Thursday 21 December 2023

The Ten Commandments (1923)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Writer: Jeanie Macpherson
Stars: Theodore Roberts, Richard Dix, Rod La Rocque, Charles de Roche, Robert Edeson, Leatrice Joy, Nita Naldi, Estelle Taylor, Edythe Chapman and Julia Faye

My final review of a 1923 film turns out to be the big one, the highest grossing picture of the year at the American box office. It’s also an unusual movie in a few ways.

For one, it was the product of a contest, in which the public suggested ideas for the next Cecil B. DeMille film. F. C. Nelson of Lansing, Michigan won with “You cannot break the Ten Commandments—they will break you.”

For another, it isn’t one story but two, told in uneven, almost jarring fashion, which is the reason why I’d actually forgotten what it was all about. I remembered the prologue, which is about three quarters of an hour long and was bulked up to become DeMille’s own remake in 1956. That’s the story we expect, of Moses and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

However, that surprisingly transforms into a contemporary melodrama for the remaining eighty minutes, as the four core characters, all of whom belong to a single family, see the Ten Commandments from different angles and so live their lives in very different ways.

Needless to say, the prologue is what counts here. It’s everything that we expect from Cecil B. DeMille, even if it feels a little compressed. It looks huge from the outset, with vast sets in Egypt which dwarf mere human beings, but it must be said that there aren’t many of them, just the Pharaoh’s palace and a growing line of sphinxes leading away from it.

Saturday 2 December 2023

Tiger Rose (1923)

Director: Sidney A. Franklin
Writer: David Belasco, based on the play by Willard Mack
Stars: Lenore Ulric, Forrest Stanley and Theodore von Eltz

Exotic lands back in 1923 weren’t only those far to the east, as the Canadian northwest also counted, with a whole slew of adventure yarns and romances set in those distant woods. Here is another one, based on a 1917 play by Willard Mack and starring its star, Lenore Ulric, as the titular character. Rose is French Canadian and fond of dark make-up, so Ulric comes across as a sort of local Pola Negri.

We’re in Wutchi Wyum, the northernmost trading post in the Loon River Valley, north of Edmonton, then in the Northwest Territories, and Rose is brought into town by Sgt. Michael Devlin of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, who found her in a river and had to dive in off a cliff to rescue her. They always get their man or, indeed, their woman, the two hitting it off wonderfully once she comes to.

Well, not always, as we’ll quickly learn when Bruce Norton shows up. Up until now, this has been a romance with a sense of adventure, as Rose and Michael look set for a happy life with plenty of background texture delivered by the supporting cast, like Fr. Thibault and Hector MacCollins, the latter of whom is so obviously Scottish that we can practically hear his broad accent even in a silent movie.

It’s an idyllic frontier landscape and all that we’re missing is a third wheel for an inevitable love triangle. Enter Bruce Norton, an engineer for the Canadian Northwest Railroad, which is coming through. Rose sees him surveying with his transit, which I now know is not the same thing as a theodolite—not a lesson I expected to learn watching Tiger Rose—and we think we know where we’re going next.

Friday 1 December 2023

The Wizard of Baghdad (1960)

Director: George Sherman
Writers: Jesse L. Lasky Jr. and Pat Silver, based on a story by Samuel Newman
Stars: Dick Shawn, Diane Baker and Barry Coe

Index: 2023 Centennials.

I’ve been lucky with my last few centennial reviews. I’d seen The Return of the Living Dead before and I was looking forward to seeing it afresh, but it was research that led me to The Man in the Glass Booth and The Glass Wall, two impactful features with impeccable lead performances that resonate through the years to be as important today as they were so long ago. Even The Siege of Sidney Street and Cell 2455, Death Row, which, to be fair, aren’t in the same league, are still fascinating. The Wizard of Baghdad, on the other hand, well, it isn’t any of those things. It probably wasn’t very good when it came out and it’s very much a product of its time. However, it’s also a glimpse at a new star in the making, who strides through the picture with such utter confidence that it’s easy to believe that he felt that he was about to be the biggest name in Hollywood. That star is Dick Shawn, who didn’t become the biggest name in Hollywood, but did foster a habit of stealing scenes from pretty much anyone, even in a film as star-studded as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

This wasn’t his first picture—he’d cameod in The Opposite Sex in 1956 and then co-starred with Ernie Kovacs in Wake Me When It’s Over—but it was his first stab at a lead role and he embraced it with abandon. The opening scene, against which the credits roll, is almost an audition to the audience. It’s Shawn in a genie outfit, down to the dinky gold slippers, flying through a sky murkier than Mumbai in pollution season, singing a song called Eni Menie Geni, which thanks to Steve Martin in Only Murders in the Building, I now know is a patter song, because it’s a tongue twister of a song with fast paced rhythmic rhymes and plenty of alliteration. It takes a singer with impeccable enunciation to deliver a song like this and Shawn nails it what feels like a single take, though there is one cut to a close-up, so it could be two. It may not be quite as challenging as Pickwick Triplets or the most famous example of the form, namely Gilbert and Sullivan’s I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General from The Pirates of Penzance, but it’s highly impressive nonetheless.