Lost films is a term too many movies lovers are familiar with especially with the recent, unfortunately false, story that a print of Lon Chaney’s legendary London After Midnight had been found. We have a vast film history dating back more than 100 years now, and a large portion of that history is gone. Early films from the silent era are the hardest hit with about 75% of those films lost mainly due to deterioration or fire. Early nitrate film stock was highly flammable and improperly stored was known to have spontaneously combusted. It can also decay into goo or dust. After the talkies arrived, many studios had no profit motive to keep prints of their silent films in storage so they were simply destroyed, sometimes taking entire careers with them.
After 1948, a new film stock was introduced that prevented films from exploding but color films from the era have in many cases faded so badly that they are unwatchable. Hollywood also had a B-movie division and many of those films were also destroyed simply because there was no money to be made from them. The Library of Congress has required a copy of every film produced to be deposited with them, but they don’t have to actually keep the print. With the advent of digital technology, filmmakers don’t necessarily have to worry about film deterioration, but what happens now is a hard drive holding a film or its elements becomes corrupted? Many directors and studios have become concerned about this technology and have actually gone back to preserving their movies on actual film, stored under optimal conditions, the only sure way to make sure this legacy is preserved.
And that brings us to Deluge, one of the first films to depict a global disaster in 1933. The movie is based on a novel by Sidney Fowler Wright in which the world is besieged by earthquakes and flooding, separating a married couple, and leaving the husband Martin believing his wife has died. Alone in a cabin, one of the few structures to remain standing, he spots a woman swimming ashore and invites her to stay with him. The book takes a questionably misogynistic turn, but in the movie Martin and Claire find more survivors in a small, devastated town where, surprise, his wife (and children) are alive, putting him in quite the pickle since he’s also fallen in love with Claire.
Deluge was produced by RKO and features some breathtaking (for the time) special effects depicting the destruction of what appears to be New York City, and anyone who has seen Deep Impact may wonder if their special effects team had somehow been influenced by the effects in this movie. Buildings crumble and the earth opens up to swallow the rubble and the populace through a clever mix of miniatures (some of the skyscrapers were 12 feet tall) and rear projection. It’s a pretty amazing sequence but the film suffers from it because basically nothing happens afterwards. The film is completely top-loaded with all the good stuff, and the rest is just a very odd story of romance, betrayal, and rebuilding. And because all the good stuff happens right at the top, audiences and critics were ultimately disappointed, causing the film (which basically had a blank check for the effects sequence) to be a financial failure, and it ultimately became a “lost” film not because it had deteriorated or been destroyed, but because the studio needed to recoup its loses so it sold the effects footage to another studio for use in their films (which is how the Deep Impact folks may have seen it) on the condition that RKO withdraw Deluge/em> from circulation. Fortunately, the film ended up being preserved properly in a film vault in France in 2016 (horror/sci-fi archivist Forrest J. Ackerman had previously discovered a print of the film in 1981, but its condition made viewing difficult).
Lobster Films took the nitrate print and used the latest digital technology to restore the image to its original sharpness, as well as performed extensive restoration to the English and French soundtracks. Now Kino Lorber presents Deluge on Blu-ray in pretty spectacular condition. Considering the film’s original state, it looks remarkable on Blu-ray and can be forgiven as the quality of the film sometimes varies from scene to scene. Overall, however, it looks and sounds wonderful. It may not be the best film ever made, but it’s certainly worth a look for the hard core movie buff.
The Blu-ray also includes a second full length feature, Back Page, which stars Deluge actress Peggy Shannon, who played Claire. This co-feature is actually a more entertaining film as Shannon stars as reporter Jerry Hampton who is fired from her big city newspaper for talking back to her editor. Her boyfriend, fellow reporter Brice Regal, gets her an editor position with a small town paper in Apex, CA, which is on the verge of an oil boom. As Jerry brings the paper back to life, she’s given a statement that the oil well has failed, but she begins to see that she’s not getting the full story and sets about to get to the truth. Back Page certainly holds a lot of interest in this day and age of “fake news.” The 1934 feature (both films run just over an hour long) looks stunning on Blu-ray and it’s interesting to see Shannon in two roles playing pretty strong women. Sadly, Shannon died at the age of 34 in 1941 because of a heart attack due to a serious drinking problem that derailed her career. Shannon, who had been dubbed “the new Clara Bow,” also had a reputation for being difficult so the career she should have had, based off of her performances in these two films, never took off.
In addition to the two films, the Blu-ray also features an audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith who imparts a lot of information about the making of the film, how the story differs from the novel (the title disaster is not actually depicted in the novel), and talks about the careers of the director, technicians and actors involved. While this is highly informative, it would have been nice to have seen perhaps a feature on the preservation of the film with some side-by-side comparisons. The only other extras are three trailers for a disparate group of disaster films, The Hurricane (1937), Avalanche (1978) and Meteor (1979), all available from Kino Lorber.
While not a complete home run, the presentation of Deluge and the co-feature Back Page, along with the commentary, make this a disk worth picking up to have a bit of film history of your own.
Kino Lorber generously provided Hotchka with a Blu-ray copy of the film for reviewing purposes.