The Depression-era spectacle of Felix E. Feist’s DELUGE

It’s been nearly 90 years since RKO’s¬†Deluge first raged across the silver screen, leveling the concrete modernity¬†of 1933 to rubble and inviting audiences to ponder the consequences, but its history, beyond those first furtive months of general¬†release, has been a troubled one. Indeed, one could argue that Deluge‘s history was troubled almost from the beginning.

Author¬†S. Fowler Wright was responsible for the film’s eponymous source material, but little of the novel’s preoccupation with interminable personal¬†introspection or post-calamity sexual politics would find their way into the RKO film. Though Wright had been shopping a self-written screen¬†treatment for Deluge around Hollywood on his own in the early 1930s, it was to go unproduced.¬†After purchasing¬†the story for film development in February of 1933, K.B.S. Productions’ Samuel Bischoff hired¬†scenarist John F. Goodrich (The Last Command) to adapt it for the screen. Deemed unfit for production for reasons that go unpublished, Goodrich’s screenplay was eventually to be re-written by¬†Warren Duff (Angels With Dirty Faces) and an uncredited Joe Traub (The Death Kiss;¬†Traub, as Variety reported, was brought in “to insert laughs”). By the end of May ’33 financing had been secured through distributor RKO and Deluge,¬†under novice director Felix E. Feist (Donovan’s Brain) and the producers of K.B.S., began production.

RKO appear to have had few ambitions for¬†Deluge, excepting that it be made cheaply and help to pad their ever-imperiled bottom line. K.B.S. felt differently, with the result that¬†Deluge swiftly overwhelmed its low B-picture budget. As Feist toiled away in the field, the¬†run-ins with his penny-pinching producers helping to pad the margins of the Summer trades,¬†Deluge‘s hired effects talent were busy running up the tab. Pioneering effects director Ned Mann (later renowned for his work under Alexander Korda) was purportedly given carte blanche¬†to manufacture the film’s singular highlight; the utter annihilation of New York City by earthquake and tidal wave; and¬†cost K.B.S. backer RKO a small fortune in the process. By mid-August¬†Deluge was in the can, but at well more than double the anticipated expense.

On September 15th 1933 Deluge went into regular release,¬†and though often noted for its novelty, swiftly developed a reputation as a poor earner at the box office. Good¬†showings (like a whopping $15,000 take during its run in Chicago’s 2,600-seat State-Lake Theatre) were few and far between, and the Autumn trades are full of instances in which¬†Deluge “disappointed”, or worse, was a “miserable flop”.¬Ļ

Deluge continued to fizzle, often as the bottom half of a¬†B-picture double bill, through much of 1934, and with the founding of Herbert Yates’ Republic Pictures the stage was set for the film to slip into obscurity entirely. Desirous of special effects and other stock for their film serials,¬†Republic moved to purchase¬†the special effects takes from¬†Deluge¬†from RKO outright, with one historically relevant caveat:¬†that Deluge itself be pulled from circulation. And so it was for some fifty years.¬†Deluge‘s epic disaster footage lived on, cobbled into Republic serials like¬†S.O.S. Tidal Wave and¬†King of the Rocket Men, its production¬†(illustrated with fantastic images of Ned Mann and his crew strolling among their plaster replica of New York City) spotlighted in the occasional book or magazine, while the film languished, unpreserved through RKOs final mid-century upheaval and ultimately feared lost.

Deluge first re-emerged in the 1980s, when a release print of the Italian-dubbed version (La Distruzione del Mondo) was unearthed from a private collection. This was eventually subtitled and restruck, granted the odd theatrical screening and a short-lived VHS release², but the film, as originally produced in English, remained as obscure as ever.

. . . Until now, that is. Following the discovery of a 35mm nitrate dupe negative, France’s Lobster Films have restored Deluge in its original English, allowing the film to be seen in the closest approximation of its original form that has been available in nearly a century. The restoration thrilled attendees at various festival screenings in late 2016, and Kino Lorber have made it available to wider audiences still, courtesy of new Blu-ray and DVD editions released in February of this year.

As for Deluge itself, it remains a¬†distinct curiosity among 1930s film productions. While spectacle was the order of the day post-Depression, end of the world scenarios were a rare sight in cinemas of the time.¬≥ In this sense¬†Deluge was well ahead of its time, even if a century of post-civilization fiction has left it feeling more than a little rote. The narrative follows lawyer Martin¬†(Sidney Blackmer, Tammy and the Bachelor), who is separated from his family by a world-ending cataclysm, and the bond that forms between him and fellow survivor Claire (Peggy Shannon, Turn Back the Clock), a record-setting swimmer whom he discovers beached at his doorstep. Together they combat a rapacious criminal element and eventually¬†rediscover civilization in the form of an unsubmerged rural town, but complications arise when it is discovered that Martin’s missing family, long presumed dead, are also alive and well there.

There’s little of significant interest to be found in¬†Deluge‘s post-disaster melodramatics, an indifferent and mercilessly spare distillation of the novel’s original narrative that hits upon the major points, but little more – with only 67 minutes at its disposal, the¬†film has little time for else. The Bronson Canyon-bound siege that dominates the middle third of the running time is a serviceable piece of action for the time, with some violent pre-Code appeal besides (Shannon hacking lead baddie Fred Kohler to death with a pike is the ferocious non-effects highlight of the film), but the rest is passable at the best of times. Much of this is down to Wright’s novel, which has not aged at all well in its politics since it was first published in 1928. The film deftly sidesteps the author’s most controversial subject (the novel’s polygamist finale, in which Martin’s estranged wife and Claire both opt to devote themselves to him), substituting a visually poetic, if substantively disturbing alternative. Here Claire, vowing to die rather than lose Martin to another woman, flings herself back into the¬†sea as her¬†distressed beloved¬†looks on, ending¬†Deluge on a note of tragedy.

Deluge ultimately appeals more in its bits and pieces than as a whole. Shannon holds up well, even as the screenplay can’t decide quite what to do with her. Claire is at once headstrong and driven and utterly dependent, a confusing quality that persists across the novel as well (in which she regularly¬†effaces herself in light¬†of Martin’s righteous male superiority, regardless of any evidence to the contrary). She is also the most exploited element of the film, second to the effects, her scant dress, implied nudity, and binding a¬†frequent object of the film’s affections. Blackmer stumbles through the awkward scripting well enough, his occasional Southern inflection adding interest to an otherwise disposable performance, but serves the film best in a purely visual sense. The image of his lonesome figure, shocked by and dwarfed within¬†a landscape now sparse and alien, is iconic, and closely echoes the finale of Geoff Murphy’s 1985 sci-fi¬†The Quiet Earth.

Still, it’s Deluge‘s effects production which remains its prime selling point, even if¬†it seems almost entirely dissociated from the rest of the film when viewed¬†in context. Feist frames the action with scenes of a meteorological community (headlined by Samuel Hinds, The Boy with Green Hair,¬†and Edward Van Sloan,¬†Dracula) in turmoil, assured by the increasingly ominous¬†evidence that something awful is on the verge of happening. It’s a novel sequence, wholly contained as it is within the film’s first reel, and the flickering¬†montages of stock footage and Bible-thumping evangelists that divide¬†the drama remind of those¬†found within Abel Gance’s troubled 1930 effort¬†La Fin du Monde (a truncated and bizarre hour-long version of which would release to American screens in¬†1934).¬†When the inevitable disaster strikes it does so¬†in grander fashion than had ever been seen on screen¬†before.¬†The impossible upheaval Mann constructs¬†echoes the similarly implausible¬†disasters of Emmerich’s¬†The Day After Tomorrow and¬†2012 and the more recent spectacle of¬†San Andreas, but retains a wondrous phantasmagoric¬†aesthetic all its¬†own.¬†It’s amidst all that crumbling plaster that¬†Deluge finds its place as art.

Deluge is ultimately more a blip than a milestone, more curiosity than classic, but the momentousness of its present reemergence is no lesser for that. Lobster Films’ restoration is not perfect, dictated as it is by the state of the materials in question (there are splice-y segments here and there, and the new restoration lacks¬†both an opening insert shot and the first line of the picture), but one doubts¬†Deluge will ever play better. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray and DVD editions are well worth it for those curious, offering the restored¬†Deluge¬†with informed commentary from Richard Harland Smith and alongside the¬†low budget 1934 drama Back Page, also starring Shannon.


¬Ļ A rare exception was reported in Variety from Tokyo, of all places, where¬†Deluge thrilled audiences on a double bill with Charlie Chaplin’s¬†City Lights in February of 1934. One suspects that the theatre had more¬†to do with the film’s success than¬†Deluge itself did, in this case. The cinema in question was the historic¬†4,000-seat Nippon Gekijo (iconically demolished in the 1954 Gojira), which was still riding a wave of public interest only three months on from its grand December 1933 opening.

² Wade Williams, who produced the first restoration and under whose name the VHS issue was released, continues to assert his control of all rights regarding the film Deluge via his website. To say whether such claims are legitimate or otherwise would go well beyond my realm of expertise, but neither the recent Kino Lorber video editions of the film nor the restoration upon which they are based make any mention of them.

¬≥ Journalist and script doctor Ferdinand Reyher was working on a screen treatment¬†of M.P. Shiel’s bizarre last-man novel¬†The Purple Cloud¬†under various titles (Purple Cloud,¬†The Last Man, and End of the World) throughout the decade, but no film resulted. His work was eventually credited as the source for writer and¬†director Ranald MacDougall’s¬†The World the Flesh and the Devil, from HarBel and MGM in 1959. Also unmade was Cecil B. DeMille’s production¬†End of the World, which was to be a¬†$400,000 adaptation of Wylie and Balmer’s novel¬†When Worlds Collide. The film was announced in the trades in mid-1933, but just as quickly disappeared – Paramount cancelled the project before it had really begun, reportedly on account Deluge‘s thematic similarities, and DeMille switched focus instead to his historical epic¬†Cleopatra.


A very brief note:¬†I used Archive.org’s collection of¬†historic issues of Variety *a lot* for this article, and thought it deserved a shout-out all of its own. Those curious are encouraged to set a few hours aside and dive into an issue or three.

Craig Harrison’s The Quiet Earth (1981)

“The pull of the earth took hold of my spine, my limbs spread over space. There was the breath-beat of falling, spiralling, the air pushing hard for a moment and then letting go. The light split open my eyelids. It was brilliant, drained of colours, painful. An immense silence rushed around me. My throat was trying to make a noise, to beat it back. The light pulsed redness. Then the silence expanded.”

John Hobson awakens from a dream of falling, exhausted and confused, to find that his watch¬†has stopped at 6:12. The power to his room – indeed, to the entire motel – has cut out, and a view from the window shows¬†no sign of human activity outside.¬†A venture into town reveals that the curious phenomenon extends well beyond Hobson’s motel room. Everywhere he turns the power is out and the¬†clocks have stopped, all reading the same impossible time.¬†Baffling as it is, a more dreadful realization¬†awaits:

Aside from John Hobson all of human kind appears to have vanished from the face of the Earth.

So begins The Quiet Earth, a novel by adoptive New Zealander Craig Harrison originally published in 1981 and, until very recently, long out of print. Though best known for the¬†loose 1985 film adaptation of the same name,¬†those approaching Harrison’s source novel may do best to forget the film entirely. Connections between the two are largely superficial – a handful of¬†names, a smattering of events, and the same high-concept last man premise. Only scraps of Harrison’s work made it to the screen, and precious few of them reach beyond the film’s excellent first act. There are no love affairs to be found here. There are¬†no redemptive heroics.¬†No alien world rises ambiguously¬†over¬†the horizon.

The Quiet Earth is told entirely from¬†the perspective of Hobson, a geneticist on leave from an experimental research station when the phenomenon he dubs the Effect occurs.¬†His approach to the problem follows a predictable scientific methodology. Hobson’s investigations of abandoned¬†residences and automobiles¬†evidence¬†an instantaneous¬†and unexpected event – a knife half-sliced through a loaf of bread, seat belts soundly buckled, bed sheets still showing the impressions of their vanished occupants. Animal life appears to have been effected as well, and on a massive scale. There are no cats or dogs, no livestock, no birds. Arthropods¬†have all but vanished, a writhing earthworm their only representative.¬†The world has become suddenly and horribly silent. From the small town in which he first awakes¬†Hobson travels to cities ever less isolated, but the effects of the Effect remain unchanged. Even Auckland is still and quiet.¬†The smoldering remnants of a crashed airliner,¬†its passengers and crew gone¬†with the rest,¬†is¬†the only point of action.

As Hobson investigates the Effect¬†in search of some causality or meaning to his plight the reader is made to investigate him. His sleep is burdened by dreams un-remembered,¬†his waking hours by fragments of an incomplete past –¬†memories of a nameless left-handed Maori boy, pieces of conversation with his fellow researchers, the face¬†of a child, drowning, and a small hand slipping from the edge of a bathtub. The more the reader learns of Hobson the more tenuous his reliability as a narrator becomes. As silent days bleed into intolerable nights he becomes increasingly paranoid of some unknown presence lurking just beyond his own senses – noises in a darkened parking lot, unnatural howls from across a lake, the hideous form of a beast glimpsed in the headlights. How much is real, and how much is of Hobson’s own delusional making? With only¬†his¬†unbalanced perspective as a¬†point of reference hard facts are few. Still, as the mysteries of both Hobson and the Effect begin to unravel one truth becomes abundantly clear: Hobson’s past and the apocalyptic present are inexorably linked, two fractured halves¬†of the same nightmarish puzzle.

The Quiet Earth eventually preoccupies Hobson with fellow human characters (as in the film, there are other survivors), but their appearance serves less to rehabilitate than to hasten his steady decline. Shallow trust quickly erodes, passions flare, and guns are drawn. As its second and third acts unspool the tale pushes towards a grim and inevitable convergence of madness and clarity. In the end Hobson finds himself alone once more, his character laid bare, his guilt irrevocable. The ultimate nature of his reality is left purposefully, perhaps unavoidably unknown, but its personal implications for him are incontrovertible. Whether it be tangible or delusional Hobson is imprisoned in a silent world of his own breaking, and there is no exit.

Harrison’s novel unfolds in spare prose, rancorous and elegant, and transfigures a rote exercise in apocalyptic survival (fiction is lousy with last man stories) into something far more potent, affecting, and personal. Through Hobson Harrison¬†tests the limits of audience sympathies, compelling us though steady revelation towards understanding for¬†a character who is the very embodiment of the¬†worst of¬†human potential. Hobson is a spiteful paranoiac, cowardly, egotistical, and genuinely, dangerously mad, but even in his ugliest moments I¬†found him impossible to hate, my¬†disgust and outrage¬†dwarfed by the tragic significance of it all. Here is a man who would destroy the world and who gets what he deserves, but The Quiet Earth grants no satisfaction in its feedback loop of cosmic justice. There is only a palpable sadness, and pity for a doomed and desolate man.


Long out of print, with prices for used copies ranging well into the hundreds of dollars, Craig Harrison’s The Quiet Earth is now available once more courtesy of the Text Classics imprint of Australia-based¬†Text Publishing Company. A physical edition will make its US debut in¬†May, but a digital edition is already readily available through¬†Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other eBook retailers.

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41 Hours of Terror: An Artifact from The Final War

When it comes to Toei’s 1960 end-of-the-world production World War III: 41 Hours of Terror (Á¨¨šłČś¨°šłĖÁēĆŚ§ßśą¶ ŚõõŚćĀšłÄśôāťĖď„ĀģśĀźśÄĖ), better known domestically as The Final War, it shouldn’t be too surprising to find that I’ve got little left to say. In the wake of the film’s recent arrival in stateside fan circles I researched and penned a number of articles on the subject, and to that end I simply have nothing more to add.

What I do have, however, is a rare piece of memorabilia from the film, gleaned some time ago at Japanese auction and thus far the only artifact from its release that I’ve been able to find. Shared here is the speed poster for¬†The Final War, which would have been (and judging from its state, was) displayed to announce the production prior to its arrival at the cinema. As with many of its kind from the time period, the poster doubles as a press release, offering a synopsis, cast and crew information, and presumably the same sort of studio ad jargon used in the campaign and press books produced elsewhere. I couldn’t get a good image of the text, which is substantial and, given the modest dimensions of the poster, necessarily rendered in rather small type. The included ad art was far easier to photograph, and is included below the poster.

I just love these kinds of things, particularly when it’s so obvious that they’ve been used. There’s a delicious sense of history that comes part and parcel with all that wear and tear, a sense one just couldn’t get from a more pristine example of the same. This speed poster for¬†The Final War is literally falling apart at the seems, with some significant separation (and discoloration, at least on the back) along its central fold, but is in pretty remarkable shape otherwise. The original color of the printing is very well preserved – those yellow title kanji are bold in person – and the imagery is crisper than my photos might imply.¬†Adding to the “neat” factor of the thing are a handful of light pencil marks that have survived the ensuing fifty years, denoting what the theater manager must have deemed important points from the press release. Cool stuff.

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Gripping Spectacle of the Ages! Campaigning for a Deluge

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I don’t have much to say about this little artifact, a vintage campaign book for the 1933 release of RKO’s Deluge in the United Kingdom. Much like the film, memorabilia for Deluge is pretty scarce, but¬†I was lucky enough to snag this at online auction a while back. It evidently went through all the trials ofAd_2 hell getting to me, and somehow survived – intact – some of the worst package handling I’ve ever seen evidence of.

The campaign book is full of the usual stuff – a few stills ripe for reproduction in your local rag, cast bios, and plenty of hyperbolic ad-speak. In their pre-fab press RKO promises a film of extraordinary realism and excruciating expense and whose technical might dwarfs even their own¬†King Kong, which was doubtless still in circulation at the time. Stars Sidney Blackmer and Peggy Shannon are talked up a bit, but RKO wisely underplay the film’s dull drama and instead make the most of the significant effects spectacle it offers. In what sounds like a back-handed compliment (from the studio no less!), the press says of the “human actors” that they are, “dwarfed by the drama of the elements, but they do their parts effectively.”

“Spectacular” and “unusual” entertainment is, of course, guaranteed.

What follows are the entirety (excepting those already shared at the top and right) of the print ads offered in the book, which unfortunately had to photographed as my scanner is on the fritz. The full text pages of the book (including a few more images) are appended afterwards for those who wish to peruse them. As ever, click on an image to see it full-size.

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Lost and Found: The Final War „ÄĆÁ¨¨šłČś¨°šłĖÁēĆŚ§ßśą¶ ŚõõŚćĀšłÄśôāťĖď„ĀģśĀźśÄĖ„Äć

posterThough largely unseen since its release in December of 1960 it’s not strictly accurate to say that Toei’s nuclear war drama¬†The Final War („ÄĆÁ¨¨šłČś¨°šłĖÁēĆŚ§ßśą¶ ŚõõŚćĀšłÄśôāťĖď„ĀģśĀźśÄĖ„Äć, or¬†World War III: 41 Hours of Terror) was a lost film. That’s not to say it was an easy film to find. Unlike the rest of the company’s special effects product¬†The Final War¬†never found its way to VHS or Laserdisc, and has yet to appear in DVD either – a dubbed version which played US television is rarer still. Until recently the only visual evidence of the film’s existence were the few stills making rounds online, including the poster thumbnail to the left (shamelessly copied here from the Eiren film database).

But things change, and even that considered most rare can eventually come to light. A few years ago¬†The Final War aired on a Japanese television network, proving at the very least that it still existed. Yesterday a copy of the same made its way to me. It might have been a thrilling moment had the circumstances not proven so mundane – there’s little sense of discovery when long-lost artifacts arrive first class on sharpie-marked DVD-R.

As for the film, I’ll devote an article to it properly once I’ve had the time to parse through all of its drama. It was clearly a big-deal production for Toei, who may have been looking to one-up Toho films by getting their dismal Cold War tragedy into cinemas first. Where Toho’s¬†The Last War elaborated on its fictional conflict with lavish miniature effects sequences, in blazing color no less,¬†The Final War¬†opts for a more personal approach, following the lives of several everyday Japanese citizens (a student, a reporter and so on) as war and rumors of war swirl about them. Everything is seen from a distinctly human perspective, with chilling results. Radios broadcast the latest political huff from either side (familiar gaijin in the roles of American and Soviet representatives), while jet aircraft speed overhead, ominous and untouchable.

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The intricate effects sequences that mark the Toho production (a showcase for effects pioneer TSUBURAYA Eiji) fall largely by the wayside here in favor of big-scale dramatic set-pieces. Thousands amass in an exodus from doomed Tokyo, and huddle in forests far from the city limits to hope and pray that the worst doesn’t come to pass. It does, of course. Survivors are few, and there is no cheerful resolution, no escape from the all-consuming crucible of a dumb and pointless war.

Filmed in stark black and white ‘Scope and directed by the little-known HIDAKA Shigeaki, who flourished in the early years of Japan’s post-occupation film boom only to disappear at the start of the ’60s,¬†The Final War benefits as cinema from its technical inferiority to Toho’s melodramatic effort. Its perspective is direct and human, its conclusion understated and terrifying. It’s about the tragic consequence of a world that puts wars of ideology ahead of the welfare of billions, and it remains a harrowing watch more than fifty years on from its original release.

Would that I could provide the whole film here, but the best I can offer is a taste. Rest assured that it¬†does exist, and that it’s a hell of a lot easier to find now than it used to be.