Art Vs Commerce: Musicals, Bible Stories, and Bad Choices (1950s)

1956

So… this year things are… odd. The box office champ… well it follows a trend, but this is the moment I looked at the 1950s Oscar champs and started wondering what was even happening. If this was the first “Are the Oscars even trying?” decade.

Because if you told someone, anyone, to guess which was Best Picture and which made the most money between an overlong epic on the life and times of Moses and a star-studded madcap comedy about a race around the world, nobody is gonna get this one right.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Hoof.

In a high-society bet, Phileas Fogg, along with his butler Passepartout, a secret policeman who thinks Fogg’s a thief, and eventually an Indian princess Fogg rescues, travel around the world in 80 days, and we spend way too much time watching it happen.

For a race against time, it is very languidly paced. It’s like they shoved a bunch of vista and landscape shots into the movie in an attempt to get themselves a piece of that Cinerama Holiday money. So instead of a madcap adventure full of mishaps and shenanigans, it’s a sluggish travelogue with occasional hijinks and just a parade of famous cameos, some so quick they’re barely more than a smirk to the camera.

And if that’s what you’re into, fine, but there’s a shorter version with cameos you’ll recognize and all the hijinks are Jackie Chan stuff ’cause he’s Passepartout.

So now you’re probably wondering… a movie from the 50s based on a book from the late 19th century, involving exotic locales the world over… how racist is this movie? Well, quite. Quite racist. The worst of it is probably the Sioux raid on their train across the States, or the fact that the Indian princess is played by Shirley MacLaine in order to make her romance with Fogg more acceptable.

So… not great. Not great at all. Not the worst I’ve seen, not even bottom five, but not great. And there were three other nominees that history definitely cares about more, one of which is below.

I will note one innovation in this movie that I’d been waiting to see… end credits. So far, and going forward for a minute yet, the standard has been to do all the credits at the beginning of the movie, then at the end there’s usually only a “The End” title card or maybe a refresher on the cast, this time specifying who played who. But there are so many notable names doing cameos in 80 Days that they decided “Eh, throw the crew in there as well.” It didn’t take just yet, but innovation usually needs incubation time.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Not much pleasant, as it’s waaaaay down at #87, over The Great Ziegfeld but under what are considered the greatest blown calls of the 90s and 2000s, and way under Green Book.

It was a huge hit, but Around the World in 80 Days only managed number two at the bog office. Was it beaten by another giant biblical epic?

Oh, the giantest.

The Box Office Champ

Well at least we’ve moved to the Old Testament. Spares us a ten minute flashback about the resurrection. Still…

It’s the final film of Cecile B. DeMille, and he went all-in on the life and times of Moses, cramming three novels and the Book of Exodus into one three hour, forty minute movie. So… so much movie. And only about twenty minutes of it actually deals with the titular commandments, which honestly was still ten minutes too many.

It’s the entire life story of Moses (Charlton Heston), from being set adrift to avoid baby-murder by a Pharaoh that didn’t want to lose his slaves, to growing up a Prince of Egypt alongside a very jealous brother Ramses* (Yul Brynner), to discovering his true heritage because a self-hating Hebrew slave woman couldn’t keep her mouth shut; to his banishment and subsequent return to say “let my people go and my God will stop punching you” through ten plagues; the Red Sea escape, the Commandments, and finally dying after forty years of aimless wandering caused by the Israelites letting a traitorous asshole that they knew was a traitorous asshole talk them into a sin party while Moses was taking his sweet time getting those commandments.

*The previous pharaoh demanded all Hebrew infants be killed so none of them would grow up to end slavery, creating the circumstances that ended slavery; Ramses schemed against Moses to remain the favourite and ended up making Moses the favourite; the self-fulfilling prophecy is thick in this thing.

It was a huge hit. Adjust for inflation and it’s still the eighth-highest grosser of all time. So our chonkers, our thicc bois, our absolute units of movie, Gone With the Wind and The Ten Commandments, did massive box office. One could, if one chose, try to make an argument that audiences can in fact handle a film with a long runtime, that modern audiences need to regrow an attention span, and if one chose to make a superhuman (sorry) leap of logic, that Warner Bros. was wrong to make Zack Snyder cut Batman V Superman and Justice League down to a manageable length. Well, I’m here to say…

[Plants self like a tree by the river of truth]

No. You’re wrong.

Gone With the Wind ran out of steam at least 40 minutes before the end, The Ten Commandments took two hours to get to the good parts, The Irishman was extremely self-indulgent, all of them could have been much shorter, and if Zack Snyder needs four hours to tell part one of his Justice League story, maybe he should go into television.

As to our current topic, here’s some things I didn’t care for that could have been cut for time.

There’s this asshole named Dathan (Edward G. Robinson) who is quick to sell his own people out for wealth and power, eventually becoming governor and forcing a slave girl to be his mistress so the guy she really likes, Top Slavery Opponent Joshua, won’t get executed. When Ramses finally buckles after the tenth plague, Dathan gets tossed from his palace, and spends the entire hike to Mount Sinai, including the whole Red Sea parting, saying “Moses sucks, let’s go back to Egypt so I can be rich and you can be beaten, starved, and worked to death some more.” I get that having one person be the face of every Israelite willing to sell their people out for money and comfort is easier, but honestly, the fact that he was still shouting “Moses ain’t so hot, let’s go back” after ten plagues, a pillar of fire, the Red Sea parting, and then un-parting to swallow their enemies is weird enough, because damn, man, take a hint. But that people were still listening to him defies belief. Miracles aside, everyone knew he turned on them for money and power at every chance, why he didn’t get the taste slapped out of his mouth every time he spoke up makes no sense.

And then there’s crown princess Nefritiri. She’s due to marry the next pharaoh, which Ramses thinks should be him, but she loves Moses. Moses loves her back, but once they find out his true past (a secret she killed the snitch servant woman to keep secret, not that it helped), Moses decides that he should live as a slave with his people rather than, I don’t know, becoming pharaoh and actually having the power to improve their lives. Nefritiri is forced into a loveless, probably abusive marriage with Ramses (Ramses only loves Ramses), but never stops loving Moses. However, when he comes back to Egypt to free his people, she’s so mad that he got married during his long exile that she goads Ramses into ignoring plagues one through nine, leading to her own son dying in plague ten, then goads him into chasing the Hebrews down, getting a whole division of soldiers drowned.

Which… yes, fine, that’s what happens in the story, but why plant it all on Nefritiri? Why give her a huge heel-turn that gets thousands killed? Ramses had been a big enough asshole the entire movie that we didn’t need someone to talk him into ignoring a series of horrifying miracles punishing him for being a dick, he could have just kept being a dick, like Dathan, or Ahtur from Samson and Delilah.

It just… between this, Delilah, and the horny empress from Quo Vadis, it really feels like the biblical epic genre hates women, and it’s uncomfortable.

Also, following the grand spectacle climax of the Red Sea, spending 20 minutes on “Dathan talks the Israelites into having a sin party because Moses hasn’t done a miracle in a minute” while God very gradually lists his Commandments proves why Peter Jackson was right to cut the Scouring of the Shire out of Return of the King, sorry not sorry but come on wrap it up, I already have my coat on.

That said, there is some actual good filmmaking scattered throughout, so the movie’s not a loss or anything. Honestly it still feels more “best picture-y” than Around the World in 80 Days so I’m still confused about that one.

Here’s a Twitter thread.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Not enough reviews for Certified Fresh, but critics and audiences both put it in the high 80s: 89% and 87% respectively. Felt more like a 65-70 to me but agree to disagree.

But Why Not…? I don’t know, seems unlikely anything was gonna top the final DeMille flick at the box office, especially since 50s Christians were suckers for a religious epic. But this year also saw the final collaborations of Abbott and Costello (Dance With Me, Henry, they didn’t have to go out on an Abbott and Costello Meet _____ pic) and Martin and Lewis (Hollywood or Bust), and either of those sounds more fun. Probably could have done both in the same amount of time.

Other Events in Film

  • James Dean’s final film, Giant, hit theatres. He got a posthumous Oscar nomination but couldn’t beat Yul Brynner for The King and I. Hm. Brynner had a good year.
  • Elvis Presley made his film debut in Love Me Tender.
  • Brigitte Bardot became an international star with And God Created Woman, and since it was a French movie with France’s looser content standards, probably took another chunk out of the power of the Hays Code.
  • Grace Kelly’s final film also came out in 1956, as she left acting to be Princess of Monaco. I never got to include a Grace Kelly movie, because the 50s kept screwing up their movie preferences. To Catch a Thief is pretty decent, though, you might give it a try.
  • United Artists, having made their point about The Man With the Golden Arm, rejoined the MPAA.

Next Page: Bridge Over Troubled Water

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *