If you ever needed proof that everyone has to start somewhere, look no further than the 1954 biblical epic, The Silver Chalice.
The Silver Chalice features the film debut of Paul Newman, who later proved himself to be a legitimately great actor. It’s true that, unlike a lot of actors, Newman made his debut in a starring role. He never had to humiliate himself with any one-line roles or walk-on bits. No, Paul got to humiliate himself with a starring role.
Paul Newman was 29 years old when he played Basil, a former slave turned sculptor. Not only did Newman bear a disconcerting resemblance to Ben Savage (of Boy Meets World fame) but he gave a performance that was so bad that it’s kind of a shock that he ever worked again. Basil is a passionate artist, one who survived being betrayed by his adopted family and slavery. Newman comes across like a nice, young man from Iowa. Usually, Newman looks miserable but occasionally, he flashes a somewhat weak smile. When Basil gets mad, Newman speaks in a squeaky voice. When Basil is feeling reverent, Newman furrows his brow like a hungover Russell Brand staring straight into the sun.
Then again, I’m not sure that any actor could have given a good performance as Basil. The Silver Chalice has a terrible script, one that was written by Lesser Samuels. (I’ll avoid the obvious joke about whether or not The Silver Chalice would have been better if written by Greater Samuels.) Apparently, before Newman was cast, the producers pursued James Dean for the role. I’m sure we all would have enjoyed seeing Dean slouch his way through the film but I doubt that even he could have done much with The Silver Chalice.
The Silver Chalice is based on a novel, which perhaps explains why there’s so many characters and so many unnecessary subplots. Basil follows a path that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a 1950s biblical epic. He’s a young Greek who is adopted into a noble Roman family. When his kindly stepfather dies, Basil’s stepsiblings sell him into slavery. It’s not an easy life but Basil is a talented sculptor so Joseph of Arimathea commissions him to make a silver chalice for the Holy Grail. Basil goes from poor to rich to poor again to rich again to ultimately saved by grace. He even gets to do the same walking towards Heaven thing that Richard Burton did at the end of The Robe.
Meanwhile, Simon Magus (Jack Palance) is wowing the citizenry with his magic tricks and claiming to be the risen Messiah. Simon’s assistant just happens to be Helena, who knew Basil when he was younger. Young Helena is played by dark-haired Natalie Wood. Grown-up Helena is played by blonde Virgina Mayo. They were both good actresses but there’s seriously no way that Natalie Wood would have ever grown up to be Virginia Mayo.
Jack Palance pretty much steals the movie, mostly because he gets to wear the silliest costumes:
Poor Paul Newman has to settle for a tunic and a miniskirt, while Jack Palance gets to wear this:
Personally, I’ve always enjoyed the story of Simon Magus. He tried to show off by flying over the Roman Forum so St. Peter said a prayer and Simon promptly plunged to his death. Take that, you Gnostic!
Another interesting thing about The Silver Chalice is that the sets are very deliberately fake. I don’t mean that they look cheap. I mean, much as in the style of German Expressionism, the sets are specifically designed to remind you that you’re watching a movie.
For instance, look at the wall behind Palance:
Look at this pleasure palace:
Look at Rome at night:
The sets are extremely dream-like and yet everything else about the film is extremely slow and conventional. One wonders if director Victor Saville was trying to make an art film, though there’s nothing else in his long filmography that would suggest that Saville was anything other than a workmanlike director. In fact, most biblical epics of the time took a lot of pride in looking as expensive and “accurate” as possible. Major studios in the 1950s were not known for artistic experimentation, especially when it came to Biblical epics. It’s hard to know what to make of The Silver Chalice‘s artistic flourishes, which is why it’s easier to just focus on what a terrible performance Paul Newman gives.
That’s certainly what Paul did! In 1966, when The Silver Chalice finally premiered on TV, Newman took out a newspaper ad in which he apologized for his performance and then asked people not watch. Apparently, he also used to show the movie during parties on the condition that his guests mock the film while watching it.
I don’t really blame him. It’s an amazingly dull film and Newman looks absolutely miserable in nearly every other scene. However, because it did star Paul Newman, The Silver Chalice will always have a life on TCM.
Speaking of TCM, they last broadcast this film on February 24th as part of their 31 Days of Oscar. (It was nominated for both its sets and its score.) That is when I recorded it. And, after watching it yesterday, I was more than happy to erase it.