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Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Tracy's Carnival Of Lost Souls

Dante's Inferno (1935) A Crowded Fox Fairground

I call Dante’s Inferno a sampling of brute entertainment, that 30’s way of slamming over melodrama in terms so forceful as to leave viewership wrung out. Dante’s Inferno has a building collapse, massive fire, and capper of a tour through Hell that was surely come to Jesus for whatever sinners bought a ticket in. This all sounds like sermon from on high, but Dante’s Inferno is no biblical, being straight-ahead telling of business done ruthless and how it drags Spencer Tracy down by his greed. That was popular theme in the 30’s, when ceilings to wealth seemed built by God himself. So maybe Dante’s Inferno is biblical after all. Its lesson would not be inapt in a Sunday school, where warnings might issue to those who’d worship mammon. There were so many pictures with a message like Dante’s Inferno’s as to dissipate impact. It was instead a “big show” and dispenser of sensation, which is noble goal any movie might aspire to. Taken on these terms, Dante’s Inferno is among richest vein of film fun from all of that decade. To call this brute entertainment is to place Dante’s Inferno with rarefied company that is King Kong, Tarzan and His Mate, precious few others to take us by the throat and shake hard.

There is a DVD from Fox On-Demand that is very nice. Dante’s Inferno was a late departure out of Fox Film Corporation before that venerable firm merged with Zanuck and Joe Schenck’s Twentieth-Century Pictures. It was also Spencer Tracy’s last work for the company before he joined MGM. Tracy’s output for Fox wasn’t always stellar, him playing go-getters most times out. Dante’s Inferno is great example of Tracy with all of fight left in him, a show-no-mercy dervish that Metro would not abide. Compare him here with upright “Square John” McMasters that Tracy would play in five years later Boom Town, wherein he loses an oil fortune plus Claudette Colbert to Clark Gable, who is rough 1940 equivalent to “Jim Carter” as portrayed by Tracy in Dante’s Inferno. Did Spence note screen dynamism being sapped by the Lion? Some of parts gotten by partner Gable should have gone Tracy’s way. Dante’s Inferno had shown he could do them with gusto. Did a priest collar Tracy frequently wore at Metro choke much of liveliness out of him?

Hell Of a Damnation Sequence As Shown Above Is Mid-Point Highlight of Dante's Inferno

Fox as fairground operator sold Dante’s Inferno a same way as Tracy’s corrupt Jim Carter in the film. Every poster and virtually all art zeroed on the Hell tour that is halfway-in highlight of the film. True, it’s the set-piece all would remember, but you couldn’t blame them for thinking Dante’s Inferno was all Hell at a feature’s length. Come to think of it, has there ever been a movie set entirely in purgatory? (Many have seemed so, admittedly, though not by intent) Dante’s Inferno got round a strict-applied Code by making its Hell a consequence of bad behavior engaged by Tracy, his next stop a sea of hot coals lest he heed warning. Here was showmanship sermon as had been preached by DeMille, who got there first where outflanking censors was the game. Viewers are to this day shocked by Dante-views of writhing sinners, some to a point of assuming it’s footage from earlier silent versions (there were several), but no, this Dante’s Inferno built a fresh Hell from 1935 ground up.

Dante’s Inferno is one of those where every shot is beautifully composed. This must have been a wow on nitrate. Man behind cameras was Rudolph Maté, who photographed Euro classics (Vampyr, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc) and would later direct in the US. His work was always distinctive. Even 16mm prints looked good. He’s teamed for Dante’s Inferno with director Harry Lachman. They'd be together again a year later for Our Relations, by far a most handsome of Laurel and Hardy features. Of Dante support players, Henry B. Walthall is saintly guide toward righteousness. He was perhaps an only one who could be that with utter conviction. Walthall was himself martyr for silent artistry that had been discarded. He stood for wisdom bought with melancholy, knowing his way was past but alert to small parts old friends threw him. John Ford, Raoul Walsh, Tod Browning, all used Walthall. Maybe he was their idea of a luck piece. Walthall had after all headlined The Birth of a Nation, most everyone’s pick for biggest and best so far made. A major scene John Ford did for 1934’s Judge Priest made a virtual monument of Walthall. The “old” actor died, to my astonishment (an IMDB check), at just fifty-eight years old. How many gathered up so much history in so short a time?


Blogger Dave K said...

Revisited DANTE'S INFERNO a while back and it certainly is all you claim, figuratively and literally, a hell of a show. I like your observations on Fox-Tracy vs. Metro-Tracy. That mitigating dose of likeability probably made him a much bigger star, along with a higher ration of good over nothing-special pictures (let's be honest!) But, you know, still. Full bore Tracy was a real hoot!

I actually went back to DI after reading the James Curtis Tracy bio and in prep before a screening of OUR RELATIONS before a good sized audience. Tried to figure why Hal Roach sought out the Lachman-Maté team since I don't believe INFERNO was a commercial hit. They both involved special effects, of course, and both had those classy looking nightclub scenes. Lachman made an impression on Stan Laurel... he talks about him a bit in his correspondence in later years. (See the Letters from Stan site. Here's a sample...

11:55 AM  
Blogger lmshah said...

It's always a biz bizarre to me to read comments about Henry B. Walthall being an out-of-work has-been, when all one has to do is look at his credits on imdb to realize he was really one of the busiest "has-beens" one could find. His most fallow period was actually in the late teens/early 20's, but by the mid-20's, he's averaging six to eight films a year, in major supporting roles in major studio films, and when talkies come in, he's even busier (and that's not even counting the stage and vaudeville work he was also doing at the time). He is doing a lot of "poverty row" work in early talkies, but he is also working at the majors like Fox and MGM as well.

I've always gotten the impression that Walthall, like Harry Langdon, was happy to take any good press and call something a "comeback" if it would get good publicity. Considering that when he had made his "comeback" in JUDGE PRIEST, he had just previously completed roles in two major 1934 MGM features (VIVA VILLA and MEN IN BLACK) and appeared in a total of 12 features that year. His death in 1936 was partly caused by overwork, taxing what had been already rocky health for years.


2:04 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Talk about value for your 25¢ (until 6): Fox could have ended the show with Tracy scared straight by Walthall's sermon and audiences would have gone home happy. They had an impressive fire, something like divine retribution, and Hell itself. But instead, the movie serves up ANOTHER hubris-driven disaster: a humongous seagoing speakeasy, where fire AND water will be unleashed on upscale revelers.

The Universal serial "The Greet Hornet Strikes Back" opens with Brit Reid and Kato sailing home on an ocean liner. Peril is fortified by shipboard panic borrowed from "Dante's Inferno". Given that serials were not big-budget projects, sometimes wondered how much Universal paid Fox to use that stock footage.

5:34 PM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

This and The Sign of The Cross tie for first place in the "How In The Hell Did This Get Past The Censors?" contest. The answer of course you the audience all the debauchery they can handle, but tying it with religion and calling it "sin." A delightfully over-the-top film.

2:37 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer reflects on Spencer Tracy's early days at MGM:

Spencer Tracy's first film for M-G-M, "Murder Man," was reminiscent of the sort of roles he'd had at Fox, up-and-comers playing bumper cars with morality. He, James Cagney, and Pat O'Brien seemed to personify a particular aspect of Irish-American culture at this time: tough, smart, and farther and farther from the teachings of the Mother Church as they got ahead in life in this world. In this one, Tracy is a tough, successful crime reporter scoring scoop after scoop on the story of the sensational murder of a corrupt stock broker, almost as though the killer himself was feeding him the information. Which indeed he was, since the reporter is literally the "murder man." It was an auspicious beginning to his contract and Tracy is quite good, bringing a depth and humanity that would be on display throughout his M-G-M career, though rarely after this in films as hard or cynical as this one. Fritz Lang's "Fury" would be a notable exception. The direction by Tim Whelan and the production values are also first rate, and Tracy has the support of such capable players as Lionel Atwill, the young James Stewart, and the exquisite Virginia Bruce.

9:26 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

As good as Tracy was at MGM, I have a soft spot for his Fox pictures. There's a certain scruffiness there that Metro lacked. I read somewhere that Tracy hated "Dante's Inferno" so much he prevented Fox from using his name on promotional materials. Too bad -- it's a fascinating movie.

5:12 PM  

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