October 29, 2017

Blu-Ray Review: S.O.S. TIDAL WAVE

Starring Ralph Byrd, George Barbier, Kay Sutton, Frank Jenks, Marc Lawrence, Dorothy Lee, Oscar O'Shea. Directed by John H. Auer. (1939, 62 min).

This obscure little low budget oddity has probably been forgotten by just about everybody, but in one aspect, may be more timely now than ever.

It's a strange film, to say the least. Despite the title and promotional artwork, S.O.S. Tidal Wave is not a disaster movie. The film is mostly about Jeff Shannon (Ralph Byrd), a popular TV newsman whose journalistic integrity is tested when he tries to remain neutral during a mayoral election. One of the candidates, Clifford Farrow, is a criminal with a campaign manager who's a high ranking mobster (Marc Lawrence). Uncle Dan Carter (George Barbier) is a political commentator who presents his editorials with a ventriloquist dummy (!) and tries to expose Farrow with evidence of his shady past. After he's murdered - Jeff finally takes sides and uses the evidence prevent the mob from winning the election. All the while, Shannon's sidekick, Peaches (Frank Jenks), hangs around to provide comic relief, perpetually mugging for the camera like an overgrown Bowery Boy.

How to traumatize dozens of children at once.
Here's where the tidal wave we're promised fits in: When election day arrives, the bad guys want to make sure their man wins, so they decide to scare the city into thinking a massive tidal wave is heading toward New York. If they're too busy fleeing the city to vote, Farrow is a shoo-in. To accomplish this, they air movie footage to convince the public that disaster is imminent. Sure enough, the entire city goes into panic mode. This happens during the last ten minutes, and all of the destruction footage is lifted from the 1933 apocalyptic film, Deluge. The rest of the film is a low-budget patchwork of half-baked ideas and insane plot developments with questionable performances by a no-name cast (the minute Jeff's "cute" little son opens his mouth, you'll be wishing the mob had put a contract out on him).

One might also be tempted to doubt the plausibility of an entire populace stupid and gullible enough to fall for this tidal wave hoax, or that an obvious career criminal could have a snowball's chance in hell of running for mayor, to say nothing of getting a majority of votes. And a few years ago, I would've concurred. But if the last few years have taught us nothing else, it's that there are still legions dim-witted dumbasses who blindly swallow whatever a public figure tells them, no matter how wrong-headed, refutable, offensive, ludicrous or insane. After all, we're living in an age when some still actually believe the Earth is flat.

Where's Charlton Heston when you need him?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Viewed in that context, S.O.S. Tidal Wave becomes morbidly fascinating, as is its depiction of one-sided journalism and America's obsession with the media. The internet may not have been around back then, but television is strikingly prominent throughout the entire film, with crowds gathered around them, collectively transfixed. And remember, back in 1939, TV was still a relatively new medium, yet this film accurately predates its cultural proliferation, our growing dependence on it as our primary information source and, most ominously, how easily we can be manipulated by what we're watching.

Of course, it's doubtful anyone involved with the film had such ambitious intentions. S.O.S. Tidal Wave is a cheaply-produced potboiler, obviously made to turn a quick buck. Still, the basic story is engaging enough, and with a running time of just over an hour, the film doesn't overstay its welcome. Even though all the scenes of destruction are lifted from an earlier - and better - film, they are pretty impressive for their age and fun to watch. Speaking of age, this Blu-Ray from Olive Films sports a surprisingly decent picture.


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