What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!
If, last night, you were suffering from insomnia at 3 in the morning, you could have turned on TCM and watched the 1957 faux epic, The Story of Mankind.
I call The Story of Mankind a faux epic because it’s an outwardly big film that turns out to be remarkably small on closer inspection. First off, it claims to the tell the story of Mankind but it only has a running time of 100 minutes so, as you can imagine, a lot of the story gets left out. (I was annoyed that neither my favorite social reformer, Victoria C. Woodhull, nor my favorite president, Rutherford B. Hayes, made an appearance.) It’s a film that follow Vincent Price and Ronald Colman as they stroll through history but it turns out that “history” is largely made up of stock footage taken from other movies. The film’s cast is full of actors who will be familiar to lovers of classic cinema and yet, few of them really have more than a few minutes of screen time. In fact, it only takes a little bit of research on the imdb to discover that most of the film’s cast was made up of performers who were on the verge of ending their careers.
The Story of Mankind opens with two angels noticing that mankind has apparently invented the “Super H-Bomb,” ten years ahead of schedule. It appears that mankind is on the verge of destroying itself and soon, both Heaven and Hell will be full of new arrivals. One of the angels exclaims that there’s already a housing shortage!
A celestial court, overseen by a stern judge (Cedric Hardwicke) is convened in outer space. The court must decide whether to intervene and prevent mankind from destroying itself. Speaking on behalf on humanity is the Spirit of Man. The Spirit of Man is played by Ronald Colman. This was Colman’s final film. In his heyday, he was such a popular star that he was Margaret Mitchell’s first choice to play Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind. However, in The Story of Mankind, Colman comes across as being a bit bored with it all and you start to get worried that he might not be the best attorney that mankind could have hired.
Even more worrisome, as far as the future of mankind is concerned, is that the prosecutor, Mr. Scratch, is being played by Vincent Price. Making his case with his trademark theatrics and delivering every snaky line with a self-satisfied yet likable smirk on his face, Vincent Price is so much fun to watch that it was impossible not to agree with him. Destroy mankind, Mr. Scratch? Sure, why not? Mankind had a good run, after all…
In order to make their cases, Mr. Scratch and the Spirit of Man take a tour through history. Mr. Scratch reminds us of villains like the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu (John Carradine) and the Roman Emperor Nero (Peter Lorre, of course). He shows how Joan of Arc (Hedy Lamarr) was burned at the stake. The Spirit of Man argues that, despite all of that, man is still capable of doing good things, like inventing the printing press.
And really, the whole point of the film is to see who is playing which historical figure. The film features a huge cast of classic film actors. If you watch TCM on a semi-regular basis, you’ll recognize a good deal of the cast. The fun comes from seeing who tried to give a memorable performance and who just showed up to collect a paycheck. For instance, a very young Dennis Hopper gives a bizarre method interpretation of Napoleon and it’s one of those things that simply has to be seen.
And then the Marx Brothers show up!
They don’t share any scenes together, unfortunately. But three of them are present! (No, Zeppo does not make an appearance but I imagine that’s just because Jim Ameche was already cast in the role of Alexander Graham Bell.) Chico is a monk who tells Christopher Columbus not to waste his time looking for a quicker way to reach India. Harpo Marx is Sir Isaac Newton, who plays a harp and discovers gravity when a hundred apples smash down on his head. And Groucho Marx plays Peter Miniut, tricking a Native American chief into selling Manhattan Island while leering at the chief’s daughter.
And the good thing about the Marx Brothers is that their presence makes a strong argument that humanity deserves another chance. A world that produced the Marx Brothers can’t be all bad, right?
Anyway, Story of Mankind is one of those films that seems like it would be a good cure for insomnia but then you start watching it and it’s just such a weird movie that you simply have to watch it all the way to the end. It’s not a good movie but it is flamboyantly bad and, as a result, everyone should see it at least once.