Don't forget to refer to my Contents page for a more convenient reference to past articles.

For More L.A. La Land, visit my writing/art/film appreciation site on Facebook at Quoth the Maven and follow me on Twitter @ Blahlaland. :)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

TAKE ONE, TWO, THREE: Sweet Jesus!!!""

This year, in addition to revisiting all of the old holiday classics as Christmas approached, I decided to get right to meat of things and bone up on the big guy himself: good ol' JC. Investigating the way Christianity has presented itself in film over the years is quite the task. There's the epic route (Ben-Hur), the biographical route (The Greatest Story Ever Told), or the satirical route (The Miracle Woman). I couldn't help but notice, however, that there is a very specific trend in cinema that contrasts the majesty and power of Ancient, impenetrable Rome with the growing insinuation in the Republic of the all-powerful, omnipresent, Alpha-and-Omega God. Now, before I scare any non-believers, let me assure you that this is far from a "preachy" article, as my personal brand of religion is malleable but faithful at best and head-scratching and cynical at worst. My agenda here is to unlock the mystery of faith in film, not to attack you with my personal testaments. That being said, a lot can be learned from Jesus Christ, the way he reached the masses, the way his messages of love and peace encompassed them, survived monotheistic persecution, and continue to thrive today. As the following movies will show, God is good, but men? Men are bad. The formula to bring this evidence to the fore is fairly simple and unwavering. There is a pompous Roman soldier in conflict, a virginal woman who wins his heart, a power-hungry monarch, a prophet, and (most often) a whore. Mix the aforementioned with historical events, cast accordingly, and depending which director's Godlike hands the entree is entrusted into, the effects can be quite miraculous... or a miraculous waste of time. God be with you:

To begin at the beginning, on the first day in Hollywood, Cecil B. DeMille recreated good and evil in man's image and called it film: deliciously sinful and utterly devout. DeMille catches a lot of flack sometimes. People think he was a pompous, right-wing Bible banger who used his movies to spread religious propaganda. This is not true. Not wholly. Others think that DeMille merely used religion as an excuse to inject eroticism, nudity, and debauchery into his otherwise inadmissible, nearly pornographic films. This is not true either. Not wholly. DeMille too was holy and not holy. His genius was in giving people what they wanted while interpreting them as they were, as they fantasized themselves to be, and as they guiltily fretted. People were depicted as just as complicated as any of his intricate and textured mise en scenes. He can be accused of preaching a message, but the message preached is not always the one you would expect, yet he always preached in such a way that both a pious person and a sinner would find what he or she was looking for in the text. Hence: The Sign of the Cross (or That Movie Where Claudette Colbert Takes a Nude Milk Bath).

The film begins with the burning of Rome. The perfectly cast Charles Laughton stars as the infamous "Emperor Nero," who strums contentedly on his harp (or cithara perhaps), which history popularly remembers as a fiddle (left). With his cosmetically enhanced Roman nose, Laughton's roly-poly, immature, and deranged Nero is at once childish and dangerous. Sadly, there is too little of him in the film, but what moments he has on screen, he typically savors. Nero has burned Rome, it seems, simply "because." Because he, as the current Caesar, is basically ruling over his own personal tinker toy city and, like a small boy, he smashes his fist into it simply to see it topple. The only trouble is that the city is bound to rebel (after it douses itself), a fact that the simple-minded Nero has not considered-- he is much more perturbed when the string on his instrument breaks than by the sight of his kingdom in flames. Not to worry, he will point the finger of blame at the Christians, who have brazenly been worshiping a God other than He. (The Roman Emperor was worshiped as a deity in this era). The Christians irk him and insult his vanity, so he turns his city against them. Christians are to be found, executed, or sent to the arenas, where they will be brutally murdered before the hungry eyes of their supposed polytheist enemies. Already the war has started: do you worship a false God, an invention of a certain sect of brainless, meek people, or do you worship the true God of Rome, who sits before you on his throne, licking his fat fingers? Tough choice. Naturally, bigotry, prejudice, and blood lust spread as the Roman people seek to eradicate the Christians from their city.

Enter the Prophet, a man named "Titus" (Arthur Hohl), who has been schooled under none other than the great apostle Paul, and has come to spread his word. To find those like minded, he makes his identity known by making the sign of the cross in the dirt. The only problem is that this alerts the authorities to the interloper's presence, and soon he and his peer, "Favius Fontellus" (Harry Beresford) are being rounded up by a couple of beefy, Roman goons. Enter the Virgin, named "Mercia" (of course) and portrayed by Elissa Landi. Mercia defends Favius, who has acted as a father to her, and when Roman Prefect "Marcus Superbus" (Fredric March) intervenes on the ruckus, sparks fly between them. Looking less like an ancient Roman maiden and more like a modest flapper in a period costume, Mercia is an attractive proposition for Marcus. As he immediately wants to sleep with her, he can't muck things up by killing her foster father, and so he sets the corrupt Christians free. Unfortunately, Marcus's nemesis "Tigellinus" (Ian Keith) is looking for any way to usurp his power, and thus sets about locating the party that Marcus freed and finding out just why it was that Marcus freed them. The answer, sex, is quickly discovered, and Tigellinus will later use this to his advantage. The Empress "Poppea," the always amazing Claudette Colbert, too has it in for the lusty Marcus, but in a very different way. In mid-milk bath-- DeMille's testament to his own opulence and that of the absurdity of wealth in the Roman monarchy (right)-- Poppea is told that Marcus has refused her latest summons, which makes her certain that he has found another woman to warm his bed. 

Lust in ancient Rome is apparently a big thing, which is why this film and many in the same genre tend to establish the acceptance of Jesus Christ as synonymous with the domestication of the male animal. The goal of every human being, thus, is elevation: to rise above lust and find love, to rise above greed and find generosity, and to rise above death and the fear of it by creating new life in the name of God. The Romans, as depicted by DeMille, have no interest in this nonsense. They worship better Gods and Goddesses. They indulge in wine and orgies. The human experience is meant to be visceral, sensual, and encouraged by the persistent pursuit of pleasure. Marcus knows nothing of modesty or moderation. As the second most powerful man in Rome, he knows only that he gets what he wants, which is accordingly a bottomless pit of women. What attracts him to Mercia is her unattainability. Unlike Poppea, who possesses no virtue nor scruples and throws herself mercilessly at Marcus, Mercia has already given her heart to another: Christ. Ah, the un-gettable get. Yet, Landi's interpretation of Mercia is not the typical, doe-eyed innocent. Her attraction to Marcus is palpable in her eyes and manner. As he chases her, she openly flirts back. Interestingly, sex does not seem to be a sin to her, and she lets it be known that she is interested, though she holds back just enough to tease him (left). So tantalizing is her appeal, that Marcus's conquest to obtain her blinds him to his own safety, but his heart has not yet reached a place of love where her religion can claim him. When he comes for her at her home, he is halted by Favius and Titus, whom he chides as being ignorant fools that want to destroy the world. Titus corrects him: Christians merely want to make the world "spiritually free." This falls on deaf ears.

This idea of religion as freedom is shared by all films of this genre. Men in shackles, men enslaved, impoverished men, and as ever freedomless women, will all be utterly free in the Kingdom of God. This is the appeal of the faith. It delivers, not so much God or Heaven, but Hope, which is essential to any man, if he is to survive the life experience with any amount of joy. This is what Titus preaches to his followers in their secret meeting place. Without hope, mankind turns ugly. Without hope, man ceases to try, to succeed, to innovate. The idea of a reward for goodness, the idea that suffering will end, is the only reason for anyone to keep going. This is where Cecil's brilliance interjects. The story he is telling is not one of God, but one of Man. God may indeed be a spiritual force in our universe, he may not; but if he did not create the first cavemen, they invented him. Man needs Hope. Our defenselessness without these religious myths to soothe us is quite pitiful; but the reality, even with this hope, is really no better. DeMille reveals this when Titus's speech is interrupted by attacking Romans. As he preaches that "there is no death," one of his flock is unceremoniously and brutally stabbed. It appears that, despite prayers, there is no salvation in life. In life, God can't help you. God can't stop life nor death from happening. Under attack, a woman cries out to God for help, and the scene is so devastating that it makes her plea, not heartbreaking, but pathetic. Still, she needs that hope. God is great, certainly, but he is also far far away from where we are-- from where we are killing each other in his name or in fear of his name. The way the flying daggers take these Christians down is almost comical. Titus's paltry little cross too is not grand or heroic. The presence of God is thus not an awe-inspiring monument in this film. He remains intangible, hypothetical, and secondary to the human characters, and in particular the bad characters.

Everyone loves a martyr, but I spent most of this movie wanting to see more of Colbert and Laughton. As Alexander Pope said, "To err is human, to forgive divine." We, as human, are incapable of divine acts. It is above us. Erring is in our nature. Sinning is in our nature. Regret and guilt are in our nature, and after these things, we fall to our knees and pray for that aforementioned and unreachable divinity. Fredric March is much more alive in his scenes with Colbert, who is dripping with human, erring sensuality (right). Poppea's desire for Marcus is no secret. She wants him, and his refusal of her hurts, not only her pride, but her heart. This is where Colbert gives her character more depth than the typical villainess. When Marcus crashes his carriage into hers on his way to save Mercia from the Roman ambush, he rushes off despite Poppea's orders to stay. As he departs, her voice cracks as she calls for him: "Marcus!" It is not a yell, so much as a little girl's shocked pain at desertion. Later, she uses all her wiles to obtain him, and again her vulnerability is shown when Marcus rolls his eyes at her typical tactics-- he's been here before, and she is no different from any other desperate woman. Yet, he is ready to be enlightened. He wants a "virtuous girl," though he still does not understand why, (Time to settle down boy-o?). Poppea is pissed. Thus, she puts Mercia on Nero's radar, and her child-husband is easily manipulated into doing her bidding. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Poppea when scorned wants Mercia's head. 

Meanwhile, to protect her, the lustful Marcus has taken Mercia back to his home, where she is shocked to learn that he means to make her his concubine. Sex would be one thing, but the fact that he is asking her to turn her back on her Christianity is unforgivable. Marcus is equally shocked when she won't put out, and tries to convince her that it is her religion that is holding her back. He claims that Christianity is "vicious" for convincing her not to do what is natural to her. He is also ticked that he is expected to share her heart with this dead Jesus dude. Mercia is missing out on life! Marcus tries to convince her of this by having one of his gal pals (Joyzelle Joyner) perform a homo-erotic dance around her-- which was quite scandalous in its day, and is still uncomfortable to watch (left). However, any attempt to "warm" Mercia is halted when she hears the sound of her fellow Christians singing outside. The Roman guard interrupts the party on Nero's orders, and Mercia is taken to the arena where 100 Christians will be executed as a gift from the Emperor and Empress to their loyal people-- still frothing from the fire. After Mercia is taken and the doors closed behind her, Marcus assumes the pose of the Crucifixion, his arms draped upon the dead-bolts. His martyrdom is very different from Christ's. What Marcus feels isn't a sudden understanding for Mercia's faith, the faith that Christ died for, but a pain at the loss of Mercia-- a symbol of Hope and the woman he slowly is learning that he loves. He suffers not for a metaphorical God, but for the flesh and blood woman that he wants. In this way, DeMille interprets that Marcus's pain is somehow more real, and definitely more relatable, than the religious icon's.

Throughout the film, while Mercia is devout to the point of bland, the earthy guttural suffering of Marcus, and also Poppea, are much more believable. As the Christians are slowly sent to die-- by tigers, elephants, and gators-- they rise to meet their challenges still with hope in their eyes, but their faith doesn't stop the sounds of violent screaming from erupting from their bodies as they are torn to shreds (right). Mercia's death, by Poppea's vengeful order, is saved for last, and Marcus agrees to die with her, not for her God or his God but for himself. He tells her that, in a moment of desperation, he tried praying to her God, but He didn't hear him. Instead, Marcus prayed to her-- Mercia, the woman he loves. It is his new found faith in her-- that desire for hope and elevation that he could not comprehend until it was too late-- that has made a new man of him, and one even willing to die. Still, he begs her to renounce her God, keep him in her heart if she must, but publicly denounce him so that she and Marcus may live together and for each other. One almost wants to slap her across the face when she refuses. Marcus is offering her a chance at life; but she goes to the God of her dreams, one she deems so close, just on the other side of the arena door, where she will consequently meet her demise. Marcus is life; God is death. Mercia is immovable, so the lovers will die together. As Marcus climbs the stairs with her into the light, which makes the duo appear as if they are going indeed to heaven-- deceitful, considering what awaits them-- he does not look upward but at her.

Going to their deaths for the love of God.

Thus, the conundrum. DeMille served us up a movie about Jesus, yet ends the film with the vaguely insinuated idea that God ain't everything. Of course, this is a very harsh analysis. By the film's end, when we have witnessed every measure of humanity-- the pious, the bloodthirsty, the envious, the peaceable-- the one thing that all these beings exhibited was love. Love, whether in its most tortured or triumphant state, is the most intense and lasting thing about life. Jesus spread the word of love to mankind, but love wears many faces, and we as human beings constantly trip on ourselves when trying to find the right one. For this, we are not wholly sinful. Yet, no matter how far we have fallen, we can find redemption, not necessarily in God, but in the embrace of pure, selfless love for another human being. This is when love righteously wears the face of God. DeMille, despite his constant Christian rhetoric, therefore presents the idea that life should not be wasted on the worship of God, but should be spent in the worship of each other.

This theory could arguably be shared by the next film, The Robe, although this time around, the presence of and necessity of an almighty God in one's life is much more fixed and magnificent. What DeMille presented with a side of naughty, director Henry Koster presents with total piety. Unlike the silent spirit of Christ in The Sign of the Cross, the presence of God in The Robe is mighty (as evidenced even by the awesome opening score). He is also visible.  The film begins over 30 years prior to the burning of Rome. The Christians' numbers are slowly growing due to the public orations of someone known as the "Messiah" or Jesus the Christ. All of this is secondary and not too fretful where our protagonist, the Roman Soldier, is concerned: "Marcellus Gallio," played intelligently and passionately by Richard Burton in his break-out role. Youthful, curly-headed, and vain, Marcellus has the intense displeasure of serving under the fussy, infantile, and annoying "Caligula" (played with very little intrigue by Jay Robinson). The notorious gluttony and greed of Rome become apparent as Marcellus makes his way through the crowds on slave auction day. Scantily-clad and well-formed women are held up for buyers to drool over, and Marcellus has his eye on a couple of twins, (I mean that literally). It is to be assumed that Marcellus is just like the other ignorant and savage Roman beasts, trading flesh and swimming in wine, but there are indicators that Marcellus actually has a soul. He proves this by stopping an altercation when Greek slave "Demetrius" (a beefy Victor Mature) tries to escape. Marcellus then purchased him (left), thus saving Demetrius from a life of Hell with the also bidding Caligula. When Marcellus loses the twins to Caligula, the audience is also surprised to learn that he was purchasing the women for his mother and not himself. The way he and the openly corrupt Caligula banter, and the way Marcellus runs mental circles around his Emperor, also convinces the viewer that this Marcellus is not a bad guy at all.

Of course, he's not perfect, a fact that is made clear when a random woman (the Whore, with a blink and you'll miss it part in this film) chastises him for getting drunk and embarrassing her the previous night. A decent man and soldier, Marcellus may be, but a man he is nonetheless. However, the sudden appearance of the beautiful and pure "Diana" (Jean Simmons)-- a girl he knew in his youth-- and his instant attraction and affection for her are symbolic of the fact that he may be ready to close the book on his ruffian days and embrace the good man inside himself in toto. The honor of becoming Marcellus's wife is something that Diana has been dreaming of since her girlhood, and the duo quickly make plans (right). Unfortunately, Diana is being kept in Caligula's care, and after the earlier insult at the slave market, Marcellus and his new slave Demetrius are thus sent away to deal with a minor nuisance that is cramping Caesar's style in Jerusalem: Christianity. Before he departs on this punishment mission, Marcellus is instructed by his father to "take nothing on faith" and to "trust no one." It is dangerous where he is headed. Man must protect himself, and a man from a faithless society, that worships only the deities that can give the most enticing rewards, thus sails into the fray with nothing but instinct, orders, and smarts to protect him. 

In fact, he goes to murder faith.  Soon enough, Jesus Christ, whom Marcellus has only vaguely heard about, has been identified and sent to be executed by Crucifixion, which Marcellus will dutifully oversee. The audience sees it too. The faceless icon carries his cross through the streets, his arms are nailed to the wood, and he is left to die. It is all a sideshow to the Roman soldiers who perform the murderous act and proceed to play dice below his slowly dying body. Only the impoverished and the poor little children, including Demetrius, are taken in by the death of this man, whom they deem somehow magnificent beyond words. Demetrius bundles the Christ's discarded robe into his arms (left), but it is soon taken and used as a bargaining chip in the gambling game of which Marcellus has taken part. Marcellus wins the piece of cloth. Jesus dies. A storm begins. The winds have changed, and they are howling, and suddenly Marcellus is fearful and he knows not why. As he and Demetrius run for shelter, he tells his slave to cover him with the robe, but the minute the fabric touches his skin, he quivers in fear: "Take it off!!!" The spirit of God has become encapsulated in the threads of the robe of the Holy One, and Marcellus shrinks under its power and from the feelings of his own guilt. In his heart, he knew to crucify a man for nothing but words of peace was a sin, but a faithless man cannot sin, can he? Apparently, indifference and inaction was his crime, a crime shared by all the people who played their own small part in Christ's death-- Caligula, Pilate, the throngs watching Jesus crawl to his death, and even Demetrius, who received word that Jesus was to be betrayed and tried to find him and warn him, though he was too late. In his quest, Demetrius met only Judas, soon to pay for his sins. Marcellus has yet to pay for his.

Marcellus is summoned back to Rome, thanks to Diana's intervention, but he is a changed man. Scared, hollow, and mad, he is constantly tortured by the sound of pounding-- the pounding of nails into Christ's palms. The solution to his malady is to find the robe again, which has clearly "bewitched" him, and burn it. So, he searches far and wide for Demetrius, who has betrayed him and run off with the piece of cloth. Demetrius has freed himself through faith, and taken all power from his master and thus the mastery of Rome. On his quest, Marcellus bears witness to the miracle of the spreading Christian faith. He is puzzled and even angered like a child by the idiotic people who believe in the beauty of life when they are blind and crippled, unhealed by their departed God. Their faith reaches him through music, and something inside him, a window in his heart is being opened. He learns that Demetrius is with Simon Peter, Marcellus tracks him down, and tries to toss the robe with his sword into the fire. Yet, it falls into his arms and overcomes him in a fit of hysteria. Now, the power of the one true God is in his heart. He is bewitched no more; he is penitent (right). After Marcellus performs an act of mercy, stepping in to stop an ambush where many Christians will certainly be massacred, the Prophet, Simon Peter, asks him to join their crusade. Marcellus says that he cannot, because he is responsible for the death of Christ. Peter then shares the story of how he denied Christ three times on the day of his death. Peter obtained forgiveness by preaching his word; Marcellus will do the same in defending the Christian faith.

The rest of the movie is spent with Caligula trying to hunt down the Christians and most importantly his betrayer, Marcellus. Diana is not easily taken in by these myths of Christ, but she follows her beloved Marcellus gallantly wherever he dares to tread-- not dissimilar from Marcus Superbus's devotion to Mercia in the last film. Demetrius is captured and tortured by Caligula, then saved from death by the miracle of Simon Peter's healing prayers: more proof that there is a God who is more than any man can comprehend. Marcellus is eventually put to the ultimate test. He stands before Caligula and is given the option to either renounce his faith in God or be killed. He swears allegiance to Rome, but cannot recant his new faith. It is bigger than him, and worth dying for. Diana vows to die with him. The two march off to their deaths with looks of glory on their faces, and soon they are walking in the clouds of heaven. Thus, this movie presents the beauty that comes of accepting the Christian faith and the dishonor that is sure to follow if one does not. There is no gray area, as in DeMille's film. While the presence of the Lord is sometimes presented as sinister almost, in the way he haunted and eventually overcame Marcellus's obstinacy, there is only peace everlasting in the embrace of him. Christians are portrayed as nearly untouchable, and the brutality and savagery with which Caligula attempts to exterminate them is nothing compared to their triumph. 

A Walk in the Clouds...

Freedom through faith is the message. Faith is not the issue of fear in Rome. Freedom is. If the little people break their bonds and rise up against their masters, structure will be destroyed. Christianity is thus viewed as a dangerously spreading organism or disease that must be stopped before the nation is infected and order undone. This is the seed that when sprouted will cause Rome to fall, which it will, and God to rise. This is the opposite theory as postulated by The Sign of the Cross, where we were to look to each other for peace. Here, God is all. Yet, the two films do share and spread the ideas that we should try our best to make a Heaven of life on earth, that doing good to each other and acting toward our brothers as we would ourselves is the ultimate goal. The Robe presents this theory as much more attainable and glorious. While the film is not as interesting as The Sign of the Cross, it moves quicker and the performance of Burton-- with his eloquent, lyrical, staccato speeches and ever-present intensity-- is something worth witnessing. It too is a sweeping, spreading narrative, enticing to the eye and clearly worthy of being the first film made using the new CinemaScope process. The film also manages to fairly escape the cheesy factor, which is not easy when dealing with such subject matter. It succeeds perhaps because the presence of God is presented in such mythic and horrifying proportions that the audience feels as compelled to convert as Marcellus.

The same cannot be said of Quo Vadis, which is nearly all cheese. Quo Vadis is a fitting title, beings that I was indeed wondering where the Hell this movie was going since it was taking so long to get there. Nearly three hours in length, it is a tedious bit of work, so I won't dedicate as much time to its diagnosis. It had its good points, mind you. Bearing basically the same plot at The Sign of the Cross, it lacked in poetry what it made up for in pomposity. Visually, it is a splendor, ever moreso than The Robe. However, part one of the film is wasted as "Marcus Vinicius" (Robert Taylor) tries to creepily seduce "Lygia" (Deborah Kerr, both left). Kerr is so beautiful that she literally glows, and her piety to her faith, again Christianity-- identified in this film by The Sign of the Fish-- is so decadent that one can understand Marcus's incurable erection over her. Unfortunately, Taylor is terribly miscast, and he seems old and tired in the role. The boyish charms of his A Yank at Oxford days do not work here, and Kerr has to work overtime to make her attraction to him believable. His sexuality is sinister, overbearing, and clumsy, an error that Kerr cleverly tries to compensate for by making her interest in him seem more maternal than erotic. However, even her performance can't improve the chemistry, which is never on par.

The uncomfortable sex game is turned asunder by "Emperor Nero," this time played by Peter Ustinov, a comic light spot in an otherwise overbearing film. Ustinov's interpretation of Nero is not as calculatingly insane as Laughton's; he presents more of an overgrown boy who knows no discipline and thus no bounds. He is, essentially, an idiot. He thinks himself an artist, and is constantly writing atrocious poems and singing songs while his right hand man, "Petronius" (Leo Glenn, another plus) manipulates his mind in order to somehow keep Rome running (right, Leo stands, Peter sits center). Soon, Nero decides to burn Rome as an artistic statement, for only in the destruction of his art can he see it rise again anew and totally in his name. The fire is a test of his own power. Ustinov tends to go a bit too far, chewing the scenery as the infantile Nero, but he also seems like the only one in the film truly enjoying and stretching the limits of his role. After Rome burns, Nero is again convinced to put the blame on the Christians, a fact that the "Empress Poppaea" (the Whore, played by Patricia Laffan) suggests because she wants Marcus (God knows why), and she knows that the Christian girl Lygia is a threat to her conquest of him. The Christians are rounded up and sent to the slaughter, and their massacre is very long and overdrawn, as opposed to DeMille's equally sexual and frightening interpretation of the arena. The singing of the Christians as they go to their deaths is incredibly annoying to Nero, who wanted to hear screams and is very taxed by their apparent lack of fear. 

Lygia is saved for last, and Marcus (who is performed better at the end when Taylor gives up on the chest-beating and eyebrow raising) has come to her to die by her side. The two are married, again by the Prophet "Simon Peter" (Finlay Currie) who is soon Crucified upside down for his insinuations that there is a God higher than Nero. Lygia is tied to a post center-ring (left), and her loyal bodyguard fights a bull to protect her. If he can defeat the bull, Lygia will be freed. Surprisingly, he does, but Nero makes an error when he still gives the "thumbs down" signal to kill her anyway. This enrages the masses, who have witnessed already surprising courage in their supposed Christian enemies. They have been swept away by their fortitude and consequently turn on Nero. Marcus, who has been sitting by Poppaea's side, forced to watch his beloved's attempted murder, jumps into the pit and cries out for justice. The Roman legion too jumps to his defense, less out of anger or questions of faith than because they think it was rude of Nero to try to kill Marcus's girlfriend in front of him. Soon, the arena is in uproar, the lovers embrace, and Nero flees to his castle, where his favorite concubine convinces him to kill himself. He does. An interesting moment, either a wise move or a very unfortunate one, by director Mervyn LeRoy was to reveal the blood lust of the masses as they come to Nero's castle like a colony of angry ants. Despite the messages of Christ that have just been died for, man still seems to have learned nothing. One assumes that LeRoy meant for these bloodthirsty vermin to be interpreted as the brutish, unenlightened Romans and not as the recently freed Christians. Lygia and Marcus ride off into the sunlight, an unfortunate and sugary Hollywood ending that renders the film a total waste, and the film closes on an image of flowers blooming-- hope and beauty where there was none before.

I cannot say that I liked the film, but I too can't say that I hated it. In many ways it was impressive, including a brilliant live action recreation of Da Vinci's The Last Supper, but the story was stylistically over-exaggerated in terms of performance, the message was one note and uncomplicated, and the interpretation of God's power was not as effective-- He is construed as so loving and peaceable via the work of Simon Peter that He does not possess the same awesomeness and threatening nature that made his power so obvious in The Robe. Here, God can only assert himself through the faith of his people and not on his own, which is a worthy enough statement, but one never learns the value of believing in him. In fact, in many ways, LeRoy-- again, perhaps purposefully-- portrays the Christians as just as mindless for following their God as the Romans for following Nero. Give a group a leader, and away they go. At the end of the film, a new Emperor is announced, and the masses are just as fanatic for him as they were mere moments ago for Nero. 

Eunice and Petronius die for Love and Country.

The plus of the film is the concept that God, the true God, can only be found in Love. Again, women are portrayed (just as in all the previous films) as already being receptive and knowledgeable about the purity of love, so just as Mercia and Diana, Lygia is ready and willing to accept it when this message comes. She merely sits and waits for her chosen man to discover it, while he trips over the hurdles of whores in his way and matures into a man worthy of her virginity and spirituality. Marcus finds this lesson of love too, as does a very surprised Petronius, who finds himself in love with his slave girl "Eunice" (Marina Berti) who adores him, the highest being she knows, with the same faith of Lygia following her God. This love of a good woman makes more faithful, better men out of both Romans, but so cliched and over dramatic are the acts of devotion that one cringes at Eunice's ignorance and shakes the head in pity for Marcus's future, in which he will be sharing a bed with both his wife and Jesus. (One assumes that Lygia will spend most of the night praying and too little comforting her still horny husband). So, where The Robe had God and where The Sign of the Cross had humanity, Quo Vadis had neither. Yet, if you put the thing on mute and just look at it, it's pretty visually engrossing.

Well, after many many many words, I bring this to a close. Many thanks for reading, if you made it through, and my best (belated) wishes to you this Christmas. God Bless!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

HISTORY LESSON: Who-dunnit, Hollywood?

Charlie Chaplin and Marion Davies: did their affair
lead to murder???

Part of Hollywood's allure is its mystique: a foreign land of sunlight, palm trees, and skies that seem to rain money on people that are just plain prettier than the rest of us. However, this city, when it doesn't have its make-up on, can be downright ugly. The harder someone works to look perfect, the more certain you can be that he or she is covering something up-- perhaps even something hideous. The dark side of La La Land is far from glamorous, and enough disturbing, tragic events have taken place to create the contradictory, evasive, and hypocritical image of both Heaven and Hell that many equate with the city today. Strangely, the world's audience seems to find the macabre stories more fascinating and hypnotic than the triumphant or pure. And so, we remain tantalized by tales of Sharon Tate, Elizabeth Short, Paul Bern, Thelma Todd, and George Reeves, keeping in check a city that protests too much its perfection-- we are no longer fooled. Here are a handful of similarly fascinating Hollywood tales, unsolved mysteries, and questionable alibis. The trouble with the following is that we may never know what truly happened in any of these cases, but then again, a solved murder is much less intriguing than the average open book.

What really happened to Thomas Ince (left)? The theories abound and none of the facts add up. What we know for sure is that Ince-- acclaimed director and producer who made up one third of the Triangle Film Corp. triumvirate and made Westerns in Inceville-- joined a group on William Randolph Hearst's yacht, the Onieda, when it took to sea in celebration of his 43rd birthday on Nov. 16, 1924. Thomas would never set foot back on shore, for when the party docked in San Diego on the 19th, he was carried inland and died mere hours later. The cast of this plot alternately may or may not include: Marion Davies (Hearst's mistress), Elinor Glyn, Margaret Livingston (Ince's alleged mistress), aspiring columnist Louella Parsons, Seena Owen, Aileen Pringle, Julanne JohnstonTheodore Kosloff, Hearst's secretary Joseph Willicombe, publisher Frank Barham and wife, Marion's sisters Ethel and Reine and niece Pepi, Dr. Daniel Carson GoodmanMary Urban, and Gretl Urban. During the night, Ince was overheard groaning in his bedroom. The fortunately present Dr. Goodman was summoned and diagnosed Thomas as suffering a heart attack brought on by indigestion or ptomaine poisoning. The ship docked on the 19th, Ince was attended to, and to keep matters from the press, Hearst urged everyone to keep mum-- most particularly, one presumes, to keep his affair with Marion under wraps (not to mention the heavy imbibing that had occurred during this prohibition era party). After all, leaking their rendezvous would only serve to inflame current gossip, embarrass his wife, Millicent Wilson, and hurt the career that he was trying to build for his kooky but beloved girlfriend, Marion. Unfortunately for Hearst, Ince died, and the press wanted details. The nervous Doctor Goodman is generally blamed for fearfully blabbing a series of contradictory facts in order to obey Hearst's orders, thus starting the alleged theory that all was not as it seemed. All aboard maintained that the death was an unfortunate twist of fate, and Marion maintained to her deathbed that nothing sinister was afoot. 

Yet, this is difficult to be believed.  This is where Charlie Chaplin comes into play, who was also allegedly in attendance on the Onieda, though he always denied this later. It had been rumored for some time that he and Comedy Queen Marion were enjoying a tryst of their own, and that Hearst was becoming incredibly jealous. When you add this to the conflicting stories about what exactly occurred, the alibis get dicey. The most shocking bit of evidence came from Charlie's own loyal chauffeur, Kono, who stated that he not only picked Charlie up from the travel's end but witnessed Ince being pulled ashore with an apparent bullet-wound in his head, a fact which he confided to Eleanor Boarman. Curious... Marion maintained there was no gun on board, but Hearst was known to shoot pelicans for sport on the ship. The now popular theory is that Hearst, in a jealous rage over his suspicions that Marion Davies and Charlie were having an affair, shot at Chaplin, only to discover that he had accidentally shot Ince instead, who in certain lighting looked a great deal like Charlie. (This a scenario brilliantly brought to life in Peter Bogdanovich's The Cat's Meow). Other theories are that Hearst poisoned Ince, stabbed him with Marion's hatpin, or even hired an assassin to kill him, though with no pure motive, these latter conspiracy theories don't add up, unless Marion was getting too cozy with Ince as well. To cover up the scandal, many believe that Hearst threw money at everyone present to hush them up-- including giving Louella Parsons her lifetime gig with the Hearst corporation-- and printed his own creative narrative of the events in his papers, like the little ditty that Ince had taken ill at his ranch and not at sea. As Hearst all but controlled the press, it was not a hard feat to keep things quiet, yet Ince's quick cremation and burial on Nov. 21st only bolstered suspicions. So, was Kono mistaken? Was the blood he saw actually from a "perforated ulcer?" It is hard to believe that Kono, so loyal to his boss, would tell such a lie nor one so outlandish. And if Ince wasn't shot or somehow pummeled on the head, why would Hearst go to such lengths to cover up his death? Was it some other, even more unbelievable accident, or was it murder? Everyone involved kept deathly silent, and now the truth is lying six feet under. (Right, the nemeses at happier times at one of Hearst's costume balls: Doug Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Hearst, Charlie, and Millicent Hearst (?)).

One of Charlie's old Keystone chums also ran into her share of scandals. Good-time girl Mabel Normand (left) made a career out of hamming it up alongside fiance Mack Sennett, becoming the first major cinematic comedienne. She held her own against the comic giants of the day, eventually directing her own films and becoming a huge star in the process. The fact that she twisted her beautiful features into hilarious mugs made her seem less pretentious and more down-to-earth than the average starlet, and as she earned the public's chuckles she too stole their hearts. Ironically, Mabel's heart was ever in trouble. Not only did she fail to marry her soul mate, Mack, but she wound up in a loveless, gag marriage to Lew Cody, and was also falsely implicated in the murder of her good friend William Desmond Taylor. When it came to luck, Mabel must have spent it all in her first 25 years. The demise of her relationship with Mack is one of the remaining mysteries about her. We know that the powerful duo broke it off. We too know that Mabel appeared afterward with a nasty head wound. Where exactly it came from remains a matter of great debate. One theory is that Mabel walked in on Mack in flagrante with her supposed friend Mae Busch, who-- after Mabel became understandably hysterical-- smashed a vase over her head. 

Minta Durfee, Mrs. Fatty Arbuckle, would recall that she and her husband were either a) summoned to Mabel's home by a mutual friend who revealed the disconcerted Mabel and her nasty head-wound, or b) Mabel showed up at their doorstep in the same fashion. Fatty rushed Mabel to the hospital where a threatening blood clot was found and instantly corrected through a dangerous operation. Yet, another theory is that Mabel was so heartbroken by her break-up with Mack-- who may or may not have been a philanderer-- that she took one of her famous swan dives from the Santa Monica Pier in the attempt to kill herself. To complicate things further, Adela Rogers St. Johns attested that Mabel attempted this suicide only after her initial head-injury and hospital release, making both versions true. Whatever the case, the story Sennett (right) gave the press was that Mabel had injured herself while doing a stunt with Fatty, who allegedly, accidentally sat on her head-- a bit of foreshadowing to the Virginia Rappe rape scandal, where again Fatty's girth would be used as a scapegoat (this guy couldn't catch a break). Sennett also claimed that Mabel faked her "illness" to get back at him for going after Busch, a ploy that worked after he complacently set her up in her own studio and gave her the role of a lifetime in Mickey. Arguments against Mae Busch's guilt in the incident have too been made, as she and Mabel were pretty good pals. Whatever the true situation, Mabel was never the same. Some would protest that in addition to her heartbreak, a switch in her mind took place that made her more erratic and disjointed. So, what really broke Sennett and Mabel up? Was it the same thing that broke her head?

By 1958, Lana Turner (left) was no longer the Queen of MGM. As an aging actress, her career was winding down almost as quickly as she had risen to the top. This prior rise to fame in itself is the stuff of legend. After she was allegedly plucked off a stool at Schwab's Pharmacy (really the Top Hat) while drinking a milkshake (coca-cola), Lana shot to fame for her ability to fill out a sweater with great... panache in They Won't Forget. Lynn Fontanne she was not, but Lana still had an edge to her that made her a bit naughty, a bit dangerous, and all gorgeous, which allowed her to maintain a lengthy career before the cameras. In her time, she was linked to all kinds of handsome leading men, from Tyrone Power, to Artie Shaw, to Clark Gable, but it was her marriage to Johnny Stompanato aka Johnny Valentine that would become the most notorious. Johnny too had an edge of danger, but his was much more threatening than Lana's more sensual allure. In fact, it was deadly, but this had come in handy back when he was a bodyguard for none other than Mickey Cohen. The thrice divorced Johnny's charms and seduction won the rebellious Lana over, though as their relationship became abusive, their passion for each other perpetuated an on-again, off-again tragedy-- both violent and deluded. Caught in the fray was Lana's daughter with Steve Crane: Cheryl. Cheryl bore witness to more than one unruly spat that grew horrifyingly physical. At fourteen-years-old, this was hardly the happy home that the teenaged girl needed to endow her with confidence and positivity to face the world. 

On the evening of April 4th, ironically Good Friday, the police were summoned to Lana's home on the infamously catastrophic Bedford Drive. Johnny had been stabbed to death! Cheryl and Lana would claim that Cheryl had overheard another frightening spat between her mother and her lover, during which Johnny had threatened to essentially cut both women to ribbons. Terrified, Cheryl had run to the kitchen to obtain a weapon to protect her mother. She raced back to Lana's bedroom door, and before she even knew what she was doing, she was startled by Johnny's exit. She stabbed him, and he fell backward into the shocked Lana's room. Lana would tearfully tell this same story before a judge, a moment that many would mockingly refer to as "the performance of her career." Cheryl has forever maintained her version of the story, but many have hypothesized that it was in fact Lana who killed her lover. To save herself and her career, it is thus suggested that Lana begged Cheryl to step up to the plate and take the blame. Did she? In the end, most of us take Cheryl's word for it, but was she protecting her mother's life on that fateful day, or did she tell a fib to protect her mother's livelihood forever after??? If the latter is true, the ploy worked. Lana shot back to fame with the dual success of Peyton Place and Imitation of Life. Buh-bye, Johnny. (Lana, Johnny, and Cheryl, right).

The name Jean Spangler (left) doesn't ring too many bells today. A wannabe actress, the svelte brunette had come to Hollywood chasing the dreams of so many others. And, like so many others, she too often used the wrong avenues to get where she wanted to go. Vulnerability and naivete never serve a woman well... By the age of twenty-seven, Jean had already been a dancer at the Florentine Gardens and a girlfriend of, again, Mickey Cohen. Still, her fortitude was able to land her some bit parts in films for Harry Cohn at Columbia, such as The Petty Girl, but she never made it as a top leading lady. This, of course, may have had something to do with the fact that she literally disappeared on October 7, 1949.  Earlier that day, Jean had confided that she was going to be "out late" shooting a movie. After over 24 hours of absence, her sister Sophie filed a missing person's report, and the hunt for Jean began, though efforts by LAPD were half-hearted at best-- they didn't even send the report out on the teletype. On the 9th, a groundskeeper at Griffith Park found her purse, which had been torn. Clearly a struggle had ensued, but no robbery had taken place, as the purse's contents remained in tact-- including an undelivered note to her current boyfriend, "Kirk" (allegedly Kirk Douglas), in which it is heavily implied that she would soon be proceeding with an abortion from a "Dr. Scott." Ooh, the plot thickens...

Needless to say, Jean's family, particularly her mother, were distraught and certain that foul play had ended in murder. Kirk (right), who was married to Diana Douglas at the time, and his lawyer maintained that he didn't even know "the girl," yet her mother maintained that he had picked her up from her apartment at least twice. Other eye-witnesses claimed to have seen them at a party together, and Jean's friends attested to the fact that Jean was indeed three months pregnant. Throwing speculation is his direction even more is the fact that he contacted the police to tell them that he was not the "Kirk" in the note before the contents of this note had been made known to him, nor the connection made by police to the defensive star. Kirk would later backtrack and admit that he may have taken Jean on a couple of dates. Radio man Al "The Sheik" Lazaar also claimed that he saw Jean the night she disappeared at The Cheese Box on Sunset, where she was sandwiched between two unrecognizable men. The trio were said to be arguing. This was the last time that she was seen alive. What happened is still unknown, and her body has not been found. There are two major theories as to what may have befallen the young beauty: a) the infamous Dr. Scott had botched Jean's abortion, she had died on his table, and her body was disposed of, perhaps even in Griffith Park or b) Mickey Cohen had her maliciously "taken out" when he became jealous over the news of her affair with Kirk Douglas. Aside from the possible baby, Kirk was in no way implicated in her disappearance. Certainly, he must have learned his lesson regarding what a seemingly harmless night of passion can turn into. This didn't keep him from being at least partially blamed, and the normally stony Cohn actually had him barred from his studio when Kirk came to pay a visit to Evelyn Keyes not long after the incident. While his conscience may be clear of her death, someone is guilty. But just who-dunnit, we may never know.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

If You Love Charlie...

... You Will Buy This Calendar!

Support the preservation of silent cinema. The 2013 edition is dedicated to Flying Machines!

Go HERE to place your order, "Please" and "Thank You." (On behalf of Chaplin. And Keaton. And Swanson. Oh, and Pickford... And Valentino... And Gish... And Chaney, etc, etc, etc...).

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Plenty of Chaps' to go around...

By 1917, five years after Charlie Chaplin had come to Los Angeles, not only had he become a full-on movie star, but he was a bona fide phenomenon. His movies were consistently successful and eagerly awaited by his incalculable number of fans. His face was quickly becoming the most recognizable one in America. It wasn't long before his image was finding its way into people's homes, as children bought dolls in his likeness and adults began dressing as him for Halloween parties (or just for fun). To Charlie, his fame was always a bit bewildering. He had gone from being a nobody to being the guy with the most familiar face in the world... Or so he thought. With all of the adulation out there, there was bound to be a community of Charlie wannabes. A series of comedians began appearing on the screen in very similar if not completely copied costumes, and hack Charlie Chaplin impersonators started coming out of the woodwork. Charlie didn't seem to mind too much. After all, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. However, he realized that life had truly become bizarre when he read that a man in Cincinnati had performed a hold-up using a Chaplin costume as a disguise! The final insult came when Charlie decided to enter one of the many Chaplin look-alike contests himself, just for a laugh. Competing against boys of all shapes and sizes (with far fewer years of performance experience), one would think Charlie was a shoe-in for victory. Hilariously enough, he didn't win. He loved telling that story!

Boris Karloff portrayed another cinematic character nearly as historically relevant as Chaplin's "Little Tramp": Frankenstein's Monster. It is strange to think that by artistically bringing to life a creature that was scientifically brought back to life, Boris obtained his own immortality. His depiction of the awkward mash of arms and limbs was haunting, disturbing, frightening, and a little bit sad. Perhaps that is why the Monster remains in the American heart, despite his murderous penchants. But this was but one of many characters that Boris portrayed, which were generally villains, creatures, or good men gone bad in Universal's long line of B-horror films. In his personal life, Boris was far from his movie archetype, being generous, gentlemanly, and most importantly, harmless. He also had a great sense of humor, which some of his co-workers took advantage of. In The Invisible Ray, Boris's character "Dr. Rakh" and Bela Lugosi (left) come to blows over Rakh's latest discovery: Radium X. While filming one particular scene,  Boris was wearing an incredibly hot "radiation" suit as his character is lowered into a smoking pit to hopefully gather some of this strange radium specimen. The crew decided to play a prank. They lowered the sweating Boris down, then when the clock struck noon, they broke for lunch. Boris was literally left hanging! Luckily, his temper was not as easily provoked as his character's. He just started chuckling. Luckily, his co-workers came to retrieve him so he could grab some grub as well.

John Carradine (right) also took part in a few Universal monster flicks, including The Mummy's Ghost and House of Frankenstein. With his thin frame, sunken cheeks, and natural intensity, he could easily step into villainous roles. His acclaimed acting chops had earned him quite the rep on the stage, but his talents on the screen are best remembered in supporting roles, such as the conniving "Hatfield" in Stagecoach or the loyal "Rizzio" in Mary of Scotland. He remains one of many unsung and intriguing fellows in artistic history whose genius to his craft was just as maniacal as his personal demons. He notoriously caused more than one stir with drinking buddies like John Barrymore and W.C. Fields, a group of pals infamous for imbibing their talents and eventually their lives away. The facts are sad in retrospect, yet the brotherhood and prankster shenanigans somehow still make one smile even while shaking the head in "for shame" fashion when pondering the lives of these hard-living fellows. For example, John was particularly lubricated one evening and after giving a cab-driver the wrong address, he wound up spouting orations of Shakespearean verse at Steve Hayes's doorstep. For the record, the two didn't know each other, and John literally had no idea where he was. Steve's pals weren't as accustomed as he (the owner of the popular eatery Googies) to the sudden appearance of a movie star, so they gushingly asked the sloshed actor to join them inside, which he did... after telling them that he was "King Lear." He kept asking for liquor, but after being handed tea instead, decided to show his disdain by urinating off the balcony. John, one doubts, remembered this visit the next day, but his surprised hosts never forgot it.

Marlon Brando (left) is one of those singular guys that is just awesome. He could behave like a punk, skunk, or scalawag, he could be as eccentric as the day was long, but his confidence and diabolical mystery still rendered even his most sinister on and off-screen moments just plain cool. This naturally translated to his sex life, where he pretty much had whomever he wanted. A pop cultural icon who defied pop culture, his dangerous nature worked like a tonic on the ladies. However, he didn't always get his way, despite his strong personality and masterful methods of coercion, charm, and perhaps even hypnosis. Tony Curtis would recall a time when he was roommates with Marlon on Barham Boulevard. The two buddied up while trying to build their acting careers, and naturally, as members of young Hollywood, ran in the same circles. One night, the duo were out at a bar in Palm Springs, when they both took notice of a very attractive girl. As neither fellow had hit it big yet, it is doubtful that she had any idea who they were, but she was definitely attracted to the handsome pair. However, after she boldly approached, she made her choice known. Marlon tried to put the moves on the girl, but she clearly only had eyes for Tony-- who possessed in prettiness what Marlon had in 'tude. Tony didn't know it, but this was a monumental moment in Marlon history. Some time later, Tony went to a party at which Marlon was also in attendance. When Tony walked in, Marlon held up his hand to silence the room and jokingly declared:"There's the only guy who ever took a girl away from me." Clearly, sexual refusal was something Marlon did not encounter often, but at least he took the punch standing up.

Robert Altman, in his 45 years in cinema, carved out quite a niche for himself. He only really produced one major box-office hit, but his work remains intriguing and critically acclaimed for his unique multi-layered style, overlapping storylines, and birds eye view of humanity. If the average director allows you to follow characters through a story, Altman challenges audiences to follow a story through its characters. The effect is disconcerting, yet somehow more real than the more streamlined, conveyor-belt fashion of the majority of products out there. He doesn't extol star power; he translates human beings. The verdict with the public is very divided. You can either take him or leave him. What makes his place in film even more fascinating than his controversial body of work is his graduation into the position of filmmaker. There very nearly wasn't a place for this quirky, definitive character. According to former publicity guru Michael Selsman, Robert Altman got his breakthrough gig directing MASH (cast right) by accident. Michael was in discussions with Darryl F. Zanuck when the mogul was on the hunt for a director to take the helm of this new wartime vehicle. Michael, of course, suggested some of his clients, but Zanuck seemed stuck on The Dirty Dozen's Robert Aldrich. Unfortunately for Aldrich, Zanuck's casting director, Owen McLean, was a heavy drinker and drunkenly transmogrified "Aldrich" into "Altman" when taking the note to make the offer. Thus, the pitch was made to the wrong guy, and unknown TV director Robert Altman got the chance of a lifetime! Everyone may not be a fan, but clearly the Gods of celluloid wanted this guy cemented in artistic history. Crazy, huh?
Speaking of controversy, Kirk Douglas's latest literary contribution I Am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist is all about it. A fascinating depiction, not only of how difficult it is to make a movie-- let alone an iconic one-- but of mankind's slow undoing of a period of political prejudice in Hollywood, Kirk tells all about his voyage in bringing to film the story of the notorious Thracian slave who tried to take down Rome. The film in many ways is spectacular and holds up incredibly well over time. Somehow, God willing, all the pieces of the puzzle came together-- from the casting, to landing Stanley Kurbick as director, to the financing-- and the masterpiece was made. However, upon its original release, not all of the footage was there that is available today. One very contentious scene between Laurence Olivier's "Cassius" and Tony Curtis's "Antoninus" was originally eliminated for its overt homo-erotic themes. You know the one: Antoninus is bathing Cassius in the giant tub and is asked by his master whether he likes "snails" or "oysters" (left). The snails insinuate a sexual taste for men, and oysters for women. Unfortunately for the bi-sexual Cassius, Antoninus only swings one way. The censors were obviously not having it at the time, and initially asked that Kirk and his team tone down the innuendo making "snails and oysters" "artichokes and truffles" instead. Say again? Kirk refused, after he stopped laughing of course, but this left the scene on the cutting room floor. Later, when the film was re-cut for re-release with the missing footage, the dialogue for the scene had been lost. Thus, Tony had to perform his voiceover once again, which he gladly did, but Larry was unfortuantely already deceased. His wife, Joan Plowright, suggested that Anthony Hopkins step in and perform the dialogue for him, which he admirably did. Watching today, you would never know!