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 Deemed unfit for production for reasons that go unpublished, Goodrich’s screenplay was eventually to be re-written by Warren Duff (Angels With Dirty Faces) and an uncredited Joe Traub (The Death Kiss; Traub, as Variety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”.¹
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.³ 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.
¹ 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.
³ 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.