Film Review: The Ten Commandments (dir by Cecil B. DeMille)


Though you may not know it if you’ve only seen the film during one of its annual showings on television, the 1956 religious epic, The Ten Commandments, originally opened with director Cecil B. DeMille standing on a stage.  Speaking directly to the audience, DeMille explains that, though the film they’re about to see me take some dramatic license with the story of Moses, it still based on not just the Bible but also the accounts of Philo, Josephus and Eusebius.  He also tells us that The Ten Commandments is more than just an adaptation of the Book of Exodus.  Instead, it’s a film about every man’s desire to be free.

Demille concludes with: “The story will take 3 hours and 29 minutes to unfold.  There will be an intermission. Thank you for your attention.”

To be honest, it’s kind of a sweet moment.  Cecil B. DeMille is a name that is so associated with (occasionally overblown) epic filmmaking that it’s easy to forget that DeMille was one of the most important names in the artistic development of American cinema.  He was there from the beginning and, unlike a lot of other filmmakers, he was equally successful in both the silent and the sound era.  Say what you will about his films, DeMille was a showman and he handles the introduction like a pro.  At the same time, there’s a real sincerity to DeMille’s tone.  After you listen to him, you’d almost feel guilty if you didn’t sit through all 3 hours and 29 minutes of his film.

That sincerity extends throughout the entire film.  Yes, The Ten Commandments is a big, long epic and some members of its all-star cast are more convincing in their roles than others.  And yes, the film can seem a bit campy to modern viewers.  (In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if it seemed a bit campy to viewers in 1956 as well.)  Yes, The Ten Commandments does feature Anne Baxter saying, “Oh Moses!  You sweet adorable fool!”  But it doesn’t matter.  Even the most ludicrous of dialogue just seem right.  The film is just so sincere that it’s difficult not to enjoy it.

In the Book of Exodus, Moses is described as having a speech impediment and even tries to use it as an excuse to get out of going to Egypt.  That’s actually one of the reasons why Moses brought Aaron with him to Egypt, so that Aaron could speak for him.  In the movie, Moses is played by Charlton Heston, who comes across as if he’s never felt a moment of insecurity over the course of his entire life.  But no matter.  Heston may not by the Moses of Exodus but he’s the perfect Moses for the DeMille version.  When Heston says that Egypt will be visited by plagues until his adopted brother Ramses (Yul Brynner) agrees to allow the Jews to leave Egypt, you believe every word.  (Aaron, incidentally, is played by the legendary John Carradine.  He doesn’t get too much other than respectfully stand a few feet behind Charlton Heston but still: John Carradine!)

And really, anyone who dismisses The Ten Commandments out-of-hand should go back and, at the very least, watch the scene where the Angel of Death descends upon Egypt.  The scene where Moses and his family shelter in place while the screams of distraught mothers echo throughout the city is chilling.  Ramses may spend most of the film as a petulant villain but you almost feel sorry for him when you see him mourning over his dead son.  When he sets off after Moses, it’s not just because he’s doing what villains do.  He’s seeking vengeance for the loss of his first born.  For that brief moment, Ramses goes form being a melodramatic bad guy to being someone with whom the viewer can empathize.  Brynner, with his burning intensity, gives a great performance as Ramses.

As I said before, this film has what, in 1956, would have been considered an all-star cast.  Watching the names as they show up during the opening credits — Cedrick Hardwicke!  Yvonne DeCarlo!  Woody Strode!  Debra Paget! — is like stepping into a TCM fever dream.  Some of the performers give better performance than others.  And yet, even the worst performer feels as if they just naturally belong in the world that DeMille has created.  John Derek may seem rather smarmy as Joshua but his callowness provides a good contrast to the upright sincerity of Heston’s performance as Moses.  Edward G. Robinson’s cries of, “Where is your God now!?” may have provided endless fodder for impersonators but just try to imagine the film without him.  Even Vincent Price is in this thing!  He doesn’t have his famous mustache but, as soon as you hear his voice and see that famous glare, you know that it’s him.

Of course, when you’re growing up and The Ten Commandments is on TV every year, you mostly just want to see the scene where Moses parts the Red Sea.  The Ten Commandments was nominated for seven Oscars but it only won one, for its special effects.  (The prize for Best Picture went to another epic, Around The World In 80 Days.)  Today, the film’s special effects may no longer amaze viewers but there’s still something rather charming about the Red Sea parting and then crashing in on the Egyptian army.  The scene where the Earth opens up and swallows those who worshiped the Golden Calf remains impressive, if just because all of the extras really look terrified that they might die.  And while the Pillar of Fire may look a bit cartoonish to modern eyes, that’s a huge part of the film’s appeal.

The Ten Commandments is a big, long, sometimes silly, sometimes effective, and always entertaining epic.  It’s a grand spectacle and one that I usually watch every year when it shows up on television.  I missed this year’s showing but, fortunately, I own it on DVD.  It’s a sincere epic and a difficult one not to like.

 

Cleaning Out the DVR #24: Crime Does Not Pay!


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We’re way overdue for a Cleaning Out the DVR post – haven’t done one since back in April! – so let’s jump right in with 4 capsule reviews of 4 classic crime films:

SINNERS’ HOLIDAY (Warner Brothers 1930; D: John Adolfi) – Early talkie interesting as the screen debut of James Cagney , mixed up in “the booze racket”, who shoots bootlegger Warren Hymer, and who’s penny arcade owner maw Lucille LaVerne covers up by pinning the murder on daughter Evalyn Knapp’s ex-con boyfriend Grant Withers. Some pretty racy Pre-Code elements include Joan Blondell as Cagney’s “gutter floozie” main squeeze. Film’s 60 minute running time makes it speed by, aided by some fluid for the era camerawork. Fun Fact: Cagney and Blondell appeared in the original Broadway play “Penny Arcade”; when superstar entertainer Al Jolson bought the rights, he insisted Jimmy and Joan be cast in the film version, and…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Pied Piper (dir by Irving Pichel)


The 1942 Best Picture nominee, The Pied Piper, opens in Eastern France, shortly after the outbreak of World War II.

John Sidney Howard (played by Monty Woolley) is an Englishman on holiday.  He says that he just wants to enjoy some fishing before the entire continent of Europe descends into chaos.  He knows that France is going to be invaded at some point and he even suspects that the country will probably fall to the Nazis.  In his 70s and still mourning the death of his son (who was killed during an air battle over occupied Poland), Mr. Howard just wants to enjoy France one last time.  Despite the fact that the bearded Howard bears a resemblance to a thin Santa Claus, he’s quick to declare his dislike of both children and humanity in general.  He’s a misanthrope, albeit a rather friendly one.

Howard’s plans change when the Nazis invade France sooner than he expected.  With his vacation canceled, Howard just wants to get back to England.  Complicating matters is that a diplomat named Cavanaugh (Lester Matthews) has asks Howard to take his children, Ronnie (Roddy McDowall) and Sheila (Peggy Ann Garner), back to England with him.  Despite his self-declared dislike of children, Howard agrees.  However, it turns out that getting out of France won’t be as easy as Howard assumed.  After their train gets diverted by the Nazis, Howard, Ronnie ,and Sheila are forced to take a bus.  After almost everyone else on the bus is killed in a surprise Nazi attack, Howard and the children are forced to continue on foot and rely on the kindness of a young French woman, Nicole Rougeron (Anne Baxer).

Throughout the journey, Howard keeps collecting more and more children.  Everyone wants to get their children to a safe place and Howard soon has a small entourage following him.  Unfortunately, he also has Gestapo Major Diessen (an excellent Otto Preminger) watching him.  How far is Howard willing to go to ensure the safety of the children?

The Pied Piper is an interesting film, in that it starts out as something of a comedy but it then gets progressively darker as events unfold.  At the beginning of the film, it appears that the whole thing is just going to be Howard getting annoyed with the precocious Ronnie and Sheila.  But then that bus is attacked and Howard find himself accompanied by a young boy who has been left in a state of shock by the attack.  When the group is joined by a young Jewish child named Pierre, it’s a reminder that, though the film itself may have been shot on an American soundstage, the stakes and the dangers in occupied Europe were all too real.

The Pied Piper was nominated for Best Picture of the year.  Viewed today, it may seem like an unlikely nominee.  It’s a well-made movie and Monty Woolley gives a good performance as John Sidney Howard.  It’s the type of film that, due to the sincerity of its anti-Nazi message, should bring tears to the eyes of the most hardened cynic but, at the same time, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking or aesthetically unique about it.  Still, from a historical point of view, it’s not a surprise that this competent but conventional film was nominated.  With America having just entered the war, The Pied Piper was a film that captured the national spirit.  Other World War II films nominated in 1942 included 49th Parallel, Wake Island, and the eventual winner, Mrs. Miniver.

In fact, one could argue that The Pied Piper is almost a cousin to Mrs. Miniver.  Both films are not only anti-German but also unapologetically pro-British.  Just as Greer Garson did in Mrs. Miniver, Monty Woolley is meant to be less of an individual and more of a stand-in for Britain itself.  When both Mrs. Miniver and Mr. Howard refused to surrender in the face of German aggression, these movies were proudly proclaiming that the British would never lose hope or surrender either.

Thankfully, the movies were correct.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Razor’s Edge (dir by Edmund Goulding)


Oh, 1919!  What a year.  The Great War had ended, leaving much of Europe devastated.  American soldiers were coming home and, scarred by the horrors they had experienced, becoming members of a lost generation.  The Spanish Flu was infecting millions, on the way to eventually wiping out 3% of the world’s population.  It was a grim time so it’s no surprise that many chose to close their eyes and pretend like everything was fine.  Only a few people were willing to look at the world and say, “There has to be something more.”

The 1946 film The Razor’s Edge tells the story of one such man.  Before the war, Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power, Jr.) was like most of his friends back in Chicago.  He was carefree.  He was wealthy.  He was engaged to marry the beautiful but self-centered Isabel (Gene Tierney).  But then he went off to fight in World War I and the experience changed him.  On the final day of the war, another soldier sacrificed his life to save Larry and Larry is now haunted by that man’s death.  No longer sure about his place in the world, Larry announces that he’s rejecting his former life.

Of course, that’s an easy thing to do when you’re rich.  Larry is lucky enough to have an inheritance that he can live off for a few years.  All of his former friends think that Larry’s just struggling to adjust to being back home and they expect that he’ll get over it soon enough.  Isabel’s uncle, Elliott (Clifton Webb), thinks that Larry’s acting like a total fool.  For Larry’s part, he no longer cares what any of them think.  He’s going to travel the world, seeking enlightenment.

While Larry’s searching, life goes on without him.  Isabel ends up marrying one of Larry’s friends, Gray Maturin (John Payne).  Larry’s best friend from childhood, Sophie (Anne Baxter), suffers a personal tragedy of her own and, when Larry next meets her, she’s living as a drunk on the streets of Paris.  Larry keeps searching for the meaning of it all.  He works in a coal mine.  He discusses philosophy with a defrocked priest.  Eventually, he ends up in the Himalayas, where he studies under a Holy Man (Cecil Humphreys).

It’s an intriguing idea and still a relevant one.  Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really work because Larry tends to come across as being a little bit full of himself.  I could imagine someone like Henry Fonda working wonders with the role but Tyrone Power seems totally miscast as Larry.  When you look at Power, you find it hard to believe that he’s ever had a bad day, much less a need to spend months hiding in the Himalayas.  He comes across as the last person you would necessarily want to take spiritual advice from.  The fact that Webb, Tierney, Payne, and Baxter are all perfectly cast only serves to enforce just how miscast Power is.  It’s a well-intentioned film with nice production values but it’s never quite compelling.

The Razor’s Edge was based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham.  Interestingly, the film features Maugham as a character, played by Herbert Marshall.  Even more interesting is the fact that the film was apparently remade in 1984, with Bill Murray cast as Larry Darrell.  I’ve never seen the remake so I have no idea if Murray is an improvement on Power.

(Also, since I’ve been pretty critical of Power in this review, let me recommend Witness For The Prosecution, in which Power is much better cast.)

The Razor’s Edge was nominated for Best Picture but lost to another film about returning vets, The Best Years of Our Lives.

Special Memorial Day Edition: THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS (20th Century-Fox 1944)


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War is hell, not only on the participants, but on those left home waiting for word on their loved ones, dreading the inevitable. THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS is based on the true story of five brothers who served and died together as shipmates, and their family. It’s a story of patriotism, of grief and loss, and its penultimate moment will rip your heart out. Finally, it’s an American story.

The Sullivans are a proud, close-knit Irish Catholic family living in Waterloo, Iowa. Patriarch Tom (played by Thomas Mitchell ) is a loyal railroad man whose five sons (George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al) climb the water tower every day to wave goodbye as the train pulls out. Mother Alleta (Selena Royale) keeps the family fires burning, with the help of daughter Gen. The scrappy brothers are a pint-sized version of the Dead End Kids, getting into mischief like a Donnybrook with neighborhood kids on little…

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The Fabulous Forties #41: The North Star (dir by Lewis Milestone)


The North Star

The 40th film — wait a minute, I’m finally up to number 40!?  That means that there’s only ten more movies left to review!  And then I’ll be able to move on!  It’s always exiting for me whenever I’m doing a review series and I realize that I’m nearly done.

Anyway, where was I?

Oh yeah — the 40th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was the 1943 war epic, The North Star.  This is one of the many war films to be included in the Fabulous Forties box set and I have to admit that they all kind of blend together for me.  Since these films were actually made at a time when America was at war, there really wasn’t much room for nuance.  Instead, every film follows pretty much the same formula: the Nazis invade, a combination of soldiers and villagers set aside their individual concerns and/or differences and team up to defeat the Nazis, there’s a big battle, a few good people sacrifice their lives, the Nazis are defeated, and the allies promise to keep fighting.

It’s a pretty predictable formula but that’s okay because it was all in the service of fighting the Nazis.  Could I legitimately point out that the villains in these movies are always kind of two-dimensional?  Sure, I could.  But you know what?  IT DOESN’T MATTER BECAUSE THEY’RE NAZIS!  Could I point out that the heroes are often idealized?  Sure, but again it doesn’t matter.  Why doesn’t it matter?  BECAUSE THEY’RE FIGHTING NAZIS!

That’s one reason why, even as our attitude towards war changes, World War II films will always be popular.  World War II was literally good vs evil.

Anyway, The North Star was a big studio tribute to America’s then ally, the Soviet Union.  When a farm in the Ukraine is occupied by the Nazis, the peasants and the farmers refuse to surrender.  They disappear into the surrounding hills and conduct guerilla warfare against the invading army.  It’s all pretty predictable but it’s also executed fairly well.  It doesn’t shy away from showing the brutality of war.  There’s a haunting scene in which we see the bodies of all of the villagers — including several children — who have been killed in a battle.

The Nazis are represented by Erich Von Stroheim.  Von Stroheim plays a German doctor who continually claims that he personally does not believe in the Nazi ideology and that he’s just following orders.  When wounded Nazi soldiers need blood transfusions, he takes the blood from the children of the village.  His rival, a Russian doctor, is played by all-American Walter Huston and indeed, all the Russians are played by American stars, the better to create a “we’re all in this together” type of spirit.  When Huston tells Von Stroheim that he is even worse than the committed Nazis because he recognized evil and chose to do nothing, he’s speaking for all of us.

Unfortunately, before the Nazis invade, The North Star devotes a lot of time to showing how idyllic life is in the communist collective and these scenes are so idealized that they totally ring false.  Everyone is so busy singing folk songs and talking about how happy they are being a part of a collective (as opposed to being an individual with concerns that are not shared by the other members of the collective) that it’s kind of unbearable.  Not surprisingly, The North Star was written by Lillian Hellman, who wrote some great melodramas (like The Little Foxes) but who was always at her most tedious when she was at her most overly political.

(Watching the opening of The North Star, I was reminded that I would be totally useless in a collectivist society.)

So, I have to admit, that I was rather annoyed with the villagers at first.  But then the Nazis invaded and I realized that we’re all in it together!  As I said earlier, you can forgive your heroes almost anything when they’re fighting Nazis.

The North Star is an above average war film and a below average piece of political propaganda.  See it as a double feature with The Last Chance.

The Fabulous Forties #5: Guest In The House (dir by John Brahm)


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The fifth film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1944’s Guest In The House.  Before I get around to actually reviewing the film, there two important things that I need to share.

First off, according to the imdb, when Guest In The House was released into theaters, it ran a total of 121 minutes.  The version that was released on video — the version that I watched for this review — only runs 100 minutes.  Having watched the film, it’s hard for me to guess what could have been included in those 21 minutes.  There’s no major plot holes in the 100 minute version or any unanswered questions.  It’s hard for me to imagine that there could be anything in those 21 minutes that would have made Guest In The House a better film than the version that I watched last night.  If anything, even at just 100 minutes, the version that I saw still felt too long!

Secondly, Guest In The House was re-released several times.  At one point, the title was changed to Satan In Skirts!  That has got to be one of the greatest titles ever!  Seriously, Guest In The House is such a boring and mundane title.  But Satan in Skirts — I mean, that sounds like something that you just have to watch, doesn’t it?

Anyway, Guest In The House is about a guest in the house.  Shocking, right?  Evelyn (Anne Baxter, playing a character similar to her classic role in All About Eve) is a mentally unstable woman with a heart ailment and a morbid fear of birds.  She has recently become engaged to Dr. Dan Proctor (Scott Proctor) but she spends most her time writing nasty things about him in her diary.

Dan takes her to visit his wealthy Aunt Martha (Aline MacMahon).  Also staying at Martha’s is Dan’s older brother, an artist named Douglas (Ralph Bellamy).  Douglas is married to Ann (Ruth Warrick, who also played Kane’s first wife in Citizen Kane).  Also living at the house is Douglas’s model, Miriam (Marie McDonald).

(“I used to have to hire one model for above the neck and one model for below the neck,” Douglas explains as Miriam poses for him, “But you’re the whole package!”)

When Evelyn has a panic attack upon seeing a bird, Douglas calms her down by drawing a woman on a lampshade.  (Yes, that’s exactly what he does.)  This leads to Evelyn becoming obsessed with Douglas.  Soon, she is manipulating the entire household, trying to drive away Dan and Miriam while, at the same time, try to break up Douglas and Ann’s marriage….

So, does this sound like a Lifetime film to anyone?  Well, it should because Guest In The House is basically a 1940s version of almost every film that aired on Lifetime last year.  Normally that would be a good thing but, unlike the best Lifetime films, Guest In The House isn’t any fun.  It should be fun, considering how melodramatic the storyline is.  However, Guest In The House takes a prestige approach to its story, marking this as one of those films that was made to win Oscars as opposed to actually entertaining audiences.  Other than a few time when Evelyn imagines that she’s being attacked by invisible birds, the film never allows itself to truly go over-the-top.

Lovers of The Wizard of Oz might want to note that the Wicked Witch of the West herself, Margaret Hamilton, plays a maid in this film but, in the end, Guest In The House is mostly just interesting as a precursor to Anne Baxter’s performance in All About Eve.

Embracing the Melodrama #11: All About Eve (dir by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)


Bette Davis

“Fasten your seat belts, it’s gonna be a bumpy night!” — Margo Channing (Bette Davis) in All About Eve (1950)

If you’re a lover of classic films or even if you’re just someone who occasionally watches TCM, chances are that you already know All About Eve.  It’s one of those films that is endlessly quoted and it features at least two performances — Bette Davis’s turn as aging Broadway diva Margo Channing and George Sanders’ acidic theater critic Addison DeWitt — that serve as frequent inspiration for professional impersonators.  It’s the film that was named best picture of 1950 and it continues to hold the record for both the most Oscar nominations overall and it’s the only film in Oscar history to receive four female acting nominations.

Even more importantly, it’s a film that everyone already knows it great.

So, that brings up the question that every film blogger dreads: how do you review a classic film that everyone already knows about?  I’ve often said that it’s easier to review a bad film than a great one.  It’s easy to pinpoint why a film fails but when it comes time to explain why a film is great, it’s often difficult to put to words the intangible qualities that elevate it.

Eve and Margo

For instance, I could tell you that the film has a fascinating plot but that barely only begins to scratch the surface of everything that’s going on underneath the glossy and melodramatic surface of All About Eve.  The movie tells the story of how scheming young actress Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) becomes a star with the help of Addison DeWitt and at the expense of the talented but aging Margo Channing.  In telling Eve and Margo’s stories, All About Eve explores issues of female friendship and competition, sexuality, and why older men are celebrated while older women are constantly at risk of being pushed to the side for a newer model.  The complexity and power of All About Eve’s storyline can be summed up by the fact that right now, when I watch the film, I relate to Eve but I imagine that  twenty years from now, I’ll rewatch and I’ll relate to Margo.

I could tell you that this is a film that is full of bigger-than-life characters and iconic performances but that doesn’t even begin to scratch at the surface of how well-acted and perfectly cast this film is.  Even boring old Hugh Marlowe is a perfect choice for playing boring old playwright Lloyd Richards.  (His wife is played by Celeste Holm.  Reportedly Bette Davis hated working with Celeste Holm but onscreen, their friendship feels very real and poignant and leads to some of the best scenes in the entire film.)  Gary Merrill, who later married Bette Davis, is likable as Margo’s boyfriend and Thelma Ritter is great as Margo’s outspoken assistant, largely because she’s Thelma Ritter and she was always great.  Marilyn Monroe famously makes the most of her minor role in All About Eve, playing an aspiring actress who has a very good reason for calling the butler a waiter.  And then there’s Bette Davis and George Sanders, both of whom are simply brilliant.

My favorite scene from All About Eve

My favorite scene from All About Eve

But to me, the best performance in All About Eve comes from Anne Baxter.  Baxter plays Eve as a perpetually smiling schemer and one of the great pleasures of the film is watching as Eve wrecks passive-aggressive havoc through Margo’s circle of friends.  Just watch the scenes where she deftly manipulates Celeste Holm.  All About Eve is usually referred to as being a vehicle for Bette Davis but if you actually watch the film, you see that the title is absolutely appropriate.  The film really is all about Eve.

And I could always tell you about how wonderfully sardonic the dialogue is but you already know that.  There’s a reason why even people who have never seen the film still quote Margo’s suggestion that everyone fasten their seat belts!

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So, in the end, what can I tell you about All About Eve?  Well, all I can really tell you is that it’s a great film and, if you haven’t seen it, you need to make time to learn all about Eve.

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