Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Robe (20th Century-Fox, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Robe, a 1953 20th Century-Fox production based on a novel by Magnificent Obsession author Lloyd C. Douglas, a former minister turned author who basically preached as much on the printed page as he had from the pulpit. This is a Biblical extravaganza centered around the life and death of Jesus Christ as seen from the point of view of Gaius Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), a Roman tribune whose father (Torin Thatcher), a Senator, was attempting to do his best to restore the Roman Republic before Emperor Tiberius (a delicious performance by Ernest Thesiger) died and yielded the throne to his scapegrace heir Caligula (Jay Robinson). Marcellus pisses off Caligula by buying a rebellious slave named Demetrius (Victor Mature), whom the emperor-to-be wanted to turn into a gladiator (there actually was a sequel to this film a year later called Demetrius and the Gladiators), and Caligula gets his revenge by arranging for Marcellus to be posted to command the legions in Jerusalem. “Where’s that?” Marcellus asks, and when he’s told that it’s in Palestine, he snarls in Richard Burton’s trademark snarl, “The sinkhole of the Empire.” Marcellus arrives in Jerusalem just as Jesus Christ (played onscreen by assistant director Donald C. Klune and voiced by Cameron Mitchell — there’s a grimly funny “Trivia” item about Klune, in his assistant director capacity, signing payment vouchers for the extras while still in Jesus drag and taking his meals in his dressing room because the staff at Fox didn’t think it was appropriate to have Jesus Christ sitting in the commissary for lunch) is in the last week of his life, leading up from Palm Sunday to the Crucifixion, and as the commander of the Roman army on the scene he makes a half-hearted attempt to talk Pontius Pilate (Richard Boone) out of authorizing the crucifixion, but eventually the execution of Jesus goes forth as scheduled. A group of Roman soldiers starts gambling over the remnants of Jesus’ wardrobe (that part is in the Bible) and Marcellus enters the game and wins the red homespun robe Jesus was wearing during his walk with the Cross. Demetrius, who has accompanied his owner Marcellus to Palestine and become a follower of Jesus, tries to reclaim the robe; Marcellus puts it on and starts screaming in a bizarre combination of mental agony and guilt, then claims the garment is bewitched and tries to burn it.

The film, which for the first 40 minutes or so (when it centered around such corrupt Roman rituals as slave auctions and orgies, though this is a tame, Production Code-sanitized orgy) was quite exciting, turns dull and mopey once it gets to Palestine and Douglas’s characters start to preach; I don’t know whether to blame Douglas or the writers, Gina Kaus (credited with “adaptation”), Albert Maltz (one of the Hollywood 10 and an odd credit indeed for a Biblical movie; he was originally not credited but his name has been added to the current prints) and Philip Dunne (who’d already had Hollywood Biblical experience as the writer of the 1949 film David and Bathsheba), for the dull, stilted quality of the faith-based dialogue, but once it gets to the good guys the film seems to go on forever and get oppressively dull. In the immortal words of Billy Joel, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/The sinners are much more fun.” They certainly are in this movie! Eventually the action comes back to Rome as Marcellus, now a converted Christian (one commentator noted that during Caligula’s reign as Emperor Christianity, which probably wasn’t called that yet, was still a minor little cult in the Middle East; the first reported mention of Christians in Rome itself was during the reign of Caligula’s uncle and successor, Claudius, and the first organized persecution of them under the Roman Empire occurred during the reign of Claudius’ successor Nero), returns with Demetrius to help protect and spread the new faith. Naturally he’s called to Caligula’s court and has to defend himself in a rump “trial” for treason Caligula orders before the Senate — and Marcellus’s old girlfriend Diana (Jean Simmons, who deserves credit for getting through this mock-historical nonsense and somehow retaining her dignity), who turned down the offer to be Caligula’s bride out of loyalty to Marcellus, goes with him in an ending that’s a stone ripoff of The Sign of the Cross (also a story about a Roman general who becomes a Christian and gets himself  disgraced and executed), and the final shot is a risible scene of the two of them walking on their way to the archery field (I wasn’t aware that bow-and-arrow equipped firing squads were a common Roman means of execution), their huge faces against a blue-and-orange sky as they walk proudly to their exit from this world and their joint apotheosis in the next. 

The Robe is historically important as the first movie filmed in CinemaScope, the 2.33-1 aspect ratio process based on the anamorphic lens, invented in 1937 by French researcher Henri Chrétien. It basically “squeezed” the image vertically when it was photographed, and required a reverse decoder lens on the projector to unsqueeze the image on standard-width 35 mm film to produce a wide-screen image. CinemaScope was essentially the mp3 of big-format movie processes — the sort of “good enough” technology that sometimes wins out over superior but also more difficult inventions; whereas Cinerama involved a wraparound screen and four separate, linked projectors (three to show the picture and one containing the sound — an odd throwback to the early days of talkies in which the soundtrack had been on a Vitaphone record instead of actually printed on the film), and 3-D required two interlinked projectors and could only be seen with glasses (Fox made it a selling point of CinemaScope that you didn’t need glasses to watch it!), CinemaScope could be shown in any movie theatre large enough to put in the big, curved wide screen. All the theatre owner needed was the screen and the anamorphic decoder lens for the projectors — a much easier conversion than that required for Cinerama — and Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck sweetened the pot by announcing that all his studio’s future productions would be in CinemaScope, thereby ensuring hesitant theatre owners that there’d be a steady flow of product in the new process and thus encouraging them to spend the money needed to convert. The Robe wasn’t actually the first film shot in CinemaScope — How to Marry a Millionaire was — but Zanuck correctly reasoned that a Biblical spectacular would provide a far more prestigious and saleable introduction to the technique than a sex comedy, so he put The Robe out first and made the new format a major selling point for the film. (It’s actually listed in the credits as “A CinemaScope Production,” while later films in the process were usually called “A CinemaScope Picture.”) CinemaScope also came equipped with a four-track stereo sound system, though on our old (barely) stereo TV there were a few discernible directional effects on the soundtrack but nothing to write home about (nothing at all like the astonishing moment in the first Tim Burton Batman in which, if you saw it theatrically, the Batmobile appeared to be driving through the theatre itself!).

 The Robe was directed by Henry Koster, who for some reason got a lot of spectacle assignments in the 1950’s, including Désirée and The Virgin Queen, even though he’d made his reputation directing Deanna Durbin’s star-making vehicles in the 1930’s and previously to this his main contribution to religious films had been The Bishop’s Wife, a refreshingly un-serious and un-preachy comedy with a supernatural angle. It seems odd that in the era of the super-spectacular Koster would have got these plum assignments while a far better German expat director, Fritz Lang — who’d established his skill with the spectacle film in the 1920’s with Die Nibelungen and Metropolis — was cranking out vest-pocket noirs like The Blue Gardenia and The Big Heat for any company or low-budget producer that would have him. Not that Koster directs badly; indeed it could be argued that he barely directs at all, hamstrung by the CinemaScope edict (enshrined in a production book published by Fox as a guide to filmmakers on how to use the new process) that because of the sheer size of the screen, close-ups were no longer necessary, and also hamstrung by a cast — the male leads in particular — that was going to act whatever way they wanted to act regardless of what the director tried to tell them. I’d always assumed that Victor Mature, a far better known performer than Richard Burton to U.S. movie audiences in 1953, would have got top billing — yet the opening credits listed Burton, Jean Simmons, Mature and Michael Rennie (as the Apostle Peter, traditionally considered the first Pope — referencing his role in The Day the Earth Stood Still two years earlier I joked to Charles, “So the Church of Scientology isn’t the only religion that has space aliens as part of its origin story!”), and Burton already, nine years before his supposed “corruption” at the hands (and other parts) of Elizabeth Taylor, starts his performance at 11 and keeps it there, bellowing just about every line, no matter how trivial, at fortissimo volume and full intensity. (In an earlier stage in 20th Century-Fox’s history, the male lead would have gone almost automatically to Tyrone Power, and indeed Zanuck offered it to him as an inducement to renew his Fox contract — but Power wanted to edge himself away from the studio system and instead accepted Charles Laughton’s offer to direct him in Stephen Vincent Benêt’s play John Brown’s Body, which ran just 69 performances.) Victor Mature’s incompetent underacting makes him a weirdly appropriate foil to Burton’s overacting — at the start of Mature’s film career Josef von Sternberg had got a marvelous performance out of him as the corrupt doctor in The Shanghai Gesture but no one ever came close to getting him to act that well again — spitting his lines out through clenched teeth and flexing his muscles to show distress at being enslaved and, later, tortured. Jean Simmons gets little to do but look attractive — as I noted above, the fact that she maintained her dignity through this farrago of nonsense (as she managed in a lot of films in which she was horrendously miscast, including Guys and Dolls) is a testament to her talent and skill as an actress even though it doesn’t make the movie any better.

The Robe is exactly the sort of movie its makers wanted to make, and judging from its box-office performance ($36 million gross in the U.S. alone on an estimated $5 million production budget) it was exactly the sort of movie 1953 U.S. moviegoers wanted to see, either in CinemaScope or in the ordinary 1.33-1 aspect ratio (which, since the studio technicians hadn’t figured out how to pan-and-scan yet, meant that virtually every scene in the movie had to be shot twice, once for each camera format, so Fox would have an alternate version for theatres not equipped to show CinemaScope): a leaden, preachy religious spectacle. One watches in vain for the sort of artistry Douglas Sirk (another German expat!) brought to his adaptation of Lloyd C. Douglas’s Magnificent Obsession the following year — a story that at least had the advantage of being set in contemporary times and translating Christ’s message of altruism and sacrifice into modern terms (you might say that The Robe is a sermon and Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession is a parable), and the energy level perks up only when the Romans are on screen, front and center (I almost wrote “on stage” there, perhaps because the lack of close-ups gives this film a tableau-like quality that makes it look like a stage play when it isn’t using the breadth of the CinemaScope screen to show us wide ranges of landscape — even though the scene in which the principals embark on a ship to take them from Palestine to Rome is shot on one of the most blatantly obvious soundstage “exteriors” ever constructed!), and particularly when Jay Robinson is on screen as Caligula. Virtually all his utterances at the Roman court show him literally screaming well before he reaches his climax (pun definitely intended; this Production Code-sanitized Caligula could hardly be as crazy or as polymorphously perverse as the real one, but Robinson’s high-pitched voice and queeny mannerisms help fill in what the script was obliged to leave out), and I found myself wondering if Robinson was deliberately patterning his performance on Adolf Hitler and Der Führer’s famously overwrought screaming/speaking style in public. While The Robe was billed in its own time as a technological (as well as an artistic) triumph it’s really not much of a movie, all too much in the usual mold of Hollywood’s take on the Bible.