Cast & Crew
Henry B. Walthall
Jim Carter, a stoker on a luxury liner, loses his job after he reveals that he has faked a broken arm, and he vows to those wealthy people looking down on him in the stoke hole and laughing that someday he will be where they are. After Jim fails to last as a target in blackface at a sideshow for baseball pitches in a carnival, Pop McWade, owner of the carnival show "Dante's Inferno," offers him a job cleaning up the place. The show includes statues of Cleopatra, Dante, Salome, Virgil, Marc Antony and Alexander the Great, after whom Jim fancies himself. Pop has idealistically devised the show to present to customers a "glimpse of hell" with metaphoric suggestions on how to get out, but it does not attract many customers until Jim tries the role of barker and by playing up the sensational aspects produces a sellout, to the delight of Pop and his niece Betty, who sells tickets. Jim soon marries Betty and plans to build a new show, which he describes as the biggest "hell on earth." After a son Alex, called Sonny, is born, Jim convinces the other concessionaires to invest in a larger "Inferno," but when Dean, the "chute-the-chutes" owner, refuses to give up his prime location for the new concern, Jim purchases Dean's lease and proceeds to ruthlessly wreck Dean's concession, despite Dean's pleas for him to wait one month so that he could raise enough money to move. At the opening of the new spectacular inferno, Pop, dressed as Virgil, guides patrons through Dante's nine cycles, but he is interrupted when Dean, whose wife died that day, jumps to his death. Soon, Jim expands his empire and plans an extravagant casino on the high seas to cater to the pleasures of the rich. Upset because Jim's casino will promote gambling and vice, Pop tells Jim that they are drifting apart. After Harris, a building inspector, tells Jim that the Inferno is unsafe and needs to be rebuilt, Jim threatens to see that Harris loses his job if he insists on his opinion. Betty then sees Harris accept an envelope of money. At the Inferno, a cave-in occurs, and Jim rescues Pop. Jim remains watching over Pop through two sleepless nights as Pop recovers. After Harris commits suicide and leaves a written confession detailing Jim's bribe, Jim is prosecuted. His denial that Harris came to his home is backed by Betty, who, after Jim is acquitted, explains that she lied to save Sonny and plans to leave for Reno for a divorce. As Jim's cruise ship, the S.S. Paradise , prepares to leave, he has trouble raising money and has to cut into his profits by using the ship as security. When the crew strikes, Jim orders a new crew to be hired from the out-of-work men by the docks, whether they are dependable or not. After the ship leaves, Betty discovers that Sonny is lost and sends a wire to Jim saying that kidnapping is feared. He receives the radiogram in the midst of bacchanalian drinking, dancing and gambling and rushes to his cabin, where he finds Sonny, who had been brought by Jim's assistant Jonesy as a surprise. Jim angrily rebukes Jonesy, saying that the ship is the last place in the world for the child to be. After he sends a message to Betty, a fire breaks out when a drunk throws liquor at a flaming meal. The incompetent men in the engine room do not respond when called, and the passengers panic, some falling into the sea, others shooting each other so that they can get into lifeboats. After Jim rescues the captain, they attempt to keep the fire from sweeping aft while they steer the ship to the beach two miles away. Jim fights rebellious crew members and handles the controls himself. The circulatory pump stops and a water pipe bursts, but Jim succeeds in turning the ship and beaching it. Meanwhile, Betty races in a car to the ship. Sonny is safe and Jim, bandaged but okay, confesses, as he embraces Betty, that Pop was right: his "hell" was of his own making. He apologizes and says that all he now has to offer is his love, and Betty replies that that is all she ever wanted.
Henry B. Walthall
Charles C. Wilson
Bob Reel Mckee
David S. Hall
Fred M. Sersen
Louis J. Witte
Sol M. Wurtzel
Dante's Inferno on DVD
This was one of Tracy's final films for Fox before he left for MGM, where his talents were given a more respectful showcase. Now I'm not actually a big fan of Tracy but I confess to having a new appreciation for the actor thanks to those scrappy, bouncy Fox films of his early career. A lot of those scripts are undercooked (like this one) and the productions are sometime rushed but Tracy overflows with personality and the attitude of a guy who got wise knocking about on the streets. "I've had every trick in the trade kicked into me," Jim tells Pop. "Now it's my turn to kick back." He presents himself with a sense of calm and control, however, like a man who is cagy about letting the world see what's he's thinking or feeling, which makes quite a contrast to guys like Cagney and Lee Tracy and the rat-a-tat streetwise heroes of the Warner street movies. He's rapacious and ruthless as a businessman yet oddly likable thanks to his unqualified affection for and commitment to his family and his confidence in the business sector, calmly but firmly making deals and giving orders that will leave victims broken.
The film builds pulls out its most impressive spectacle for the end of the second act. First the newly-expanded Dante's Inferno funhouse--an epic chamber of horrors with stage flames, sideshow gimmicks, sexy showgirls and half-naked musclemen--collapses in a disaster sequence that director Harry Lachman showcases with camera angles that take in the vast scope of the set and disorient the viewer with startling perspectives. And that's just the warm-up. As Pop tries to pass on the lesson of Dante to Jim, the screen dissolves into the film's famous inferno sequence, the wordless tour of hell with great underworld imagery of tormented (and nearly naked) souls writhing in agony in the jagged caverns and fiery pits of Hades. A few of the shots have been appropriated from the 1924 Fox film of the same name but most of the sequence was created for the film by Lachman, who was a respected illustrator and painter before turning to filmmaking, and he takes inspiration from the Gustave Dore illustrations of the 19th century edition of The Divine Comedy. With jagged subterranean caverns suggested out of paper-mache stagecraft, blasts of flame and hard light, geysers of fog and smoke, forced perspective, miniatures, and nearly naked bodies obscured just enough to get through the censors, Lachman creates a mythic hell that mirrors the real-life disaster they've just experienced.
It would make a superb climax but, thanks to ill-advised script additions, Jim doesn't take the lesson to heart and the film goes on to a whole new chapter involving courtroom trial, a luxury liner turned into a gambling palace on the high seas, and another inferno, this one sending Jim back to the boiler room below deck. It's an attempt to bring the story full circle while offering yet another epic disaster, but this one is neither as visually astounding nor as dramatically satisfying, and the special effects aren't are convincing this time around.
Dante's Inferno is an impressive film for all that, thanks largely to Spencer Tracy's sharp performance as a hustler from the school of hard knocks. Tracy's Jim doesn't take pleasure in steamrolling or destroying his opponents, but he doesn't flinch from strong-arming anyone in his way either. Yet he's downright lovable when he's with his wife and his cute, doting son (Scotty Beckett) and even with Pop. Tracy and Lachman make Jim a more interesting character than the script suggests and Claire Trevor is quite good as the lively Betty, the devoted wife who becomes disillusioned with Jim when finally faced with the reality of his moral compromises. Henry B. Walthall, who starred as "the Little Colonel" in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), underplays the moral authority nicely as Pop. And the raven-haired dancer in the luxury liner floor show is none other than Rita Cansino, the 16-year-old starlet soon to be made over as Rita Hayworth.
Director Harry Lachman is a subject for further research. He was an American magazine illustrator and cover artist who went to Paris in 1911 and became a respected post-Impressionist painter (he received the Legion of Honor in 1922) before getting involved in moviemaking as a production manager for Rex Ingram, another American abroad. After making movies in France and England, Lachman headed for Hollywood and a career largely spent making B-movies for 20th Century Fox. Before he slipped into Charlie Chan movies, he directed Shirley Temple in Baby Take a Bow (1934), Laurel and Hardy in Our Relations (1936), and this big-budget production. From the evidence of the film, he lavished far more attention on visualizing both of the film's defining infernos--the midway attraction and the fantasy sequence--than on overcoming the clichés of the story and the awkward structure of the script, but at his best he offers a spectacle that rivals Cecil B. DeMille. He left Hollywood in the forties and took up painting again, and today his canvases hang in the Prado in Madrid, the Luxembourg Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
It's a good looking disc from 20th Century Fox Cinema Archive, not restored and a touch on the soft side but well preserved with little damage and good contrasts and presented in its correct squarish Academy ratio. While the fantasy sequence is purposely shot in soft focus with layers of stage fog reducing clarity even further, the destruction of the funhouse version is sharp and clear to give it the sting of realism. The sound is perfectly fine. There are no supplements.
by Sean Axmaker
Dante's Inferno on DVD
Dante's Inferno (1935)
Producer: Sol M. Wurtzel
Director: Harry Lachman
Screenplay: Philip Klein, Robert M. Yost (screenplay); Lou Breslow, Henry Johnson (contributor to screenplay construction and dialogue, uncredited); Lester Cole, Rose Franken (contributor to treatment, uncredited); Dante Alighieri (poem, uncredited)
Cinematography: Rudolph Maté
Art Direction: Duncan Cramer, David S. Hall
Music: R.H. Bassett, Peter Brunelli, Hugo Friedhofer, Samuel Kaylin (all uncredited)
Film Editing: Al DeGaetano
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Jim Carter), Claire Trevor (Betty McWade), Henry B. Walthall (Pop McWade), Alan Dinehart (Jonesy), Scott Beckett (Alexander Carter), Robert Gleckler (Dean), Rita Cansino (Dancer), Gary Leon (Dancer), Willard Robertson (Building Inspector Harris), Morgan Wallace (Captain Morgan).
Dante's Inferno (1935)
This film includes some scenes that were based on the poem Inferno by Dante Alighieri, part of his Divina commedia, which was begun ca. 1307. In the first outline for the film, included in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection at the UCLA Theater Arts Library, writers Philip Klein and Rose Franken stated their intent in 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." A treatment in the Produced Scripts Collection dated October 15, 1934 indicates that the cruise ship fire sequence was suggested by the recent fire on the steamship, the S.S. Morro Castle, off the New Jersey coast on September 8, 1934, which claimed 133 lives.
According to a New York Times article, some 14,000 persons worked on the film, including 4,950 technicians, architects, artists, carpenters, stone masons and laborers, 250 electricians and 3,000 extras in the "Inferno" scene, and 300,000 feet of film was shot. Hollywood Reporter noted that the film was delayed because of "the necessity of manufacturing several thousand small but vital articles of attire for devils, so that they May not shock the purity squad." Correspondence in the MPAA/PCA Collection of the AMPAS Library reveals that Joseph Breen, the director of the "purity squad," otherwise known as the Production Code Administration, suggested to producer Sol Wurtzel, in March 1935 after preliminary shooting was completed, that additional scenes be shot for the ending to show that "Jim" is repentant and that he should confess that "Pop" and his wife were right and that he was wrong, and that he should appeal to his wife to take him back again. The final film does include these scenes.
After the studio showing of the film on April 16, 1935, Spencer Tracy agreed to have his name eliminated from advertising and publicity regarding the film and from the opening screen credits. His name does appear with other cast members in the end credits. Although Tracy acted in one Fox film following this, It's a Small World (see below), Dante's Inferno was his last released film for the company. According to modern sources, Tracy later said about this film that it was "one of the worst pictures ever made anywhere, anytime."
According to a March 1935 New York Times article, Rita Cansino, who later changed her name to Rita Hayworth, danced at the Mexican night spot Agua Caliente to attract attention so that she could launch a film career. Film Daily reported that she was "discovered" by Fox officials there, and after the filming of her scenes for this film, she was signed to a seven-year contract. Her contract for Dante's Inferno is signed "Margarita Cansino." Under the Pampas Moon (see below) and Charlie Chan in Egypt, in which she appeared, were shot subsequent to Dante's Inferno, although they were released before it. Modern sources note that Cansino, in reality, danced on a gambling ship off Long Beach, as she does in her scene in the film, that the Fox official who saw her at Agua Caliente was Winfield R. Sheehan, that her father, Spanish dancer Eduardo Cansino, who was also her dancing partner at Agua Caliente, choreographed her dance in the film, that her dancing partner, Gary Leon, broke his ankle during shooting and that she appeared in a couple of uncredited bit roles before Dante's Inferno.
Variety greatly praised the "Inferno" scenes, commenting that audiences "are not likely to see a better example of photographic and set-building technique in a season of pictures than in these 10 minutes. At its conclusion it brought a burst of applause at the Rivoli, although the audience seemed to issue a sigh of relief when the inferno dissolved back to the story once more. Likelihood is that reaction in general to the magnificent screen spectacle will be one of fatigue as well as enthrallment." According to modern sources, Ben Carré, although not given screen credit, designed much of the "Inferno" sequence. According to information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department, also at UCLA, technical advisor Hubert Stowitts agreed that his name would not be included in the screen credits, because the inferno sequence "is not to include any choreography." The legal records note that two enlargements of illustrations by Gustave Doré from an edition of the Inferno published in 1861, were used in the set, along with the painting "Salome," by Georg Papperitz, "Pollice Verso," by Jean Léon Gérôme, "Cleopatra," by Alexandre Cabanel, and "Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot," by Castaigne, but that they had been altered "so as to get as far away from a reproduction of the original as possible."
Modern sources give the following additional credits: Makeup Supervisor Ern Westmore; Chief sd eng E. H. Hansen; Cast Yakima Canutt, Ray Corrigan, Angelo Rossitto, Paul McVey and Cliff Lyons. Other films based on Dante's poem include a 1909 Italian film entitled Inferno and a 1924 Fox film, entitled Dante's Inferno, directed by Henry Otto and starring Lawson Butt, Howard Gaye and Ralph Lewis. Some modern sources state that some scenes of the "Inferno" from the 1924 film were used in the 1935 film, but no contemporary information to verifiy this has been located.