Forbidden Divas: Jungle Red

David Melville Wingrove returns with a Forbidden Divas piece about one of my favourites…

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FORBIDDEN DIVAS

JUNGLE RED

“I do not need wine to set my blood on fire.”

  • Paulette Goddard, Sins of Jezebel

Fans of bad movies cherish Bible epics for being the one entirely disreputable movie genre. To make the Best Bible Epic of All Time may not be an act of any special distinction. To put it bluntly, how much competition could there be? But to make the Worst Bible Epic of All Time is a truly spectacular achievement. The field is crowded and fiercely competitive and movies like The Prodigal (1955) and The Silver Chalice (1954) and Solomon and Sheba (1959) all have their fanatical adherents. But criticising these movies for their wooden acting, risible dialogue or lack of dramatic coherence is a bit like criticising a KFC Bargain Bucket for its lack of nutritional value. No product is a disaster simply because it does not do something it has never set out to do. To achieve a Platonic ideal of sheer and unadulterated awfulness, a Bible epic needs to be quite a lot worse than that.

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Sins of Jezebel (1953) is the work of one Reginald Le Borg, an auteur who made his name in the 40s with classics like Jungle Woman (1944) and The Mummy’s Ghost (1945). It stars the irresistible Paulette Goddard as the infamously wicked pagan queen who tried to turn Israel away from the One True God and supplant Him with the blood-soaked worship of Baal. There is something less than terrifying about Baal in this movie. His effigies resemble very early models for ET (1982) and his followers show their devotion by lifting their arms to heaven and indulging in some truly excruciating bouts of interpretive dance. It is hard to believe in depravity when we never see anything that looks the tiniest bit depraved. We hear a rumour early on that the queen “paints her nails with the blood of sacrificial victims.” We never do find out if she does that or not. But one must admit her nails are a commendably bright shade of red.

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Paulette Goddard was a movie star for the best part of two decades, but not even her closest friends ever pretended she could act. She was famous for her slightly hard-boiled glamour and her ineffably colourful off-screen love life. A fun-loving Jewish girl from Great Neck, Long Island (her real name was Marion Levy) she started off in the chorus line of the Ziegfeld Follies. In the 30s, she made her way to Hollywood and wound up marrying Charlie Chaplin and co-starring in Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). Her neighbour David O Selznick came perilously close to casting her as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) – but only briefly, when he despaired of finding anyone better. Divorced from Chaplin, she went on to marry such showbiz intellectuals as Burgess Meredith and Erich Maria Remarque. Her alleged motto in life was never to sleep with a man until he gave her diamonds. She was said to carry a suitcase packed with diamonds on all her travels, to remind herself and others just how well this system worked.

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In short, Paulette Goddard embodied the kind of fragile and artificial movie glamour that made Lana Turner look like Meryl Streep. She got by in her better roles – as an 18th century adventuress in Kitty (1945) or a Gay 90s adventuress in An Ideal Husband (1947) – on a sort of wry and ironical amusement. She looked, as Oscar Wilde wrote, like “an édition de luxe of a wicked French novel.” It was no surprise that she became Andy Warhol’s favourite escort at parties in the 60s. She was, in essence, a Warhol Superstar before that term was even coined. But it was a very great surprise indeed that she gave a realistic, touching and genuinely heartfelt performance as an ageing beauty in an Italian film, The Time of Indifference (1964), just before she bowed out of movies for good.

So what of Paulette as the evil Queen Jezebel? Her Majesty has barely arrived in Judaea when she is cheating on her fiancé King Ahab with a hunky Hebrew general (George Nader). Her bridegroom passes out drunk on the wedding night, but not before she has made him promise to build a temple to the heathen god Baal. This lady is a hybrid of all the sinister dictator’s wives who have wielded a malevolent power from behind the throne. Eva Perón, Imelda Marcos, Elena Ceauşescu – only with deeper villainy and sharper fashion sense thrown in.  “What are you, a man or a piece of dirt?” she sneers when Ahab hesitates to massacre his recalcitrant subjects who refuse to worship Baal. Not even her favoured boy-toy escapes from her tyranny unscathed. He wrestles with his conscience when he is forced to put believers in the True God to death. “In peace or in battle, people get hurt,” he explains to his fellow Israelites. You can’t make an omelette, etc…

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What is truly fascinating about Sins of Jezebel is the fact it is an epic made on a ridiculously small budget. The soldiers wear helmets that look like kitchen pots spray-painted gold. The vases that adorn the royal chambers seem to have been stolen from somebody’s back garden in the San Fernando Valley. At every state banquet (there is not even the faintest hope of an orgy) the tables are laden with identical bowls of wax fruit. One might imagine these came from the studio’s front office – but the independent producers who made this movie were unlikely to have an office of any sort. To his credit, the resourceful Le Borg circumvents the lack of art direction through a strategic deployment of draperies. Every time Queen Jezebel seduces someone, the camera cuts away from the clinch to a swatch of brightly coloured fabric, rippling away. This effect reminds us eerily of the Kenneth Anger film Puce Moment (1949) and the whole production is redolent of one of those underground movies that drag queens in the 60s used to make in memory of Maria Montez.

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Yet however drastically its producers may have skimped, Sins of Jezebel still seems to run out of money well before the end. Long stretches of it are not seen, but narrated by a sententious middle-aged Sunday school teacher in a badly fitting suit. The more the war between Good and Evil heats up – and the number of warriors needed rises above a dozen – the more this narrator tends to take over. Watching him light the seven candles on a menorah – and put them out again, a scene or so later – is dramatically thrilling, I grant you. But the fall of Babylon in Intolerance (1916) or the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956) it most definitely ain’t. It is the sheer lavish folly of Bible epics that audiences across the world respond to. So a Bible epic that fails even at that is a rare and precious object indeed.

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If this Queen Jezebel really does paint her nails with blood…that can only be because blood was cheaper than varnish.

David Melville

13 Responses to “Forbidden Divas: Jungle Red”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    “Sins of Jezebel” is rather redundant for a title. It it’s about Jezebel then it’s about sin. Reginald LeBorg is a familiar name for lovers of Grade Z horror programmers. That this item appears to be short on cash is typical. Adore Paulette, and you’re right about her being a “Superstar” avant la letter. Chaplin made her a goddess in “Modern Times” and “The Great Dictator’ She’s quite at home in “The Woman” — especially the scene in which she gives Norma Shearer some good advice. As for “Sins of Jezebel” it’s fun but not up to (or down with) the level of “The Prodigal” — Frank O’Hara’s favorite Lana Turner movie in which she plays a High Priestess of Baal so upset by Edmund Purdom that she throws herself into a pit fire.

  2. What a load of old Baals we have today!

  3. ehrenstein47 Says:

    HA!

  4. chris schneider Says:

    There’s something endlessly comic about the military helmets in Hollywood Biblicals. For me, my favorite was always SAMSON AND DELILAH, with George Sanders wearing something like the ashtray one would find in old-time theater lobbies.

    Director Le Borg’s films don’t have much, how you say, cachet. My best encounters with him were WEIRD WOMAN and THE MUMMY’S GHOST. I’d like to see his Woolrich film, FALL GUY. DEAD MAN’S EYES, which I *may* have seen, sounds promising.

    I think you do a disservice to Goddard, though. Yes, she was famous for not being able to “act,” but there’s something appealing and effective about Goddard’s brittle delivery — call it what you will — in THE WOMEN and HOLD BACK THE DAWN. It may not have been “acting” but it was skillful and distinctive.

    Bravo, DMW. By the way, as far as scorned genres are concerned, I think that non-Lubitsch operetta runs biblicals a close second. GOLDEN DAWN, anyone?

  5. dbenson Says:

    Perhaps the prize outrageous biblical epic is DeMille’s “Sign of the Cross”. Colbert in a milk bath, Christians thrown to gorillas AND lions, and all manner of precode jawdroppers. The end is a couple of Christians serenely going forth to offscreen but definitely hideous death in the arena.

  6. David W just texted me to say he rewatched An Ideal Husband and felt he’d been too harsh. I love Paulette, but she had her limitations: Leisen found her very effective in Kitty and Hold Back the Dawn but couldn’t get her in step with Bride of Vengeance, a piece of campery I like a lot, and which she’s far from the worst thing in.

    Le Borg directed, woodenly, chunks of Destiny, which inflates a deleted episode from Duvivier’s Flesh and Blood. Though the chumps adapting it deserve the real opprobrium, comparing Le Borg’s footage to JD’s does Reg no favours.

    I was struggling to find frame grabs in this one that even look like anything, but then he does a zip pan from the Israelites praying to Paulette in an identical pose, and that was something, at least.

  7. Yes, that one’s a riot of wrongness, the patina of religiosity stretched tissue-thin over the seething hotbed of perviness.

  8. dbenson Says:

    One more try to post here: “Weird Woman” and “Dead Man’s Eyes” are two of Universal’s “Inner Sanctum” mysteries, a 1940s series of six B movies that all starred Lon Chaney Jr. and all had horror-movie titles despite being closer to the Alfred Hicthcock TV series. A general creepiness prevails, but generations of kids lured by the titles and the presence of Chaney were sorely disappointed.

    If you’re not expecting an actual monster, they’re slickly made and offer ironic fun, mainly in Chaney always playing a he-man intellectual babe magnet, including a collage professor, an artist (creative but manly), and a non-mad scientist. Greenbriar Picture Shows offered a long piece about them, referencing Le Borg as Chaney’s adopted brother (?) and studio mentor.

    I suspect your spam filter had trouble with my including a link, so I’ll just say go to Greenbriar Picture Shows and do a search for “Inner Sanctum”.

  9. The high point of the Inner Sanctum film I saw was the Inner Sanctum Guy, a head in a glass sphere on a desk who introduced the story. I dunno what his deal was, or what he’s called, so I call him the Inner Sanctum Guy.

  10. dbenson Says:

    Inner Sanctum Guy was on all but the last film, “Pillow of Death” (yes, it was about murder by pillow). Think it was the same footage every time. I guess he was meant to suggest the narrator of the scary radio show, although Wiki says the movies were officially licensed off the Inner Sanctum line of mystery novels, which preceded the radio show.

    The presence of Inner Sanctum Guy is one more false promise of an old school monster movie. It’s as if Universal was deliberately alienating the audience of their biggest franchise.

  11. But I guess the mystery novels and radio show were known quantities, maybe audiences would know to expect that kind of thing… though casting Chaney would seem misleading in and of itself.

  12. CHARLES CALLAHAN Says:

    You’ll be impressed to learn that my father went to grammar school with Paulette in the Bronx . N.Y.C., U.S.A.

  13. Extremely impressed! Did he offer any recollections?

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