BOOTLEG FILES 227: “Lot in Sodom” (1933 avant-garde short).
LAST SEEN: Available online at several sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: No official release, but it has been included in a few collections of old-time experimental shorts.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No copyright protection.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Probably not, due to its public domain status.
Today’s column sets the Way-Back Machine to Biblical times for a spin around the original twin cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. We won’t be seeing that much of Gomorrah, but we have a date in Sodom with none other than Lot and his salty wife. Actually, we’re going back to 1933 for a film about Sodom’s wreckage and ruin. And, trust me, this one is a real find!
The film is called “Lot in Sodom” and it is one of the weirdest movies of the early 1930s. Even by the standards of Pre-Code cinema, the blatant sexuality of “Lot in Sodom” pushes the envelope to the point of being shredded.
“Lot in Sodom” was the second and final collaboration of two Rochester, N.Y.-based creative artists, James Sibley Watson Jr. and Melville Webber. In 1928, the duo created an expressionistic silent short based on Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher.” The film was overshadowed by the simultaneous release a French feature based on the same material. Financed by Watson’s wealth (his family ran Western Union), the pair decided to give the film business a second shot.
However, there was a bit of problem. While it was still fine to make a silent short in 1928, sound had already taken root when “Lot in Sodom” was in the planning stages. Watson’s fortune was not that extensive to enable the purchase of sound film recording equipment for a Rochester-based short. (For no clear reason, the duo never considered traveling to New York City or Hollywood, where they could have rented a sound-equipped studio.) Through a connection at the Rochester-based Eastman Kodak Company, they were able to obtain a sound-on-film recorder that enabled the attachment of a synchronized musical score. But they had no ability to shoot a film with dialogue (although a snatch of prayer was included in the score).
Nonetheless, Watson and Webber pushed ahead with the salacious Biblical tale of Lot’s misadventures in God-damned Sodom. The first part of the film offers a glimpse of what sped Sodom to ruin, and it is literally impossible to watch this sequence without wondering how this ever got made in 1933. Sodom, in the Watson and Webber mindframe, was populated by lithe, shirtless young men wearing bee-sting lipstick. These fey fellas spent their time chasing each other, wrestling, horsing around, and occasionally getting into snitty fights. One buff boy is the victim of good times taken too far: he is stripped down by his pals (we see his bare backside), dangled by his ankles over a fiery pit and dropped on a one-way trip to the flames. We don’t see the fatal plummet, but we watch the Sodomites craning their necks over the edge of what is supposed to be the inferno.
Somewhere in the midst of this madcap homo landscape is the hetero Lot, his wife, and their fairly mature daughter. Yes, I know Genesis gave Lot a pair of daughters – but what the Lord giveth, Watson and Webber taketh away.
Into the Lot family’s life comes an angel. Yes, I know that Genesis cited a pair of angels – don’t ask why “Lot in Sodom” cut the number of characters. The angel warns Lot that Sodom’s reckoning day is near. However, the Sodomites (including a previously unseen muscle daddy who acts like a scoutmaster for the sissy boys) discover there’s hunky male angel shacked up in the Lot house. The population surrounds the house, asking that the angel come out so they can “know him.”
Lot, completely misreading the demographics of the crowd surrounding his residence, offers to pimp his daughter to the Sodomites. While Lot’s daughter is happy at the prospect of going horizontal, the Sodomites aren’t quite satisfied with this offer. The angel blinds the Sodomites, allowing Lot and his family to escape. Sodom is destroyed amidst some very bad special effects, and Lot’s wife, of course, makes the silly mistake of looking back at the destruction.
Oy, where do we start? Well, the gay orgy is clearly a sight to behold. At a time when homosexuality was only vaguely hinted at via sissified comic relief from Edward Everett Horton or Franklin Pangborn, the site of the blatant and unapologetic gay boy romp is more than a little shocking. Watson and Webber eschewed subtlety by incorporating phallic symbols into the set design of their Sodom, and even Lot’s wife turns into a phallic salt pillar. If that’s not enough, there’s also a slithering snake that gets to wiggle when Lot’s daughter is being pimped.
And there’s the pimping scene. Remember that I said “Lot in Sodom” had no dialogue? Well, in the scene where Lot addresses the Sodomites, Watson and Webber had their Lot (stage actor Friedrich Haak) talk and talk and talk and…yeah, without sound and intertitles. Needless to say, it looks ridiculous. Plus, Haak did his own make-up and he looks ridiculous with a patently phony nose and a glued-on beard that makes him look like something out of an Aryan propaganda magazine.
In a 1975 article published in the University of Rochester Library Bulletin, Watson credited composer Alec Wilder as a third partner in this production. “Alec helped us no end in the recruiting of actors,” he wrote. “He knew how to coax exactly the right expression from performers of both sexes. Hence he was in constant demand to direct any of our scenes that depended on facial expression. Not only that: When on the set, he could put the whole crew in a good humor. It was a gift.”
Strangely, Wilder didn’t write the film’s score – Watson credited another local musician, Louis Siegel, with the effort; the score was performed by Rochester music school students. Set designer Steve Kraskiewicz was also an invaluable factor. “It was Steve who brought us our leading Sodomites, two uninhibited and extremely handsome young men from the Polish community,” recalled Watson.
It doesn’t appear that “Lot in Sodom” was widely seen in 1933, due to its subject matter and for being a silent movie at a time when that format was no longer embraced. It did get in front of some members of the National Board of Review, who put it on their list of the top films of 1934. However, Watson and Webber had no enthusiasm to pursue further projects.
“Lot in Sodom” has been in the public domain for years. It has turned up in a few video anthologies of old-time experimental shorts, and it can easily be located on several video web sites. Strangely, the film is not very well known – Watson and Webber’s “Fall of the House of Usher” is regarded as a classic today and is part of the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
But “Lot in Sodom” needs to be seen and appreciated. Watch this with a nice cold margarita, and don’t forget to pass the salt – oh, sorry, Mrs. Lot!
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