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S.O.S. Tidal Wave

Olive Films // Unrated // October 31, 2017
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted November 15, 2017 | E-mail the Author
A peculiar hodgepodge of discordant components, S.O.S. Tidal Wave (1939) is entertaining because it's so bizarre. Built around a familiar morality play of journalists fighting political corruption, the screenplay incorporates an activist radio ventriloquist, experimental early television, car crashes, a calamitous tidal wave, and, indirectly, Orson Welles.

Virtually unknown, S.O.S. Tidal Wave comes to Blu-ray via Olive Films, licensing the Republic Pictures title, in pristine condition, from Paramount. Maybe Olive thought they were licensing an early, big-scale disaster movie (their text on the back cover suggests this) but it's a real curio regardless.

News commentator Jeff Shannon (Ralph Byrd) is a huge TV personality thanks to his wildly popular infotainment program, an amazingly prescient series favoring spectacular disasters or Internet like "fail" videos over hard news. (Some of this material consists of clips from earlier Republic movies like Army Girl.) Jeff's old boss, newspaper editor Mike Halloran (Oscar O'Shea), asks the TV star to campaign against corrupt mayoral candidate Clifford Farrow (Ferris Taylor), a puppet of gangster Melvin Sutter (Marc Lawrence). Jeff adamantly refuses, believing talking about politics would hurt his program's ratings.

However, Jeff's longtime friend "Uncle Dan" Carter (George Barbier), a pathetically bad radio ventriloquist, takes up the cause! At a birthday party for Jeff's six-year-old son, Buddy (Mickey Kuhn), Sutter's men lob a pineapple through the window, threatening Uncle Dan with a "loaded one" if he keeps up the pressure against Farrow. That threat spurs Jeff to join the fight, and with the aid of newsreel cameraman Peaches (Frank Jenks), Jeff gathers enough background on Farrow's past to announce a big exposé on his broadcast later that day. Sutter, however, threatens Jeff's wife, Laurel (Kay Sutton), and son, and at the last minute he scuttles the material, running a routine broadcast instead. (Lucky he had all that material lying about.)

In an especially contrived bit of scripting, Jeff's friends and family are deeply disappointed by his sudden turnabout ("Is Daddy a hero yet?" whines Buddy) yet for no good reason Jeff refuses to divulge the reason. (Spoilers) It wouldn't have mattered in any case, for when Uncle Dan turns up papers connecting Sutter to Farrow, Sutter has the sedan containing Uncle Dan, Laurel, and Buddy spectacularly sideswiped by a big truck. Further, on the day of the election, Sutter pulls a switcheroo at the TV station, substituting "an old horror movie" about a tidal wave striking New York but broadcast as real news alerts, causing a panic that keeps voters away from the polls!

S.O.S. Tidal Wave premiered on June 2, 1939, just seven months after Orson Welles's notorious Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast of The War of the Worlds supposedly caused widespread panic with listeners who wrongly assumed its story of invaders from Mars was real. Sutter the gangster deliberately sets up a similar scenario, with nearly all the special effects footage lifted from Deluge (1933). These scenes, however, come at the tail end of the 62-minute film, making its title and advertising campaign wildly misleading.

The movie, however, does not disappoint. For starters, elderly (84) George Barbier apparently won the role of Uncle Dan after another actor, Fred Stone, quit at the last minute, leaving Barbier little time to hone his ventriloquistic skills. His ineptitude is of Albert Brooks proportions while the shabby dummy, with its mismatched eyebrows, is more than a little creepy. Nonetheless, gullible little Buddy thinks the dummy is a living being and, in his hospital bed following the car crash (so violent it should have killed all three passengers instantly), the little boy is traumatized when the dummy won't talk to him, all while loveable Uncle Dan expires in another part of the hospital.

Obviously inspired by Edgar Bergen, whose own radio show famously aired on another network simultaneous to Orson Welles's infamous broadcast, it's a wonder Republic didn't tap their own resident ventriloquist, B-cowboy star Max Terhune, for the part.

Television broadcasts were still largely in the experimental stage in 1939, but movies depicting television broadcasts were not uncommon throughout the 1930s and early ‘40s. Commercial television as we know it (using 525-line transmissions) began in New York City in July 1941 but World War II ground development to a halt until the late 1940s. Most television sets that existed in 1939 resembled bulky radio consoles and had tiny screens averaging 9-12 inches, nothing like the big 40-inch screens seen in the movie. Common with other movies about television, the image was rear-projected film rather than video-generated. Even the TV cameras in Jeff's studio are regular 35mm film cameras, not TV ones.

Video & Audio

Like most other Republic library titles on Blu-ray, S.O.S. Tidal Wave looks great. The black-and-white image is nearly flawless, while the mono audio, supported by optional English subtitles, is fine on this Region A disc. No Extra Features.

Parting Thoughts

Those expecting a big scale disaster movie from S.O.S. Tidal Wave are lkely to be disappointed, and in any case should instead buy the Blu-ray of Deluge, from which this picture draws all its spectacular scenes of destruction. But as one of the strangest of little B-movies the picture is enjoyable for all its peculiarities and thus Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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