The century’s worst tsunami devastates New York City while the population attempts to flee in terror, but not until after five reels of a completely different picture with a crusading television newsman (in 1939!) and his uncle, a kiddie show host with a ventriloquist dummy as a sidekick, battling a corrupt politician and his campaign manager, a torpedo who prefaces each killing by smilingly asking, “Are we still friends?”
As I think you can tell from the synopsis, this is one goofy-ass B-movie. Which means, yes, we loved it. I mean, if people can sit through Cameron’s Titanic for nearly three hours waiting for the “good part,” one can certainly endure 50 minutes of THIS.
Republic had purchased stock footage from RKO’s 1933 disaster film Deluge, a film that disappeared in the Post-Code era, never to be seen again until a few months ago, when it showed up in a Kino Lorber Blu-ray release (and turned out to be pretty good). The destruction of NY sequence appeared in a handful of Republic features and serials (most famously King of the Rocketmen), and seems oddly tacked-on here, as if the screenwriters had turned in a rather pedestrian script and producer Armand Schaefer said as he chomped on his cigar, “Say, if we wipe out New York at the end, maybe we got somethin’ here” while his sycophants around the table said, “Brilliant, A.S.!” “Love it, A.S.!” “Genius, A.S.!"
Ralph Byrd, in the middle of his four(!) starring Dick Tracy serials for Republic, is the crusading newsman, and by “crusading” we mean “immediately ceases his crusade as soon as the tough guy threatens his wife.” Most of the rest of the cast is adequate but not memorable, including George Barbier as the ventriloquist who gives civics lessons to the kiddies instead of cartoons, Kay Sutton as Byrd’s pretty wife, Mickey Kuhn (the same year he played Beau Wilkes in Gone with the Wind) as Byrd’s son, and Red Barry, Raymond Bailey, Dorothy Lee, and Oscar O’Shea as various mobsters, hangers-on, or would-be good guys. Two standouts in the cast: Frank Jenks is annoying as hell as the supposedly-humorous-cameraman-friend to our leading man, and the always good Mark Lawrence is the tough guy killer with the going-away handshake.
Television was experimental in 1939 and would be set back ten years by the war, but here in Republicland, there’s already a set in every bar, in shop windows, and in assorted homes (but no Uncle Miltie or Ricky Ricardo yet) and, less than a year after Orson Welles put Martians in New Jersey, a telecast has the ability to transform a tranquil city on election day into a fleeing mob rivaling the townspeople in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, helped in great part by the bombastic, hysterical narrator of the destruction sequence.
“And there goes what remains of the Central Depot! It’s hard to watch that breaking up! It must’ve been crowded with people hoping to escape by train! But no train – NO TRAIN – could outrace the MAD SPEED of the tidal floodwaters!!!”
The Olive Films Blu-ray has a spotty Republic Pictures opening logo but after that it’s a gorgeous print that makes us think this has lain in a vault for all these many years, untouched and pristine. Despite the fact that 1939 audiences must’ve spent most of the film’s running time wondering if they’d wandered into the wrong theatre, S.O.S. Tidal Wave is ridiculous, ludicrous fun and we had a good time with it.