One of the granddaddys of the disaster genre, finally restored. Kino Lorber and Lobster Films have released on Blu-ray DELUGE, the 1933 apocalyptic epic from Admiral Productions and Radio Pictures (RKO), loosely based on the British sci-fi bestseller from S. Fowler Wright, directed by Felix E. Feist, written by John Goodrich and Warren B. Duff, and starring Peggy Shannon, Lois Wilson, Sidney Blackmer, Matt Moore, Fred Kohler, Edward Van Sloan, and Ralf Harolde. Long-thought lost until an inferior Italian-language/English subtitled print was found in 1981 by “Uncle Forry” Ackerman, a nitrate dupe negative with the original English soundtrack was just discovered in 2016, and thanks to Lobster Films’ 2k scan, DELUGE is born again. Noted by Depression-era critics and audiences for its spectacular special effects sequence of the destruction of New York City by earthquake and tidal wave, DELUGE is a typically weird pushmi-pullyu pre-Code outing, with some tantalizing (yet unrealized) ideas amid the destruction and post-apocalypse raping and looting.
Welcome to the end of the
world. Men of science such as Professor Carlysle (Edward Van Sloan, DRACULA,
THE MUMMY) and Chief Meteorologist John Q. Public (Samuel S. Hinds, (SLAVE GIRL,
DANGER WOMAN) can’t figure out what the hell is going on, what with the
barometer falling through the floor, and earthquakes multiplying like bums in
a soup line. One thing they do know: they can’t stop it, and
soon, the entire planet lays in absolute ruins, with great metropolises like
New York City utterly swept away by earthquakes, massive storms, and tidal waves.
Attorney Martin Webster (Sidney Blackmer, HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE, ROSEMARY’S
BABY) barely survives the destruction of his seaside New York State cottage,
but his wife Helen (Lois Wilson, HER HUSBAND’S WOMEN, SCHOOL FOR GIRLS)
and their two young children are nowhere to be found. While he begins a new
life of isolation in an abandoned beach shack, beautiful long distance swimmer
Claire Arlington (Peggy Shannon, FURY OF THE JUNGLE, GIRLS ON PROBATION) washes
ashore in a nearby cove, clad only in her skimpy underwear, proving irresistible
bait for scruffy scroungers Jephson (Fred Kohler, CHINATOWN CHARLIE, THE VIGILANTES
ARE COMING) and Norwood (Ralf Harolde, HORROR ISLAND, THE PHANTOM SPEAKS). When
burly Jephson makes it clear to Claire that he intends to..."take care"
of her whenever he feels like it, she ditches her clothes again and swims out
to sea, washing up this time on Martin’s beach. Kindly, gentle Martin,
however, has zero game, so he goes the “soft sell” approach, eventually
getting the independent, scrappy Claire to fall in love with him. Meanwhile,
back at the shattered remnants of a resort town, about 200 survivors begin the
first awkward steps at building civilization back up, with Tom (Matt Moore,
THE UNHOLY THREE, I BURY THE LIVING) becoming a big wheel, particularly after
he decides to take on the raping and pillaging gang that lives on the outskirts
of town. Tom is also in love...with “Yep, she’s not dead!”
Helen. So you can see that when everyone meets up, there are going to be problems.
A long sought-after “lost” movie that, once it was unearthed in 1981, proved a bit anticlimactic to hard-core movie fans (a muted reception due in part to its less-than-optimal state: a reportedly rough, edited Italian language print), DELUGE now finally seems to be in as close-to-ideal shape as possible, thanks to KL and Lobster Films. When DELUGE was first released during the depths of the Depression, it was a marginal hit with audiences, at least in terms of a respectable gross (something close to a quarter mil), but most likely it proved a loss for RKO Radio Pictures, which put up the dough for indie Admiral’s production. Had producer Samuel Bischoff (THE PHENIX CITY STORY, THE STRANGLER) been able to keep the production at its original $75,000 budget, that gross would have been highly profitable. However, the complicated production—particularly the elaborate special effects and the more involved costuming and set design and decoration—ballooned the budget to over $175,000, and there probably went everyone’s profits (the lack of stars didn’t help, either. Had, say...RKO regulars Richard Dix, Katherine Hepburn, and Ginger Rogers starred, they would have pulled in the punters for DELUGE...while ironically blowing up the budget even more). The fact that so many moviegoers know DELUGE’s “destruction of NYC” scene and don’t know DELUGE itself, confirms its unprofitability: RKO would never have sold DELUGE’s special effects sequences to Republic Pictures, to be used as stock footage in popular Bs and serials like DICK TRACY VS. CRIME INC. and KING OF THE ROCKET MEN, if they thought a re-release would have squared the books (as well, its pre-Code storyline might have proved impossible to cut around for a post-Code re-release, considering how short the movie is to begin with).
That destruction sequence, which comes within the first ten minutes of DELUGE, is certainly the most arresting element of this post-apocalyptic actioner. Eschewing any kind of build-up, screenwriters John Goodrich (SHANGHAI BOUND, THE LOVE RACKET) and Warren B. Duff (EACH DAWN I DIE, ESPIONAGE AGENT) immediately place us, in the very first scene, in the midst of growing unease and panic as the stymied scientists scratch their heads at their barometer readings and radio reports of massive destruction overseas. Director Felix E. Feist (THE THREAT, DONOVAN’S BRAIN) doesn’t waste one frame as he ratchets up the building tension, as the inevitable coming onslaught is made worse by the ineffectualness of reassuring cinematic figures like Van Sloan and Hinds (it’s bad enough when they announce the entire West Coast has sunk into the sea, but you know you’re in trouble when Van Sloan cynically sniggers at a cablegram that asks for any words of encouragement to the public...before he neatly sums up, “Gentleman, I’m afraid there is no escape,”). Only the too chipper music—pretty common for this period until Steiner’s KING KONG invented the portentous, doom-laden sci-fi soundtrack—detracts from this surprisingly modern-feeling opener.
As for DELUGE’s destruction sequences themselves, well...they are primitive and crude and naive (the commentator on this disc, in such a snit, stated his blood pressure would rise thinking of some “wag” using those exact terms. My blood pressure rises at the pretentious use of “wag”). But they’re still pretty cool, in a way kids who grew up on GODZILLA model work special effects will appreciate all the crumbling and shaking and slo-mo water effects. Contrary to the commentator’s insistence, there’s nothing wrong with criticizing outdated special effects, just as we do outdated acting styles and directorial choices and narrative themes. So if my kids cracked up at those lousy matted-in running crowds in the streets (made ten times worse by reusing the same short shot at least three times), but “oooohed” with appreciation when the Empire State Building went down, so be it. Some stuff works great (that one shot of the disintegrating buildings literally churning in on themselves as the ground twists, and those effective floor shots of people high up in buildings suddenly dropping out of sight), while others simply don’t (that tiny tree hitting Martin’s house so fast is a hoot, while some of the water shots are out of focus, as The New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall noted in his 1933 review). Overall, it’s an impressive sequence, within the historical context of disaster movies.
The rest of DELUGE’s post-apocalypse survival storyline is unfortunately less successful. There are a couple of impressive mattes from Russell E. Lawson (SPARTACUS) that convey an eerie, utterly alone atmosphere as Martin surveys his new surroundings. However, survival in the New World is actually pretty easy if you’re a man. Food and clean clothes are plentiful, as is shelter and tools and firearms. Only outnumbered women seem to have it tough, since they’re either raped or killed or forced to marry someone for their protection if they want to stay in a “civilized” town (even in that “nice” town, which is contrasted as a haven compared to the rapist gang on the outskirts, Tom, on his way out to kill the gang, has to warn the townsmen who stay behind not to rape). And the pre-Code depiction of that new morality is strong. Jephson makes it clear he owns Claire sexually, and he’s going to take her whenever he wants (watch him almost faint with lust when he tries to grope Claire when she’s bound, quite attractively, to a tree). Even the visuals are striking; look how contemporary that shot is of Jephson and then Martin coming across the raped and murdered nude body of a young girl in the weeds. There are lots of interesting alleyways DELUGE could have gone down when these narrative tangents are introduced, particularly with an independent, fully capable heroine like Claire, a college graduate who first wanted to be a flier, before becoming a champion distance swimmer (Shannon, already a drunk on the skids when DELUGE came out, has a certain something that unfortunately wasn’t capitalized on during her short career). When she doesn’t like the scene at Jophson’s place, she bonks would-be rapist Norwood on the head and swims off. When Martin offers sensible protection, she accepts it on her terms (“I’ll stay...today,”).
Too bad, then, that the screenwriters eventually neutered (or is it spayed?) her independence. Once Claire sleeps with Martin, she considers herself married, and she wants a home to stay in. And after paying tomcat lip service about fighting for Martin against “I’m cool with anything” Helen, Claire exits again in a most unsatisfactory, “ambiguous-in-the-wrong-way” way. Wright’s original novel opted for a three-way solution for Martin, Helen, and Claire, but the movie only goes as far as Martin declaring his love for both women, before it chickens out with a phony "noble" ending. And in between, we have far too much talk, a protracted, poorly choreographed siege at Martin’s tunnel (saved only by seeing Claire pickax Jophson right after Blackmer flips his toupee), and attorney Martin introducing FDR-styled government gimmes to the townspeople to keep them happy (yep...civilization is doomed again). And what we don’t get is flat-out head-shaking: no reunion scene of Martin and his wife, Helen, nor of him telling his wife about Claire? The lack of these crucial scenes completely hollows out any dramatic tension built around the love triangle, leaving us no choice but to exit DELUGE the same way Claire does. Too bad there wasn’t another tidal wave or earthquake at the end....
Considering that DELUGE was “lost” for decades, and that only one known dupe negative has been found, the 1.33:1 1920x1080p anamorphically enhanced black and white 2k scanned transfer looks pretty good. White grain noise is elevated in many shots (unfortunately more during the special effects shots), but image detail is still impressive. Contrast is acceptable, and the grayscale a tad washed out at times. The DTS-HD Master 2.0 mono audio track has hiss, but nothing distracting if you’re used to these old materials. Levels are stable and strong. English subtitles are available.
Bonuses include a commentary track from film historian Richard Harland Smith. I’m not a fan of tracks that become performances, so when this one starts off with an affected tone and la-di-da utterances like, “a tale that will be told in good time,” and “when I see clouds in old movies, I wonder where they went,” I knew this was going to turn out like Smith’s DONOVAN’S BRAIN commentary: hard to take. Lots of facts from IMDB and Wiki and other people’s work, very little on what he thinks of the movie itself or how it works, poor attempts at humor, and we’re told which actors were gay. Next, the complete 1934 “second” feature from cheapo Pyramid Productions, BACK PAGE, starring suicides Shannon (drank herself to death), Russell Hopton (sleeping pills), and Claude Gillingwater (gunshot to the head). The story of a red hot pistol newspaperwoman Shannon who clears out of the big city to take refuge at a podunk little paper in the sticks, BACK PAGE has some interesting comments on corruption in small towns and on how women were treated in the workplace. But let’s not get crazy here and feel superior to the times shown; anybody going to the movies back then knew BACK PAGE was a fantasy, with the corrupt oil man easily put in his place by Shannon (nobody even gets beat up), and feminist Shannon—who seemed so happy and confident and strong being single--eventually learning to become happily spliced with dope Hopton (anyone trying to glean absolute truths from what did and didn’t show up on Hollywood screens in any time period, is looking to look foolish). A pretty cool bonus, all and all, particularly to see the enigmatic Shannon essaying another strong female character. Finally, trailers for AVALANCHE and METEOR are included. (Paul Mavis)
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