Archive for Lesser Samuels

Chalice in Wonderland

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 3, 2023 by dcairns

“There’s no place like Rome!” effuses Albert Dekker, barging back into THE SILVER CHALICE with wholly inappropriate gusto. “Someone actually wrote that?” asked Fiona, wandering into the living room to find me numbed to somnolence by the movie’s relentless onslaught of leaden verbiage and gaucherie.

A servant of two masters, Paul Newman as Basil is sculpting Jesus and Nero at the same time, rendering unto Caesar I suppose. We then get, by way of climax, Jack Palance — as Simon Magus, a “real” biblical figure — trying to prove the superiority of his magic over that of the Christians. He causes to be built — by enslaved Christians, adding insult to injury — a Great Tower, from the top of which he promises to fly. This is initially going to be done via a concealed contraption, a bronze wheel and rod arrangement. A meaty assistant will crank a lever causing Palance to orbit the tower on the end of this rod, which will be invisible to the audience and emperor below because, as we all know, bronze cannot be seen when held up to the sky. It’s absolutely foolproof, at least enough to convince Virginia Mayo, and we all know what a stickler she is.

I can’t really be bothered with anything Paul Newman does from here on in because he’s a complete bystander in the film’s rivetting concluslion. Palance, crosseyed with hubris, decides that he’s going to fly for real, wearing a bat-cape (which may be why he was cast in the Burton BATMAN) and a leotard printed for some reason with tadpoles or black spermatozoa. I guess the idea really is a phallic one — our man is, after all, going to come popping out the top of a great erection, his skintight cossie alive with little swimmers. Costume design is credited jointly to Rolf Gerard (also the fiend responsible for prod des) and Marjorie Best on the IMDb, but in the film she has a mysterious “Wardrobe Executed by” credit and he has only Production Design. If both are true, then the film’s great achievements in Stylistic Unity can certainly be laid at Rolf’s wardrobe door, while Best, a very experienced movie costumier, was presumably forced at gunpoint to carry out the schemes.

The script has promised us a magical duel between Saint Peter and Simon Magus (who is annoyingly never referred to by that really cool name). But we don’t get a fun Merlin-Madame Mim battle, nor a Dr. Craven vs. Dr. Scarabus one. Peter sits this one out. Various biblical apocrypha describe Simon actually flying, and Peter sabotaging his maiden flight with a well-aimed prayer, causing the soaring sinner to crash to earth in several pieces. (Accounts vary: one bloodthirsty version has Simon smashed up by the fall, then stoned by his disappointed fans, and finally bled to death by the surgeons labouring to save him. But this is act three, we’re in a hurry, folks.)

I would have liked to see that ending, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy what Victor Saville and Lesser Samuels served up. Palance, going fully off his rocker (and, to be fair, this can be used to retroactively justify JP’s very eccentric performance up to this point), mounts the tower. Virginia Mayo sends the chunky flunky after him to stop him breaking his neck. Good high and low angles. Jack executes a magnificent swan dive into the studio floor.

Various species of chaos now erupt. Nero, for no particular reason, orders Mayo thrown off the tower. “If she can fly, her life will be spared.” Fiona at this point reasoned that since the hefty bronze rod operator is already up the tower, Virginia ought to be able to pull off Palance’s planned levitation trick. But we never see this and the assumption has to be that she dies. It would make a great reveal in a sequel, THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF HELENA FROM THE SILVER CHALICE, but alas it was not to be.

Screenwriter Lesser Samuels’ talent may have deserted him, but his brain — alas! — is still working. As Basil and Deborah sail off into a brown sort of sunset, St. Pete (Lorne Green of Bonanza!) gives a big speech in which he predicts the rise of skyscrapers and electric light bulbs. This ties in with the curious panelled design of Simon’s tower of power — it’s a prophetic sculpture of a skyscraper. The story COULD have enlisted Basil to work on it — a silver rod for Palance might have made more sense than a bronze one — but making him entirely passive was thought preferable. Peter’s bizarre monologue about the twentieth century is needed to explain how the Holy Grail vanishing could possibly be a positive thing — apparently it’s going to turn up sometime soon and maybe do some good. Keep watching the shelves!


The Chalice from the Palace

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on February 17, 2023 by dcairns

THE SILVER CHALICE is kind of a legend among bad films. I feel one should approach it on bended knee, if such a thing were possible.

I noticed it’s written by one Lesser Samuels, and thought Huh, I guess they should have hired Greater Samuels instead, No good skimping on Samuelses.

But Lesser is actually quite somebody. He managed to redeem himself somewhat with Jaques Tourneur’s GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING, his next and final film, but he had just done ACE IN THE HOLE with Billy Wilder. Wilder later suggested that the collaborators he worked with just once were the ones who didn’t really click, but that would still put Samuels in good company, with Raymond Chandler for instance. And ACE is a classic.

(Per Billy Wilder, an associate producer is anyone who will associate with a producer.)

Scrolling down the old IMDb page I then find that Samuels, though American, started his screenwriting career in Britain, as Jessie Matthews’ favourite scribe. This makes for a connection with SILVER CHALICE helmer Victor Saville.

My last experience of Saville was his dull and disappointing film of KIM, and I know he had an odd sort of Hollywood career, avoiding the kind of musicals he’d made quite charmingly in the UK, and which were being made constantly in Hollywood… TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT is the exception, but apart from a surprising moment where a fey young gent dances to a Hitler speech, I found it underwhelming. I guess Saville was trying to escape that world with films about Bulldog Drummond and Mike Hammer. Where does this one fit in?

At the bottom, is the obvious answer. Samuels immediately reveals himself as a man at sea in ancient times. Writing dialogue for characters who wouldn’t actually have spoken English, and who infest a remote period of history where ways are strange and the dialogue that’s been recorded sounds suspiciously formal. Still, you don’t need to forget about subtext, do you. Here is some CHALICE talk for you to enjoy:

The conversation revolves around a bust of Natalie Wood (not THE bust of Natalie Wood)

HELENA AS A GIRL (Natalie Wood as a girl, who will turn into Virginia Mayo as a woman, somehow): Do you think I look like that?

BASIL AS A GIRL BOY (Peter Raynolds as a boy, who will turn into Paul Newman as a man, who will turn in his grave): That’s the way I see you. Like a great lady.

HELENA (still) AS A GIRL: That’s what I would like to be. Not a slave.

There you go: it needed saying, and she said it. But the secret of screenwriting may in fact be preventing your characters from ever saying what needs saying. How would Lubitsch do it? Or how about Harold Pinter?

HELENA: Do my eyebrows really look like that? (Am I that beautiful?)

BASIL: No. (You’re more beautiful.)


But in the real movie we have before us, HELENA AS A GIRL continues:

When I am with you, I feel free. But when I return to the house of the slaves, I hate it. That’s why I am running away. Tonight.

It’s really immortal stuff. No matter how hard you try to kill it.

Did Saville ever have skill choosing and directing actors? Not on the basis of KIM, but this is much worse. Did he have these skills when he made the early funny ones? They’re well cast and the actors give good perfs, suited to the material. So has his skill completely deserted him in later life, or does it just not work on this kind of subject (why is he doing it then?) or has he stopped caring? Certain filmmakers seem to stop caring, even though you sense that maybe they WANT to care.

This is ten minutes into the film and Albert Dekker has already said “You may have time to wait, but I, Kester, have none.” And this is immediately after someone has just called him Kester, so he doesn’t NEED to say “I, Kester.” It’s a very Bender thing to say, and may even have inspired the whole “me, Bender” thing. Then he says, “In the presence of these five witnesses, of which I am one…” It’s bad ancient world writing crossed with bad radio writing.

Albert Dekker would later be found strangled in a bath with BITCH written on his chest in lipstick and though that was twelve years later I feel this dialogue may have been responsible.

I’m considering doing a quote from this film every week for, oh, maybe a year. The “visual style” — simultaneously beautiful and cheap-looking and stiffly inert — rates discussion too.

THE SILVER CHALICE stars Honey Swanson; Teresa Russo; Attila; Oliver Larrabee; Dr. No; Old Polo; Commander Adama; Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter; Dwight D. Eisenhower; Sir Locksley; Daisy Clover; PTO; Dr. Cyclops; and introducing Butch Cassidy.

A Nice, Clean Girl in a Nice, Clean World

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2014 by dcairns



The line “A nice, clean girl” &c is sneered — SNEERED! — by Richard Widmark at Linda Darnell in Joe Monkeybitch’s electrifying thriller / issues film NO WAY OUT. It’s a movie whose liberal good intentions are easy to mock, but which are played out mainly in exciting noir situations. Widmark’s racist is suitably pathetic, stupid and inadequate, but still a convincing threat by virtue of sheer vicious malevolence and the actor’s magnetism. It’s fashionable to say that Sidney Poitier, here in his first lead role (even if he’s billed fourth, AFTER the main title and in a clump of supporting schmoes) was cast in boring, squeaky clean parts for much of his career, but he’s no more virtuous than the average leading man of 1950. Perhaps a little too noble by Mankiewicz’s high standards, BUT —


Widmark isn’t the only one who can sneer.

You also get Ossie Morris Davis and his sexy wife Ruby Dee and Mildred Joanne Smith and Dots Johnson and Amanda Randolph and Maude Simmons too — most of them uncredited, to be sure — I think whoever decided credits at Fox was not as progressive as the director — and because Mankiewicz and co-scribe Lesser Samuels (ACE IN THE HOLE) are good writers, they play a variety of interesting people. I don’t think it’s purely a desire to be progressive, I think it’s just the good writer’s desire to avoid boring stereotypes and give the audience an interesting experience with some interesting characters. Amanda Randolph pops up as a housekeeper and nearly walks of with the film.

Also interesting is Harry Bellaver as Widmark’s deaf-mute brother. The treatment of disability is not as progressive as the treatment of race, with Bellaver treated as a stooge by all and sundry — when the doctors want family permission to perform an autopsy on the third Biddle brother, nobody even considers asking him. One wishes he had a bit more independence as a character but I guess he’s relied on Widmark all his life. It’s kind of interesting to see a deaf racist in a film — we even get the sign-language equivalent of all the racist terms used so freely by Widmark’s venomous bigot — Bellaver presses his nose flat with one hand. An ironic sign, since Bellaver already has a squashed-flat neb that looks like the impact site of a putty meteor.

Darnell has one of the best roles she ever got — Mankiewicz gave her the very best in LETTER TO THREE WIVES — where she gets a tremendous range of stuff to do and a journey from slovenly tramp to well-meaning tart with a heart to racist stooge to class victim to heroine. Stephen McNally, billed ahead of Poitier, has the genuinely boring role as the nice head doctor, and the screenplay sensibly sidelines him as early as possible and omits him from the climax entirely. See The Knick for a stronger solution to the role of the head doctor dealing with his first black M.D. — boldly, the series puts the hero in the wrong.