A movie I’d never thought I would live to see, the Kino-Lorber/Lobster Films restoration of the “lost” 1933 disaster flick DELUGE, majestically cascades onto Blu-Ray, bringing hope for future discoveries of other missing pieces of cinema.
DELUGE, the brainchild of underrated director Felix Feist (check out his rough “B” noir The Threat – one of the most chilling and meanest celluloid streets ever trod) and screenwriters Warren Duff and John. F. Goodrich (from the novel by Sydney Fowler Wright) relates the (then) unbelievable worst results of ignoring climate change. Scientists and seismologists worldwide warn of massive earthquakes guaranteed to give way to a rising tsunami (whose path of irreparable destruction will slice through America, particularly up the Eastern seaboard). Eventually, these disasters will go global. And it’s too late to stop it.
Pre-Code Depression U.S. couldn’t care less, with the populace concurrently going about their everyday anything-to-survive activities contrasted with the latest events in café society. Firmly entrenched in the latter is gorgeous Claire Arlington (Peggy Shannon), a champion socialite swimmer readying for a competition. Nevertheless, some are planning for the worst, like lawyer Martin Webster (Sidney Blackmer), wife Helen (Lois Wilson) and their two sprouts (Marianne Webster, Ronnie Cosby).
Then, almost directly on target, the forecasted force of nature arrives, with one difference – it’s far worse than the experts predicted. Within minutes, New York City is leveled in a spectacular display of pre-CGI special effects (marred only by some perspective-screwy rear-screen match-ups).
Blackmer, preparing to wait it out near Long Island, has his hopes dashed when wifey and kiddies are washed away. Shannon, diving into the currents, is carried to a nearby shoreline, unconscious, but remarkably alive.
That all this occurs within the first reel of DELUGE is amazing in and of itself (usually the SFX capper is saved for the last act, just one of the bizarre attributes of this jaw-dropping big-little 70-minute adventure.
What happens from this point on is extraordinary for a 1933 movie (well, maybe not, considering it IS pre-Code). Blackmer, lonely and desperate, tries to cope with the wretchedness of his new existence, not sure if anyone else is alive on planet Earth. For Shannon, it’s a fate worse than death, as the beachfront she’s washed up on belongs to two other survivors, Fred Kohler and Ralf Harolde. YIKES.
Even before she regains consciousness, the two grubby predators are undressing her and fighting for who gets to violate her first. But Shannon, ever resourceful, manages to sneak out and dive back into the sea, mercifully ending up on Blackmer’s property. For this grateful New Yorker, it’s like manna from heaven. Well, wo-manna, anyway.
Meantime, Kohler, who has killed the hornier Harolde, tracks the female via his makeshift vessel, arriving at the base of what days earlier would have been a vagrant Hooverville, but now is a rape gang. “I’m looking for a woman,” growls Kohler. “Who ISN’T?!” replies the thuggish head of the band.
Parallel to this is the growing sex-fueled attraction between Blackmer and Shannon, with the obvious (dare-we-say) climax. They will valiantly begin to re-populate Earth (with Blackmer undoubtedly eternally thankful that it was Peggy Shannon whom the tide brought in and not Marie Dressler).
Soon, the lovers come across the naked, raped body of a young girl, and realize that civilization has not perished after all. The unfortunate was a victim of the aforementioned rape squad, and lived in a newly christened community of other surviving members from the tri-state area.
Natch, Blackmer and Shannon are welcomed, but there’s trouble ahead. As the elders decide to hunt down and kill the rapists, Blackmer discovers that his wife and children survived the flood as well and are living in the town. Again, since this is pre-Code, there isn’t really that much of a conflict of interest here: it was an honest mistake (the shagging of Shannon), so while, Martin is content to have two beautiful women, Claire agonizingly tries to come to terms with the situation.
These romantic complications are temporarily put on-hold due to the tracking and killing-off of the rape cartel, another WTF segment, filled with much violence and bravado.
The resolution of the town’s pledge to collective bargaining (with Blackmer now installed as their ruler/President) prefigures Vidor’s Our Daily Bread by at least a year and is less brave new world than brave New Deal.
Shannon’s final decision is, again, only viable in pre-Code cinema (I won’t reveal what she does), and the picture ends with what was likely considered uplifting in 1933, compared to what most Americans were going through.
Some awful (and fortunately brief) racisim aside, DELUGE is sure to wow your audiences, especially if they’re pre-Code fans to begin with.
The performances are pretty good, with Blackmer, best known as the elderly warlock Roman Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby (“You name a place and I’ve been there.”) giving it his all. Other members of the cast include such recognizable faces as Samuel S. Hinds, Lane Chandler, Matt Moore and Edward van Sloan.
The history of DELUGE is almost as disaster-prone as the movie’s on-screen events. I had always thought it to be another in a line of successful RKO special effects blockbusters, following the studio’s King Kong box-office smash. Actually, DELUGE was not an official Radio Picture, but an independently made production pick-up. It had, in fact, been shot at the soon-to-be-defunct Tiffany Studios. Of course, this makes those outstanding special effects even more eye-opening.
What happened to DELUGE after its short 1933 release is still hard to fathom (no pun intended). The reel of special effects was sold to Republic Pictures, where it pumped up the excitement in several serials throughout the 1930s and ‘40s. But the actual negative and elements seemed to disappear, and, while its legend loomed large, no one could find a print (I had only seen stills and read about it in 1960s monster magazines).
Then, in the 1980s, a print surfaced in Italy. When this rumor was indeed verified (and it was subsequently shown at local film festivals), DELUGE‘s reputation as a must-see epic became a fact. Even so, the murky remaining print looked worse than furnishings washing ashore in the pic’s flood. This additionally wasn’t helped that the copy was dubbed in Italian (up until screening this Blu-Ray, I wasn’t totally sure that it would be in English, and was figuring on a subtitled version).
After a decade of terrible bootlegs (including some in subtitle-less Italian), Kino and Lobster Films have achieved the impossible. They have provided an incredibly decent 35MM print in its original English language. What, how, where…I dunno, but I’m too happy to care. The print, while certainly not pristine (exhibiting some grain), is more than acceptable, a nice testament to the work of terrific d.p. Norbert Brodine (Of Mice and Men, The House on 92nd Street, Somewhere in the Night, Kiss of Death, etc.). The foreboding music by Val Burton is yet another plus. There are also some nice extras, including audio commentary by Richard Harland Smith and the complete public domain 1934 Peggy Shannon feature Back Page.
And, finally, we can’t ignore the coincidental goosebump-raising, unnerving foreword to the proceedings of the pic’s monumental Manhattan disaster: a biblical quote from Genesis (wait for it), 9-11.
DELUGE. Black-and-white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]. DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber/Lobster Films. CAT # K21208. SRP: $29.95.