Marvelous Mary came to tea and she had just seen THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD on the big screen and enjoyed it apart from Errol’s wig (which he designed himself) and expressed an interest in Michael Curtiz. Unfortunately for her, I had recently acquired some late Curtiz which I was curious about but also somewhat afraid of, and took this opportunity to plonk THE EGYPTIAN in the Panasonic. My intention had been merely to sample it, assess how boring, stiff and laboured it was, and then move onto something fun, but it was SO life-sappingly dull and devoid of humanity that we found ourselves subjugated to it. It crept by like an anamorphic Sunday afternoon, and we were pinned to the couch, helpless to escape the hieroglyphic onslaught.
Afterwards, to inject some vim back into the Shadowplayhouse, I ran THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE, a 1935 Perry Mason romp helmed by Curtiz in happier days, but by then both MM and Fiona were exhausted, and become probably the only audience in history to sit through THE EGYPTIAN, wide awake, and then fall asleep during the peppy post-code, which stars Warren William and Allen Jenkins and is a lot of fun. Perry Mason never actually makes it into a courtroom in any of the Warner Bros. films, doing all his lawyering on the hoof. This is maybe the snappiest and silliest of them all, with a particularly cheerful coroner and even a helpful man in a condemned cell (put there by Mason but philosophical about it) who doesn’t let his impending execution stop him adding to the general high spirits.
Levity is in short supply in THE EGYPTIAN, a movie Brando busted out of, which gives you some idea. He was happy to play Napoleon, happy to don yellowface (as “Sakini”), but he couldn’t see himself as an ancient Egyptian doctor, breaking his contract and hightailing it and forcing them to recast. But was Edmund Purdom really necessary? To say that Purdom is no Brando is not to say much. But he’s barely even Edmund Purdom. Where other actors have presence, he offers only absence. His infallible technique for raising the dramatic interest in a scene is to exit it.
But in fairness, nobody else is particularly good. Jean Simmons can make no impression as a saintly tavern wench, a combination of personality and job description which may possible be playable but is no fun to play. Peter Ustinov has the only good lines, giving a dozen different explanations of how he lost his eye, and gives a masterclass in gruesome ham when he has to remove a ruby concealed in his empty socket. Gene Tierney is glamorous but glacial. Only John Carradine — weirdly — suggests a human being, even as his appearance suggests an articulated scarecrow on wires. Did he look at what everyone else was doing and decide that his usual declamatory mode wouldn’t cut it, and a conversational tone would allow him to stand out, a breath of fresh air in the Cinemascope desert? Did Curtiz terrorize him into new-found naturalism (unlikely: Ustinov thought his director was pretty out of it, not only linguistically challenged but mentally, after too many years of unquestioned, murderous tyranny). Or did Purdom’s suffusing tedium simply rob him of the bluster and gusto that powered his thespian excesses and leave him no option but simply to talk, like a person?
John Carradine holding a shovel is better than Edmund Purdom holding anything.
Photography by Leon Shamroy, the Queen of Technicolor, was gorgeous — much better than his work on
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA which is curiously pallid. His usual complimentary colour schemes (gold and cobalt blue, the orange and teal of their day) are perhaps more muted than in the lusciously lurid LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, but still saturated enough to provide some relief from the soporific Nile-based shenanigans.
In a sense, Curtiz was coming full circle with his late epics — this and FRANCIS OF ASSISSI, which I haven’t steeled myself to — echo silent works from his German period like SODOM UND GOMORRHA and DIE SKLAVENKONEGIN, which likewise brought out his more turgid side but which are a walk in the park compared to THE EGYPTIAN. At least he still had good work to do — he followed this with two Christmas flicks (he was born on Christmas Eve), the boring WHITE CHRISTMAS and the snappy, black-hearted WE’RE NO ANGELS, which is maybe his best colour film after DR. X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM… oh, and THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD.