Moses strikes poses

An amusing irony: Howard Hawks said he learned what NOT to do by looking at DeMille’s films, then when he made his own ancient world epic, LAND OF THE PHARAOHS, he ran into the famous “I don’t know how a pharaoh talks” problem, which DeMille had, you could say, solved: in DeMille films, pharaohs talk like characters in Cecil B. DeMille films.

Never more so that in the 1956 TEN COMMANDMENTS where Yul Brunner is at his Yul Brynneriest throughout. (Yet Cedric Hardwicke comes within shouting distance of humanity at times.) But the one, true biscuit is taken by Chuckles Heston, who starts out in his version of naturalism — declamatory, gravelly, planting his feet wide apart, flexing, heaving the words up from his solar plexus — but becomes something wholly other once Moses gets religion…

In prophet mode, Heston produces a form of “acting” I’m not sure we’ve really seen before. Maybe it’s what D.W. Griffith would have sounded like if his 1908 semaphore could be translated into spoken form. It has something in common with the ghosts in Japanese movies — think RASHOMON. It has nothing in common with human speech.

The best example is when Rameses finally frees the Israelites: we have to blame the script for some of it, though DeMille in his intro claims that history is really to blame. Moses starts speechifying — then walks out of the scene, still declaiming. You can hear his voice diminishing in the distance for close to a minute. Who does that? Rod Steiger does it in THE BIG KNIFE, playing a lunatic film producer of the L.B. Mayer variety. Charles Haid does it in ALTERED STATES, to hilarious effect. In the first case, a character point is being made, in the second, Ken Russell was forced to include a lot of talk he didn’t particularly care for, so he tried to dispose of it in novel ways. No such excuse exists here. Moses is just being written as a nutjob, unintentionally.

If you’re inclined to laugh at infant mortality, this film has much to offer, but this scene is the finest example, because the army of scribes has taken care to insert between Heston’s wooden lips pointed references to the liberation of the CHILDREN of Israel (DeMille has made the whole story an anti-commie tract), timed to coincide/clash with Anne Baxter descending a grand staircase with her divinely slain son in her arms. Which tends to make Moses seem every bit as crass as Heston giving one of his NRA speeches in the wake of a school shooting.

This moment, jaw-dropping though it is, is just a preliminary to Moses’ Big Hair acting in the film’s third act. Chuckles has looked in the mirror and asked himself, what would a guy who looks like THIS talk like? Big mistake. I can’t describe what he does. It involves BOOMING. The oratorical style might be defensible when Moses is speaking to the masses, as he so often is in this section. But he keeps it up for casual conversation. Booming banter. Supremely confident terrible acting.

For a few minutes, I thought I was going to find the film’s weird non-naturalism fascinating, the stiffness of its blocking and delivery hypnotic and kind of impressive. But it’s not quite rigid ENOUGH. The tableau style of GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is more my bag — genuinely experimental.

When Scorsese talks about the power of DeMille’s images, he seems to mainly be talking about the effects shots, and I think maybe we should credit the storyboard artists and John P. Fulton and his team, though I guess DeMille is responsible for approving everything. But I think it’s fair to say that none of the film’s undeniably impressive images have any good acting in them. (Only Edward G. Robinson is good in this, though I wish he’d played it at a Warner pre-code pace. As the only Jewish actor, naturally he plays the Bad Jew. Oh, and Yvonne DeCarlo, gamely battling her dialogue like Jason struggling with the hydra: whenever one terrible line is defeated, two more rise to take its place.)

I can understand Scorsese’s residual affection for a film he was impressed by as a kid. But I don’t think it’s objectively better than the Marvel and DC films he rightly dismisses.

Touchingly, Moses waves goodbye to us/his people at the end of the film, which was DeMille’s last as director. He clearly wanted to get the most out of it, which is why he narrates huge swathes, patiently describing what we can already see, sometimes sneakily suggesting debauchery and wickedness he’s not allowed to show us, much though he would love to.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS stars Major Dundee; King Mongkut of Siam; Lucy Morgan; Caesar Enrico ‘Rico’ Bandello; Lily Munster; Shila – Cleopatra’s Daughter; Hajji Baba; Arthur Winslow; Julia Ross; Ellie Hilliard; Mrs. Danvers; Prince Prospero; Hatfield; Athos; The Black-Bearded One; Actor on DeMille’s ‘Samson & Delilah’ Set; Jesus – the Christ; John Miljan – Actor in Bedroom Scene; 1st Sgt. Braxton Rutledge; Scar / Cicatriz; Hatfield; Donald Pecos – aka The Pecos Kid; Dr. Franz Edlemann; Samson Posey; Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis; Judas; Norman Frink; Alvin Straight; Mary Todd Lincoln; Chubby Bannister; Lucifer Jr; Alfalfa; Napoleon Solo; and Herb Alpert as himself.

19 Responses to “Moses strikes poses”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    What a great post-Easter review, David, to say nothing about its post-partum Red Sea special effects. My dealer sent it to me by mistake for the silent version and said I could keep it. Following running the credit and opening scenes (just in case it would revert to the version requested) I noted the brief presence of a tableau-pre-Hollywood mode of placing actors.

    Was C.B. reverting to his beginnings? Anyway, good point about Edward G. – “the only good Jew is a bad Jew” – in those 50s Aryan appropriatiopns of Holy Writ.

  2. chris schneider Says:

    Alas, you seem indifferent to the charms of “Lucy Morgan” saying “Not that one … the very dirty one! Yes, that one. He may serve my needs …”

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    Missed this one, David! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFAlZttXfvE

  4. The hydra that grew extra heads was heracles’ problem – although jason does fight the hydra in JATA he wisely neglects to chop off any of its heads, choosing instead to chib it in the guts.

  5. I like Anne Baxter a lot but she’s deplorable in this, except from a camp perspective. But I don’t think it’s GOOD camp.

    You’re right, of course, Alex, I’m compounding my hydras, which simply isn’t done.

    Robinson’s casting is like Anna May Wong being offered the unsympathetic part in The Good Earth — which she refused. The hidden inference may have passed Eddie by, or he may have simply wanted to take the money and run.

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    Robinson has been blacklisted for a relatively short period. Aldrich gave him the leading role in THE BIG LEAGUER so he may have chosen silence as a post-HUAC strategy. He was also vilified by Congressman Rankin’s in his anti-semitic outbursts against Jews in Hollywood.

  7. Well, working for CB would be like a clean bill of health from HUAC…

  8. Jeff Gee Says:

    I had no idea about the Herb Alpert appearance. I was hoping, not having see this magilla for 50 years or so, that it was Tijuana Brass-era Herb Alpert accompanying Moses on Mount Sinai with “Tijuana Taxi” or “The Lonely Bull,” sort of the way that Brian Ferry shows up in “Babylon Berlin,” croons an old Roxy Music song for the Weimar hepcats (who love it), and then (presumably) returns to the 21st Century.

    This is a pretty decent use of C.B.’s footage.

  9. Blocked in my country, but I found a lo-res version. Pretty good!

  10. Trust you’ll get to the silent version eventually.

    There’s a bit of Moses in “The Green Pastures”, and it always struck me as a copout. Rather than real-life slavery, which would have been the obvious equivalent for Black American children, they set Pharaoh’s palace in a stereotypical fraternal lodge.

    “Wholly Moses” offered more genuine blasphemy than “Life of Brian”, but ruffled no feathers because it was delivered by friendly comic faces in watery imitation of a Mel Brooks movie.

    Brooks of course got some mileage out of Moses in “History of the World Part One”, muttering back to God and fumbling the tablets. He also used the Parting of the Red Sea effect built into the Universal Studios tram tour, itself a tad irreverent (and odd, since “Ten Commandments” was a Paramount movie).

    All I remember of “Land of the Pharaohs” is the sealing of the tomb (Did everybody keep it secret from Joan Collins or was she just careless about details?) and a guy who looked like Curly Howard wrestling with a bull. Kept expecting the guy to butt heads with the bull, knocking it out (“Nyuck nyuck, nyuck …”).

    Have yet to see the animated “Prince of Egypt”, but recall it had big-name Christian “advisors” to assure Middle America it was okay.

  11. Scorsese adhered to tradition by casting Harvey Keitel as the ultimate Bad Jew, alongside Willem Christ. The Last Temptation of Christ posits a kind of Alternative Judas, but you don’t wipe out 2,000 years with one movie. Given that he was asking for trouble anyway, maybe it should have occurred to Scorsese to reverse the casting.

  12. Scorsese’s film is considerable less WASPy than previous New Testament pics. but skews a bit Italianamerican in the supporting roles. Still, there’s Irvin Kershner (!) as Zebedee. And Leo Marks as Satan, which may be another unfortunate choice, now I think about it.

  13. In 1929 Basil Rathbone conceived and starred in a play presenting Judas as a sympathetic figure, one who wanted Jesus to lead a revolution. It failed, but he was always proud of it:
    http://www.basilrathbone.net/theater/judas/judas.htm

  14. Sounds like a proto-Kazantzakis take on the character!

  15. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I strongly disagree. Anne Baxter is great camp — especially in her “Oh Moses, Moses Moses!” exortation. In fact she became the center of my dear late friend Richard Rouilard’s Passover service, in which he substituted “Anne Baxter” for every mention of Jehovah in the text.

    Mr. and Mrs. Pharaoh are much best thing in “The Ten Commandments” — looking forward to George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in many ways. This is very much in line with Biblical “spectaculars” tradition. “Land of the Pharaohs” belongs to Joan Collins. Edward G. Robinson’s ham on rye , particularly in the “Golden Calf” sequence keeps the audience awake while Charlton Axiom of the Cinema constantly threatens to put them to sleep.

  16. Tony William,s Says:

    And let us not forget her uncredited cameo in THE FAMILY JEWELS, Jerry Lewis’s Captain Eddie segment always being the funniest part of the film for me.

  17. That’s a fun character of Jer’s, and it’s a shame we didn’t get more of him in future movies (of which there weren’t many, anyhow).

  18. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, after seeing that I always referred to the St. Louis/William County Shuttle as “Jerry Lewis Airlines” and realized why I was met in st. Louis and drivvn by car for my interview destination back in 1984!

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