Metamorphosing DanteAppropriations, Manipulations, and Rewritings in the Twentieth and Twenty-First CenturiesVienna: Turia + Kant, 2010
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Cite as: Nick Havely, ‘‘Hell on a Paying Basis’: Morality, the Market, and the Movies in Harry Lachman’s Dante’s Inferno (1935)’, in Metamorphosing Dante: Appropriations, Manipulations, and Rewritings in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, ed. by Manuele Gragnolati, Fabio Camilletti, and Fabian Lampart, Cultural Inquiry, 2 (Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2010), pp. 269–84 <https://doi.org/10.25620/ci-02_16>

‘Hell on a Paying Basis’Morality, the Market, and the Movies in Harry Lachman’s Dante’s Inferno (1935)Nick Havely

Keywords: Alighieri, Dante – Divina Commedia – Inferno; productive reception; film adaptations; Lachman, Harry – Dante’s Inferno; ethics; motion pictures; capital market

The 1935 Fox Films Dante’s Inferno (directed by Harry Lachman) traces the rise and fall of an entrepreneur. Its protagonist, Jim Carter (played by Spencer Tracy), begins the story as a stoker on a cruise liner. The narrative opens with a burst of flames from the ship’s boiler, and the ensuing scene goes on to show the protagonist competing at shovelling coal for a bet in the sweltering engine-room. Interspersed are shots of the superstructure directly above with a number of elegant and vapid passengers following the game below. This initial sequence thus concisely conveys the main features of the film’s social agenda through imagery that anticipates that of two of its later ‘infernal’ sequences.

Having won the game but lost his job — and now in search of employment in an amusement park — Carter encounters ‘Dante’s Inferno’ as an educational sideshow run by the idealistic but unbusinesslike ‘Pop’ McWade and his niece, Betty. He decides to ‘put Hell on a paying basis’, takes over Pop’s ailing enterprise, marries Betty, drives another stall-operator out of business and into suicide, and continues to develop his grand new ‘Inferno Concession’. From then on, his increasingly ambitious projects start to go disastrously and edifyingly wrong. For instance, his new hell concession contravenes building regulations (he has bribed the inspector) and its structure collapses, severely injuring Pop. From his hospital bed Pop shows his protégé a copy of Inferno with illustrations by Gustave Doré (first published in 1861–66), describing it as a ‘message’ to ‘those who live ruthlessly’ and warning him that ‘[l]ike you, Dante found himself on the wrong road’.

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