Film Review: Esther and the King (dir by Raoul Walsh)

The 1960 Italian-American co-production, Esther and the King, opens in ancient Persia.  King Ahasuerus (Richard Egan) has just returned from conquering Egypt and he is angered to discover that his wife, Vashti (Daneila Rocca), has been cheating on him with not just his main advisor, Haman (Sergio Fantoni), but also with the entire palace guard as well.  After the Queen shows her further displeasure with the King by doing a topless dance in front of the entire royal court, the King banishes her from his life.

Since the king now needs a new wife, every attractive woman in the land is dragged off to the palace so that she can audition for the role.  Among those forcibly recruited is the strong-willed Esther (Joan Collins), who was previously engaged to a rebel named Simon (Rick Battaglia).  What the king doesn’t know is that Esther is both Jewish and the cousin of Mordecai (Denis O’Dea), who has recently offended Haman by refusing to bow down before him.  Haman and his wife (Rosalba Neri) are now plotting to execute all of the Jews is Persia.  Despite her love for Simon, Esther remains in the competition to become the Queen so that she can save her people….

There are a few things that you immediately notice about Esther and the King.

First off, it’s an extremely loose adaptation of the story of Esther, one that is designed to make the King out to be a far more sympathetic figure than he actually was.  Whereas the King actually banished his wife after refused to attend a banquet where the drunken King wanted her to pose naked, Esther and the King presents the King as being the wronged party as his wife is literally cheating with every available man in the kingdom.  (Ironically, the film actually presents the King as being forced to banish his wife after she removes her top during a banquet whereas, in actuality, it was her refusal to do so that led to be her being exiled.)  The film also adds in considerably more battles and a lot more court intrigue as all of the king’s potential wives compete for his attention.  And, of course, then there’s Esther’s fiancee, Simon, who does not appear anywhere in the original text.

The other thing that you immediately notice about Esther and the King is that ancient Persia apparently looked a lot like ancient Rome.  That’s not surprising when you consider that this was an Italian co-production and that Esther and the King is as much of an old school peplum film as a biblical adaptation.  This is a biblical adaptation that is as concerned with sword fights and banquets as it is with prayer and religion.

Regardless of whether it’s historically accurate or not, it’s an entertaining film.  Admittedly, Richard Egan is a bit of a stiff as the King and Joan Collins really doesn’t bring much beyond beauty to the role of Esther.  But the sets are properly ornate and the costume are to die for.  Mario Bava was the film’s cinematographer (and some sites credit him as being the film’s co-director as well) and Esther and the King is gorgeous to look at.  This is one of those historical epics where almost everything feels appropriately big, from the palaces to the emotions to the melodrama.  The supporting cast is largely made up of Italian actors who all appear to be having a great time playing up the drama of it all.  Sergio Fantoni is wonderfully hissable as the evil Haman.  (Boo!  Haman!  Boo!)  Rosabla Neri also has some memorably manipulative moments as Zeresh, the wife of Haman (boo!)  For those of us who like big and not necessarily historical accurate epics about the ancient world, Esther and the King is a lot of fun.

The Great Adventure (1975, directed by Gianfranco Baldanello)

During the Gold Rush, a young boy named Jim Chambers (Fernando E. Romero) rescues a German shepherd from a bear trap.  Jim’s father doesn’t want Jim to adopt the dog but then he gets killed by Indians so what is he going to do about it?  Traveling with two trappers who are also brothers (played by Manuel de Blas and Remo De Angelis), Jim, his sister, Mary (Elisabetta Virgili), and the dog move to the nearby town of Dawson City.

Jim and Mary want to take over the town’s newspaper, which was originally founded by their family.  However, both the newspaper and the town have been taken over by an evil gambler named William Bates (Jack Palance).  Bates may be willing to let the children run the paper but only if they allow him to take their dog.  Meanwhile, one of the trappers falls in love with the local saloon keeper, Sonia Kendall (Joan Collins).

Though The Great Adventure is set in Alaska and tells a typical Western story, it’s an Italian film through-and-through.  Jack Palance and Joan Collins may be top-billed but the movie itself is dominated by actors speaking in poorly dubbed English.  This was one of several films based on White Fang that was released in the 70s and, like many of them, it’s an uneasy hybrid of a treacly family film and a violent western.  On the one hand, it’s a film about two children and their dog trying to publish a newspaper and, on the other hand, Jack Palance kills people in cold blood.  The film is so badly edited to be almost impossible to follow but I’m an unapologetic Jack Palance fan and I almost always enjoy any film that lets Palance do his thing.  Unfortunately, The Great Adventure didn’t have as much Palance as I was expecting and Joan Collins is beautiful but hampered by the film’s G-rating.  (For an actress who was affectionately nicknamed The Great British Open, Collins is always a strange presence in a family film.)  At least the dog was a good actor.  He eventually abandons his newfound family so that he can rejoin a wild dog pack in the wilderness and he probably made the right decision.  He looks very happy at the end of the movie.

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: I Don’t Want To Be Born (dir by Peter Sasdy)

“I don’t want to be born!”

“That’s too bad, kid!  YOU’RE COMING OUT!”

Now, admittedly, that dialogue is never heard in the 1975 British horror film, I Don’t Want To Be Born.  However, if I had heard that particularly exchange in this film, I would not have been surprised.  That’s just the type of movie that I Don’t Want To Be Born is.  It’s a thoroughly ludicrous, totally ridiculous movie and what makes it all the more memorable is that it doesn’t seem to realize how silly it all is.  This is a batshit crazy movie that tells its story in the most serious way possible.  This damn film is almost somber, it’s so serious.

Lucy (played by Joan Collins) is a stripper who performs her act with a perverted dwarf named Hercules (George Claydon).  When Hercules tries to force himself on Lucy, he is tossed out of the club by Tommy (who is played by John Steiner, a good actor who somehow always turned up in movies like this one.)  After she and Tommy make love, Lucy is confronted by Hercules who curses her, telling her that she will have a baby “as big as I am small and possessed by the devil himself!”

Oh, Hercules, you weirdo.

9 months later, Lucy’s life has somehow completely changed.  She’s no longer a dancer.  Now, she’s married to a rich Italian named Gino (played by Ralph Bates, speaking in a bizarre accent).  When Lucy has her baby, it’s a long and difficult delivery.  The baby is huge!  Not only is he huge, but he also has a bad temper and unnaturally sharp nails.  The first time that Lucy holds him, he attacks her.  Whenever the baby is introduced to anyone new, he responds by biting them.  When Tommy drops by to take a look at the baby that might be his son, he ends up with a bloody nose!

But that’s not all this baby can do!  Anytime he’s left alone in a room, the room ends up getting destroyed.  Eventually, he apparently figures out how to climb trees and how efficiently slip a noose around the neck of anyone who walks underneath him.  And don’t think that you can escape this baby simply because you’re taller and faster.  One unfortunate person is decapitated, even though he’s standing at the time.  How did the baby reach his neck?  Who knows?

Does this baby need an exorcism?  Lucy’s sister-in-law, Sister Albana (Eileen Atkins), certainly believes that it does!  As Lucy thinks about whether the baby’s behavior is in any way odd, she glances over at the baby and — OH MY GOD!  The baby has Hercules’s face!

And it just keeps going from there.  Again, I feel the need to repeat that this film is meant to be taken very seriously.  The script may be full of awkward and clichéd dialogue but most of the cast attempts to act the Hell out of it.  Speaking of the cast, there’s a lot of familiar horror people in this one.  Along with John Steiner, there’s also Caroline Munro and Donald Pleasence.  Those three give performances that somehow manage to remain credible, perhaps because they had the experience necessary to understand what type of movie they were in.  But the rest of the cast … you feel bad for them because they’re just trying  so hard.

It’s a terrible movie but it’s so weird that I have to recommend that everyone see it once.  If for nothing else, see it for the scene where Hercules responds to an attempt to exorcise the baby by swaying drunkenly on the stage.  It’s weird and it’s hard for mere words to do it justice.

“No wonder this baby didn’t want to be born!”

That line is also nowhere to be found in this movie.  It’d be nice if it was, though.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing (dir by Richard Fleischer)

(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  How long is it going to take?  Forever!  For instance, she recorded 1955’s The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing off of FXM on February 1st and has now gotten around to actually watching and reviewing it.)

The story of Evelyn Nesbit is an interesting one, even if it is now a largely forgotten one.

In 1901, Evelyn Nesbit was a showgirl in New York City.  While she always claimed that she was 16 at the time, there are some historians that think it more likely that she was only 14.  One night, the beautiful Evelyn was introduced to Stanford White.  At the time, White was 47 years old and the most successful and prominent architect in New York City.  White was also a notorious womanizer and Evelyn soon became his latest mistress.  He moved her into one of his many apartments.  Years later, when the details of their relationship became public knowledge, people were shocked to hear that Stanford White kept a red velvet swing in the apartment and that he enjoyed watching Evelyn swing back and forth.  They would be even more scandalized by the news that Stanford also had a “mirror room.”  As Evelyn would later testify, she “entered the room a virgin” but did not come out as one.

Though Evelyn occasionally claimed that she and Stanford were truly in love, she never married him.  (Indeed, Stanford White apparently never married anyone over the course of his life.)  Instead, she ended up meeting and marrying Harry K. Thaw.  Harry was the heir to a 40 million dollar fortune.  He also had a long history of mental illness.  When he learned that, before meeting him, Evelyn had lost her virginity to Stanford White, he was outraged.

(It’s debatable how well Stanford and Harry knew each other.  Some historians claim that they were barely acquainted.  Other accounts claim that Harry and Stanford were business rivals even before Evelyn Nesbit arrived in New York.)

In 1906, Harry and Evelyn ran into Stanford White at Madison Square Garden.  Harry promptly pulled out a pistol and, in front of hundreds of witnesses, shot Stanford dead.

Harry’s subsequent trial was reportedly the first to ever be described as being “the trial of the century.”  Because hundreds of people had seen Harry Thaw shoot Stanford White and the Thaw family was adamant about not publicizing Harry’s history of mental illness, Harry’s defense team attempted to make the trial about Stanford White.  The defense attempted to portray Stanford as being such a depraved predator that Harry really had no other option but to shoot him in cold blood.  Evelyn took the stand and testified to every single detail of her relationship with Stanford White.  The details appeared in every major newspaper in America.

In the end, Harry was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to the  Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.  (Reportedly, due to his great wealth, he had the best room in the hospital.)  Meanwhile, Evelyn became one of America’s first reality stars.  Her notoriety led to her appearing in several silent films.  It’s a fascinating story, one that very much feels ahead of his time.  If Evelyn was a star in 1906, just imagine how famous she would be today.

The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing is about Evelyn Nesbit and her relationships with both Stanford White and Harry Thaw.  It’s a shame that the film isn’t as interesting as the real life story.  Ray Milland plays Stanford White.  Farley Granger is Harry Thaw.  Joan Collins is Evelyn Nesbit.  They all give good performances, especially Farley Granger.  But the film itself is just so bland.  Perhaps because it was made in the 1950s, it leaves out the majority of the sordid details that made the story so fascinating to begin with.  For instance, the red velvet swing appears but, in this film, no time is spent in the mirror room.  This true life story is pure tabloid material but The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing is way too respectful for its own good.  By refusing to come down firmly on the side of Harry Thaw or Stanford White, the film feels shallow and a bit empty.  (All good melodramas — even fact-based ones — need a good villain.)  And poor Evelyn Nesbit!  In real life, she was a savvy self-promoter who knew exactly how to manipulate the press.  In this film, she’s just an innocent ingenue.  Considering the facts of the case, the film version is unforgivably dull.

So, I don’t recommend The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing but I do recommend Paula Uruburu’s fascinating 2008 biography, American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, The Birth of the ‘It’ Girl, and the ‘Crime of the Century.’  It goes into all of the fascinating details that were left out of this film.