Dante’s Inferno (1935) by matthew c. hoffman

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Sometimes I feel a little like Pop McWade, the older concessionaire in tonight’s movie, as played by Henry B. Walthall. He is offering a message of hope to those who will stop and listen, but people just walk on by his exhibit, preoccupied with other amusements. As Pop tells Jim, the Spencer Tracy character, “Youth is the time for fun and happiness. Not the serious entertainment we have in here.”

Maybe I could be more like a carnival barker and sell this spring program a different way. “Step right up. Step right up. See Claudette Colbert bathe in a tub of asses’ milk. See Vesuvius rain down fire and lava upon Pompeii. See a gangster sentenced to the electric chair. See another one survive the electric chair. Step right up. We have it all here for you at Cinema of Transcendence.”

Now that would be false advertising because this series is about serious entertainment. All the films in the program deal with the role of spirituality and religion in classic Hollywood. Tonight we look at the role of film as allegory where images have symbolic value. The opening shot of Dante’s Inferno conjures up the fire and brimstone of Hell until we realize that the film is actually opening inside the boiler room of a ship. The message and meaning of Dante’s Inferno is conveyed in powerful visual terms which makes this film one of the most interesting in the series.

This shot does not appear in the movie, but the painting does. (You’ll have to look fast to find it.)
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Spencer Tracy is Jim Carter, a rather wily coal stoker who winds up at an old-time amusement park. There, while in blackface, he meets Pop McWade, who offers Jim a job which turns to barker. He talks people into Hell—Pop’s attraction called Dante’s Inferno. Jim soon marries and then builds the park up into an empire. He surrounds himself with money and “society background.” His business practices, however, leave something to be desired. “I didn’t do anything that any other businessman wouldn’t have done,” he admits at one point. He builds a pleasure ship for gambling, which turns into a hedonistic playground. The S.S. Paradise becomes the scene of the film’s climax—and the turning point in Jim’s life. From the first image within the steamship furnace to the blazing Paradise cruise, this star vehicle is guaranteed to hold your attention.

The story has some basis in reality. In Dante’s Inferno, Carter’s unethical business practices help build up an unsafe carnival attraction which leads to tragedy. In New York City, in 1904, a senator by the name of William H. Reynolds had spent millions of dollars on an amusement park in Coney Island called Dreamland. He had acquired the property by dubious means by having others bid on it without revealing his intentions; Reynolds used his political influence to get what he wanted. Once the park was operational, Dreamland featured many attractions including two shoot-the Chutes, gondola rides through a model of Venice, an animal circus—and a ride called Hell Gate, which took visitors on a boat ride through dark caverns. It was in Hell Gate one night in 1911 when disaster struck. A fire broke out that engulfed the entire park. By morning, Dreamland was a faded dream. It was never rebuilt.

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Dante’s Inferno also features a climax taken straight from the headlines. The disaster that befalls the cruise ship also had a parallel in real-life. The story treatment was inspired by a recent fire on the steamship S.S. Morro Castle. The disaster took place in 1934 off the New Jersey coast. One hundred and thirty-three people were killed.

Few people are aware of these historical references. Most viewers assume by the title that the film is based largely on Dante Alighieri’s 14th century poem, The Divine Comedy. Writers Philip Klein and Rose Franken commented about using the poem. “In bringing a version of Dante’s Inferno to the screen, we wish to apply its symbology—as the Bible is symbolic—to the everyday life of the present age. As Dante revealed the journey of the soul in its development, so we will attempt to follow the progression of those who encounter today the fundamental experiences of life and death.”

Henry B. Walthall portrays the reverent, gentle Pop who guides Jim along like the poet Virgil. It’s his character who applies the significance of Dante’s message to the present-day reality of Jim’s life. Twenty years before, Walthall had played the Little Colonel in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. He had been a leading man for Griffith at the Biograph studio in the silent era and had found great success as a character actor in the sound era, having appeared in such films as Judge Priest and A Tale of Two Cities. Dante’s Inferno would be one of his final roles as he would die the following year.

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Walthall may be the soul of the film, but Spencer Tracy is the star. This was his last released film for the Fox studio. Tracy was never happy at Fox and reportedly was drunk through most of the production. He would leave the studio for MGM where his fortunes changed. In just a couple of years he’d be starring in films such as Captains Courageous and Boys Town. He would spend twenty-five years with MGM– the studio that would turn him into a Hollywood legend. But in 1935, he was not yet a major star. His career was stagnating, and he certainly was not happy with Dante’s Inferno. In fact, he wanted his name removed from the credits as well as from all publicity. Tracy later called it “one of the worst pictures ever made anywhere, anytime.” Despite his claim, the movie was a huge success.

Claire Trevor plays Jim’s sacrificing wife. Aside from one key scene in a courtroom, she is not given a lot to do. Trevor is best known for the film noirs she made like Murder, My Sweet and Born to Kill. She would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for 1948’s Key Largo.

Scotty Beckett of the Our Gang shorts plays Jim’s son. It’s hard to believe that the little boy in this movie would have such a self-destructive life in years to come. Beckett would die at the age of 38—one of the most tragic of all child stars.

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Also in the cast is a 16-year-old Rita Hayworth who was then billed as Rita Cansino. She appears in her first screen role in the “ballroom bacchanal” onboard the S.S. Paradise. You can’t mistake her smile as she dances with her partner. The extended cast list on IMDB features many uncredited actors whose names are familiar, but one that stood out for me was Joyzelle Joyner who is listed as a dancer. We can guess it’s somewhere onboard the cruise ship (unless she was replaced by Rita Cansino)? Joyner had performed the “Dance of the Naked Moon” in DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross.

Dante’s Inferno was directed by Harry Lachman, a well-traveled artist whose primary interests were in photography and post-Impressionist painting. Lachman was born in LaSalle, Illinois, in 1886, and by the age of thirteen he was in Paris studying to be a painter. He first became involved with motion pictures in France, and this led him back to Hollywood. Though Lachman was a studio director who worked well with everyone from Shirley Temple to Laurel & Hardy, Dante’s Inferno is clearly the one film that allowed him to best express his talents. Lachman had been a production manager on Rex Ingram’s remarkable silent The Magician and was undoubtedly inspired by that film’s nightmarish imagery of Hell. Lachman’s cinematographer on the film was the highly respected Rudolph Mate, who had made a name for himself in Europe working on such films as Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.

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The magnificent visualization of Dante’s Hell was primarily inspired by the engravings of illustrator Gustave Dore but also by the original paintings of art director Willy Pogany. In production notes, an uncredited Ben Carre is said to have designed much of the inferno sequence. Carre was a French artist who had worked on the set designs for films like the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera and The Wizard of Oz. Some sources have erroneously reported that the inferno was lifted from the 1924 version of Dante’s Inferno—also produced by the Fox studio—but there is nothing to support this claim.

Filming on Dante’s Inferno began in December, 1934, and lasted through January, 1935. It was released in the summer of that year. But in the spring, on May 29, 1935, Fox Film Corporation joined with Twentieth Century to become Twentieth Century-Fox. With the merger, many of the offbeat films Fox had been known for would disappear from the production schedule. Oddities like Dante’s Inferno would become a thing of the past.

My first experience with tonight’s film was seeing a photo from it in Classics of the Horror Film by William K. Everson. It depicted a surreal image of sinners writhing in agony as their half-naked bodies cover the trunk and limbs of a tree. In the foreground, a man’s arms extend like tree branches. It’s both nightmarish and hauntingly beautiful in a cinematic way. It’s one of many such images in this eight-minute sequence which features no dialogue. It is here, during this interlude from the main storyline, where Dante’s Inferno reveals an imagination and artistry that harkens back to the silent era.

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Many people today are drawn to story and realism. That’s the bulk of what television and cable and most adult films are—just talking heads. I’m only interested in the pictorial beauty of cinema—the power of the image. Lighting and composition are more interesting to me than plot details. On the surface, the plot of Dante’s Inferno is familiar even within the context of this series. It’s a morality tale that shows the corrupting influence of greed and power. There are themes at work that we’ve seen before and which we’ll see again. But it is how the film is told that makes it one of the more interesting works of the 1930s.

When I finally saw this film for the first time, the image of Hell that I had seen in the William K. Everson book did not disappoint. I was equally caught up in the carnival atmosphere as well as how it was all photographed. Even the film’s painting depicting Alexander cutting the Gordian knot seemed to take on a life of its own. That is the power of the cinema, and that’s why I’m showing films like this, regardless of how many pass through our gates.

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