Deluge is the story of the end of the world due to a series of natural disasters that begin with terrible hurricanes, ending with an earthquake so severe the west coast of the United States sinks into the Pacific, sending a tsunami so large it literally crosses the world and floods the entire eastern half of the U.S., essentially wiping civilization off the map, with only a few pockets of humanity left. If you think this sounds exciting, the story of the disappearance and subsequent rediscovery of Deluge is equally exciting.
Made independently in 1933, the film was bought by RKO for distribution. It didn’t do well and was retitled and re-released as a second feature even as it was still playing under its original title in some places. RKO, always on the verge of collapse, attempted to minimize their loss by selling the disaster footage to another company for use as stock footage. But the deal that was struck entailed pulling Deluge from theatrical release so the disaster footage wouldn’t be recognized. RKO was happy to do this and, for nearly 50 years the film was considered lost even as the spectacular disaster footage was used in several other pictures.
A quick search of the Internet shows only two other disaster films being made prior to Deluge, one a Danish silent film and the other a 1931 French film. While the Danish film was wildly popular upon its release, silent films were typically not treated as an art form and were often dismissed as escapist pulp, allowing the film to sink into obscurity. The 1931 film cut to ribbons and panned by critics and audiences alike. This leaves Deluge, with its spectacular special effects, to be considered as the granddaddy of disaster films. Unfortunately, once Republic pictures bought the disaster footage, RKO locked the full film up in a vault where it was subsequently forgotten and, eventually, lost to time. But thanks to Republic releasing a couple of 1940’s potboilers that included the disaster footage, interest in finding the film continued to be generated. None other than Famous Monsters of Filmland’s own Forrest J. Ackerman was the first to discover a print of the film in Italy. The print was dubbed in Italian, so there was no English track. And, by all accounts, the print was severely degraded, making for a poor viewing experience. However, due to the historical importance of the film in regards to both genre and special effects, interest remained high and the search continued for a better print. Luckily, just last year, a much better English-language print was discovered and, for the first time in nearly a century, audiences are able to see a decent print, thanks to a 2K restoration by Lobster Films. Even with the restoration, the film isn’t pristine. However, thought some damage simply couldn’t be repaired, the film is mostly clear and very watchable, though I found the sound a bit muddy. Fortunately, excellent subtitles are available which helps.
Apart from the loss and rediscovery of the film, Deluge is interesting for several other reasons. Based upon a novel originally set in England, Deluge was adapted and the setting moved to America. Director Felix E. Feist, best known for directing a couple of classic films noir in the 1940’s as well as an adaptation of “Donovan’s Brain,” helmed the project, which went well over budget, primarily due to the pioneering special effects, which included miniature sets of New York City set upon segmented rollers to capture an earthquake sequence. Viewed nowadays, the effects are clearly dated. But when one considers the time in which these effects were designed, it is difficult to be anything but impressed. Terrific wind storms blowing trees across houses, terrifying earthquakes that literally split a continent in two, and huge tsunamis that flood an already-decimated New York City, washing ships into Manhattan and sweeping the Statue of Liberty away are just a few of the scenes you will see in this four-and-a-half minute sequence. These sequences—although filmed in Los Angeles—were the very first to depict the complete devastation of the Big Apple—but certainly not the last.
Deluge was filmed during Pre-Code Hollywood, so the film is a bit racier than films made just one year later. It features quite a bit of female flesh, including one startling sequence where star Peggy Shannon is lifted from the water in nothing but skimpy, flesh-toned bra and panties, created a momentary “is she naked?” query from many viewers. No, she isn’t nude, but this scene wouldn’t have made it into a film in 1934. Another scene has Shannon just covering her bare breast with her hand, again displaying quite a bit more flesh than would typically be on display in later years. There is also a fairly violent attempted rape depicted on screen, complete with ripped blouse and exposed bra and cleavage, also likely to be censored if the film had been made just a short time later.
While the film is interesting on a historical level, it is also a rollicking adventure story as well. The film opens with scientists nearly at each other’s throats as they desperately try to save as many people as they can. With a mysterious, unpredicted solor eclipse the storms begin to build with hurricane force winds pounding the globe. These terrific storms are only compounded by worldwide earthquakes that rend the Earth into pieces. The final straw is the series of tremendous tsunamis of Biblical size that literally drown the entire planet, leaving only a few pockets of survivors. It’s no wonder director Feist felt the need to begin the film with a quote from the Book of Genesis.
The rest of the film focuses on three main groups of survivors. There is Claire Arlington (Peggy Shannon), a beautiful yet strong woman who doesn’t take any guff from anyone. She ends up living with two gruff men who fight over her and attempt to rape her. She escapes by swimming to one of the new “islands” of high ground where she washes on shore and is rescued by the heroic Martin Webster (Sidney Blackmer of Rosemary’s Baby fame). Martin believes he has lost his wife and two small children and is initially pleased to know there is someone else alive. It doesn’t take long for a romantic, but ultimately unfulfilled, relationship to develop between the two. Meanwhile, the Neanderthal-like Jepson (the perfectly-cast Fred Kohler) has chased tracked Clair to her new hiding place and taken control of a band of murderous rabble who attack the two star-crossed lovers. Luckily for them, there is a fairly sizable group of survivors who sweep in to rescue Martin and Claire. The pair are taken back to the group’s village to help create a new, utopian society. But that’s not the end of the story. Feist has saved one last twist that will test Martin’s morals and potentially end the budding romance between Martin and Claire. I won’t say any more so as not to spoil the surprise.
The film moves at a breakneck pace, making the already-short 70 minutes feel like much less. Sure, the science behind the story is hokey—even in the 1930’s scientists aren’t going to miss a total solar eclipse—and some of the acting is preposterous, such as in the opening scenes with the nearly-crazed scientists shouting at and verbally abusing each other. But much like today’s disaster flicks, you can’t examine the reasoning too closely or the film will fall apart; just sit back, take it for what it is, and enjoy the ride.
Kino Lorber has released a very nice package, including a reversible cover that contains the original poster artwork, a fun and interesting audio commentary by Richard Harland Smith, some fun film trailers for other disaster flicks, and, as a special bonus, a second Pre-Code picture from early 1934 which also stars Peggy Shannon, entitled Back Page.
You can find this Blu-Ray on Kino Lorber’s site at https://www.kinolorber.com/film/deluge or on Amazon.