Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Dante’s Inferno


We think we have epic films today, with all the CGI and other special effects to flesh out sets that barely exist in real life. I am still sometimes surprised to see just how gigantic scenes could be in the old days, when there was nothing available but some double exposure to combine several scenes of the same extras into one shot. This film is famous for its ten-minute creation of Hell, inspired by the engravings of Gustave Doré. Here are the mind-boggling numbers, from the IMDb:

According to a 28 July 1935 New York Times article, there were 4,950 technicians, architects, artists, carpenters, stone masons and laborers, 250 electricians and 3,000 extras in the Inferno scene. A total of 300,00 feet of film was shot, which was whittled down to a manageable 8000 feet by editor Alfred DeGaetano. A total of 14,000 people worked on the film. Even by today’s standards of 10-minute credit rolls that list the names of every teamster and craft services person who came within a mile of a shoot, this is exceptional. The credits would have been longer than the film.

And it’s not just the Inferno scene. All the sets are massive and well-designed, great to look at in B&W. Spencer Tracy is a schemer who wanders into an amusement park, where the least successful tip is Dante’s Inferno, a dry discussion of the sins we should avoid. Tracy is a natural spieler, and soon is drawing in the crowds. In a few years he is an amusement park mogul, a sort of anti-Disney. Then a building inspector tells him his first project, the new and improved Inferno, is unsafe. He buys the man off, and sure enough, it all comes crashing down, looking as if it must have killed a lot of people. There is a trial, and his loving wife perjures herself (ensuring her eternal seat in the Eighth Circle of Hell; not such a bad spot, as you can see Satan from there) to save his neck, But then she leaves him. He still doesn’t get the message. He builds a huge gambling/party ship, and hires winos off the street to run it. Sure enough, it’s soon on fire, and he gets his chance at redemption by being a hero. So, I knew the redemption was coming, but I thought it would be sooner than the last 30 seconds. He says he’s seen the error of his ways, he’s reformed, but how will 20 years in Sing Sing affect all this?

It’s too damn neat. But the movie is well worth watching in most ways. The collapse of the Inferno is spectacular, as is the fire aboard the ship. And as an added attraction—at no extra charge to you, folks! step right up!—is a shipboard dance by one Rita Cansino, age 16, soon to become Rita Hayworth. Her first movie role.