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by Jay Seaver

"Pre-code, post-apocalyptic."
3 stars

"Deluge" was not the first film to offer up the end of civilization as we know it on screen, but may be the first to do so in such spectacular fashion, even if the film itself was not a blockbuster or major release. It is, in fact, not far off from the end of the world tales that would appear more frequently decades later, just done in early-talkie style.

The exact cause of the disaster is not exactly specified (or may just tough to suss out with the way the first act is presented with not-great sound) - some combination of earthquakes and massive tides from an eclipse - but the result is a flood of Biblical proportions, wiping out first the west coast, then Europe, then causing the Great Lakes and Mississippi River to overflow before a tidal wave finally hits New York. That's when the focus moves from frantic scientists to the likes of lawyer Martin Webster (Sidney Blackmer) and his wife Helen (Lois Wilson), in a cabin upstate but thinking a move to a quarry would be safer; Claire Arlington (Peggy Shannon), who had been planning a record-breaking swim before the disaster; and then the likes of Jepson (Fred Kohler) and Norwood (Ralf Harolde), two toughs who find Martin's cabin later, or Tom (Matt Moore), the closest thing a small town has to a leader.

If Deluge is noteworthy for anything in 2020, it's the visual effects, but what's kind of fascinating is that it's in many ways an early primer on how to use them and where they may not convince. One may laugh at the miniatures which show the lines on which they will soon fall apart, but it's nevertheless fair work for the period, especially once a wave is in motion. The filmmakers are smart in how they deploy it, though, cutting to stock footage of actual fires and collapsing buildings and doing some strong matte work to get moving people in front of the destruction. The matte paintings and background work is solid throughout, in fact, enough to blend location and stage shoots better than other films that would follow later.

It also doesn't hurt that the film is pre-code, which not only means that Peggy Shannon can wash up on shore wearing nothing but her underwear twice, but that there can be a few bits of pretty nasty violence implied and shown. There's actually a fair balance between ruthlessness and sentimentality for a while, but eventually one has to give the film a lot of credit for what sort of novelty it must have been in 1933, because even by the standards of B-movie-makers not having a lot of practice, the script is a mess, throwing out a bunch of nasty villains and half-interesting ideas but not really having much idea of how to connect them other than happenstance, with the sort-of-interesting melodrama that the film has been building to eventually sputtering, like the writers didn't know what to do with a situation once they'd gotten there.

On top of that, this is one of those 1930s movies where the women are the first-billed stars but the filmmakers never really let them take control of the story. Peggy Shannon gets to play Claire as ambitious and brassy and is probably the best thing about the movie besides the special effects, and more than holds up her end of scenes with a baby-faced Sidney Blackmer, whose Martin is likably capable in action but bland through much of the film, especially when he needs to be feeling some sort of turmoil. Like much of the rest of the cast, he makes one appreciate how Fred Kohler makes Jepson an honest ogre.

Not bad for 1933 even if it's a novelty now, having been rediscovered after twice being thought lost. Its most impressive two minutes have been kicking around the internet recently, but the other 65 aren't exactly terrible, especially once you recognize that this came out mere months after the original "King Kong" and probably had less to work with.

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originally posted: 05/16/20 03:03:58
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Directed by
  Felix E. Feist

Written by
  John F. Goodrich
  Warren Duff

  Peggy Shannon
  Lois Wilson
  Sidney Blackmer
  Matt Moore
  Fred Kohler

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