Dante’s Inferno (1935) – Harry Lachman

Spencer Tracy gets a glimpse of hell in the next title featured in DK Books’ Monsters in the Movies, Dante’s Inferno. Tracy plays Carter, a forceful and determined young man, who finds success and a pathway to greed, avarice and more when he joins a concessionaire run by Pop McWade (Henry B. Walthall).

After a glaringly racist moment early in the film, seeing Tracy in blackface, and having baseballs thrown at him, Carter helps by being a barker for McWade’s unit on the boardwalk, a guide through hell as portrayed in Dante’s epic poem, Inferno.

He falls in love with and marries, Pop’s daughter, Betty (Claire Trevor) and they have a son together, Alex (played by my favourite of the Little Rascals, Scotty Beckett). He slowly takes over the business from Pop, and expands it, owning the boardwalk, dance halls, and when denied permission, and threatened by the mob, a floating casino, called the S.S. Paradise.

Nothing stops his climb for the top, and he ignores advice to upkeep his attraction, portending disaster. On the home front Pop falls sick and warns him about the dangers facing his soul should he not take care, and the film illustrates it with an effects laden exploration of Dante’s hell, brilliantly brought to life. Stunningly so considering the film was made in the 30s.

It serves as a standout moment in a fairly recognisable tale, and beautifully stands the test of time.

When events play out in the real world, the Paradise becomes a flame lit reflection of Dante’s hellscape as Carter fights first to save his ship, but then, his son and his soul, slowly redeeming himself through his actions. Actions that saw him undercutting business partners, committing perjury, and letting nothing, not even the law stand in the way of his success.

It’s a fable, and one that came along at the end of the Great Depression, perhaps to serve as a reminder that riches do not make the man, but it is what they do with their life, and those they love that really matter.

Spencer, for the most part, makes Carter a fairly likeable guy, but you wouldn’t want to be in his way. The grit and resolve the character shows then is troubling, and it isn’t until the end of the film, that he begins to realise all the terrible things he has done, and what the cost has been and could be.

I can leave Tracy behind now, as I move deeper into the hells and horrors that have been put onscreen as I delve further into DK Books’ Monsters in the Movies. Where’s Virgil when I need him?


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