Saturday, October 17, 2009

Lot in Sodom (Webber-Watson Productions, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Lot in Sodom
was a truly odd 1933 short (27 minutes) which Charles downloaded — though it’s available officially from Kino as filler on their reissue of the 1923 Nazimova Salomé — and though Charles was under the impression that it was a German movie (understandable given the highly stylized, Expressionistic visuals and the German-sounding names of some of the actors, notably Friedrich Haak as Lot and Dorothea Haus as his daughter), it turned out to be a U.S. independent production directed by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, who had previously made a 1928 14-minute silent version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. If you’ve seen that one (as we had) the visual style of Lot in Sodom — crude but effective sets, stylized acting and costumes, and a lot of double exposure — won’t be a surprise; as it is, they push the Expressionistic style so far in this one they might just as well have called it The Cabinet of Lot.

What’s most interesting — aside from the synchronized soundtrack, which is actually used quite effectively (there are even a few bits of dialogue — in Latin, of all languages) is the sheer intensity of the homoerotic imagery. While (like their version of Usher) this film would be totally incomprehensible if you don’t know the original story (and they borrowed bits from elsewhere in the Bible, notably the Song of Songs, for some of the titles), one thing Watson and Webber don’t do is pussy-foot around the usual explanation that homosexuality was at the root of the sins of Sodom. (If you want a treatment of the story that blames the fall of Sodom on “inhospitality” — which is what Jesus himself said in his sermon on the story — instead of homosexuality, look elsewhere.) On their much smaller scale, Watson and Webber were basically playing the same game Cecil B. DeMille played in his Biblical films: titillating the audience with images of forbidden sins by the simple expedient of offering them as examples of horrible ways to behave that God will inevitably punish.

The film is full of scantily clad young men dancing around each other, giving each other “cruising” eyes and, in the climactic scene, making clear the source of their utter disinterest in Lot’s offer to let them have his daughter if they will abandon their demand to rape the angel (Lewis Whitbeck) he’s sheltering. Though there’ very little physical contact (even soft-core) between all those gorgeous young twinks, somehow the film is actually more powerful in its restraint: the overall effect is an intense erotic charge ramped up by this overlay of physical frustration. And though the budget available to Watson and Webber was undoubtedly minuscule, they do the final sequence of Lot’s wife (Hildegarde Watson) turning into a pillar of salt surprisingly effectively — and the fadeout of her turned into essentially a salt statue (much to the disappointment of one commentator, the film ends here and we don’t find out what happened to Lot after that) provides a chilling final image to a marvelous underground movie marred only by the casting of Lot as the sort of rank anti-Semitic stereotype one would expect to find in a Nazi propaganda film. (No wonder Charles thought it was a German production!)