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Posts Tagged ‘Sidney Blackmer’

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 Take the case of Nobody Ordered Love, a 1972 drama starring the great Ingrid Pitt, which was withdrawn from release on the instructions of its director, who had every known print destroyed when he died.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 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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