Things Fall Apart: Deluge (1933)


Deluge was the debut feature film by a 23 year-old with the enviable name of Felix E. Feist. Sounds like a Marx Brothers pseudonym, but it’s the real name of the son of an MGM sales manager, who had an almost-there career in movies until he switched to TV production in the 50s. Deluge was believed to have been lost, until a print surfaced in Rome – accordingly, the suriving version of the film is dubbed into Italian. It is noteworthy mostly because of its spectacular scenes of tidal waves destroying Manhattan, proof that Roland Emmerich didn’t invent the wheel: he just enlarged and nuked it.

The film clips along at an alarming rate. Before the main characters have even been introduced, we’re into a montage of baffled scientists, international news reports of earthquakes, military aircraft being returned to base, preachers predicting the end of the world; this all establishes the communication networks, the babble of opinions that tells us this is global catastrophe affecting even the biggest structures of nation states.

The onscreen declaration at the start really dates this film:

Deluge is a tale of fantasy, an adventure in speculation, a vivid epic pictorialisation of an author’s imaginative flight. We the producers present it now purely for your entertainment, remembering full well God’s covenant with Noah.

Yeah, because nothing kicks off a bit of pure entertainment like a Bible reference.

Note to Roland Emmerich: in Deluge, the buildings start falling seven minutes in – within thirty seconds, millions are dead and the entire Western coast of North America has crumbled into the sea. The radio announces: “Indescribable disaster is causing havoc everywhere. There’s no cause for panic. Shut off all gas items.” Now that’s efficient.

There then follows a remarkable sequence in which all of New York is washed away by the sea. This footage was never lost with the rest of the movie (I wonder if it was a flood which washed all the prints away), because it was reused in the Dick Tracy serial, and in King of the Rocket Men. YouTube helpfully has a clip, though the quality is not stellar:

I wonder if the miniature sets were built especially for the film, or whether RKO had some leftovers from the same year’s King Kong that needed knocking down. It looks like an expensive miniature set, and presumably was destroyed all in one go. The earth trembles, buildings explode into chalky oblivion, and the sea rushes in to wipe out any last traces of life. After this rather definitive destruction, the film follows the plight of survivors. Although a couple of months has passed, within a couple of minutes of screentime, they’re fighting to the death over Claire (Peggy Shannon), who has taken the trouble to wash ashore wearing only her undies.

Shannon has an unhappy biography – a former Ziegfeld girl, she was signed up by Paramount in 1931 as a new “It” girl to replace Clara Bow (who had suffered a nervous breakdown), she drank herself to death in 1941. A couple of weeks later husband shot himself dead on the spot where he’d found her. Incidentally, Feist’s ex-wife Lisa Howard, an actress who became a hugely successful journalist and newscaster, also killed herself in tragic circumstances after suffering a miscarriage. Feist died of cancer a couple of weeks later. Wow, so much death. Back to happier business. In Deluge, Shannon gives a fine account of a self-reliant and feisty (see what I did there?) woman lumbered with the tiresome burden of being the last woman in sight. She sets up temporary home with Martin, who has been separated from his wife and children in the chaos, believing them to be dead.

Elsewhere, life is picking up again, in a sequence of vigenettes from small town life in places where banks, barbers and families are trying to reinstate their old communities. The Italian dub might even allow today’s viewers the fantasies that this is some apocalyptic neo-realist drama. But only briefly. Martin’s wife Helen (Lois Wilson) is still alive and hoping to be reunited with him, but Tom, yet another survivor, informs her that a new law (how quickly people take the chance to pass new laws in the wake of catastrophe!) commands that women of marrying age must marry. Ah, romance.

Tom has other things to take care of, too, leading a mob against the cruel Bellamy gang, who’ve been raping and looting like only a post-apocalyptic all-male crowd of burly guys can. Thus is dramatised the struggle between the opposing factions of society’s remnants – women get the raw deal: stuck between forced marriage and random attacks by randy thugs, they become the fetish objects through which the male survivors differentiate themselves from one another. There’s some nicely ambiguous drama when Helen and Martin are reunited at the end. Claire refuses to give him up just because his wife turns out to be alive – it’s not as if there’s still a church around to give a crap (I’m paraphrasing her words), and for a while it looks as though they’re about to find accommodation as a threeway family, but it all ends with Claire swimming off to sea. An earlier comment that, unable to become an aviator, she became a professional swimmer tells us that Claire is not necessarily swimming to her death, but it looks for all the world like a suicidal martyrdom, as if her brand of trouser-wearing femininity can’t be assimilated with the newest world order. She did earlier escape from one unsatisfactory settlement to another by stripping off and swimming to the next port of call, so I like to think she’s going to keep going until she finds a refashioned society that can incorporate her desires. In any event, God’s covenant with Noah isn’t helping much.

[See more images from Deluge in my slideshow below:]