Bible Thumper

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I’ve wanted to see Frank Borzage’s last film, THE BIG FISHERMAN (1959) for a long time, but was resistant to seeing the wretched pan-and-scan copy that seemed to be the only thing available. So eventually I got a wretched letterboxed edition which at least allowed me to see the compositions, even if the actual imagery was blurry. A thousand thanks to Neil McGlone for helping me out with this. His DVD seems to have a very interesting provenance but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to talk about it.

Borzage’s long career had endured numerous ups and downs by this time. Much of his work during the 40s fell short of his best, but MOONRISE (1948) was a masterpiece, applying silent movie aesthetics to a contemporary story in a way that’s worthy of comparison to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Then Borzage endured ten years with just a few TV shows to his name. CHINA DOLL is a decent attempt to recapture some of his 1920s mojo (albeit resorting to self-plagiarism on a grand scale). Somehow the director who had seemed unemployable (no blacklist, but a drink problem is rumoured) got assigned the first┬áSuper Panavision film to be shot, a biblical epic intended to cash in on the massive success of BEN HUR. His producer and the film’s co-writer was Rowland V. Lee (SON OF FRANKENSTEIN), another old stager from the silent age, whose best work came in the pre-code era.

(Borzage has just one later rumoured film, uncredited work on SIREN OF ATLANTIS which is credited to Edgar Ulmer — another late film — a somewhat arthritic remake of L’ATLANTIDE. Draw a veil over that one.)

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Unfortunately, it must be admitted that the qualities, along with an epic sensibility (however you choose to define that) which are required by the writer of biblical epics for the screen did not reside abundantly in RV Lee, who crafts plodding and bellicose dialogue for his actors. (Wasn’t it Gore Vidal who defined the good/bad difference as lying in the distinction between “The food is not to your liking?” and “Don’t you like your dinner?” Neither one is more authentic than the other in terms of ancient-world etiquette, but only the second has a chance of sounding natural on an actor’s lips.) The story, from a Lloyd C Douglas (THE ROBE) novel, is decent enough, but as delivered here it comes front-loaded with exposition by the camel-load, dumped into speechifying and a flashback and resulting in boredom and confusion rather than clarity.

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What saves the film are three good actors. Howard Keel, a real-life atheist (“Well, if heaven’s like they claim it is, I don’t want to go. I’d get bored.”) injects energy as a pre-apostollic St Peter, a man who likes cracking skulls and catching fish, and he’s all out of fish. (Fiona flat-out refused to believe we were about to see a film called THE BIG FISHERMAN. “There’s no such film. You made it up. What’s it REALLY called?”) Susan Kohner brings naturalism whenever she can, smuggling it in if necessary. She’s playing a Arabian/Jewish princess (close: in real life she’s a Mexican/Jewish princess) in love with John Saxon. Saxon is typically fine, but the third major support this movie gets is from its villain, Herbert Lom (Herod Antipas). If your dialogue is hokey, you can fall back on your Freed Unit training like Howard and hoke it up for all its worth, or you can breathe life into it like Kohner and Lom. She does it just by seeming like a real person, whereas he uses tricks. After an assassination attempt, he plays the next five minutes out of breath, which works really well, contrasting with the heartiness with which he attempts to shrug off the attempt on his life.

(Kohner is underrated, perhaps because she retired young. Her kids are producers — so indirectly, we owe AMERICAN PIE to the star of IMITATION OF LIFE.)

It’s a shame the rest of the players seem direct from central casting, though Beulah Bondi is fine. Oh, and Dr Smith from Lost in Space has a plum role, to our joy. Jesus remains offscreen, as in BEN HUR, but the guy doing his voice is horribly sententious. The role does get a boost from this structure, which is kind of a Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead affair, interweaving a new storyline around the events of a rather familiar story — as a result, familiar gospel speeches can acquire a fresh resonance. Despite the wooden delivery of the anonymous ham, Christ’s “turn the other cheek” spiel gains something by being reflected through Keel’s two-fisted fishmonger character and Kohner’s vengeful princess. And the whole thing is aiming to send a pacifist message into the 1950s world, specifically to do with Arab and Israeli relations.

“It takes a Jew to make a picture like this,” said William Wyler while shooting BEN HUR. And it seems to be a Hollywood axiom, Cecil B. DeMille notwithstanding, that religiosity is best marketed by Jewish filmmakers. Borzage, a Christian, though an appealingly liberal and sexy one, was brilliantly at weaving his own personal iconography into his films, but seems overawed by the spiritual import of — what? The set dressing? It’s a Lloyd C Douglas potboiler, not the Gospel of Matthew!

But how does our director fair with the widescreen? Well, he has his moments. I particularly liked his opening shot, which literally opens out, taking us from a cramped canyon into a wide-open space, the whole landscape designed by John DeCuir, that master of ancient world art direction.

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Track back, pushed by our character carrying a sheep on his shoulders…

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He turns to his right and we pan left to follow him crabwise… <—

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Then he turns to his right again and we’re tracking forward, after him, towards an archway which finally gives us our expansive vista as the tracking stops and we let him shrink into longshot –

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“Hey Presto!” as the Christ almost certainly didn’t say when he did the business with the fish sandwiches.

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12 Responses to “Bible Thumper”

  1. Now I want to see this thing. I actually remember seeing TV trailers for it when I was a kid, but having spent an interminable three days and nights in the back seat of a Pontiac sedan with my brothers while my parents watched “The Ten Commandments” left me with little taste for sunday school in the cinema for several years after. Maybe it’ll get a restoration; there’s certainly a market in some quarters of this country. Meanwhile, I’ll keep an eye out for “‘Moonrise” and “China Doll.”

  2. I’d recommend starting with Borz’s great silents like Seventh Heaven, or his pre-codes which sometimes play TCM, to build up sympathy for his cinema before this one. No special pleading is required for those masterpieces.

    China Doll is mainly interesting for how it echoes Street Angel.

    Moonrise is on something called Amazon Instant Video.

  3. I recall when The Big Fisherman was released. It played one of the largest theaters in New York (the Rivoli I believe.) Reviews were fairly respectful but the public didn’t show. I imagine they confused it with John Sturges’ The Old Man and The Back-Projected Sea

    Take the veil away from Siren of Atlantis and read Gore Vidal’s Myron where it figures in that great sequel’s climax as Myra Breckinridge, visiting the set of that film merges with Maria Montez (!!!)

    We know all about Susan Kohner’s sons, but did you know that her mother, Lupita Tovar, was the female lead in the Spanish-language version of Dracula ? Directed by George (East of Borneo) Melford it was shot simultaneously with the Tod Browning on the same sets!

  4. The Atlantis version Borzage seems to have worked on (I think the expensive book has the straight dope on this — maybe he only did a few days) is the weird scifi one with Haya Harareet from Ben Hur. Via Facebook, Howard S. Berger reports that the movie is splendid if viewed in WS, which I haven’t managed to do.

    I really really like the Montez film though — though the Pabst/Brigitte Helm is the stonecold masterpiece of all Atlantides. http://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-forgotten-entombed

    Yes, I know about Lupita Tovar — she passed to her daughter that unconvincing dusky skin which enabled her to pass for black passing as white!

  5. Tony Williams Says:

    When I interviewed Lisa Lu at this year’s Memphis Film Festival she spoke very highly of Borzage in terms of helping her begin her distinguished career. Now, I know I’m going off-topic but I’d like some help from David C., David E. and other knowledgeable contributors. I’ve seen a still from the production of ONE EYED JACKS showing Brando with Lisa Lu. She is not credited in the film. Had I know this I would have asked her about it in June

  6. Lawrence Chadbourne Says:

    David: I was ignorant of who Borzage and Garmes were when I caught this movie on its first release, and being then a fan (not so much now) of the spectacles of biblical and classical antiquity landed up seeing it twice! I have since revisited it in the pan and scan. The scene that stayed with me over the years was the beheading of John The Baptist, artfully presented in silhouette.

  7. I forgot to mention Lisa Lu. A nice little appearance. Sadly, I don’t know anything about her role with Brando — no, wait, here’s something –
    http://fiftieswesterns.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/the-paramount-centennial-blogathon-one-eyed-jacks-1961/
    Brando, of course, had a serious case of, if you’ll excuse the expression, “yellow fever.”

    I should’ve frame-grabbed that silhouette scene, Larry.

  8. Thanks David C. This explains a lot since it was cut out of the film according to the article.

  9. I think I was inadvertently credited as the source for your copy when this first went up — boy was I confused!

  10. I can see why you might be! Fixed now, and again thanks to Mr. McGlone.

  11. I love Borzage, and this film seems so interesting! He is one of the directors I couldn’t envision doing a Bible film.
    Thanks for hosting the blogathon, it’s been funny reading the posts!
    Greetings!

  12. You’re welcome! Thanks for your great contribution.

    Spirituality is a big part of Borzage’s work, but for some reason tackling it directly via the bible doesn’t seem to work too well. But it’s certainly of some interest, and I suspect it would improve considerably if we had a real DVD to watch.

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