Friday, May 15, 2020

At the slightest provocation: Deluge (and The Back Page)

Some people, when they see a cool clip of New York City being taken out by a tidal wave from a movie early in the talkie era, watch it, say "cool!", and then, like, move on to the next hundred things in their Twitter feed. I, apparently, stop it after fifteen seconds, saying I should probably see the whole thing, and see if the movie is on disc. It is - on Blu-ray, even! - so I order that and, a week and a half later, sit down and watch the movie. Then, because it was only an hour, watch the second feature that was included.

There are better ways to spend an evening, I suppose, but because these were 1930s B-movies, it only took about two and a half hours, total, and that's including the three disaster-movie previews included: Hurricane looks like some severely ugly exoticism, Avalanche made me smirk because I suspect we're supposed to cheer for Rock Hudson to get the girl rather than Robert Forster, and Meteor feels a lot like either a trailer that had to be released way before the effects were done or one that put every bit of effects work in the trailer.

As not-great as the main feature is, I still kind of love having it. As I mention here and here, and probably a lot of times before, I love and am fascinated by early-twentieth-century fantasies and science fiction, and discovering things like this always makes me wonder what could have been if more people were taking cracks at it. In this case, it seems to be one of about five films listed as "post-apocalyptic" on IMDB from 1935 or before. One was a German silent, and three were versions of the same thing, with It's Great to Be Alive the sound remake of Last Man On Earth (with an Italian remake as well), comedies about some guy who winds up isolated from the "masculitis" which killed off the rest of the male population. They are probably dire but I'd like to see them anyway.

Speaking of looking stuff up there, let me just insert this little reminder to never read the bio when you discover someone from early cinema who has a five or ten year career with prominent roles concentrated toward the beginning. You almost never want to know how that ends.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Deluge was not the first film to offer up the end of civilization as we know it on screen, but may be the first to do so in such spectacular fashion, even if the film itself was not a blockbuster or major release. It is, in fact, not far off from the end of the world tales that would appear more frequently decades later, just done in early-talkie style.

The exact cause of the disaster is not exactly specified (or may just tough to suss out with the way the first act is presented with not-great sound) - some combination of earthquakes and massive tides from an eclipse - but the result is a flood of Biblical proportions, wiping out first the west coast, then Europe, then causing the Great Lakes and Mississippi River to overflow before a tidal wave finally hits New York. That's when the focus moves from frantic scientists to the likes of lawyer Martin Webster (Sidney Blackmer) and his wife Helen (Lois Wilson), in a cabin upstate but thinking a move to a quarry would be safer; Claire Arlington (Peggy Shannon), who had been planning a record-breaking swim before the disaster; and then the likes of Jepson (Fred Kohler) and Norwood (Ralf Harolde), two toughs who find Martin's cabin later, or Tom (Matt Moore), the closest thing a small town has to a leader.

If Deluge is noteworthy for anything in 2020, it's the visual effects, but what's kind of fascinating is that it's in many ways an early primer on how to use them and where they may not convince. One may laugh at the miniatures which show the lines on which they will soon fall apart, but it's nevertheless fair work for the period, especially once a wave is in motion. The filmmakers are smart in how they deploy it, though, cutting to stock footage of actual fires and collapsing buildings and doing some strong matte work to get moving people in front of the destruction. The matte paintings and background work is solid throughout, in fact, enough to blend location and stage shoots better than other films that would follow later.

It also doesn't hurt that the film is pre-code, which not only means that Peggy Shannon can wash up on shore wearing nothing but her underwear twice, but that there can be a few bits of pretty nasty violence implied and shown. There's actually a fair balance between ruthlessness and sentimentality for a while, but eventually one has to give the film a lot of credit for what sort of novelty it must have been in 1933, because even by the standards of B-movie-makers not having a lot of practice, the script is a mess, throwing out a bunch of nasty villains and half-interesting ideas but not really having much idea of how to connect them other than happenstance, with the sort-of-interesting melodrama that the film has been building to eventually sputtering, like the writers didn't know what to do with a situation once they'd gotten there.

On top of that, this is one of those 1930s movies where the women are the first-billed stars but the filmmakers never really let them take control of the story. Peggy Shannon gets to play Claire as ambitious and brassy and is probably the best thing about the movie besides the special effects, and more than holds up her end of scenes with a baby-faced Sidney Blackmer, whose Martin is likably capable in action but bland through much of the film, especially when he needs to be feeling some sort of turmoil. Like much of the rest of the cast, he makes one appreciate how Fred Kohler makes Jepson an honest ogre.

Not bad for 1933 even if it's a novelty now, having been rediscovered after twice being thought lost. Its most impressive two minutes have been kicking around the internet recently, but the other 65 aren't exactly terrible, especially once you recognize that this came out mere months after the original King Kong and probably had less to work with.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Back Page

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Expectations were necessarily low for The Back Page - a feature film generally doesn't get relegated to the "special features" section of the Blu-ray of a film with whom it shares a cast member if it has a lot of individual merit - but I was unprepared for just how dull a bit of theater-filler this was. Even at just over an hour, it drags, and not just because I watched it as the back half of a double feature with disc-mate Deluge.

The funny thing is, it never feels like it has to be bad - the story of a reporter (Peggy Shannon) who gets fired from her big-city newspaper job and uses her ambiguous name ("Jerry Hampton") to get hired as the editor of a small-town paper and then uncovers the convoluted scheme to cheat the townsfolk out of the money they've invested in an oil well is a lot of material for a film that size, but not more than it can handle, and it only really feels sloppy when something loops around to suddenly connect the story Jerry was working on at the start to what's happening during the rest of the movie. It's absolutely one of those movies where more connects than necessary,

And yet, for having a halfway-decent script, the filmmakers don't seem to be confident in it. They spend precious time explaining situations that don't necessarily need it and, indeed, might be better if they just did the thing, like Jerry challenging her sexist boss and getting fired/blackballed for it, without a lot of pregaming. There's a whole lot of people explaining themselves rather than just showing how they feel or have changed over time, enough that it eventually feels like watching bad radio. Maybe the people who make movies for small studios like Pyramid Productions know what they've got to work with and are realistic about what they can get - and, maybe, what they can give. There's something to be said for clarity at the expense of style, but this seems to be an extreme case.

It starts to feel rough quickly, a bunch of stock characters playing off each other in uninspired fashion. Peggy Shannon hadn't necessarily felt like a star during Deluge, but she's weaker here, too desperate in her attempts to sound like a young go-getter and seldom able to find the sweet spot where we like Jerry rather than just relate to her, or think much of what she's got going with her boyfriend. The newsroom feels like types rather than personalities, a bunch of stock characters that never gel and could mostly be jettisoned. The story ends in a way that marks Jerry as clever but not the reporter who was too good and passionate for the big city.

Slogs like this are almost worse than disasters, because everybody just needs to be better, and not just a little better. Eighty years later, this is a Lifetime movie, which is nothing to be ashamed of, but even those just get the job done in a way this one doesn't quite manage.

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