Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Quo Vadis (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


The 1951 best picture nominee, Quo Vadis, is actually two movies in one.

The first movie is a rather stolid historical epic about life in ancient Rome.  The handsome but kind of dull Robert Taylor plays Marcus Vinincius, a Roman military officer who, after serving in Germany and Britain, returns to Rome and promptly falls in love with the virtuous Lygia (Deborah Kerr).  Complicating Marcus and Lygia’s relationship is the fact that Lygia is a devout Christian and a friend to Peter (Finlay Currie) and Paul (Abraham Sofaer).

Marcus’s uncle, meanwhile, is Petronius (Leo Genn), a government official who has a reputation for being a bon vivant.  In real-life, Petronius is believed to have been the author of the notoriously raunchy Satyricon.  You would never guess that from the way that Petronius is portrayed in Quo Vadis.  We’re continually told that Petronius is a notorious libertine but we don’t see much evidence of that, beyond the fact that he lives in a big palace and he has several slaves.  In fact, Petronius even falls in love with one of his slaves, Eunice (Marina Berti).

The second movie, which feels like it’s taking in a totally different cinematic universe from the adventures of Marcus and Lygia, deals with all of the intrigue in Nero’s court.  Nero (Peter Ustinov) is a giggling madman who dreams of rebuilding Rome in his image and who responds to almost every development by singing a terrible song about it.  Nero surrounds himself with sycophants who continually tell him that his every idea is brilliant but not even they can resist the temptation to roll their eyes whenever Nero grabs his lyre and starts to recite a terrible poem.  Nero is married to the beautiful but evil Poppaea (Patricia Laffan) and there’s nothing that they love more than going to the arena and watching people get eaten by lions.  It disturbs Nero when people sing before being eaten.  “They’re singing,” he says, his voice filled with shock an awe.

It’s difficult to describe just how different Ustinov’s performance is from everyone else’s in the film.  Whereas Taylor and even the usually dependable Deborah Kerr are stuck playing thin characters and often seem to be intimidated by playing such devout characters, Ustinov joyfully chews on every piece of scenery that he can get his hands on.  Nero may be the film’s villain but Ustinov gives a performance that feels more like it belongs in a silent comedy than a biblical epic.  Ustinov bulges his eyes.  He runs around the palace like he forgot to take his Adderall.  While Rome burns, Nero grins like a child who has finally figured out a way to outsmart his parents.  “You won’t give me more money?  I’ll just burn down the city!”

And the thing is — it all works.  The contrast between Ustinov and the rest of the characters should doom this film but, instead, it works brilliantly.  Whenever Ustinov’s performance gets to be too much, Robert Taylor and Leo Genn pop up and ground things.  Whenever things start to get too grounded, Ustinov throws everything back up in the air.  The conflict between the early Christians and the Roman Empire is perfectly epitomized in the contrast between Robert Taylor and Peter Ustinov.  It makes for a film that is entertaining almost despite itself.

Quo Vadis was nominated for best picture but lost to An American In Paris.

Shattered Politics #10: A Man Called Peter (dir by Henry Koster)


A_Man_Called_Peter

Occasionally, I’ll see a film like Crime of Passion or Bigger Than Life and I’ll say, “Wow, that’s really subversive for a movie that came out in the 1950s!”

And it’s true.  We tend to think of the 1950s as being a time when conformity ruled all.  It was a time of innocence and chastity, when cinema heroes all wanted to have a house in the suburbs and loving couples slept in separate beds and nobody ever questioned anything.  Of course, the truth of the matter is that there were a lot of films released in the 50s that challenge that perception.

And then again, there were also films like 1955’s A Man Called Peter.

A Man Called Peter is a biopic about Peter Marshall (played by Richard Todd), a Scottish immigrant who came to the United States, became a Presbyterian minister, and then eventually became the Chaplain of the United States Senate.  (That means that he would open each session of the Senate with a prayer and occasionally provide spiritual counsel to the senators.)  I recently watched it on Netflix, specifically because I thought it might be appropriate for this series of political reviews.

And it is, but just barely.

It actually takes the film a while to get to the part where Peter Marshall becomes the Senate Chaplain.  First, we watch him as a boy in Scotland, trying to stow away on a boat heading for America.  Then, several years later, he’s out walking on a foggy night.  He trips over a tree root and, as he lies on the ground, he announces that God has told him to 1) pursue a career as a minister and 2) to do so in America.  (I have to admit that I was raised Catholic so I have no idea whether he was having a typical Presbyterian spiritual experience or not.  But the film certainly takes it seriously.)

Peter ends up in America where he ministers to a church in Atlanta, marries Catherine (Jean Peters), and then eventually ends up at a church in Washington, D.C.  When he eventually is asked to serve as Chaplain of the Senate, both he and the film go out of their way to avoid taking any definite position on any issue.  Instead, Peter gives prayers that encourage the senators to put partisan bickering aside and work together to make the United States the best country in the world.

Having now watched all 120 minutes of A Man Called Peter, I can safely that this is a film that epitomizes everything that we always assume to be true about the 1950s.  From the film’s view of marriage to religion to politics, A Man Called Peter is perhaps one of the most stereotypically 1950s  movies ever made.  This is such a 1950s movie that it’s even filmed in CinemaScope!

(And speaking of CinemaScope, A Man Called Peter looks great but it’s perhaps one of the least intimate biopics that I’ve ever seen.  You can see every inch of the surrounding landscape but the human beings get lost.)

For me, the film’s most 1955 moment comes when Catherine first discovers that her husband has been reassigned to Washington, D.C.  She and Peter are on their honeymoon when they get a telegram telling them that their new home in Washington is ready.  Catherine is shocked.  Peter says that he didn’t want to interrupt their honeymoon by telling her that they’re not going home to Atlanta.  Instead, they’re going to an entirely new city and an entirely new life.  (In other words, Peter has decided to say goodbye to Catherine’s family and friends.)

“Aren’t you pleased?” Peter asks her.

Cheerfully, Catherine replies, “Well, who wouldn’t be?”

Ah, the 50s.