There is a phrase that has entered into the lexicon in recent years that has got everyone all worked up. You know what I’m talking about…fake news. Now, you’d think this was something new, but our film today is going to show us that even back in 1939 this was a problem. Though this goes a lot further than using Facebook to influence an election. In this film, we get to see candidates trying to keep voters from the polls by faking a natural disaster. Get your water wings ready for S.O.S. Tidal Wave.
Our story focuses on a TV reporter/photo journalist named Jeff Shannon (Ralph Byrd). He has a successful program in Philadelphia where he covers all sorts of stories. However, when it comes to supporting a candidate in the upcoming mayoral race, he stays tight lipped. Such is not the case, though, with his good friend Uncle Dan (George Barbier), a ventriloquist and star of a kids show at the station where Jeff works. Uncle Dan is sure that one of the candidates, Clifford Farrow (Ferris Taylor) has a criminal past and wants Jeff to say so on his news broadcast. Jeff is unwilling, but when a threat tied to a pineapple crashes through the window of his home, he changes his mind. Just before the big broadcast, though, Jeff changes his mind again when Farrow’s shady associate Melvin Sutter (Marc Lawrence) threatens his wife and son.
Uncle Dan then decides to follow up on the things himself and ends up with info from a private investigator regarding Farrow’s past. Now it’s up to the ventriloquist to reveal the truth during his kiddie show. However, on the way to the studio, Farrow’s men ram a truck into Uncle Dan’s car, causing serious injury to Jeff’s son Buddy and the eventual death of the ventriloquist.
When election day arrives, Farrow ends up taking an early lead at the polls. However, Jeff ends up discovering a film of Uncle Dan practicing his program in which he intended to reveal the candidate’s questionable past. When this goes out over the air, Farrow’s gang launch a plan to keep late day voters away by broadcasting a War of the World’s style TV broadcast that seems to indicate that a massive tidal wave has destroyed New York and is now headed for Philly.
This is one downright kooky movie, and I’m not even talking about the whole tidal wave thing yet. For me one of the weirdest things about this story is having a kid show ventriloquist as a big time political activist who has been entrusted with secret information that could sway the election. I’ve said many times on this blog that I am a puppeteer by trade. I have many friends who are ventriloquists. They’re great folks but I don’t know that I’d put the fate of a major election in any of their hands. These folks talk to themselves for a living, after all. Politics aside, I didn’t really care for the way this ventriloquist character is presented here. The voice of the puppet is clearly being performed by a different actor and Uncle Dan’s lips are locked shut, which is not the way ventriloquism works. Plus, Uncle Dan walks around with his dummy (or “figure” as ventriloquists prefer to call them) dangling upside down at the end of his arm as he converses with other people. No professional ventriloquist would ever do that.
Okay, enough of my puppetry hangups. For most viewers the strangest part of this film is going to be the big moment that the title alludes to. It is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen in a movie. Just because one TV station starts showing footage of a massive tidal wave leveling New York, everyone in the city goes into a massive panic. Nobody even stops to consider that it might not be legit. Were people in 1939 really this gullible? I get that television was in its infancy here, but seriously? The footage that is shown of New York skyscrapers crumbling is pretty spectacular, but not remotely convincing. This cheesiness, though, does make the sequence very entertaining, especially when you add to it the frantic play-by-play of the destruction by the TV announcer. Supposedly the tidal wave footage was taken from a 1933 film called Deluge.
Of course, the tidal of the film leads one to believe that the tidal wave is at the center of the film’s plot. So, it does end up being a petty big letdown when most of the film is really about newsmen, crooked mayoral candidates, and a politically minded ventriloquist. The majority of the movie is pretty dry, pun intended. We have a cast of B-movie actors who make it pretty clear why they were relegated to making these kinds of movies. They just don’t do much to make the film all that interesting. If there is a standout in the cast, though, I think it has to be Marc Lawrence as Farrow’s shifty right-hand man, Sutter. He’s got that rodent-like look that is great for this sort of organized crime character. I also love the way he always says, “we’re still friends, aren’t we?” right before he guns someone down.
S.O.S. Tidal Wave spends an awful lot of its paltry 62 minute running time trying to build up to something exciting. When we finally do get to the titular moment, it’s beyond ridiculous. That’s not to say it’s not a fun moment, but it almost goes as far as to turn the whole film into an unintentional comedy.
NOTE: S.O.S. Tidal Wave was recently released on DVD and BluRay by Olive Films. Big thanks to them for giving us a look at the film.