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Posts Tagged ‘1930s’

I have the vague suspicion that I’ve been putting off writing about the original King Kong from 1933 for nearly twenty years (basically since I started writing about films on the internet in the summer of 2001). Obviously, it isn’t an overwhelming aversion, as I am about to do just that, but I suppose I would articulate it as a vague sense of feeling supernumerary. King Kong was released 87 years ago, was a massive success, inadvertently spawned (if you believe some sceptical cryptozoologists) the modern phenomenon of the Loch Ness Monster myth, quickly became an icon, and so on. People have been writing about this film for the best part of the century. I think I once described it as a keystone movie in the history of cinema, staking out the territory for both the monster movie genre and that of the special effects blockbuster.

It is also quite recognisably the inaugurator of the phenomenon of a great film being followed by a raft of mostly substandard follow-ups, sequels, knock-offs and remakes: if you put all the Kong films – this, the 1976 one, the 2005 one, King Kong Lives, King Kong Escapes, Son of Kong, Queen Kong, Konga, Kong: Skull Island, and so on – in a stack and then pulled one out at random, your chances of ending up with something genuinely good are – well, they’re better than if you’ve got the Hellraiser or Highlander franchises in a stack, I suppose, but they’re still not fantastic.

But here we go: the original monster movie, which I shall endeavour to find something new to say about. Directed by Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack, this takes us back to the days when movies didn’t hang about, and you could do a properly epic adventure in under 100 minutes: King Kong is a model of economy, giving you everything you need and want, and very little that you don’t.

(Do I really need to precis the plot? Oh well, for form’s sake.) The story gets underway in Depression-era New York, with movie-making impressario Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) about to set off on his latest film-making expedition – the need to depart is quite pressing, as if the port authorities discover the small arsenal he has assembled on board. But the market has spoken and, somewhat to Denham’s disgust, the new movie needs a female lead. So he pops into the city and hustles (practically kidnaps) starving young actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) into joining the venture (no pun intended).

The ship sails off for somewhere in the South Seas (possibly the Indian Ocean – the film-makers quite rightly keep the exact location of Kong’s island a secret), and you would expect this to be one of the points of the film which marks time a bit. But no: the film-makers cheekily stuff this section with brazen foreshadowing of the rest of the film: Denham explains how the film he’s planning on making is about a big tough guy who is doomed from the moment he falls in love, and then goes on to shoot some test footage of Ann which anticipates her encountering a giant monster. What are the chances?!?

Well, they arrive at their destination, a remote island never before seen by westerners, where the key points of interest are a mountain shaped like a skull and a giant wall isolating the peninsula where the natives live from the rest of the place. Here I suppose we must address the fact that the representation of the islanders in King Kong would be unforgivable in a modern movie, but – and I’m sorry if I seem to be making hard work of this issue, but that’s the world today for you – as I have noted, King Kong was made 87 years ago, and it would be as unfair to judge its presentation of other cultures by modern standards as it would be to compare its special effects to those of a contemporary film. To be honest, the islanders in the movie come off pretty well: they’re not presented as idiots or the comic relief, and they do show up to help in the big fight at the end of the second act.

Anyway, as Denham suspected, on the other side of the wall lives a man-beast known only as Kong, whom the islanders worship and occasionally placate by giving him a woman. They are very keen for Ann to take this role, and resort to kidnapping her to this end, although not before lunky first mate Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) can plight his troth to her in tooth-grindingly folksy style (if there is a real weak link in King Kong, it is Cabot’s performance, although the actor did go on to have a respectable movie career which only concluded with Diamonds are Forever in 1971).

Ann gets offered up to Kong, who turns out to be a giant cross between a gorilla and something out of Wallace & Gromit, and he carries her off into the jungle. Denham, Driscoll and the others give chase, and from this point on it’s rollicking pulpy fun all the way – stegosaurs! Tyrannosaurs! The weird skull-crawler lizard they revived for the 2017 film! Man-eating sauropods! Serpents! Pteranodons! Thankfully the test audience thought that the giant spiders were too much and they were taken out of the movie. Even so, few monster movies, especially ones using stop-motion animation, are so packed with set-pieces as this one.

If King Kong is a classic – and I think we can agree it is – then it is because the makers seem to have hit upon the basic structure of the monster movie as a cinematic genre, and it appears here almost fully formed: not just that, but also executed to a very high standard. Once Kong appears, the films moves like a bullet, with scarcely a wasted moment or scene (something you can hardly say about the Peter Jackson remake, in particular).

Other than the fact that it was done first and done so well, is there anything else that makes King Kong unusual or distinctive? Well – a few things do occur to me, actually. The first is that the film’s influence on the Japanese tradition of monster movies may be rather stronger than it is generally considered to be – of course, Willis O’Brien’s effects inspired Ray Harryhausen, who made The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which was unofficially remade as the original Godzilla. But the engine of subsequent Japanese movies was the notion of the monsters fighting each other, and it seems to me that the fight between Kong and the tyrannosaur in the second act was the inspiration for this. Tellingly, when Godzilla took on his first monstrous rival (Anguirus, in 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again), it is also in the second act, and concludes with the same kind of graphic brutality as Kong crushing the carnosaur’s jaws (there are many quite grisly touches to this film).

The again, watching this film again for the first time in ages, it strikes me that there is something quite odd about its structure. If you look at it in terms of the traditional story structure they teach on screenwriting courses, it fits the usual pattern reasonably well: the inciting incident comes when they all set off on the voyage, with the revelation of Kong’s true nature coming around the midpoint. There’s the moment of despair when Kong kills most of Driscoll’s party, followed by a rollicking final act in which Ann is rescued, but Kong pursues her back to the village, where there is a great battle and the ape is finally defeated!

Except, of course, there is a whole other act still to come, concerning the exhibition of Kong in New York and what inevitably follows. It’s hard to imagine King Kong without its famous climax, but something still feels slightly off about the way the movie is constructed. I would almost suggest that the final act of the movie is the one which makes it, as it is here that Kong finally becomes the anti-heroic figure, exuding pathos, which has ensured the character has become so iconic – but, again, it almost seems like this happens by mistake. I get a strong sense that the fact that Kong becomes sympathetic was unanticipated by the film-makers, as it doesn’t seem to have been scripted. If we are meant to be rooting for Kong, then why is Denham presented in such a neutral fashion? He’s not the greedy exploiter he’s presented as in either of the sequels, nor does he receive any kind of comeuppance at the end of the film – instead, he gets the punchline to the whole movie.

Anyway, these are the things that occurred to me while watching King Kong again for the umpteenth time. It’s a great movie that stands up well, much better than many of its contemporaries. I believe I did once suggest that if I had to watch a version of King Kong for simple entertainment value and comfort viewing, it might be the 1976 version, flawed though it obviously is. Well, maybe that’s still the case, but it’s this one which is justly regarded as a classic. I think this is one of those movies that will be with us for as long as cinema endures.

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Sticking with our theme of watching the next best thing, one of the films I was considering seeing before everything shut down was The Hunt, a satirical horror movie which managed the considerable feat of annoying the famously temperate and unflappable Donald Trump. The movie apparently concerns right-wing Americans being hunted for sport by liberals. This reminds me a bit of The Last Supper, a Cameron Diaz movie from the mid-90s which I remember as being pretty decent, but to be honest on this occasion I am going to look a bit further back, to 1932 and Irving Pichel and Ernest B Schoedsack’s The Most Dangerous Game.

The movie opens on a steamer in what turns out to be the Pacific Ocean: they are approaching a dangerous passage and the captain is a little perturbed that the navigation lights aren’t quite where he remembers them being. Meanwhile, back in the saloon, the passengers (all rich white dudes) are engaging in a little philosophical chat. Amongst them is celebrated big game hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea), who is quizzed about the morality of his chosen career: why do we consider humans civilised and animals savage, when we’re the ones who hunt and kill for pleasure? Bob is not swayed by this argument, suggesting that some animals actually enjoy the excitement of the hunt. Ah, says Bob’s interlocutor, but would you choose to swap places with one of the animals you hunt? Bob ducks the question. ‘There are two kinds of people in the world,’ he declares, ‘the hunters and the hunted, and I’m always going to be one of the hunters.’ Really, Bob? Are you absolutely sure about that?

Right on cue, the ship hits some rocks and sinks, with Rainsford the only survivor. He washes up on the shore of a nearby island and makes his way to the imposing fortress he discovers there, which seems to be staffed by Russian Cossacks. This is because it is the home of exiled Russian aristocrat Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who is delighted to make Bob’s acquaintance, being a fan of his books. Zaroff is also a hunter, and sees a kindred spirit in Bob.

Apparently ships sink quite a lot near Zaroff’s private island, and also enjoying the Count’s hospitality are Eve and Martin Trowbridge, two other survivors (they are played by Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, whom you may well recognise from another movie in particular, but we’ll return to this). They arrived here with a couple of sailors, but they are apparently off hunting somewhere and haven’t been seen for days.

Light dinner conversation ensues. Zaroff recounts how he was gored in the head by a buffalo, ever since when he has begun to find hunting less challenging, and thus less satisfying. Even using a Tartar bow instead of a rifle has failed to bring that old thrill back. But on this island he has found the answer! Here he can hunt and kill the most dangerous animals in the world, to his heart’s content…

Well, you’ve probably guessed it: Zaroff is a nutter who gets his kicks from hunting human beings. He thinks this is quite a fair contest, as if his quarry survives until the dawn following the start of the hunt they are allowed to go free (no-one has lasted this long so far). Bob, however, is appalled to learn of all this, and with a heavy heart Zaroff accepts that Bob and he are not going to be BFFs, and that he’ll have to hunt and kill Bob like all the others. Bob and Eve head into the jungle while Zaroff strings his bow and puts on his hunting trousers…

One prominent source suggests that the original short story on which this is based, Richard Connell’s The Hounds of Zaroff, is the most popular short story ever written in the English language. I’m not sure about that, but this is certainly one of the most-copied plots in both film and TV history. There have apparently been a dozen relatively straight adaptations of the story for cinema alone – apart from The Hunt, this year is due to see the release of Tremors 7, which is apparently another riff on the idea – before we even get to films which owe it an obvious debt, like Predator or The Hunger Games. The same is true of TV (I am particularly fond of the Incredible Hulk episode The Snare, in which an insane millionaire who hunts drifters for fun is surprised to find the Hulk in his sights). Given all this, you would expect this to be another case of the originator being outshone by its own successors.

And yet this isn’t quite the case. The Most Dangerous Game still stands up as a classic, if rather pulpy adventure story, and its easy to see it as part of a tradition of timeless genre movies coming out of Hollywood at this time. The 1932 release means it slots in very neatly between 1931’s Dracula (sinister eastern European aristocrat preys upon nice English-speaking folk after they visit his castle) and 1933’s King Kong (trip to a remote Pacific island does not go well). The comparisons with King Kong are particularly significant as this movie was made by the same team, featuring two of the same actors (Fay Wray is assured of screen immortality for her role in Kong, while Robert Armstrong is in another of the lead roles). I always thought King Kong was made as the follow-up to this, but apparently the two films were produced simultaneously on the same jungle sets.

Just as King Kong essentially inaugurated the Hollywood monster movie and special-effects blockbuster genres, so you could argue that The Most Dangerous Game did the same for the high-concept action-adventure movie. It has a solid script, with some unexpectedly thoughtful moments, and concludes with a well-mounted action sequence that’s still surprisingly effective today. The only area in which it shows its age is the pacing, which is probably a consequence of the film only being about an hour long – the situation and characters are introduced with care and intelligence, but the downside of this is that the actual sequence in which Zaroff hunts Rainsford doesn’t get underway until the final third of the movie. It inevitably feels somehow unbalanced as a result. Apart from this, however, the film stands up very well for its age. The basic premise of the story is such a strong and obviously dramatic one that there’s no reason to expect people will stop revisiting it on a regular basis, no matter what Donald Trump says. As it is, few films from quite so long ago have lasted as well as this one.

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My partner and I went out for a browse round the charity shops of a pleasant town in the Midlands on the morning of my most recent birthday: it’s something I tend to do whenever I’m up there, more in hope than expectation to be honest. However, on this occasion, no sooner should we walk through the doors of the British Heart Foundation than I came across a bin full of DVDs at 50p each (three for a quid). This would only really be notable if the DVDs were any good, but on this occasion they were: looking up at me from the top of the pile was The Stone Tape, while not far beneath was A Clockwork Orange. With these two, I basically got a third free, and after a moment’s pause went for – and it did feel very odd to come across this particular film in this particular setting – Tod Browning’s 1932 movie Freaks. It was only when I got it home that I noticed that it was still in the original wrapper.

Now, of course there are many reasons why a film might get bought and never watched – back in my youth I was a sucker for picking up VHS tapes that I thought I might like to watch one day and then never getting back to them – but when it comes to a film like Freaks, you can’t help but wonder. Did the purchaser look at the blurb on the back of the case, and have second thoughts? Did they do some research into the movie and then decide against watching it, or even having it in the house? One will never know. Certainly this remains one of the most problematic and genuinely difficult-to-watch films I have ever come across.

Technically a horror movie, it takes place in and around a travelling circus, somewhere in France (it seems to have been a convention of very early horror films that they should be set in the Old World), and most of the first half of the film concerns the everyday lives of the performers. This includes – and here things start to get tricky – the acts in what one would glibly call the freak show. There is a ‘human skeleton’, a bearded lady, a hermaphrodite, conjoined twins, people missing various limbs, a group of ‘pinheads’, and some midgets. All of them are played by people who genuinely possessed these conditions. We see them going about their daily routines and interacting with the other performers, and the result is a kind of very odd soap opera: the bearded lady has a child, the conjoined twins are contemplating marriage – to two different men – and, most significantly, one of the midgets, Hans (Harry Earles), has developed an infatuation for the circus’ statuesque trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), much to the anguish of Hans’ fiancee Frieda (Daisy Earles).

However, what Hans does not realise is that he is being played for a sucker by Cleopatra and her actual lover, Hercules the strongman (Henry Victor). The pair have become aware that Hans has inherited a fortune and are planning that Cleopatra will marry and then slowly poison him. What can possibly go wrong? He’s only a midget, after all. Of course, they have reckoned without the unwritten law of the sideshow freaks, which is that they look out for each other, and an attack on one is considered an offence against all of them…

If nothing else, Freaks is a bracing (to say the least) antidote to the mawkish sentimentality with which circuses of yesteryear tend to be depicted in modern movies – in its own way, I find The Greatest Showman to be every bit as problematic and gruelling to watch as Freaks, but the much older movie is, I suspect, rather closer to the truth. I say that Freaks is technically a horror movie, because – as you can perhaps tell from the brief outline I have provided – the actual plot is much more of a melodrama. Only in the closing stages of the film do things take a different turn.

Prior to this, if there is ‘horror’, it comes from the presence in the film of people with genuine abnormalities. Obviously there is something very off about this in principle: the film seems to be operating as a kind of circus sideshow itself, with the chance to see the ‘freaks’ the main draw to the audience. However, there is a weird tension operating here – there are a number of quite lurid and even prurient moments, such as when the camera dwells on one of the twins being kissed and the other enjoying the sensation as well, but the general tone of the film is much more matter-of-fact and even compassionate towards its subjects.

However, come the end of the story, there is inevitably a shift. Cleopatra and Hercules’ plot is uncovered, and as a thunderstorm lashes the circus wagons, the freaks close in to exact vengeance on the attempted murderers. There is something genuinely chilling about this, even in the extant, savagely truncated version of the film: the original climax apparently caused a furore when it was shown to audiences, resulting in the film being cut by nearly a third. As it is, the end of the film does feel abrupt and anticlimactic – we don’t see exactly how Cleopatra goes from being a beautiful amazon to the quacking, legless, bird-like thing she has been transformed to in the frame story, and the suggestion that the freaks have emasculated Hercules is completely absent. An epilogue intended to ensure Hans remains a sympathetic character has also been added.

This is a film from the 1930s, pretty much the dawn of cinema, and as such it inevitably feels a bit primitive by modern standards – the characterisations are broad, the plot basic, and so on. It does suffer from some pacing issues, too, probably because of the recutting the film underwent – most of the incident happens in the last quarter, giving the uneasy impression that for most of the film we’re just being invited to gawp. One significant problem is that – for obvious reasons – many parts are played by people who were not professional actors, resulting in some slightly wince-worthy performances. Even worse, not all of them had English as a first language – Harry Earles’ birth name was Kurt Schneider, and his thick German accent renders some of his dialogue unintelligible, which is obviously an issue given he’s playing one of the main characters.

Is Freaks genuinely a horror movie? I would like to think not. Perhaps it is one of those films from so long ago that it is a losing game to try and assess it by modern standards. There are certainly some chilling and powerful moments, but every frame of it radiates an awkward ambiguity, about just how we are expected to respond to the characters. One thing is certain: a film like this could never be made today, and perhaps that’s just as well.

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I have commented a couple of times in the past on the tendency of Soviet-era SF movies to go out of their way to clarify that they are not set in or particularly about the USSR itself, presumably because they don’t want to appear to be criticising the state, even implicitly. This is not the case with Vasili Zhuravlov’s Cosmic Voyage, for the whole point of the film is to anticipate the coming triumphs of the Soviet people in the realm of space travel. There is a mild irony in the fact that, despite this, the film managed to get itself withdrawn from general release after a very short period of time and went almost totally unseen for decades. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I guess.

Cosmic Voyage originally appeared under the title Космический рейс (Kosmicheski Reis), in 1936, and the first thing you notice about it is that this is a silent movie, a form which obviously endured longer in the USSR than it did in western cinema. A caption informs us that the events depicted occurred (or will occur) in the year 1946, and you are struck again by the fact that no-one in the mid 30s seems to have had any inkling of the horrors to come in the next decade. Certainly the cityscape depicted in the opening moments of the film, which inevitably feels somewhat indebted to Lang’s Metropolis, shows no signs of the ravages of the Great Patriotic War – it is the stuff of a utopia, its most distinctive feature being what looks like an immense bridge. Or is it a bridge? Well, no, unless you consider it a bridge to the stars: it is the launch track for a rocket-plane. (This method of launching has since been discredited, but it continued to feature in western SF well into the 1950s – see When Worlds Collide and Fireball XL5 – so it’s not as if it was absurd to feature it here.)

The rocket-plane in question is the USSR-1, which has recently been completed. This being the case, it transpires that a senior scientist, Professor Sedych (Sergei Komarov), has decided he’s going to use it to go to the Moon, without bothering to check with his superiors. As a result, dashing young officer Viktor (Nikolai Feoktistov) is ordered to find Sedych and restrain him. Viktor’s sweetheart Marina (Ksenia Moskalenko) doesn’t know what to make of this, mainly because she is Sedych’s assistant. Viktor’s little brother Andrei (Vassili Gaponenko) is also not impressed – Andrei is clearly intended to be loveably boisterous and energetic young lad, but he inevitably comes across as a pain in the neck.

Well, they find Sedych and he is dragged before his boss, Karin (Vasili Kovrigin), who informs him he is mad for wanting to go to the Moon, as he won’t survive the stresses of the journey. Sedych demands to see evidence of this, and so Karin produces various dead rabbits which have been used as guinea pigs (if you see what I mean) in other space test flights. Sedych makes the reasonable point that he is not a rabbit, but Karin is implacable, and insists that they proceed with animal testing – a pussycat is duly rocketed off into the void. Sedych is not impressed by this and proposes to Viktor that they go to the Moon without official permission.

Various scenes ensue of the preparations for the unauthorised launch; Andrei recruits the local chapter of the Young Communist League (not named as such on screen, but it’s obviously something along those lines) to run interference for them, and there are many scenes of the characters packing their suitcases ahead of the flight. Mrs Sedych is worried that the Moon will be cold, and is determined that her husband will have a good supply of warm socks as well as ties and so forth (the Prof would rather take a lot of heavy scientific textbooks). As you can see, there is something more than a little credulity-straining about these moments of broad comedy, but at least they keep the film rattling along.

Eventually it is time for launch, and Viktor reveals his true colours as stooge for Karin, who is determined to stop the flight. For this lack of moral and intellectual courage, and quite contrary to what you would expect from a western film with a similar theme, the square-jawed young romantic lead is not allowed to go to the Moon, and when the rocket-plane takes off, the crew consists of an old man, a young woman, and a boy. ‘Forward into Space!’ cries Sedych. ‘Long live youth!’ It is genuinely stirring stuff, even eight decades later.

Even sound movies from the 1930s and 40s seem a little weird to the modern viewer, and so it is not really surprising that Cosmic Voyage is no exception to this – this is a silent movie, and the product of a rather different culture than that responsible for most of the films we know today. And yet, in many ways it does feel rather familiar, and certainly part of a tradition of early space films that were able to generate the gosh-wow effect fuelling so much SF cinema simply by trying to predict the future as accurately as possible. It is true that Cosmic Voyage‘s rocket-planes are distinctly reminiscent of Flash Gordon’s spaceship from one of the Universal serials, but this is a film really trying hard to get the science right, as far as it was known at the time: the co-writer on the script was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, one of the founders of rocketry, although he died before the film was released. The cosmonauts immerse themselves in tanks of liquid to protect them from the stresses of take-off, while there is another sequence which depicts them discovering the delights of life in zero gravity – obviously, 2001 it ain’t, but it’s still surprisingly well done. The same can certainly be said of some of the sequences depicting the visitors bounding across the lunar surface – the film-makers’ ideas of what the Moon would look like are a little wide of the mark, but the animation used is astonishingly good – so good, in fact, that one could almost be forgiven for assuming these are modern interpolations made using 21st century techniques to achieve a somewhat retro effect.

It is a little bemusing, therefore, that these sequences are the reason why the film vanished from sight after only a brief release and was not seen for many decades: apparently the USSR’s censors felt that this kind of special effects sequence was contrary to the principles of ‘socialist realism’ and pulled the movie as a result. If this is true, then I find it a little difficult to get my head round – is it solely because the sequence was animated, as opposed to using live actors like the rest of the film? This seems a very odd distinction to be making, although it’s not as if Soviet society in the 1930s wasn’t noted for its arbitrariness in many respects.

Still, at least the film is available again now, and it is a very watchable one with a definite charm to it. The political and allegorical subtexts of the film are obvious, and occasionally surprising – the emphasis on everyone having something to contribute, even the old and the very young, seems like solid Soviet stuff, but there is an unexpectedly anti-establishment note to the proceedings, as Sedych and his comrades defy the over-cautious powers that be in the name of science and adventure. Oh well- one of the reasons I watch these old and obscure films is to be surprised, and I suppose it’s only natural that some of these surprises should be more surprising than others.

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You would think that, with over 500,000 feature length movies in existence (this is the figure that everyone cites, even if no-one seems particularly inclined to look too deeply into its provenance), your friendly neighbourhood reasonably industrious pretend film critic and commentator would be happily occupied for the foreseeable future. It’s a fair point, but once you start looking into the strange world of films that don’t actually exist… well, it can be hard to pull away. Take the case of Nobody Ordered Love, a 1972 drama starring the great Ingrid Pitt, which was withdrawn from release on the instructions of its director, who had every known print destroyed when he died. If nothing else, it makes one grateful that a similar fate did not overtake A Clockwork Orange, given Kubrick’s famous ambivalence towards the film. We could move on to consider various movies of, shall we say, dubious legal status – unlicensed cash-ins such as Batman Vs Dracula and King Kong in Tokyo, which have likewise slipped from view, but still sound highly appealing. It’s also worth remembering that the majority of silent films are also now officially lost.

It’s not all bad news, of course, for every now and then one of these lost films turns up. This is what happened to Felix E Feist’s 1933 movie Deluge, the majority of which was missing for many years until a print turned up in Italy in the early 1980s. A few years ago a copy of the original English-language soundtrack turned up, which means we can now enjoy again a movie which is arguably of some significance in the development of the American science fiction film, and possibly suggests that, for all the immense technical strides cinema has made in the last near-century, some things really haven’t changed much.

Deluge enjoys a perfectly-formed running time of about 70 minutes, so it doesn’t hang about. Before the story starts the producers thoughtfully use a caption to make it clear to the audience that what follows is an imaginative fantasy, not an attempt at predicting the future, and back this up with a quote from the Bible where God promises not to bring about any more disastrous floods – the movie equivalent of ‘Don’t have nightmares, folks!’ Their moral duty thus discharged, the film-makers get on with wreaking death and destruction in the time-honoured manner. A gaggle of distinguished elderly boffins appear, profoundly worried by weather reports and seismographical readings. Looks like we’re in for nasty weather, folks!

It’s common to peg Deluge as belonging to the disaster movie tradition – possibly even helping to inaugurate it – but one crucial point of deviation from the formula is apparent right from the start: conventional disaster movies don’t start with the disaster; there is usually a fairly lengthy section detailing the world before the fall and establishing the characters we will follow through the story. There is only the barest attempt at this here – although you could probably argue that the characters in Deluge are only delineated in the broadest of strokes anyway – as we have a single-scene introduction for Claire (Peggy Shannon), who appears to be some sort of socialite with a love of swimming, and not much more for dynamic lawyer and family man Martin (Sidney Blackmer, who 35 years later would play one of the coven leaders in Rosemary’s Baby), who is taking refuge at home with his wife Helen (Lois Wilson) and poppet-like children.

This done, we are basically off into the sequence for which Deluge is best-known, as a series of earthquakes and a colossal flood flatten the skyscrapers of New York City and devastate the landscape. It has been widely noted that this anticipates a sequence in Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow almost on a shot-for-shot basis and I have to say that while the 21st century film obviously has a huge edge in terms of technical sophistication, the model-work in Deluge is still highly impressive as a demonstration of practical effects, and the emotional impact of both sequences is roughly comparable. (For a long time this was the only part of Deluge known to survive, as Republic bought the rights to the film so it could use the special effects sequences as stock footage in serials like King of the Rocket Men.)

Some time passes off-camera and we find ourselves in the post-apocalyptic world left by the deluge. Martin, having been separated from his family during the disaster, is now holed up in a quarry with a good supply of useful things. Life doesn’t seem too bad for him, and shows prospects for further improvement when a bedraggled Claire washes up on the edge of the vast inland sea which has (we are invited to surmise) replaced New York. Claire has been living in a shed with two men, but decided to leave when one killed the other in a quarrel over who got access rights to her (she was not consulted). Martin, naturally, is a perfect gentleman towards her.

Meanwhile – insert your own dramatic musical cue – a small settlement has sprung up in the ruins a few miles away, mostly populated by background artistes but also (crucially) providing a home for Helen and the kids, who are Not Dead after all. The settlement has been having trouble with marauding raiders and so a posse of men is packed off to sort them out. As chance (and slightly melodramatic plotting) would have it, the raiders are now being led by Claire’s former captor and the gang is on the hunt for her, which is just the impetus she and Martin need to bond in a real and true sense, if you get my meaning. Martin swears his undying devotion to Claire, and she to him; it’s a good thing his wife and children aren’t going to suddenly reappear and complicate the whole… oh, hang on a minute.

While watching Deluge you do have to keep reminding yourself that it was made in 1933 and is thus roughly of a vintage with the original King Kong and the earliest Universal horror movies. Certainly, for all the quality of its model work, it is often unintentionally funny to the modern eye, and more often than not actually primitive. Much of the acting has a rather robotic quality, and some of the casting is arguably suspect: Blackmer’s performance is no worse than that of anyone else in the picture, but he is an unlikely figure to inspire such passionate devotion in two women, let alone be almost instantly hailed as the leader who will take society into the post-apocalyptic future – he is practically the type specimen for the stock character who discovers that the fall of civilisation and death on a massive scale has the benefit of really helping with his status and lifestyle prospects.

Then again, there are a lot of elements of Deluge which seem to be staking out the territory in which many, many subsequent post-apocalyptic dramas would go on to operate. The usual distinction is drawn between settlers, trying to rebuild peacefully through the sweat of their brow, and raiders, brutally taking whatever they want by force of arms; there is even a John Wyndham-esque moment when it is revealed that the leaders of the settlement have decreed that all women of child-bearing age are required to marry for the good of society. The gender politics of Deluge still manage to be startling, even given the great vintage of the film: as we have noted, women are basically treated like property and excluded from all decision-making. Neither Shannon nor Wilson really get much to do for most of the film, and in their one scene together… they argue over who gets the male hero. Few films fail the Bechdel test as definitively as Deluge.

And yet I still found this to be an interesting and engaging film, although even at only 70 minutes it hardly feels rushed or cramped. It really does have a sense of being genuine SF about it – there is the ‘gee whizz look at this!’ element of the big effects sequence near the start, part of the toolbox of commercial VFX movies since the start it would seem, but also something deeper in the film’s consideration of what a post-apocalyptic society could and should be like – what kind of people are we? What do we want to be? These are big, archetypal SF questions. The film’s decision to implicitly support the same moral and social norms suggested by its biblical epigraph may be a little disappointing in its sheer lack of imagination, but it’s hardly a surprise and still a valid position to take. It’s not as if a much more recent film like San Andreas is much bolder in its conception, after all. Deluge still works as a piece of entertainment, as well as illustrating how far cinema has come in some respects, while remaining largely unchanged in others.

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The Sherlockian films starring Rathbone and Bruce as Holmes and Watson seemed to be on all the time when I was young, but they seem to have fallen out of fashion somewhat in recent years – one can only hope that the fulsome praise lavished on them by Moffat and Gatiss, and the credit they’re given as an influence on Sherlock, will bring them to the attention of a younger audience.

One with more to interest this constituency than most is The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, made in 1939 and directed by Alfred Werker. This was the second Basil Rathbone Holmes film, and the last to take place in anything approximating a period setting (the Second World War, which entered the public consciousness in the same week as this movie’s release, would prove to have an influence on Rathbone’s subsequent Holmesian career).

Anyway: it all kicks off in the London of 1894 with the nefarious Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) in the dock, accused of murder. Sherlock Holmes knows he’s guilty. The jury know he’s guilty. The judge knows he’s guilty. (Moriarty knows he’s guilty too, but sensibly keeps his mouth shut.) But there’s no proof, and being upstanding, cricket-loving British folk they are obliged to let him go. Holmes arrives on the scene with evidence just after the nick of time has passed, and the two arch-enemies share a pleasant cab ride.

Holmes confesses to Moriarty he’d like to extract his brain and donate it to science. Moriarty takes this rather well and in turn confesses to Holmes that he’s getting bored of life as a master criminal – he’s going to commit one more really big crime, so audacious and shocking that its success will destroy Holmes, and then retire to spend more time with his algebra.

And so the stage is set – however, and I’m by no means the first to point this out, at this point the structure of the film turns out to have a serious flaw in it. Moriarty’s plan, which is as fiendishly clever as his rep would lead one to expect, is to carry out a major but relatively dull crime (stealing the crown jewels – see what I mean about the Sherlock connections?), having first ensured that Holmes is looking the wrong way by throwing a really macabre and weird mystery into his lap that’s of no special significance.

It’s this story that takes up the bulk of the film, and it concerns Ida Lupino as a troubled young woman, her possibly-dodgy lawyer fiance, lucky chinchilla feet, Andean funeral chants and a bolas-wielding Inca gaucho hitman with a club foot. Although original to the play this movie is based on (written by William Gillette, the first Sherlock to wear a deerstalker), this plot is authentically Doylean in both its atmosphere and many of its details.

On the other hand, we’re always aware that it’s nothing more than a very intricate blind contrived by Moriarty and as a result it never completely engrosses. Holmes, obviously, also figures this out, but quite how – other than because the script requires it – is never made clear. The whole climax of the film has a slightly rushed and perfunctory air about it, which is shame given how lavishly solidly its opening section is.

But never mind, there is much to enjoy here – Basil Rathbone’s dynamic, rather genial Detective, Nigel Bruce’s pompous and slightly petulant but still rather endearing Watson, and George Zucco’s silkily sinister Moriarty. Moriarty is revealed to have a touch of the green fingers on this appearance, which somehow doesn’t feel quite right, but it’s hardly a major element.

One serious plot-hole doesn’t get mentioned – the bizarre death Moriarty arranges as a distraction for Holmes is, apparently, eerily similar to one which occurred ten years previously. Now, does this just mean Moriarty really plans ahead? Or does he just keep up with the True Crime section of his local bookshop, where he read about this crime and figured out how to replicate it? The other alternative is for him to borrow HG Wells’ time machine and pop back to do it himself – not quite as implausible as it sounds, given that the film’s most off-the-wall moment has a heavily disguised Basil Rathbone performing a high-energy song-and-dance version of ‘I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’ (for no reason required by the plot), a song not written until 1907.

Different people want different things from their Holmes adaptations, whether that means painstaking accuracy to the canon, scintillating plotting and dialogue, or broad character comedy and visual pyrotechnics. The virtues of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes lie in its broadly faithful performances and characterisations, its convincing period setting, the atmosphere Werker creates, and its breezy pace. There have been much bigger and more colourful Sherlock Holmes movies, but few which have combined fun with fidelity with quite such success.

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