Wednesday, March 22, 2017

DELUGE (1933)

Scientists Samuel S. Hinds and Edward Van Sloan are mystified by the strange weather being experienced all over the globe—strong storms, an unexpected eclipse, rapidly dropping barometers, earthquakes. Ships and planes are grounded, and people are warned to take shelter. The end of the world is predicted; soon, the entire west coast of the USA collapses, as does Louisiana, and the Arctic Ocean floods into the Great Lakes. Even New York City isn't spared; between quakes and floods, Manhattan is basically washed away. We focus on one family:  lawyer Sidney Blackmer, his wife (Lois Wilson), and their two young children, who live outside of New York. As the winds and quakes hit his neighborhood, Blackmer takes his family to the relative safety of a nearby stone quarry, but he is washed away from them and wakes up the next morning in a post-apocalyptic landscape and assumes they are dead. Meanwhile, champion swimmer Peggy Shannon washes up unconscious and nearly naked and is found by two ruffians who are just barely surviving in a shack. Both men (Fred Kohler and Ralfe Harolde) seem to have lust on their minds, but they take her unmolested to their shack where she recovers. Eventually, Harolde attempts to rape Shannon and Kohler attacks and kills him, not out of any noble instinct, but because he wants Shannon for himself. She escapes, collapses, is found by Blackmer who takes her in, and they slowly fall in love and consider themselves "married."

Not far from Blackmer's retreat, two groups of people are struggling to survive. Kohler falls in with a ragged group of thugs who use physical force to get what they want, but a more civilized community is trying to rebuild, and we discover that Wilson and her two children are recovering here. Matt Moore, who has been Wilson's caretaker, tells her that in these new conditions she must marry someone when she gets healthy (I assume to build up the population and discourage unbridled male lust) and of course he hopes it will be him. But she holds out hope that Blackmer is still alive. Moore's men are after Kohler's gang, and soon Kohler manages to kidnap Shannon. A three-way confrontation is in store between Kohler's men, Moore’s men and Blackmer, leading to the destruction of the thugs and the assimilation of Blackmer and Shannon in Moore's group. But when Blackmer and Shannon find each other alive, more tension brews.

This film, long considered lost, is one of the first big-scale disaster/apocalypse films, though today's viewers may not consider its scale to be very sizeable. These films tend to be judged on their effects; Richard Harland Smith, who does a fine audio commentary on the Blu-Ray, complains about people who call the effects here "primitive," but they are primitive, and it does the movie no favors to ignore that. They will seem especially unconvincing to a modern audience, but to classic movie fans, the effects (mostly model work, mattework and stock footage) are effective enough. (RKO sold some of the effects footage to Republic for use in its adventure serials.) What unbalances the movie is that all the disaster is presented at a speedy pace in the first 15 minutes. Once Blackmer wakes up to a flat and watery world (pictured), the film slows down and becomes a typical survival melodrama. In a modern disaster film, there would be some prelude and backstory early on, and the disaster spectacle would play out closer to the halfway point. The acting ranges from bland (Blackmer is not very charismatic) to very good (the little-known Peggy Shannon as the swimmer). Given the remark about Wilson having to marry, it would have been interesting to go into the philosophy behind the survivors' new way of life. As it is, no attempt is made here at discussions of religion or division of labor, just as no explanation is given for the apocalyptic deluge itself—though there is an odd opening statement which refers to God's promise to Noah not to flood the world again, explaining that this film is just playing with this idea. The tantalizing idea of a three-way relationship between the leads is brought up in the novel this film was based on, but even though this was a pre-Code film, that concept isn't even touched here. The print, the only known English language one in existence, has not been cleaned up very well, but it's watchable. An interesting find. [Blu-Ray]

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