Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

One of the earliest disaster movies destroyed New York and looked at life in the rubble

Illustration for article titled One of the earliest disaster movies destroyed New York and looked at life in the rubble
Photo: Lobster Films/Kino Lorber

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: It’s all disaster movies, in honor of Independence Day (the holiday and the movie) and also in light of the real-life disaster movie happening outside our windows.

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Deluge (1933)

Once considered lost, the 1933 film Deluge has as good a claim as any to being the earliest example of disaster-movie spectacle; it was also probably the first post-apocalyptic drama, predating even the ambitious and prescient Things To Come. The opening is a rapidly edited storm of dire predictions, as an assortment of undifferentiated men in suits and uniforms inform the world, the audience, and each other that the end is nigh. Seismographs and ticker tapes are consulted; radio announcements are broadcast; telegrams are received. In a visual cliché that would come to be closely associated with this period of Hollywood filmmaking, newspapers are shown spinning toward the camera, bearing headlines like “Catastrophe Imminent!” and “Earth Doomed!”

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Part of what earns Deluge its place in disaster movie history is the fact that this cataclysm—a series of colossal tidal waves caused by earthquakes across the globe, which are somehow related to a solar eclipse—happens very early, and is depicted through the obliteration of a major city. The destruction of New York in the film marked the first time that an actual modern metropolis (complete with recognizable landmarks) had been completely leveled on screen. The Empire State Building wobbles into rubble; the Statue Of Liberty disappears in a gigantic tsunami; the streets split. While the effects used to insert various cowering extras into the footage are far from convincing, the miniature set (which measured some 100 feet across) remains an awesome sight, presaging the Roland Emmerich disaster oeuvre by more than 60 years.

This footage would later be sold to enterprising B-movie producers and would continue to be recycled in low-budget serials until the end of the 1940s. The film itself fell into obscurity, and it was believed that no copies had survived until the genre superfan Forrest J. Ackerman stumbled upon a print that had been dubbed into Italian in the early 1980s; it would take until 2016 for the original negative and soundtrack to be rediscovered and restored. But while the New York sequence is Deluge’s claim to fame, most of the movie is set in the aftermath of the global disaster, where champion swimmer Claire (Peggy Shannon) escapes a couple of would-be rapists with the help of a cast-iron frying pan before being rescued by Martin (Sidney Blackmer), a lawyer who believes that his wife is dead. Said wife, Helen (Lois Wilson), has survived, however, and is living in a settlement some miles away.

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While Deluge’s fast pace, implied nudity, and convoluted infidelity scenario belie its origins in the risqué Pre-Code period of American film, it’s probably best to think of the movie in terms of the apocalypse and invasion fiction that flourished from the end of the 19th century until the early decades of the 20th. Apart from the work of H.G. Wells, these novels have been all but forgotten; they were mostly British and informed by all-too-obvious anxieties about empire and social order. Deluge, which was loosely adapted from a popular novel by the English writer S. Fowler Wright, offers something like an Americanized version of the genre.

The image of a wasteland of Mad Max marauders had not yet entered the public imagination, and there is something comical about the idea of a post-apocalyptic setting populated by clean-shaven men with Brylcreem hair and pressed, spacious trousers belted well above the navel. But even by Pre-Code standards, Deluge is often surprisingly dark. Much of the plot involves the threat of a murderous, roving gang of rapists; a partial glimpse of the body of one of their victims is one of the more disturbing images to come out of early ’30s Hollywood. As is often the case, the real threat is human. But one would be mistaken in thinking that Deluge’s acknowledgment of the ubiquity of sexual violence exhibits anything like progressive politics.

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Instead, it’s something of a time capsule of conservative American mores; the posse behavior, puritanism, and gross stereotypes wouldn’t be out of place in a bad Western. The rapists look like Great Depression hobos. No one would ever make the case for the film’s director, Felix E. Feist, as an artist. Which isn’t to say that films like these don’t have tremendous value. Stories of society in post-apocalyptic breakdown are funhouse mirrors that exaggerate the screwed-up ideas and conventions we have internalized and accepted as normal. The great ones do it on purpose, the others by accident.

Availability: Deluge can be rented or purchased digitally from Kino Now. 

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