SPOILERS THROUGHOUT. I screened an incomplete and damaged print of this disaster movie, but what I saw was quite dire. There are two movie subgenres that I especially loathe, and 'Volcano' manages to be both of them.
Subgenre #1 is the historical drama that puts fictional characters into a real-life disaster: examples of this being 'Titanic', 'Gallipoli', 'San Francisco', 'In Old Chicago' and 'Last Days of Pompeii;. (If Gallipoli wasn't a disaster, then I don't know what is.) I dislike this type of story, because we're always expected to be concerned with the fictional characters dropped into this historic event, rather than empathising with the hundreds or thousands of real people who actually died there ... who are treated as just so much set-dressing and backdrop for the fictional story.
Subgenre #2 is somewhat out of fashion these days, but used to be quite widespread: examples include 'The Sheik' and 'Whoopee'. This subgenre is the interracial romance that turns out not to be interracial after all. The lovers' relationship is doomed because she's white and he's not ... but then, in the last reel, we learn that he's actually a white man with a suntan, so all ends happily. 'Volcano' varies that ugsome formula only slightly, by presenting the heroine (rather than the hero) as the racial minority who turns out to be caucasian after all.
'Volcano' takes place on the island of Martinique, a French possession. If this movie establishes an exact year, it must have been in the missing or damaged footage that I haven't seen. However, there was a major eruption of the volcano Pelee on that island in 1902. Judging by the (fairly impressive) costumes on the actors, this movie takes place in that year.
Bebe Daniels is Zabette. I don't know which name is weirder: Bebe or Zabette. Anyhow, she's an exotic ma'mselle in Martinique. Her deep dark secret is that she was born in the Latin Quarter of Paris, so she assumes that she must be mulatta. Quelle fromage!
Zabette meets Ricardo Cortez, and they're clearly destined to be lovers because her name begins with a Z and his name ends with Z. Cortez plays an aristocratic Frenchman named Stephanie, I mean Stephane. There's a lot of sub-Valentino nostril-flaring and eyebrow-arching hereabouts. Zabette and Stephane are soon lovers, but she knows that their romance is doomed because she's merely a half-breed rather than a good white woman. (See why I don't like this genre?)
A glance at the cast list reveals that Wallace Beery plays a character named Quembo, so there are no prizes for guessing who's the villain. (Also in the cast list is Snitz Edwards, so this movie possibly sets a record for total Qs and Zs.) Beery gave some brilliantly villainous performances in other movies: here, at least in the footage I've seen, he settles for leering and sneering, with occasional jeering.
Enter the volcano, upstage left. Early in the film, we get a couple of stock shots of an impressive volcano: I don't know whether it's the genuine Mount Pelee or a ringer. But when the volcano starts erupting in the later reels, we see some laughably bad shots of a blatantly phony volcano that would barely pass muster in some primary-school science fair.
Thousands of people died in the real 1902 eruption, but we're only supposed to care about the fictional characters in this movie. (Snitz Edwards gets lost in the Pelee melee.) At the climax, Zabette and Stephane stay one jump ahead of the lava and they manage to hot-foot it aboard a passing ship, where smiling Father Benedict eggs them on by assuring Zabette (in a cringe-worthy intertitle) that she's actually "all white and honorably born". So that's all white, then. But I guess that if she wasn't white, she'd be "dishonorably born". See why I don't like this stuff?
I confess that I know almost nothing about the laws of France or Martinique in 1902. Was there some statute on the books, similar to the USA's miscegenation laws, which prevented a white man and a mulatta from marrying? Or is there merely some social prejudice standing in the way of these lovers? If the latter, then this movie is even more fatuous than I think it is.
Since a couple of reels were missing from the print that I viewed, I shan't rate 'Volcano'. However, I feel confident in stating that, if a complete print is out there someplace, it's unlikely to appeal to modern audiences who now take interracial relationships well in stride. Sometimes we humans really do make some progress.
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