Spencer Tracy Goes to Hell and Back in Dante’s Inferno

Dante's Inferno (1935) Starring Spencer Tracy

Guest blogger Kristen Lopez writes:

Dante’s Inferno isn’t exactly light reading, and a true interpretation of the text for theaters is a long way off. It explains why the 1935 Fox feature Dante’s Inferno borrows its name, but never seeks to tell the story proper. Instead, we’re left with a routine story of absolute power corrupting absolutely….in the world of carnival politics.  Jim Carter (Spencer Tracy) is a carnival barker looking for a quick buck.  He finds his calling working with Pop McWade (Henry B. Walthall) and his concession focused on Dante’s “Inferno.” Along the way, Jim rises up the ranks to control the entire carnival circuit, while gaining the love of Pop’s daughter, Betty (Claire Trevor). When the carnival is deemed unsafe, Jim will go to any lengths to keep on with the show!

In modern parlance, Dante’s Inferno is a “loosely inspired” adaptation of Dante’s epic poem in that it takes the books original themes, wrapping them in, what’s meant to be, a wholly original story. Unfortunately, wholly original comes off as routinely pedestrian. Jim Carter is a man meant to “have it all,” with a loving wife and dimpled son (played by famed child star Scotty Beckett). But Jim lusts for power and, thanks to his lack of education, sees no problems or correlation between his life and the “Dante’s Inferno” attraction he’s trying to turn into a phenomenon.

DANTE'S INFERNO 1935 4Spencer Tracy had his name removed from the finished product, calling this the worst picture he’d ever done. One wonders if that’s because of the completed movie, or the rumors about his drunken buffoonery taking place on-set. Either way, Tracy’s Average Joe persona creates an unbelievable Jim Carter. We meet Jim as the script rips a page out of Eugene O’Neill’s play “The Hairy Ape” with Jim as a roughneck being heckled by two wealthy women. With that single scene as our foundation, establishing his proclamation that one day he’ll show ‘em, the carnival takes over. It’s hard enough believing this man has any business prowess, let alone could turn that into a lavish lifestyle. And if so, his wife is a bigger idiot for failing to figure out his scheme earlier on. Since the movie’s intent is to preach, turning us sinners in the theater away from vice (ya know, like Dante’s book!), Jim has no characteristics except greed, which is odd because the scenes where he’s rolling around on the floor with his kid as his wife and friends smile down at them, secretly thinking “He’s such a good guy” come off as phony.

At almost 90 minutes, the script wanders from misdeed to misdeed with various anti-Jim people trying to stop him, yet the movie wants you on his side. It’s a problematic conceit considering Jim ruins a man’s life, forcing the man into suicide, and puts people in an unsafe carnival that collapses. How can the audience sympathize with a man who, for almost 88 minutes of the running time, is content with recklessly negligent homicide?  Even his wife goes along with the scheme, remaining the stalwart pillar for standing by your man…especially when he’s just killed a bunch of people. I feel the worst for Claire Trevor, who wouldn’t get the role of a lifetime (Dallas in Stagecoach) for another four years. This role could be played by any two-bit actress with the ability to speak, and it’s a waste of Trevor’s talents.

DANTE'S INFERNO 1935 3The only saving grace is when the movie actually embraces the source material. Dante’s original text isn’t a bedtime story, but it’s literally the device utilized to segue into a more-than-10-minute segment depicting the various levels of Hell. This is where the movie soars with terrifying set design and sneaky post-Code nudity from various lost souls condemned. Despite its negative message, that single scene contains more intensity than the narrative. What’s better: people writhing around with fire and brimstone, or Spencer Tracy leading a council meeting with carnies?

Dante’s Inferno isn’t the worst movie ever made; even there I think Tracy was giving it too much credit. There are some interesting set pieces, especially the actual Dante adaptation. If it’s on, just wait around for the fog machine to turn on.

Kristen Lopez is a college student studying for her Master’s in English. In her spare time she reviews vintage movies and does freelance writing for various entertainment websites. You can read more of her work at Journeys in Classic Film.