Sunday, October 10, 2010

Movie Review: THE KING OF KINGS (Pathe Exchange, 1927)

Here is the first fruits (I thought the "Biblical language" was appropriate) of my recent reading of Scott Eyman's fine biography of Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille's lavishly produced tale of the life of Christ was produced after the director had been dismissed from Paramount and had opened his own production facility, a la Sam Goldwyn. Unfortunately, DeMille's dream of freedom was turning to dust even as DeMille's crew were turning the cameras to film this epic. Even before King wrapped, DeMille had been forced to merge his outfit with several other companies, including Pathe, which wound up distributing the film. For all of the chaotic circumstances surrounding its production -- not to mention DeMille's taking of a few extreme liberties with Scripture with the avowed purpose of compelling people of all religious persuasions to follow the narrative -- King still holds up reasonably well today. I haven't seen The Passion of the Christ, but I did see Franco Zeffirelli's acclaimed mini-series Jesus of Nazareth back in the 70s, and that's the best cinematic depiction of Jesus' life that I've ever witnessed. King, however, would have to rank second.

DeMille quickly puts his own stamp on things by opening with a Technicolor orgy sequence in which Mary Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan) is "re-imagined" as a glitzy prostitute in love with Judas Iscariot (Joseph Schildkraut) -- and royally pissed that Judas has thrown in his lot with some "carpenter." This conceit can be put down to DeMille's own idiosyncratic reading of the Gospel narrative. Specifically, the director believed that Judas simply had to have an ulterior motive for his treachery against Jesus. After Jesus (H.B. Warner, in his most famous role) evicts the Seven Deadly Sins from Mary M., Judas, who believes that Jesus is destined to establish a Jewish kingdom independent of Roman rule, begins to simmer with resentment, leaving him easy prey for the bribe offered by the conniving high priest Caiaphas (Rudolph Schildkraut). Evidently, DeMille didn't suffer much opprobrium for going so far afield with his theorizing. He did, however, get attacked by some for anti-Semitism, much as Mel Gibson did for The Passion of the Christ. Here, it seems that Cecil outsmarted himself. So determined was DeMille to avoid blaming "the Jews" as a people for Christ's death that he loaded virtually all of the responsibility for the Passion on the shoulders of Caiaphas, making the priest a greedy power-monger and suck-up to Rome. All this did, however, was remind people of the stereotype of the "greedy, conniving Jew." Sometimes you simply can't win.

Once the events of Holy Week begin, DeMille's narrative becomes stiffer and more formulaic, though he does appear to have great fun staging the earthquakes, lightning, and other natural disasters that followed Christ's death on the Cross. Prior to the Jerusalem sequence, however, DeMille includes several delightful touches that "humanize" the story without sticking out like a sore thumb. For example, after a very Little John-esque Peter (Ernest Torrence) finds a coin in a fish's mouth with which to pay Caesar's tax, a pair of Roman soldiers toss out their hooks and try the same thing, even violently shaking the fish they catch as if it were a piggy bank. I have to admit, I laughed out loud at this. Later, there's a cute sequence in an olive grove in which a little girl asks Jesus to "cure" her doll of its broken leg. Jesus taps his chin for a moment before resorting to... not a miracle, but a quick fix with a needle and some thread. (A needle? In Roman-era Palestine? That makes almost as much sense as the modern-day pencil that Matthew uses to take notes of the goings-on.) Before starting to shoot the film, DeMille avowed that he wasn't planning to make a sanctimonious movie in which people act stereotypically "holy." King is a bit more reverent in a traditionalist sense than, say, Jesus of Nazareth, but sanctimony is relatively muted.

This DVD was originally part of a two-disc set, paired with the 1961 film of the same name. Extras are relatively sparse: a contemporary trailer with shots of the Gaiety Theatre on Broadway (where the film had its exclusive NYC run), some still paraphernalia from opening night at Grauman's Chinese Theater (where King was the featured attraction), and some telegrams from DeMille discussing the film's opening. I would have liked to have seen some information on the differences between the film's full-length version (which is presented here) and the general-release version, which is considerably shorter. How did DeMille decide what scenes to cut for the shorter version?

1 comment:

Mark Lungo said...

You haven't seen The Passion of the Christ? But I thought you owned the DVD.