Nero LeRoy

“Is this, then, the end of Nero?” asks a dying Emperor Peter Ustinov at the climax of QUO VADIS?, more or less quoting Edward G. Robinson at the end of LITTLE CAESAR. Which was directed by the same guy, Mervyn Leroy, back when he was young and awake. Since there are varying accounts of Nero’s actual or supposed last words, and none of them include a quote from a Warners gangster picture, this must surely qualify as one of the most prominently placed in-jokes in Hollywood history.

Would that there were any other evidence that the film had a sense of humour about itself. It’s entertaining rubbish, though: the sets are big, and the acting varies from dreadful (Robert Taylor, not a screen god in this household) to the impressive — how Deborah Kerr, Leo Genn, Abraham Sofaer (the judge/surgeon from AMOLAD), Marina Berti and Rosalie Crutchley are able to make their dreadful lines sound like human speech is quite staggering.

Crutchley, darkly gorgeous, is the only character who’s apparently read the whole script, not just the scene she’s playing: she knows how it’s going to end.

I watched a bit of TORA! TORA! TORA! on TV the same day, and it was interesting to see how the American scenes in that managed to turn comparatively recent US history into the same kind of lifeless tableaux as the typical ancient world epic. I forget if it was in this film that Ustinov blew on his soup to cool it, and was told the gesture was too modern. “In what age, pray, did the wretched Romans stop eating their minestrone piping hot?” he inquired. Of the two films, QV has slightly more authentic human behaviour. By the end, I was dying for some actual life.

So Fiona wondered if Ustinov contributed his own famous last words, since the man did have a sense of humour absent elsewhere in this roaring stodgefest. The scenes at court are weapons-grade camp, with Patricia Laffan (DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS) a resplendent whore-empress Poppaea, and Ustinov clearly taking to heart departing helmer Anthony Mann’s character sketch of the depraved Caesar: “Strikes me as the kind of guy plays with himself nights.”

QUO VADIS stars Quentin Durward; Sister Clodagh; Starbuck; Hercule Poirot; Nyah; Magwitch; Benjamin Disraeli; Queen at Tarsus (uncredited); Vargas the Diablo Giant; Hecuba; Inspector Buchanan, Special Branch; Horatio, His Friend; the screenwriter of THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN; Mrs Dudley; Mrs Alexander; Bambino; and the voice of Morbius.

8 Responses to “Nero LeRoy”

  1. Grant Skene Says:

    I watched Mervyn Leroy’s turgid The FBI Story this weekend while doing my GST paperwork (Canadian version of VAT). I found myself more fascinated by the paperwork. James Stewart drawls his way through a retelling of 50 years of FBI history as whitewashed by J. Edgar himself. Not a single event portrayed without first distorting the facts and surgically removing any suspense or action.

  2. chris schneider Says:

    I knew of John Huston’s QV involvement, but I didn’t know of Anthony Mann’s … although it makes sense, since Mann was involved with Metro (see THE TALL TARGET) at the time. That makes two Roman epics that Mann left prematurely, QV and SPARTACUS.

    My first “husband” would talk about Ustinov’s Nero being an influential image (for him) of gayness in cinema. I would always counter with Jay Robinson in THE ROBE.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    If memory serves, bits and pieces of the burning of Rome are deployed in George Pal’s “Atlantis the Lost Continent”. Also, the notion of burning down the city in the name of urban renewal (gentrification?) almost registers as prescient satire.

  4. Ustinov got a lot of mileage out of this one. He also had the lovely story of MGM being concerned he was too young for the part. This dragged on for so long he was moved to point out that, given the Emperor’s early death, if they waited much longer he’d be too old. They wired him, “Historical research has proved you correct.”

    We applauded the pull-back from a model shot of Rome only to reveal it’s an actual model and a giant Nero is gloating over it.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    For me Ustinov will ALWAYS be the ringmaster in “Lola Montes” A for Jay Robinson he was even more interesting in “Shampoo” where he played the salon owner who is Warren Beatty’s boss. He’s gay, but also has a son whose death in the Vietnam war he learns of during the action

  6. According to the late Bill Warren’s highly commendable book, Keep Watching the Skies, Benson is correct. Two bad movies are therefore related.

  7. Yes, Pal borrowing from Leroy to make something even worse.

    I just read Huston’s account of the QV debacle and it’s delirious. Prime LB Mayer! I must post it.

  8. bensondonald Says:

    “Atlantis” may be bad, but enjoyably so. Meanwhile, any discussion of Nero needs to include this two-reeler. Around the 3-minute mark Vernon Dent turns up as a singing Nero, but the whole thing is worth a gawk:

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