Blu-ray: ‘Deluge’ – The original end-of-the-world disaster movie restored

Felix E. Feist's 1933 'Deluge,' the first end-of-the-world disaster movie

Deluge (1933) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), the original end-of-the-world thriller, is a curious and often fascinating artifact. Produced in 1933, before the production code came down on Hollywood, on a relatively modest budget, it imagines not just the destruction of civilization in (unexplained) earthquakes and cataclysmic storms but life after the flood, so to speak. It’s based on a popular 1920s science fiction novel by the now forgotten Sydney Fowler Wright and can claim the title as the first disaster movie.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Scientists are in a panic as barometers plunge and reports of cities flooded in tidal waves and hurricanes are breathlessly reported in radio broadcasts. In these opening scenes, however, the only destruction we witness is the lavish house in the woods of Martin and Helen (Sidney Blackmer and Lois Wilson), crushed under trees blown over by high winds while Martin carries them off to safety. Then the real spectacle begins: New York collapses in primitive yet evocative miniatures that are more expressionistic than realistic, like an avant-garde short dropped into a science fiction thriller. Crude travelling mattes put people amidst the destruction, fleeing collapsing buildings or getting crushed by the debris, and a magnificent miniature gives us a God’s eye view of New York City swamped in a tsunami. By modern standards it’s not all “realistic” but it’s mesmerizing in part because it’s a cinematic imagining of something no filmmaker had attempted on screen before. It’s a first pass at the kind of disaster spectacle we now take for granted and these technicians create it all from scratch, not just the technical matter of the physical special effects but the very visualization of the end of the world.

The rest of the film shifts to survival drama and it is savage. In the calm of the aftermath months later Claire (Peggy Shannon), a professional swimmer, washes up on an island where a brutish thug (Fred Kohler) lays claim to her and kills the only other man on the island for trying to molest her (it’s not out of any sense of justice, mind you, just outrage for pawing his property). Her escape leads her to Martin, now separated from his family, and the brute follows. Unlike the familiar disaster movie formula, there’s no more spectacular destruction porn, but what we get is just as interesting in its own way. Deluge is pre-code and made outside the studio system (distributed by RKO), which gives the creators a little more freedom to imagine life after the fall in terms a studio would resist. There’s a marauding gang that preys upon survivors and rapes and murders women (not shown onscreen but the implications are clear) and a community of survivors trying to rebuild from the rubble of a ruined town and reestablish society, which means pushing aside traditional ideas of marriage. Shannon is paraded about in swimsuits that anticipate the bikini and show more skin than almost any lingerie scene in the sexiest pre-code films. None of this would have survived censors just a year later. Just to cover themselves, however, the filmmakers cite the Bible in the opening credits to reassure audiences that this is a fiction that could never actually happen in real life: “We the producers present it now purely for your enjoyment, remembering full well God’s covenant with Noah.”

It’s the directorial debut of Felix E. Feist, who went on to a career that spanned specialty shorts, B-movies, a couple of star vehicles, and lots of TV work, and produced a couple of cult movies: the lean, hard-edged film noir The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), another film that acknowledges the savage side of human behavior, and Donovan’s Brain (1953), a science fiction drama with a cold-blooded dimension. Feist makes effective use of striking locations to give the film the feeling of a world out of time and the production a scope bigger than its budget would suggest. The human drama is a little more awkward, sustained largely by Shannon’s confidence and strength—this is woman who doesn’t wait for men to come along and save her—and by the atmosphere of a truly save world where Darwinian brute force rules until the rest of the survivors can get their collective act together. At times the dialogue is arch and the performances tentative, in other moments it can feel unstable and unpredictable, a portrait of a world where we can’t assume a happy ending. That’s no small thing.

Once a lost film and for decades only available in an Italian language print with English subtitles, it was recently restored from a newly-discovered 35mm nitrate negative with the English language soundtrack by Serge Bromberg’s Paris-based Lobster Films. Kino Repertory picked up the film for a limited theatrical rerelease in the U.S. and now Kino Lorber Studio Classics presents the stateside disc debut of the Lobster restoration. It looks very good for its age, especially considering the original elements suffered partial decomposition. Digital tools have restored much of the image and the sharpness and the soundtrack is even more impressive, with a clarity not often heard in orphaned films of this vintage and a dynamic range to the musical score.

The Blu-ray and DVD Kino Lorber release also features new audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith and a bonus feature: the 1934 B-movie Back Page, a newspaper drama starring Peggy Shannon.

Deluge [DVD]
Deluge [Blu-ray]

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About Sean Axmaker

Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears in Vulture, Turner Classic Movies online, Keyframe, and Parallax View.

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