Dante’s Inferno, the 1935 spectacle of destructive greed and carnival ballyhoo, opens on flames. It’s not hellfire but the boiler-room furnaces of an ocean liner where Jim Carter (Spencer Tracy) is ostensibly a stoker, though he manages to get out of work with a litany of manufactured injuries before he’s tossed out. He’s a born con man and hustler and he lands in his element: a carnival midway. When he’s shown a little kindness by Pop (Henry B. Walthall), the operator of a sleepy concession known as “Dante’s Inferno,” a mix of haunted house and cheap museum dedicated to the lessons of “the greatest poem ever written” (in Pop’s words), he returns the favor by taking over as pitchman and barks up a crowd for the attraction. The partnership becomes family when he falls for Pop’s pretty daughter Betty (Claire Trevor) and they have a son. It’s the beginning of a classic (and not particularly original) rise-and-fall drama of a rapacious man who tramples those who stand in the way of his ambition and leaves a trail of destruction as he bribes, blackmails, cheats, and cuts corners on his way to the top of the amusement racket, with just enough time left for a last-minute act of redemption.
This was one of Tracy’s final films for Fox before he left for MGM, where his talents were given a more respectful showcase. Now I’m not actually a big fan of Tracy but I confess to having a new appreciation for the actor thanks to those scrappy, bouncy Fox films of his early career. A lot of those scripts are undercooked (like this one) and the productions are sometime rushed but Tracy overflows with personality and the attitude of a guy who got wise knocking about on the streets. “I’ve had every trick in the trade kicked into me,” Jim tells Pop. “Now it’s my turn to kick back.” He presents himself with a sense of calm and control, however, like a man who is cagy about letting the world see what’s he’s thinking or feeling, which makes quite a contrast to guys like Cagney and Lee Tracy and the rat-a-tat streetwise heroes of the Warner street movies.