Deluge (Blu-ray Review)20 Mar, 2017 By: Mike Clark
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Peggy Shannon, Lois Wilson, Sidney Blackmer.
The Big Apple gets swallowed by a tsunami yet again and unexpectedly early in screen history — courtesy of a middling movie curio that was thought to have been “lost” for decades and is of viewing interest these days at least as much for its lead casting. The last is purely personal opining, thanks to the combination “hots” and surprisingly intense acting chops of lead Peggy Shannon; thanks to this and the fact that the short-lived actress met such a wretched end in real life, Deluge kept me going. And in effect, this new Kino Classics release is arguably better approached as a Shannon two-fer, thanks to the bonus inclusion of 1934’s bargain basement but not-bad newspaper romp Back Page, which came out a little less than a year after Deluge opened and failed to deliver on its investment.
Of course, it’s all relative when a term like “investment” is even employed here, given that cash-strapped Tiffany Pictures (a film company at which Audrey Hepburn wouldn’t ever have eaten breakfast, at least post-1952) produced for distribution by RKO. Even so, per the savvy voiceover commentary by Richard Harland Smith on the Deluge Blu-ray bonus material, the special effects for New York City’s destruction (which comes notably early in the film) did a wrecking crew’s job of its own on the overall budget. One naturally assumes that the lion’s share of the post-tsunami footage was likely going to be shot via predominantly outdoor set-ups in the first place. As a result, you’ll note that the last three-quarters of the movie pays lonely minor heed to sets, so maybe that saved a dime or two. This said, Shannon and male lead Sidney Blackmer (who lasted long enough to show up 35 years later as Ruth Gordon’s husband in Rosemary’s Baby) do fend off cretinous baddies from inside a supply-heavy cave for a not unsubstantial chunk of the narrative, if that counts.
We are, of course, getting ahead of the story. Deluge opens as a tidal wave has just consumed the West Coast and is rushing across the Midwest, and those in charge keeping track via inadequate pre-Internet news briefs are wondering what the hell to do. Samuel S. Hinds, best known for having played James Stewart’s father in It’s a Wonderful Life, plays the chief meteorologist, and he’s mighty worried. And when Hinds, who specialized in doctor/judge/respected old guy roles, is worried, we should be, too. Deaths then continue to chalk up in the millions, but of necessity, only a couple principals rate screenplay focus. One is a well-known swimmer (Shannon) who gets more than a routine “everybody out of the water” order by the scientists with more pressing issues on their minds than policing beach stragglers. The other is lawyer Blackmer, whose wife and two very young daughters are eventually assumed to have perished. Second-billed as the wife but barely given the time of day here is silent star Lois Wilson — an actress who managed to survive talkies but whose career diminished anyway despite her prestige silent lead castings in The Covered Wagon, The Vanishing American and Paramount’s no longer existent ’26 version of The Great Gatsby, where she played Daisy Buchanan. Oh, well: Shannon is a lot more interesting, anyway.
Pictured at least once in decidedly pre-Code bra-and-panties, the onetime real-life Ziegfeld Follies redhead becomes the lust object of marauding male survivors, an anti-GQ crew whose members all look like Steve Bannon after his dermatologist stipend ran out. There’s one fairly chilling moment where upstanding survivors (trying to build a town) look in horror at the corpse of a young woman who appears to have been gang-raped. Otherwise — and in ’30s’ screen fashion even the actors playing parents of relative youngsters look to be about 105 — Shannon stands out. And as potential mates go, at least Blackmer has serviceable looks, and his character has the reasoned demeanor of the lawyer his character is. So predictably, one thing leads to another (and, not surprisingly, the cave helps).
Maybe it was a case of New York being attacked too many times in 1933 (the year not only saw King Kong but MGM’s Men Must Fight, which is worth seeking out on TCM). In any event, Deluge wasn’t the hit its backers anticipated, so its Big Drink footage of collapsed skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty treading water such was eventually sold to Republic Pictures (formed in 1935) for frequent recycling. As part of the deal, all prints were destroyed (proving that this generation has no monopoly on dumbasses) and was regarded solely in the past tense until a) a subtitled foreign print; and b) later a much better negative were discovered a couple of generations later. The print here is a 2K version of the second and superior source — worn but good enough, given the nearly lost history here.
There’s an even better print (ranging from very good to immaculate) for Back Page, a “Pyramid Production” that IMDb.com says was on TV by 1948 and thus a possible candidate for Public Domain Hell in terms of photogenic cosmetics. Shannon is again good in a less obviously sexy role as a big-city reporter who ends up in a rural sub-Mayberry as editor of a struggling paper exposing local financial chicanery when its not challenged to find something for wispy employee Sterling Holloway to do. The result has some of the charming flavor of those old Roy Rogers features and telefilms that simultaneously seemed to be taking place in two different centuries. But by this time — and despite a showy but brief screen career launch at Paramount in 1931 — Shannon was already working on Hollywood’s poverty row. Her plight was apparently due to temperament, severe alcohol abuse and an abusive stalker of an ex-husband; returning from a hunting or fishing trip, her cameraman second husband found her dead at 31 of a cirrhosis-enabling heart attack, slumped over a table, a tragedy that moved him to shoot himself fatally just 19 days later.
Heavy stuff — and the fact that Shannon’s Page co-star Russell Hopton committed suicide in 1945 possibly illustrates what life was must have been like for those permanently relegated to the Hollywood fringe. This is one reason The Day of the Locust has never lost its power.