his superb performance thirty-five years later in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.
Despite its fantastic destruction scene, even commentator Richard Harland Smith rates Deluge as ‘a swing and a miss.’ With its second half limited to a few dozen people running around in the brush and quarry area in Griffith Park, the expensive Deluge seems a precursor of familiar ‘fifties sci-fi cheapies filmed on the level of a series western. The busy music score can’t hold a candle to the RKO-produced magic of Max Steiner, and neither are the performances up to big-studio standards. Director Feist stumbles over those discontinuities in the script, which leave the ‘hero’ Martin Webster shacked up with two wives and not even enjoying the situation. Webster is never shown trying to make a choice — he just tells each woman he loves her. The community was getting set to arrange an every-woman’s-gotta-get-married law, a solution just as unfair as Jephson’s caveman approach to gender equality. Perhaps Webster has plans to Make New Jersey Great Again by appointing himself a major muckety-muck with special privileges. But I guess no post-flood Design for Living came to be.
I’m really happy to finally see Deluge and grateful that Kino has delivered it to us so soon after its rediscovery. It may be no classic but its significance as a social document and a proto- Mad Max adventure makes it an important picture. And that crazy earthquake ‘n’ tsunami sequence is pretty amazing.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of the long-missing Deluge is a very good encoding of a definite rescue case. I saw some minor damage and some scratches around changeovers and a missed frame here or there; one cut with a ragged music transition and visible splice shift may or may not indicate missing or deleted material. The October 10, 1933 Variety review gives an overall duration of 68 minutes, so it’s altogether possible than nothing is missing — was that last minute rounded down or up? Were additional logos or end music dropped for export?
How was the film rediscovered? Let me quote Kino’s text, from Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films: “Thanks to film archivist George Willeman (of the Library of Congress), we located the nitrate dupe negative in the archives of the Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée in France. Although this element was partly decomposed, the latest digital technologies allowed us to restore the image to its original sharpness. Our sound department, LE Diapason, performed extensive sound restoration to both the French and English soundtracks.” The restored picture made its premiere in Paris in September of 2016.
Deluge has been given an excellent, heavily researched commentary by Richard Harland Smith. He offers plenty of detail on the production setup that made the movie, and why it went over budget. Richard has also been able to access the now-rare original novel on which the film is based, and found it superior to the film. Much of the book’s story after the cataclysm is the same, although less sanitized. The book’s scavenger mob has its female molls, and the original ending is more like that of The World The Flesh and The Devil than the one chosen by filmmakers. Smith’s insights also put a different spin on the specific fate handed down to Peggy Shannon’s Claire – although (spoiler) if she intended to go on living, why has she not taken any clothing with her?
Smith found contemporary articles on the special effects, with plenty of technical detail. Plaster miniatures of buildings… that must have taken a LOT of man-hours to construct. If a stagehand stumbled, the whole thing could have come down without the cameras rolling. Somebody misreported the size of the giant Manhattan miniature as being ‘100 square feet’… which would make the model only a dinky ten by ten feet in size. That’s a scale error almost as severe as the one made in This Is Spinal Tap.
Smith goes light on personal interpretations of the fantasy, and instead offers in-depth information. He carefully traces the careers of all the players, only three of which are credited on-screen. He does reference the contemporaneous MGM’s Men Must Fight (1933), a notable thriller that features a massed bombing attack on New York City. Those two pictures plus King Kong back up the notion proposed by earlier genre critics, that Depression audiences secretly wanted a revolution, and enjoyed masochistic political fantasies depicting the destruction of our capitalistic status quo. It’s really much simpler than that: spectacular destruction will always draw a crowd.
For an extra Kino offers another starring vehicle for Peggy Shannon, the ex-Ziegfeld redhead who had a brief and mostly unrewarding career. Pyramid Productions’ Back Page (1934) offers a sub-par newspaper story about an ambitious news hen who relocates to the sticks and saves a struggling paper, foiling an oil investment scam in the bargain. Shannon is again a fearless and assertive career woman. Most of the male characters are dolts (including a really limp Sterling Holloway), while Shannon assumes an editorship and saves the day. She even stays on the job at the finale. Made a year later, it’s likely that the Production Code would prefer that the character give up her career to raise a family. The movie is a minor curiosity, and the print and encoding are very good.
Kino offers no trailer for Deluge but includes coming attractions for several other disaster-related pictures.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good but for sci-fi fans A Must- See
Video: Very Good
Sound: Good – minus
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Richard Harland Smith; the complete 1934 Feature Film Back Page starring Peggy Shannon, the star of Deluge, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 18, 2016
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson