Crime, Drama

Dante’s Inferno (1935)

Comments Off on Dante’s Inferno (1935) 16 January 2015

Dante's Inferno

Studio: 20th Century-Fox Cinema Archives
Theatrical Release: August 23rd, 1935

DVD Release: March 18th, 2014
Rating: Not Rated

20th Century-Fox Cinema Archives has released Dante’s Inferno, another rare and much requested but hard to see movie on DVD. The Cinema Archives releases have been controversial because of erratic quality. Film fans are wise to wait for reliable reviews of these releases before purchasing. The interesting Dante’s Inferno is a safe buy.

Dante’s Inferno opens in a boiler room of a luxury liner. It looks like hell, reminiscent of the subterranean factories of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. First-class passengers are watching from above as if visiting a zoo. The scene, photographed by the great cinematographer Rudolf Maté, is shot expressionistically and is a set-up for what follows. The camera moves among the stokers as they compete to see who can throw the most coal into the boilers. Jim Carter (Spencer Tracy), faking an injury, is taking bets on who wins. He is clearly exploiting his coworkers. Carter is a character that knows all the angles. Before being expelled from the boat, Carter vows that some day the tables will be turned.

Back in the states Carter is working blackface at a carnival game where he takes baseball pitches to the face from contestants. Totally humiliated he walks away from this job and into the care of Pop McWade (played by D. W. Griffith regular Henry B. Walthall), the owner of a failing sideshow attraction called ‘Dante’s Inferno’.  McWade sees his attraction as an instrument of social instruction: to educate the public about the wages of sin. Carter sees it as a goldmine to fleece the mugs of the their hard earned dough.

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Carter turns the attraction into a success. Along the way he falls in love with and marries Pop’s niece, Betty (Claire Trevor). They soon have a son (Scotty Beckett of ‘Our Gang’ fame). Using dubious business practices, Carter expands the business with his sights on eventually owning a luxury liner similar to the one he was on at the beginning of the movie. Only Carter’s will be bigger, gaudier, and will operate as a floating casino. Carter could almost be a Depression-era Donald Trump. By the end of the picture, Carter learns the wages of sin, as his actions nearly cost him his family and his life.

Dante’s Inferno is a fascinating movie. Produced in early 1935 one could easily mistake it for a pre-code movie. The material is certainly timely and sensationalistic.   The carnival atmosphere is reminiscent of 1932’s Freaks. There is sense of community among the sideshow families and workers.

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The only thing missing from separating Dante’s Inferno from its pre-code antecedents is the lack of sex. Tracy’s Carter is ruthless in his pursuit of success, even causing two suicides on his climb to the top, but he is a good family man. He is devoted to both his wife and son.   No philandering for Carter like the slippery characters played by Warren William over at Warner’s. This is Carter’s redeeming quality.

Dante’s Inferno is also a difficult movie to classify. Dante’s Inferno sometimes plays like a Depression-era melodrama, a horror film, and romantic comedy—there’s even a dance number with a pre-stardom Rita Hayworth. This is also a similarity it shares with pre-code films. Pre-code films often felt like they were being made up as they went along. Sometimes movies would shift tones multiple times in 60 or 70 minutes. It would lead to many surprises. By the mid 1930’s this quality largely disappears in Hollywood product as genre conventions become formalized. Dante’s Inferno could almost be one of the missing links between German expressionism and American film noir. Visually it’s striking. Thematically it skates along the edge until the ending where Carter is redeemed, regaining his humanity before all is lost. Film noir heroes never find redemption until it’s too late.

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Director Harry Lachman began his career as an illustrator and commercial artist. While in Europe in the 1920’s he became a set designer. Before the end of the decade he worked his way up to directing. Primarily a studio director with stints at Columbia and Fox, he directed films of several genres including a few Charlie Chan mysteries as well as a Laurel and Hardy comedy, Our Relations (again with Maté), musicals, including a Shirley Temple vehicle, and at least one horror movie, Dr. Renault’s Secret. The films I’ve seen all display a visual flair, no doubt attributable to Lachman’s training as a painter. Dante’s Inferno is no exception. Moviemaking must have been a means to an end as he left the industry in the early 1940’s to resume his successful career as a painter.

Much of the look of the movie is obviously due in no small part to cameraman Rudolf Maté. Maté had an incredible career as a cinematographer starting in Denmark with Carl Dreyer on The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr. While still in Europe he shot Fritz Lang’s Lilliom. Maté’s post European career includes work with a number of major directors—King Vidor (Stella Dallas), William Wyler (Dodsworth), Leo McCarey (Love Affair), Alfred Hitchcock (Foreign Correspondent), and Ernst Lubitsch (To Be Or Not To Be). His work elevates studio assignments such as Charlie Chan’s Secret, Seven Sinners, and Gilda.   He shot William Cameron Menzies’ important anti-Nazi movie, Address Unknown, and is listed as working uncredited on Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai. Maté turns to directing in 1948 and over the next 15 years directs over 30 features before retiring in the early 1960’s.

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Spencer Tracy is dynamic as Jim Carter. It’s the type of performance that leads one to contemplate an alternate universe with Tracy at a studio where his talents could have been more fully explored. Spencer Tracy’s first starring role for Fox was John Ford’s 1930 prison comedy Up The River. Over the next five years Tracy would appear in 25 movies at Fox (and on loan out to other studios), working with such directors as Frank Borzage and Raoul Walsh. Tracy was one of the studio system’s great actors. He was equally adept at comedy or drama. Tracy was a master of reaction, comic and dramatic. He also was able to silently convey inner turmoil like few actors of his or even later generations—according to biographies this may be a reflection of his personal life. During this five-year period Tracy was a critic’s favorite, but not much of a hit with the public.

By the time Dante’s Inferno was produced Tracy’s erratic behavior, due to alcoholism, was taking its toll on his reputation at Fox. Tracy was dismissed at the end of Dante’s Inferno. From Fox Tracy landed up at MGM (then the most prestigious studio in Hollywood). Tracy’s early days at MGM looked promising, mixing up projects like Fritz Lang’s dark revenge drama Fury with comedies like Jack Conway’s Libeled Lady. He also appeared in a number of box office hits with Clark Gable. Tracy won back-to-back Oscars in 1938 and 1939 for Captain’s Courageous and Boys Town.

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But the writing was on the wall. The interesting projects for Tracy became fewer in the post-Thalberg MGM. For that matter the MGM movies, with the exception of Arthur Freed’s musical unit, became less interesting. This was due to the power (and taste) of Louis B. Mayer. The MGM product of the era tended to run towards the bland and conservative, with some exceptions (Ninotchka, The Shop Around The Corner, The Human Comedy, They Were Expendable).   It wouldn’t be until the late 1940’s, and against the wishes of Mayer, that movies like Border Incident and The Asphalt Jungle would get produced on the Culver City lot.

It is interesting to ponder what kinds of movies Tracy would have made had he stayed at Fox or even moved to Warners. Under Zanuck at Fox he might have appeared in more Ford movies. His everyman quality would have fit in nicely with the Depression-era comedies and crime melodramas produced at Warners. There would be a few highlights at MGM (Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib, Father of the Bride, The People Against O’Hara), but not enough for a talent a large as Tracy’s. By the time he leaves MGM in the mid 1950’s, his health declining, he works infrequently. He is wonderful in John Ford’s The Last Hurrah and appears in a number of Stanley Kramer productions. He looks at least ten years older than he is. One watches Tracy in these movies the way one watches an aging athlete or opera singer, to see if he can still perform in crucial moments. Tracy never disappoints, even if the movies do.

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Dante’s Inferno comes to DVD from Fox on its Cinema Archives line. Movies of this era have become increasingly difficult to see in the past 35 years or so. This is due to the decline of the revival house and the rise of cable television and home video. What was once a staple on late night local television or battered 16mm prints in film societies is now nearly impossible to see. Film enthusiasts must be grateful for whatever crumbs the studios toss in their direction. When these movies are released on DVD, there’s no telling what condition or age of the transfer you’ll get. Fox being the worst offender. Fortunately Dante’s Inferno looks good though not spectacular. It looks as if no restoration was performed. The soundtrack is also fine.

As stated above, the Fox Cinema Archive line is a bit of a gamble. Some transfers used are outdated and unwatchable. Dante’s Inferno is neither and is a sure bet for anyone interested in rare 1930s’s cinema.

Rating: ★★★★☆


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