Thursday, October 13, 2016

Grey Market Cinema: Dante’s Inferno (1924)

It’s one of the greatest works in the history of world literature: the epic poem penned by the Italian bard Dante Alighieri that offers up visions of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven—The Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia).  Made up of three sections—Inferno, Purgatorio, and ParadisoComedy follows the poet as he journeys through the afterlife…guided by the poet Virgil through Hell and Purgatory before Beatrice, Dante’s ideal woman, takes over for the Heavenly portion of the tour.  The entry for Comedy at Wikipedia states that “at a deeper level, it represents, allegorically, the soul's journey towards God.”

Inferno is best remembered for Dante’s concept of the various “circles” of Hell:

Circle 1: Also known as Limbo, the occupants here are required to dance while bending backwards under a pole.  (Okay, I’m joking about this—the souls here are those who weren’t sinful but nevertheless ignorant of Christ.)
Circle 2: Those souls guilty of lust.
Circle 3: Those souls guilty of gluttony.
Circle 4: Those souls guilty of avarice.
Circle 5: Those souls guilty of anger.
Circle 6: Those souls guilty of heresy and contradicting the doctrine of Christ.
Circle 7: Those souls guilty of sins of violence.
Circle 8: Those souls guilty of fraud.
Circle 9: Those souls guilty of treachery.

The Tenth Circle is inhabited by Satan hisself…though Beelzebub has recently made room for those souls guilty of creating/producing reality television shows.  (Joking again.  I’ll try to stop, but it won’t be easy.)

Dante’s Inferno was first brought to the silver screen in 1911 as an Italian film entitled L’Inferno—the first feature-length Italian film in cinema history, and considered by many to be the truest version of the poem brought to celluloid.  Some kind soul has seen fit to upload the movie to YouTube, so you can sit down with it once you’ve finished this essay (and only when you’ve finished).  The first American version was released in 1924, and draws upon Inferno with a little of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and some Sinclair Lewis thrown in for good measure.  (It’s on YouTube as well.)

Dante’s Inferno (1924) tells the tale of wealthy bidnessman Mortimer Judd (Ralph Lewis), who demonstrates his true colors by refusing to make a donation to a local hospital…and turning a deaf ear to the tenants living in his tenements when they complain those slums are virtual firetraps.  Judd reserves his harshest treatment for neighbor Eugene Craig (Josef Swickard); Craig faces bankruptcy unless Morty intervenes on his behalf…but since Judd’s personal philosophy is “I’ve got mine so screw you” Eugene’s not going to receive much in the line of mercy.

Craig takes a copy of Inferno from his library and scribbles a note to Judd inside: “If there is a Hell--this, my curse, will take you there!”  When the book is delivered to the House of Judd, Mortimer has a good chuckle…yet curiosity gets the better of him and he sits down for a long read of the adventures of Dante (Lawson Butt) and Virgil (Howard Gaye) in the underworld.  Meanwhile, back at Rancho Craig, Eugene is making plans to end it all—much to the dismay of daughter Mildred (Gloria Grey).  Mildred beseeches Judd to save her father from committing suicide…but Mortimer is unable to stop it in time.  As a demon continuously cackles at him “Too late—always too late!” the wealthy Judd’s life quickly goes South.

Directed by Henry Otto and adapted by future director Edmund Goulding (who also had a hand in last week’s excursion into silent cinema, Tol’able David), this version of Dante’s Inferno that I purchased from Finders Keepers is a truncated one; the [always reliable] IMDb says the original version ran 90 minutes—the Keepers print clocks in at fifty.  The story, however, is so simply presented that you really don’t notice the missing footage too much.  Make no bones about it: it’s a morality play, and rather heavy-handed at that, but I was really entertained by this film.  I enjoyed it much more than the remake Fox tackled in 1935, which took a different approach to the material (Spencer Tracy plays an ambitious carny who builds an amusement park empire).  (The 1935 Inferno also recycled some of the Hell footage from the 1924 film.)

I don’t want to give too much away here but in the movie’s climax, so many outrageous things happen to the Judd character that you sort of feel sorry for him even if he has been a real rat bastid throughout the proceedings.  (The only way to describe them is that they play out like a hellish nightmare…I will say no more.)  The acting in the film is solid if unremarkable; though I kind of liked William Scott’s turn as Mortimer’s son Ernest, particularly when he’s dancing with wild abandon with the family dog.  (Ernest is having a tête-a-tête with the nurse [Pauline Starke, who appears in the movie nekkid as a jaybird except for a flowing black wig that covers her naughty bits] looking after his ailing ma [Winifred Landis], which does not sit well with the senior Judd.)  I also found it difficult to stifle a chuckle when I spotted Bud Jamison (in blackface) as the Judd family retainer (butler).

The print of Dante’s Inferno that I purchased from Finders Keepers is in very decent condition…which surprised me considering the movie’s spotty preservation history (UCLA purportedly has a nitrate print that’s missing a reel; the Museum of Modern Art has a print as well).  I only wish I had watched this one before the 1935 version.

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