Republic raids an early RKO talkie for a fantastic special effects sequence, and you won’t believe how it’s repurposed — in a story about a TV personality (in 1939!) taking on a corrupt political mob. New York crumbles and is then washed away — sort of. It’s yet another resurfacing of a title that not long ago we couldn’t see to save our cinema-curious souls.
S.O.S. Tidal Wave
1939 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 62 min. / Street Date October 31, 2017 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.98
Starring: Ralph Byrd, George Barbier, Kay Sutton, Frank Jenks, Marc Lawrence, Dorothy Lee, Oscar O’Shea, Mickey Kuhn, Ferris Taylor, Don ‘Red’ Barry, Raymond Bailey.
Cinematography: Jack A. Marta
Film Editor: Ernest Nims
Musical Director: Cy Feuer
Written by Gordon Kahn, Stanley Rauh, Maxwell Shane, story by James Webb
Produced by Armand Schaefer
Directed by John H. Auer
If Republic wasn’t the most conservative studio in town I’d say everyone working in the place was on drugs. Their production values are consistently high, but the screenplays, dialogue and direction of far too many of their films seem slapdash and thoughtless. I’ve waited for most of a lifetime to see 1939’s S.O.S. Tidal Wave a promising disaster-themed film that makes use of stock footage from a 1933 RKO production called Deluge. RKO actually shelved Deluge after selling off five minutes of sensational footage of New York being destroyed.
Descriptions of S.O.S. Tidal Wave don’t prepare the viewer for the experience. It’s as if someone pulled a weak ‘city corruption’ script out of a folder, and tried to combine it with something new in the culture — a media hoax. The day before Halloween in 1938, Orson Welles made history with a radio broadcast that caused a panic — exactly how large is now debated. Welles’ docudrama approach convinced some radio listeners that a real invasion from space was underway. In Tidal Wave the apocalyptic footage from Deluge is used merely for a television stunt, a political hoax.
Gordon Kahn, Stanley Rauh and Maxwell Shane’s shallow screenplay has a tough time explaining what’s going on, and has difficulty creating believable characters. Former responsible newspaperman and present selfish TV personality Jeff Shannon (Ralph Byrd, already established in the Dick Tracy series) refuses to help defeat the corrupt politician Clifford Farrow (Ferris Taylor), even though both his family and his fellow TV personality Uncle Dan Carter (George Barbier) are committed to the cause. When Farrow’s ‘campaign manager’ Melvin Sutter (Marc Lawrence) threatens Shannon’s family, he backs down. Sutter’s gangster cohorts then set their sights on sweet Uncle Dan, who performs in a kiddy program with a ventriloquist’s dummy. Shannon’s wife Laurel and son Buddy (Kay Sutton & Mickey Kuhn) are threatened just the same. Sutter suppresses information about Farrow’s previous criminal activity, but when the news comes out anyway, an incredible distraction is created to keep voters from the polls. Taking over Jeff’s TV studio, Sutter and Farrow broadcast movies of a disastrous earthquake and tidal wave hitting New York City. A fake Hindenberg-like commentary throws the town into a panic.
S.O.S. Tidal Wave simply doesn’t convince for a moment. As with so many Republic pictures the relationships between the characters and their interaction with the story conflict just isn’t there — they seem desperately involved one moment and unconcerned the next. Jeff Shannon is both irresponsibly selfish and heroically committed, depending on the scene. We understand that he might back down due to Sutter’s evil threats, but he keeps the danger a secret even when Uncle Dan will obviously walk into the same trap. Jeff keeps his wife Kay and his kid Buddy in the dark, breaking up his family for no reason at all. Kay would immediately understand what’s going on, but the story requires that Jeff clam up. In the third act, when Jeff is shocked, shocked I tell you to discover that Sutter has retaliated against Kay anyway, we just throw our hands up in the air.
Apparently maintaining feeble story formulas was more important. Jeff has a sidekick named Peaches Jackson (Frank Jenks, immortalized in His Girl Friday) who provides comedy relief. Using unfunny malapropisms, Peaches jokes about his clumsy engagement to the wisecracking Mable (singer Dorothy Lee). For sentiment we get George Barbier’s Uncle Dan, a TV ventriloquist who’s sort of a cross between Edgar Bergen and a Teddy Bear. The entertainer is mainly a lovable pal for young Buddy, until he decides to continue the political truth telling after Jeff Shannon balks. Instead of looking noble, Dan comes off as an idiot. He practically writes his own death warrant, letting the evil Sutter know that the evidence in his briefcase is the only copy.
We’re tempted to invent a silly scene right out of 1941. While unconscious Uncle Dan is being put in the ambulance, his ventriloquist dummy should be squawking in protest, telling the cops everything.
Experimental TV was in operation here and there in 1939, narrowcasting to special venues and various early adopters in New York City. S.O.S. Tidal Wave’s science-fiction aspect is that the broadcasts are seen by many and are highly influential. Announcer-commentator Jeff Shannon has been transformed into a trusted media personality, like Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite. The Man in the Street is ready to believe everything Shannon says.
I suppose a case can be made that Tidal Wave accidentally predicts a future of media power, where telegenic personalities command impressive influence over the public — Joe McCarthy, John Kennedy, Donald Trump. But the film script seems unaware of its own prescience — when Uncle Dan and Jeff are approached to promote certain ideas, nobody makes a speech about their status. Nobody flat-out says, “Because you’re on television, dummy.” It doesn’t really matter — when the inconsistent Shannon wusses out, the film is left without a hero.
All on their own, Shannon and Peaches produce an entire news show every day just by driving around in a van with normal 35mm movie equipment. They also have portable synch sound equipment, twenty years before the fact. We only see a single rewind bench and a few spools of film, but Peaches somehow comes up with beautifully edited you-are-there footage, which Jeff narrates from his own TV studio. How all that film is developed and printed and edited while the two of them socialize and sit in bars all day is a secret every editor would like to know.
The best thing in the movie is the bad guy, Marc Lawrence’s Melvin Sutter. A favorite screen villain, Lawrence has a great pockmarked face and evil stare; everybody thought he was Italian in innumerable gangster bit parts. My favorite is still Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger, where he engages Gary Cooper in a memorably vicious fight to the death while Italian music plays. In Tidal Wave Lawrence uses a cane and hat, and has a terrific bit of repeated character dialogue, always said when he’s just decided to kill somebody: “Are we still friends?” Remember, no matter how sincere the smile, anybody who talks like that is not your friend.
The picture is only an hour long, and more or less at the halfway mark we’re wondering when this unnamed city is going to be hit by the incredible earthquake and deluge seen in original poster art. And how a massive disaster might relate to the political corruption plot is a head-scratcher as well. The answer is simply ludicrous — Shannon breaks into his own studio and finds the villains broadcasting scenes from a film can labeled “Rented from Horror Films Incorporated.” Although plenty of the special effects from Deluge are shown full-screen, quite a bit of it is seen on a TV monitor, with actors staring in disbelief. ‘We’re just showing a movie, there’s no law against that!’
S.O.S. Tidal Wave should be taught in The Writer’s Guild as UNFORGIVABLY BAD WRITING. Who knows how many dead are in the streets because of the stampede caused by the broadcast — apparently this town isn’t far from New York? Uncle Dan has quisted his last ventrilo, and Jeff’s Shannon’s family has been smashed up for no good reason. But at the fade-out all is just swell, with Peaches and Mabel ending the show with a laugh.
Wow … the original post-apocalyptic saga Deluge captures my imagination, but I don’t expect it to connect with the general audiences of today. Long ago I caught glimpses of the Deluge effects in later Republic serials. They also worked well as film clips set against rock music and a wacko announcer (radio disc jockey Machine Gun Kelly) in the Firesign Theater comedy J-Men Forever. But S.O.S. Tidal Wave is a film strictly for sci-fi, fantasy and Republic completists.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of S.O.S. Tidal Wave happily comes in a quality presentation that I’ll describe in grade school terms: neat-o perfecto keen-o. The original film elements appear to be in great shape; if Republic indeed disassembled Deluge for the special effects finale, we might be seeing original negative from 1933 in there, too. Although we can make a case that nothing particularly artistic is on view, what we’ve got is a nigh-perfect encoding of a rarity from 1939. Ralph Byrd looks like he has a headache. Frank Jenks is a joker, George Barbier a little weird and Kay Sutton truly beautiful. Republic was frequently story-challenged, but they knew how to put a polish on their camerawork.
There are no extras to explain any of what we see, which is just as well — the fans that order S.O.S. Tidal Wave just want to see this long-missing oddball sci-fi item.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
S.O.S. Tidal Wave
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 29, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson