Sodom and Gomorrah: The Legend of Sin and Punishment (1922)

Austrian Cultural Forum, London

                                                                                2 April 2019


(Warning: Contains Spoilers Throughout)


Director Michael Curtiz (image, right) was certainly one of the most prolific and probably also one of the most accomplished directors to have worked in Hollywood. Able to turn his hand to almost any genre, his most recognised film is probably Casablanca (1942) for which he won one of his two Academy Awards.  But other classic examples of his work include The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) with Errol Flynn, Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) with Jimmy Cagney, Mildred Pierce (1945) with Joan Crawford, and White Christmas (1954) with Bing Crosby.  He even made a film with Elvis Presley, King Creole (1958). However, before he took up Warner Brothers’ invitation to travel to Hollywood, Curtiz (then known as Mihaly Kertesz) was an equally prolific director in Europe, making over sixty films in Hungary, Denmark, Germany and Austria. Yet this early work is much less widely known and very rarely screened.  The good people at Kennington Bioscope have been doing their best to rectify this, screening two Curtiz films last year, Cab No.13 (Fiaker Nr. 13) and The Golden Butterfly ( Der Goldene Schmetterling), both made in 1926 and both starring Curtiz’s then wife, Lila Damita. But tonight it is the turn of the Austrian Cultural Forum, who are hosting a very rare screening of another Curtiz silent, Sodom and Gomorrah: The Legend of Sin and Punishment (1922), a film whose epic scale can genuinely claim to rival not only earlier Italian blockbusters such as Quo Vadis (1913) or Cabiria (1914) but also the work of Griffith and DeMille in Hollywood.  

The film opens with a mother (Erika Wagner) encouraging her daughter Mary Conway (Lucy Doraine) to marry the wealthy but elderly stockbroker Jackson Harber (Georg Reimers).  Mary is really in love with a young sculpter Harry Lighton (Kurt Ehril) but he is unable to provide the luxurious life she has become used to so she agrees to marry Harber. On the day of the wedding Lighton visits Mary at Harber’s house to try to talk her out of marrying him but when she refuses he shoots himself.  As the post-wedding celebrations take on an almost orgiastic tone Harber’s son Eduard (Walter Slezak) arrives home from college with one of his tutors, a priest (Victor Varconi).  Mary flirts with Eduard and tries to seduce the priest, prompting him to leave.  Mary arranges a late night assignation with Eduard in a summer house and while waiting there for him she falls asleep.  Woken by Eduard, the two are caught by Harber and a fight between father and son ensues.  When Mary hands a knife to Eduard he stabs and kills his father and the two are arrested.

In jail, and facing execution for murder, Mary experiences a dream sequence which sees her transported back to Sodom and Gomorrah where she is Lea, the wife of Lot.  As a high priestess she leads the increasingly bacchanalian celebrations in honour of the goddess Astarte. With an angel (Victor Varconi) sent by God to warn Lot of the retribution facing the city the dream then shifts to ancient Syria where Mary is now a ruthless queen who orders the execution of a young goldsmith (Walter Slezak) who had tried to help her, before finding her kingdom under attack by an Ammonite army.  Switching back to Sodom, the angel is now seized by the city’s inhabitants and taken to the temple of Astarte for execution at which point God commences to destroy the city by raining down brimstone and sulphur.  Lot manages to rescue his wife but as they flee the city she looks back and is turned to a pillar of salt.

Back in her cell, Mary’s execution falls due but as she is walked to the scaffold she awakens and finds herself back in the summer house prior to Eduard’s arrival. Realising now the error both of a loveless marriage simply for money and of her earlier behaviour towards Eduard and the priest, she rushes from the house to the hospital where Lighton is being treated.  After a long recuperation the two are finally reunited.  

The version of Sodom and Gomorrah screened tonight ran for approximately 120 minutes and perhaps the best that could be said for it was that there was probably a much better film in there, trying to get out. Some sources indicate that the director’s original cut of the film came in at just under three hundred minutes, intended to be screened in two parts. This was released in 1922 but a shortened version running some 180 minutes was released the following year. This was produced in response to various censorship issues but was also intended to make the film more commercially viable, being capable of being viewed in a single screening.  Further cuts followed with a c90 minute version made for the US market.  For many years, Sodom and Gomorrah was considered lost with just fragments surviving. But with additional material rediscovered, particularly from Russian, East German and Czech archives, a substantial restoration has been achieved.  However, with none of the original film documentation having survived, there was no way of accurately recreating the film’s original running structure, particularly in incorporating the flashback/dream sequences.  

The end result is something of a dog’s dinner.  Many of the scenes go on for far too long, often to the point of being laboured, particularly in the modern element of the story. For example, as Mary rushes to the hospital to be re-united with the injured Lighton, that would be an ideal time to conclude but instead we get another 15 minutes of his recovery, which really adds nothing to the story. Then there are some wholly bizarre choreographed dance sequences during the wedding reception, almost presaging Busby Berkley in style and scale.  In addition, much of the acting in the film is wildly overly theatrical (even for its time).

But where Sodom and Gomorrah really does come into its own is in the spectacular dream sequences.  This was a ‘no expenses spared’ production and it really showed.   The film’s genesis can be traced back to the early epics of Italian cinema such as as Quo Vadis (1913) or Cabiria (1914). These in turn were seen by D W Griffith who sought to emulate them with his own spectacular productions, in particular, Intolerance (1916).  Visiting the United States in 1918 to study its film industry, Austrian producer Alexander ‘Sascha’ Kolowrat-Krakowsky was impressed both with that film’s scale and multi-strand story telling as well as with its popularity.   Kolowrat was determined to emulate its success with an epic project of his own.  

Returning to Austria, Kolowrat gave the project to established studio director Mihaly Kertész who in turn cast his then wife, Lucy Doraine, in the central role.  Shooting of the film took two years, with the dream sequences filmed on a giant outside lot centered on the 250ft tall Temple of Astarte.  Some sources put the cast as high as 14,000, 1,200 make-up artists, 2,000 costumers plus thousands of animals.  Alan K Rode in his book ‘Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film’ has a hugely entertaining chapter on the logistics and travails of making the film.  But deserving special mention was the work of the film’s pyrotechnist Otto Wannemacher, missing fingers from both hands and part of his nose due to earlier accidents, but who still handled explosives with an air of casualness..and with a lighted cigar in his mouth. Yet his work produced some stunning moments, in fact some of the most breathtaking scenes I’ve ever seen in silent film, as flaming bolts rain down, explosions destroy whole sets in front of our eyes, fleeing actors surely unable to escape unharmed from this inferno.  And if truth be told, many didn’t escape unharmed.  Stories of injuries were legion (and studio compensation payments crippling) with fleets of ambulances on standby for some scenes, not to mention rumours of fatalities with Lucy Doraine herself narrowly missing death in one scene.  As well as Wannemacher’s somewhat dubious abilities, the cast also had to deal with Kertész’s lack of interest in the well being of cast and crew, a characteristic that was apparently to follow him throughout his career.

Lead actress Lucy Doraine had been something of a protégée of Kertesz, making some ten films with him and becoming his wife along the way.  But by the time of Sodom and Gomorrah they were in the throes of divorce (Kertesz was a serial philanderer) which didn’t help with the making of the film. Despite her critical and popular success in both comedy and serious drama, Doraine’s performance here is of the markedly over-theatrical type although it didn’t appear to hamper her future career which continued after she divorced Kertesz with a string of film successes  in Germany where she also founded her own successful production company.  She moved to Hollywood in 1927 but as with so many European actresses her accent meant that she struggled with the arrival of sound.  By 1930 she was already reduced to supporting roles, for example in Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels.  

Making his screen debut in Sodom and Gomorrah was Walter Slezak (image, right).  Almost unrecognisable from the renowned (and rotund) character actor he was to become in Hollywood, Slezak got the job apparently after his father, a famous opera singer, pleaded for Kertesz to do something with the boy who had no appreciable talent.

As for Kertesz himself, after starting out as an actor in Hungary he began his career behind the camera in 1912, directing Hungary’s first feature length film.  He had directorial success in Denmark, Sweden (where he directed Greta Garbo) and Germany before joining Kolowrat’s Sascha Studios in Vienna. After epic spectaculars such as Sodom and Gomorrah and  1924’s The Red Sea, Kertesz attracted the attention of Warner Brothers who offered him a contract in America.  In the next 28 years, and now renamed Michael Curtiz, he would become the studio’s most reliable director, turning out 86 films for Warner, covering most cinematic genres and working with the biggest stars. His films included 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932) with Spencer Tracy, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) with Errol Flynn, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) with Bette Davis, Casablanca (1942) with Humphrey Bogart, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) with James Cagney and Mildred Pierce (1945) with Joan Crawford. By the 1950s Curtiz had parted company with Warners but continued to direct on a freelance basis until his death in 1962.  

So perhaps Sodom and Gomorrah isn’t a classic (in the version screened) but it is certainly an epic, on a scale to rival anything made by early Italian cinema or by Griffith in America. Another version of the restored film, available on DVD from Film Archive Austria, runs for just 95minutes so it would be interesting to see if this version is a better edited and more fluid and coherent a film.

Live piano accompaniment for the film came from Cyrus Gabrysch who did an excellent job in capturing the drama and spectacle of the film