Deluge captured my interest back in 2017, soon after its release by KL Studio Classics, mostly because it was a pre-code disaster film that was once considered lost, but also because it featured an appearance by Sidney Blackmer, who would later play Roman Castavet in Rosemary's Baby. I am always interested in seeing early film appearances by actors I first encountered in their later years, and Blackmer has an impressive filmography I may need to explore further. This film was directed by Felix E. Feist, who also directed some other well known movies I've seen: Donovan's Brain and The Man Who Cheated Himself. Be forewarned that I intend to share the events in this film in its entirety, so be prepared for spoilers.
It's an indication that a movie intends to be harrowing when it begins with a foreword to reassure the audience that the tale is imaginative, and cites a biblical passage to pacify viewers. Folks in 1933 were only just beginning to build up a tolerance to onscreen horror and needed to be handled with kid gloves.
Any sense of calm that opening may have inspired quickly dissipates as the movie takes off in high gear with scientists freaking out over an unexplained drop in barometric pressure, indicating a violent storm on the way, prompting all ships to be called back to port and directing all aircraft to return to base, which is illustrated by real life footage. Meanwhile, Claire Arlington's attempt at a record breaking swim has been cancelled, just as she was beginning to get lubed up, while preparing all of us to see a lot of Claire in this film.
After an unanticipated eclipse, Edward Van Sloan, who vanquished Dracula and warned us about Frankenstein just a few years prior, is checking seismic readouts over at the Astronomical Solar Society, while being asked over the wire to provide some encouragement to millions of people that it's not the end times. He chuckles mirthlessly over that. Headlines declare that Earth is doomed, while people panic and run amok in the streets.
As a skyscraper crumbles, Van Sloan is hunched over his seismograph, noting a massive earthquake in the West, which is confirmed by a radio announcer stating that the West Coast has been demolished and submerged, that the damage in Europe is unknown due to damaged communications systems, but that folks shouldn't be alarmed and should just turn off the gas, evacuate unstable structures, and have some provisions ready.
Martin (Blackmer) is at home listening to the report while his wife, Helen, gets little Ronny and Marianne ready for bed, prompting them as they recite their bedtime prayer, "if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." Outside the kids' room, Helen tells Martin she's frightened, but he says there's nothing to worry about.
Van Sloan is observing huge scribbles on the seismograph, noting that the quakes are moving eastward. Hurricane footage is shown, and the scientists are huddled together as they receive notice that Louisina and New Orleans have been wiped out, and Van Sloan soberly acknowledges there's no escape.
Martin hears on the radio that Chicago is doomed and Mississippi is sinking, as the raging storm causes the chimney to crumble. He rushes upstairs to where Helen is trying to comfort the kids and tells them the whole house is about to collapse and that they'll be safer in the stone quarry.
He hauls the kids down to the quarry while leaving Helen behind at the house to grab whatever clothes she can find before meeting up with them. He drops the kids off on the rocks in the middle of a cataclysmic storm and heads back to the house, just as a tree falls and breaks through the roof, trapping Helen under a beam. He rescues her and carries her to the quarry where the kids are huddled under a blanket.
In the light of day during a break in the storm, Martin tells Helen he's going to go back to the house to get some provisions. Meanwhile, the harried radio announcer is informing the public that the quake center is shifting and that buildings should be evacuated, just as all hell breaks loose and we see an extended sequence of buildings in New York City topple, crushing people as they try to flee.
The Empire State Building breaks off into chunks and the sea flows in past the Statue of Liberty, hastening the destruction of the crumbling infrastructure, and submerging the city. It's an impressive depiction that's worth the price of admission, and remains frightening to this day, despite the primitive special effects.
After the rapid fire, high anxiety beginning, the movie shifts into low gear, clouds roll by overhead, and we encounter Martin, who is regaining consciousness alone on a devastated beach. He staggers to his feet, observes his lonely surroundings, and begins walking off in the direction of nowhere.
Claire is found half naked and half alive outside an isolated shack by Jephson, who carries her inside to be leered at and fondled by his buddy, Norwood.
We meet up with Martin at his cozy cabin where he has crossed off all the days of May and two weeks in June on his makeshift wall calendar. Despite the majority of civilization being wiped out, Martin tidies up his hovel and sets out to work in a nearby cave, wearing a tucked in shirt and belted pants. With no other structures anywhere in sight, it's amazing to see the array of tools and supplies Martin has stockpiled in the cave. It's especially helpful that he's included a board with a railroad spike sticking out of it with his supplies, since that's going to come in handy later in the picture.
Back at the shack, Claire overhears Jephson informing Norwood that he was there first and everything in the place belongs to him. Norwood tells him, "Well, it's not natural for two men to live a month in the same house with a woman and not want her," surprising viewers that she's remained unmolested by the brutes for a whole month. Jephson says he'll take care of the girl and Claire steps out of the other room to assert she'll take care of herself.
While Jephson goes outside to work on the boat, Norwood moves in on Claire, grabbing her and mashing his face into her neck. She smacks him in the head with a frying pan, and Jephson returns to see that he's up to no good. As he strangles Norwood, Claire finally decides it's a good time to get a move on and runs outside, strips off her clothes, and takes off swimming. Jephson grabs a sack and a gun and readies himself to pursue her in his boat.
Martin observes a female figure collapsed on the beach from the door of his home. He finds Claire topless and barely alert, and carries her to his ramshackle cabin where she snuggles in his bed and he nurses her with beverages.
Martin observes Jephson arrive on the beach outside his cabin, and as Jephson goes off in search of Claire, he comes across the ruined corpse of young woman discarded in the shrubbery. Martin trails after Jephson and is horror stricken to also find the dead girl.
He spies on Jephson as he has a conversation with a rough looking crew. Jephson tells them he's looking for a woman, and the men chuckle and ask who isn't. Jephson remarks that it looks like they had a woman back there and lets them know if he finds his woman, he's keeping her for himself. They wish him luck as Martin sneaks back to the cabin.
While Martin prepares coffee, Claire awakens to realize she is naked in his bed. He provides her with clothes, and welcomes her to grab a bite to eat while he gallantly waits outside for her. When she emerges, he calls her Miss Aphrodite and compliments her charming attire. She tells him about her long swim away from a place where conditions became impossible with the two men she was with.
She asks if he knows where they are and he tells her they are forty miles away from where New York once was. He says he used a have a summer place nearby with his wife and two children, who he believes are lost. He says he's only explored a mile out around the place since he's been so busy gathering provisions, and she notes he has many. He tells her she's welcome to whatever he's got.
She says she'll take the clothes she's wearing and gets up to leave. He asks where she'll go and she says she'll see what's left of the world. He tells her she should know about the big, curly haired man, "ugly as the devil," who arrived on the beach, and Claire realizes he's talking about Jephson. He tells her that he saw him meet up with a mean bunch, and that while following him, he stumbled across the body of a young girl who had been with the nasty crew, and asks her if she thinks she should stay. She agrees to stay for the day.
Meanwhile, in the remains of a demolished city, people are hustling and bustling about as they attempt to rebuild civilization.
Tom arrives at his off kilter home with some dead chickens, where Martin's wife Helen is recuperating in bed surrounded by Ronny and Marianne.
After they leave, Helen asks Tom if there's any news, and he says she's asked him the same question daily for a month and asserts that Martin is not alive. She is certain that he is, but Tom informs her, in a true moment of horror, that one of the new laws they've passed is that all women of marrying age are required to marry. She says she couldn't since she's sure Martin will come back. He says she'll have to choose someone if she stays there and that he's hoping she'll choose him.
Martin does not have the same stalwart faith that his spouse is still alive, despite only exploring a mile radius around his cabin, as he cozies up with Claire, who he seems to have supplied with fresh makeup. Just as they are getting to know each other better, Jephson sneaks up and clubs Martin over the head and carries Claire off.
Back at the settlement, a group of men are seeing the evidence of what Bellamy's gang did to Hollister's daughter. Tom tells them that it could happen to any of their women and that they need to wipe out the gang to be safe.
Jephson is speaking to the Bellamy gang around a campfire at night, informing them that he knows where Martin's cabin is, and that he has all the food and supplies they need, but that the dame is his. He walks over to where she is tied up and tells her she won't get away, as he starts to caress her shoulder. She interrupts him by asking for some food and he agrees to get her some. While he's gone, Martin sneaks up and cuts off her restraints and then goes back into hiding. Jephson brings her food and asks for a kiss. When he grabs her, Martin emerges and pokes him in the chest with a knife.
Jephson is wounded, but not severely, and he tells the gang to go after them. During the chase, Martin is able to subdue one of the gang and takes his gun. The leader of the gang decides it's too dark to find them and they give up the chase, saying they'll go after them in the morning since Jephson knows where to find them.
Claire and Martin realize the gang will come after them in the morning, but instead of packing their gear and hightailing it out of there, Martin suggests they stay in the tunnel for the night as it will somehow be safer than the cabin. While Martin may be an idiot, he's no fool, as it's a more suitable place to make up a bed that's roomy enough to make sweet love to Claire. He promises they'll have a happy home together, and then woos her by claiming that all he had was taken from him and that she's all he cares about now. She decides to go all in with Martin.
Meanwhile, Tom is rounding up a posse to go after the Bellamy gang. He warns the fellows that choose to stay behind that if there's any looting or molesting of women, they'll answer to them when they return. Good thing there were no women around to hear that unreassuring bit of news, especially after Tom shares that some of them may come back or all of them may come back or none of them may come back.
It seems Martin and Claire may have been basking too long in the afterglow since the Bellamy gang shows up on their doorstep while they are still packing up supplies, and the gang traps them inside the tunnel. Martin warns them off by firing a round at them. He remarks to Claire that it's a fine honeymoon and asks how she likes their wedding guests. Two yokels light a fire at the other end of the tunnel and Martin says they're in for it.
Tom's scouts report the movements of the Bellamy gang at the tunnel and they make a plan to take them out. Jephson goes to the other end of the tunnel while the rest of the gang splits up and advances from both sides of the main entrance. Tom picks two of them off with some well placed shots, which is enough to convince most of the gang they don't stand a chance, and they turn tail and run.
Tom easily shoots and kills the two that remain after they decide to rush them, while Jephson sneaks up from behind and gets into a wrestling match with Martin as Clair watches. When he knocks Martin out, she goes after Jephson, relentlessly attacking him until he's finally able to knock her loose. Martin revives and goes after Jephson, who begins to strangle him. Claire finds a board with a railroad spike sticking out of it and puts it to good use.
Tom's posse enters the cave, but he tells his men not to shoot when he sees the pretty lady with a gun. He and Martin engage in some witty repartee, and then Tom explains they are from a settlement ten miles away and had come to take out the gang. Tom is stunned when Martin tells him who he is and introduces Claire as his wife.
The men return to the settlement and are happily greeted by their unmolested womenfolk. Martin and Claire are amazed at the sight of the closest thing to civilization they've seen in a whole entire month. As Martin and Claire joke about the fine accommodations they expect to receive, Tom leads them to where Martin will encounter his children, who instantly recognize him and greet him joyously. He hugs them while Claire turns away disappointed. He asks if their mother is there and Ronny points to the house, which he goes into without even a glance back at Claire, who is looking nearly as despondent as Tom.
Martin sits down with Claire and explains that he told Helen all about them and that she understands. He tells her that his feelings are different for each of them, yet he loves them both. He says his happiest moment was finding out that Helen and the kids were alive and his saddest moment was the conversation he now had to have with her. She takes that to mean he's breaking up with her. He says he can't choose between the two of them and Claire says she'll work it out.
Outside, the men in the settlement are arguing over how to split up the goods in the haul they brought in after dealing with the Bellamy Boys. Tom appeals to Martin for help, who suggests they have an auction, giving 100 dollars credit to the posse and 10 bucks to each of the townspeople to use to bid on items. The auction is a success, especially for an old fellow who takes home a statue of the Venus de Milo, claiming he knows what he's doing when winter comes, which really leaves little to the imagination.
Tom approaches Martin, asking if he'd be interested in being their leader. saying he likes how he handled himself in the cave and at the auction. Martin says the community should decide and Tom says they'll have a vote.
Helen arrives at Claire's place to hash it out. She asks why Claire is angry with her, and she says she hates her because she met Martin first. Helen doesn't believe she stole her husband, but suggests they could help each other decide what's best. Claire tells her that she loves Martin and that he's the only man she's ever loved. Helen says if they didn't love each other, she'd step out of the way, but reminds her about the children. Claire yells at her, claiming she won't give Martin up for her or for the children.
Martin makes a humble acceptance speech as the settlement's new leader and pledges to do his best. He tells the people that they are starting fresh and should give to their children a more lawful community than what was given to them. Tom congratulates him and Martin embraces Helen, prompting Claire to stomp off. Martin tells Helen to go to the house and then goes after Claire. He doesn't find her at home because she's stripping off her clothes and jumping into the ocean once again. Martin races to the shore as she swims off into the distance.
Those disaster sequences must have really been something to see on a big screen back in 1933, and set the standard for disaster films to follow!
Like many apocalyptic tales, this one focuses on how people survive in the aftermath of a disastrous event, and the kind of society they choose to rebuild. The first order of business in this movie is for men to stake a claim on the remaining women as necessary provisions. While the rape and abuse of a young girl at the hands of the Bellamy gang is horrifying and despicable, Jephson claiming Claire belongs to him because he found her first is also abhorrent, and not much different from the settlement's law that women are required to marry. While Martin claims they'll be working towards a better society for their children, this does not seem to include the females in the group, as women in the new society are objects to be owned by men, and exist to serve them.
Despite the bleak outlook for women, Claire appears to be a strong, independent character, as she chooses to strip down and swim off whenever the situation does not suit her well. This movie was based on a 1928 novel by English author, S. Fowler Wright, who was reportedly displeased with the way his ending was changed in the film, according to film historian, Richard Harlan Smith, who provides an informative commentary on the Kino Lorber release. In the novel, Claire and Helen decide to share Martin, which doesn't seem to be in line with Claire's character in the movie. I like the film ending because it allows me to believe that Claire eventually found a better place, where all people lived and worked together on an equal footing. Listen, if S. Fowler can have his fantasies, I can have mine.
Disaster movies are appealing because they allow us to contemplate the best course of action for survival if we are ever faced with a catastrophe by learning vicariously from the choices made by the characters. For example, maybe don't leave your wife in a house you think is about to collapse while depositing your preschool aged children alone on some rocks in the middle of a devastating storm. Or, when you see that a disaster is affecting the whole world, with each region toppling like dominoes, perhaps you shouldn't assume you'll be the lucky ones who won't be affected and choose not to prepare for the disaster that is coming your way until it's too late.
These movies also allow us to examine the kind of society we live in, and envision how we might improve it if faced with the chance to remake it. What causes conflict is when notions of what make a better society are in opposition with one another. Disaster movies can serve to remind us of the importance of living in a society that strives to make choices that don't bring about cataclysmic events, and that unites people to foster a better outcome for all when disaster strikes.