If any one movie can serve as an epilogue to the Pre-Code era, Harry Lachman's film fills the bill as well as any. Released a year into the era of Code Enforcement, it's not only a last brazen yawp of the old audacity but something of a summation or at least a closing of an epoch. It's one of the last films released by the Fox Film Corporation, which merged this year with Daryl F. Zanuck's Twentieth-Century company, and it's the last Fox release with contract player Spencer Tracy. It's like a ghost at the party; there's something deeply antique about it despite its largely being able to pass as a Pre-Code. In many ways the DeMille picture Cecil B. himself never made, it's reminiscent of a storytelling style and sensibility the great showman himself had outgrown. And yet I couldn't help being reminded of The Master as the film introduces Tracy as a malcontent, malingering ship's stoker feeding fuel to a furnace from the fire's point of view. Like Joaquin Phoenix's Freddy, Tracy's Jim Carter seems an aimless, irreconcilable drifter, losing the stoker's job and only briefly holding another as a blackface ball-dodger at an amusement pier. In retrospect, of course, the spectacle of Tracy parading around in burnt cork for a reel or so is one of Inferno's most transgressive elements, but even at the time there must have been a sense of vagrant menace as the miserable minstrel is treated to a hot dog and a tour of an all-too-sedate Inferno concession by the fatherly Pop McWade (Birth of a Nation's Henry B. Walthall). How this earnest moralist ended up a carny barker, albeit a bad one, is an unsolved backstory mystery, but Jim Carter is just the man he needs. Turns out Jim did some barking back in the day and after his own walk-through he has a rough idea of how to sell the attraction -- by now the black is off -- and impress Pop's pretty daughter (Claire Trevor). From this point Dante's Inferno is as much a satire of DeMille as a pastiche, implicitly criticizing the Paramount director's trick of using sin to sell morality -- or is it vice versa? And from this point we leave The Master behind, since like most classic Hollywood antiheroes Jim has much more ambition than Freddy Quell. Carter is more like a Quell who turns into a Lancaster Dodd, though he does so for the money more than for emotional fulfillment.
Inspired by Pop's portrait of Alexander the Great severing the Gordian Knot, Carter makes the Inferno the foundation of an entertainment empire, transforming McWade's modest display into a sprawling theme-park complex that dominates the pier. Like many a Pre-Code striver, he doesn't know when to quit and takes too many risks with other people's money while trampling those who stand in his way. He outwits the owner of a Shoot-the-Chute whose property he needs, ruining the man and driving him to suicide during one of Pop's first tours of the new-and-improved Inferno, a mountainous outrage entered through a devil's maw, with horned and muscular trident-wielders as your guides. Jim doesn't let that bother him. He's more concerned with getting accepted in society and making sure his son gets admitted into the best school. He gets his foot in the door by making the Inferno available for a charity benefit despite warnings from a building inspector that the structure is unsound. A bribe takes care of that guy, but wouldn't you know? The very night of that benefit the whole thing comes crashing down. Miraculously, Pop survives -- he's the sort of character who gets killed to make a point in this sort of film -- but that bribed bureaucrat does himself in a way that implicates Carter. Two suicides in one picture is pretty strong stuff.
I almost shot past the main point of the picture. The big selling point was that it would show you Dante's vision of Hell in lurid detail. That it does, but how it goes about it will seem strange to anyone unfamiliar with silent cinema. From the synopsis so far, where would you think this Hell stuff would fit in? You might figure it'd be the big attraction at the bigger-better Inferno show, and if this had been Busby Berkeley's or David O. Selznick's Dante's Inferno that would probably have been the right guess. Not here. Instead, after Pop is hospitalized after the Inferno disaster, Jim visits him as the old man reads an illustrated edition of Dante. Pop then explains the poem to his son-in-law, and the film illustrates this by dissolving to an eight-minute vision of Hell. Some of it is taken, supposedly, from an earlier, unrelated (apart from the poetic inspiration) Dante's Inferno movie Fox made in the 1920s, and much of it is clearly inspired by Gustave Dore's classic 19th century illustrations, but it all looks Pre-Code to me. This is the way DeMille used to do things, including his 1923 Ten Commandments, in which the Moses stuff is only prologue to a modern story about the ways flaming youth breaks the commandments. Michael Curtiz did the same thing in the 1928 part-talkie Noah's Ark, in which the pseudo-biblical spectacle is framed by a story set during World War I. Lachman's Inferno reminds me of DeMille not just because of the roundabout way he goes about getting to it, but also because there's something oddly orgiastic about the director's writhing oily assemblages of nearly or just-plain naked bodies, Hell as a bacchanal, the border between pleasure and pain broken down. And it has no effect! Carter is unrepentant, going on to perjure himself in the trial that follows the last suicide and its surrounding revelations. It's like Gene Kelly pitching his mammoth Broadway Melody number to Millard Mitchell in Singin' in the Rain, only to have Mitchell say that he can't quite envision it. No wonder Pop wasn't getting anywhere before Jim came along. He has neither the fire nor the brimstone, and maybe you can't have what it takes to put all that over, in the age of fictional Elmer Gantries and Miracle Women and real Aimee Semple Macphersons, without inhaling the fumes and getting high on your own supply. Except that Jim never falls for his own buncombe.
The trial destroys his marriage, though, after his wife voluntarily perjures herself in order to spare her son the shame of having a jailbird for a dad. Jim gives up on her, once she walks out, the way he gives up on the Inferno after the disaster. His new big idea is the Paradise, a floating casino for gambling outside U.S. territorial waters. But if he's given up on the Inferno, the Inferno hasn't given up on him. It comes back with a vengeance when a drunk sprays a flambé with champagne during a Rita (Hayworth-to-be) Cansino dance number and starts a conflagration that turns the film into a disaster movie, just as Jim discovers that his son has stowed away on the ship with the help of Jim's overzealous stooge. The effects here are just about as impressive as the Inferno scenes, and Tracy really goes all out after a scab crew abandons ship, leaving him to remember his old stoker skills so the captain has the power to run the ship aground. Despite this superhuman heroism, he's chastened at last, admitting once reunited with his wife that he's been in a Hell of his own making. I get what the film's trying to say, but Tracy doesn't really put the rage into the role that he hints at in the beginning. According to some stories, he saved his rage for when the cameras weren't rolling. He brings nothing special to the rise-and-fall, hubris-nemesis pattern that others had followed before him. Warren William could have pulled this off if you could have believed him as a stoker or ball-dodger. But the acting is just one of the puzzle pieces that lie jumbled about instead of forming a truly visionary or visceral whole. For all that, it's an instant epic ruin, its indisputably spectacular set pieces easily justifying the 90 minutes spent on this death song for Pre-Code cinema.