Dante’s Inferno

110 Years of Claire Trevor Blogathon

Welcome to the 110 Years of Claire Trevor Blogathon presented by Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Virginie from The Wonderful World of Cinema two of the most dedicated classic movie bloggers!

Directed by Harry Lachman, Dante’s Inferno (1935) has been a favorite of mine since I saw it on AMC when they were still showing classic movies. Using extraordinary set design, it’s one of the best fantasy films of the 1930s and 1940s. It also fits into a subset of movies about the dark side of carnival life that includes Nightmare Alley (1947) and is another telling of the rise, fall and redemption of a power-hungry young hustler.

The story begins with seaman Jim Carter (Spencer Tracy) below deck as a stoker in the boiler room of a steamship. [His stoker job also plays into the dramatic finale also onboard a ship] He’s content to let others do most of the work and gets fired. We next see him back on land, wearing Al Jolson-type blackface in a carnival where contestants lob baseballs at his head. A concession owner named Pop McWade (Henry B. Walthall) takes pity and treats his wounds.

Pop’s sideshow is called Dante’s Inferno, named after the inferno (hell) section of the  narrative poem The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. As one could guess, Pop is surprisingly educated and erudite for a carny.

Streetwise Jim is fascinated by Pop’s stories about the underworld but wonders what sort of scam he’s running though the older gentleman seems completely sincere, becoming a father figure. And, of course, he has a beautiful niece named Betty who acts as his assistant, played by a very young Claire Trevor in one of her earliest starring roles. Pop’s concession is a world unto itself but attracts few visitors until Jim steps in as barker.

He then uses it as a springboard to taking over the entire carnival and becoming a power broker in the city. It’s an amazing rise to power, followed by just as stunning a fall because of his hubris and dishonesty. Betty, who benefits from Jim’s unbridled ambition, only sees what she wants to see until it’s almost too late.

The film benefits from Lachman’s earlier career as a post-impressionist painter. A ten minute inferno sequence thrilled actor Leslie Howard who called it “one of the most unexpected, imaginative and striking pieces of cinema in Hollywood’s history.” In Claire Trevor: The Life and Films of the Queen of Noir, Derek Sculthorpe writes:

The makers made a heroic attempt to capture the spirit of Dante and specifically to recreate the illustrations of a number of artists including the muralist Willy Pogany. Director Lachman was an artist who moved to France in 1911 and had great success as a post-impressionist painter … He was awarded the Cross of the Legion d’honore by the French government for his artistic achievements. He became a set designer and directed some films in France … On Dante’s Inferno, his visions sometimes overshot his vision. One scene, for instance, called for the use of $150,000 worth of jewelry which required the services of a police guard. Due to its inflated budget, Dante’s Inferno was given a bigger-than-usual publicity build-up … Rita Hayworth appeared in one scene as a dancer under her original name Rita Cansino.

 

Those new to Claire Trevor could do worse than starting with her early career team-up with Spencer Tracy in Dante’s Inferno, then move on to the rest of her films, that include westerns, noir films, comedies and other dramas. For more, click on the image below for the other entries in the blogathon.

2 thoughts on “Dante’s Inferno

  1. This sounds such like an intruiguing film! I loved learning more about it via your great review. Now I’m definitely curious to see it!
    Thanks so much for your participation to our blogathon!

  2. Pingback: The 110 Years of Claire Trevor Blogathon is here! – The Wonderful World of Cinema

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