I was originally attracted by this film because it stars Spencer Tracy – and I’m fascinated by his early work after seeing movies like 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, which I’ve reviewed here in the past, and Man’s Castle and Riff Raff, both of which I hope to review in the future.
In this movie, directed by Harry Lachman, Tracy once again plays a tough, arrogant character who is nonetheless more vulnerable than he at first appears. This time he is cast as a ruthless fairground worker who won’t let anyone or anything get in his way, as he rises to wealth by taking over and massively expanding a hi-tech attraction based on, you guessed it, Dante’s Inferno.
However, Tracy has nothing to do with the most striking scene in this movie – an amazing eight-minute vision of hell based on Gustav Doré’s famous illustrations to the great poem, showing the torments of the damned as they writhe in lakes of fire. I have read the poem (in translation!), and this section of the film does recall it, though the rest of the movie has little or nothing to do with Dante. It’s a stunning sequence and I find hard to imagine quite how it could have been made. Unfortunately, it seems to be difficult to find out exactly who did make it and when.
The imdb entry for the movie directly contradicts itself, saying in its “trivia” section on the one hand that this sequence is stock footage lifted from the 1924 Henry Otto movie of the same title… and on the other that, according to a 28 July 1935 New York Times article, there were 4,950 technicians, architects, artists, carpenters, stone masons and labourers, 250 electricians and 3,000 extras in the Inferno scene. Both these accounts surely can’t be right.
I’ve searched through web pages and Google books, but failed to find a definitive answer either way. Is there anyone who has seen both the 1935 film and the obscure 1924 movie, which was thought to be lost but still exists in UCLA film and television archives, and who can confirm whether the two sequences are the same?
Assuming this footage is indeed the silent sequence re-used, which seems quite likely given the amount of recycling of old special effects which used to take place, then it may in fact date back even further than 1924, since some accounts I’ve found of the Otto movie say that its central hell sequence is thought to be lifted from a lost German expressionist epic!
Getting back to Tracy, this film has the same grittiness about it which I’ve liked in other early films of his. It also has a strong flavour of the Great Depression, with most of the characters struggling to make a living, and an atmosphere of gambling and recklessness. At the start of the film Tracy’s character, Jim Carter, is a stoker aboard a luxury liner, and furious when a society lady on the deck above laughs at him. He vows that one day he will be the one up on that deck.
After being sacked from the ship, he is soon also sacked from a fairground stall, but kindly Pop McWade (silent film star Henry B. Walthall) takes pity on him and offers him work helping with his attraction, a down-at-heel presentation of Dante’s Inferno. Inspired by a figure of Alexander the Great in the display, Carter vows to conquer his own worlds. He is soon running the concession, as well as planning to make it bigger and better – even if it means ruining rival stallholders who get in his way.
Jim romances and marries Pop’s daughter, Betty (Claire Trevor), and proves to be a devoted husband and father – with a sharp contrast between his ruthless gangster-style “business” methods and his loving family life. This really reminded me of more recent presentations of gangsters like The Sopranos. Betty does seem rather naive and too inclined to believe what Jim tells her even when it’s obvious he is lying – but Trevor makes the character believable and likeable all the same.
As a result of Jim’s dog-eat-dog methods, soon one disaster is piling on top of another. At at the launch of the new improved Inferno attraction, a man he has ruined hurls himself to his death in the lake of fire – then later at a charity fundraiser the whole attraction collapses because of Jim’s refusal to consider health and safety.
Pop is trapped in the rubble and nearly dies, and, while half-asleep at his hospital bedside, Jim sees the film’s set piece vision of hell – but even that can’t stop him on the road to destruction. He goes on to create his own version of a fiery hell by setting up a floating gambling palace, which catches fire on its first night, a disaster apparently inspired by the real-life Morro Castle tragedy. (A teenage Rita Hayworth, billed as Rita Cansino, features as a dancer aboard the cruise ship.)
When the fire breaks out, Carter has to use all the skills he learned as a stoker at the start of the film, but this time he is desperately trying to put out the fire rather than stoking it – and there are dramatic scenes where you can see him sobbing with exhaustion as he puts his own life at risk to save the ship and crew.
Tracy himself hated this film, describing it as one of the worst ever made, and parted company with Fox once production had finished. However, I think he was rather too hard on it – since, while it may not be a masterpiece, the quality of his own acting lifts the script. The sleazy fairground setting also has a certain fascination, while the special effects, especially in that haunting vision of hell, are simply out of this world. For anyone who wants to know more about this film, and to see some more stills of the hell sequence, here’s a link to a good blog review at The Big Whatsit, which has some interesting background information.