• U.S.

Cinema: The New Pictures, Sep. 28, 1953

6 minute read

The Robe (20th Century-Fox), ablaze with Technicolor and alive with romance, action and Biblical pageantry, is Hollywood at its supercolossal best. It also represents an important new technical advance—CinemaScope—that may ultimately doom 3-D as well as ordinary “flat” movies. For the first feature in gigantic CinemaScope, Producer Frank Ross came forward with a gigantic story: early Christianity under the Roman Empire. Based on the famed bestseller of the late Rev. Lloyd C. Douglas, the film contains more piety than wit and more spectacle than humanity, but it is ably served by a competent cast headed by Britain’s Richard (My Cousin Rachel) Burton.

As an epicurean Roman grudgingly won over to evangelical Christianity, highborn Burton is the successful rival of Prince Regent Caligula (Jay Robinson) for the hand of Jean Simmons, a ward of the Emperor Tiberius. When he further annoys the evil Caligula by outbidding him for a particularly stiff-necked Greek slave (Victor Mature), Burton is exiled to Palestine, where he lolls decadently in the baths and drinks wine while his slave Mature becomes a convert to the new religion.

Handed the routine military job of supervising the execution of Christ (“a fanatical troublemaker “), Burton passes the time on Calvary by winning Christ’s robe in a dice game. In the earth-shaking storm that follows the Crucifixion, Burton loses his robe, his slave and apparently his sanity. Returned to Italy, he becomes convinced that he was bewitched by the dead Messiah, and accepts an imperial commission to go back to Palestine to investigate the un-Roman activities of the new sect. He finds Mature and the robe at Cana, in Galilee, but exposure to the gentle habits of the Cana Christians puts him on the road to conversion. The final act is played in Rome, with Caligula on the throne and the Christians hiding in the catacombs. The picture ends as Burton defends his new faith before the demented Emperor.

Director Henry Koster and Scriptwriter Philip Dunne have made a real effort to avoid the pitfalls of Biblical movies by balancing the saintly preaching of Dean Jagger (as Justus) and Michael Rennie (as Peter) with the muscular Christianity of Burton and Mature. There is a minimum of the sex and sadism that usually characterize Hollywood’s explorations of Holy Writ. The CinemaScope screen is handsomely utilized for swordplay, torture chambers and a thundering chase sequence as well as for dramatic shots of the Way of the Cross and Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem the week before the Crucifixion. Alfred Newman’s music is especially effective in the Palm Sunday hymn and in a ballad charmingly sung by Betta (South Pacific) St. John.

The Robe would have been a good movie in two-dimensional black and white. In CinemaScope, which uses a wide-angle lens to throw its picture on a curved screen nearly three times the normal width, it all but overpowers the eye with spectacular movie murals of slave markets, imperial cities, grandiose palaces and panoramic landscapes that are neither distorted nor require the use of polarized glasses. In CinemaScope closeups, the actors are so big that an average adult could stand erect in Victor Mature’s ear, and its four-directional sound track often rises to a crescendo loud enough to make moviegoers feel as though they were locked in a bell tower during the Angelus. Obviously, Hollywood has finally found something louder, more colorful and breathtakingly bigger than anything likely to be seen on a home TV screen for years to come.

But it has not found the answer to all of Hollywood’s ills. Moviegoers may not want to be inundated with furious sight and sound every day of the week. And, impressive as is the wide CinemaScope screen, it is also curiously oppressive for eyes trained to the simpler demands of “flat,” ordinary films. Can CinemaScope be used for anything except ponderous spectacles and chorus lines? Twentieth Century-Fox’s Production Chief Darryl Zanuck thinks it can, and will attempt to prove his point with the soon to be released How to Marry a Millionaire, a lightweight comedy starring Marilyn Monroe. In fact, Zanuck has placed $35 million worth of eggs in his CinemaScope basket by scheduling a total of 14 pictures for wide-screen production. Already made: a sequel to The Robe called Demetrius and the Gladiators, and such swashbucklers as Prince Valiant, Hell and High Water and King of the Khyber Rifles.

The Caddy (Paramount) is about the best that can be expected these days from Comics Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, a couple of wonderfully silly geese. They are at their funniest in the chummy atmosphere of a nightclub, where Dean can spread on his ultraviolet charm, and where Jerry’s back teeth are as near to a customer’s hand as the sugar lumps.

But their films (except for The Stooge) have tried, without notable success, to maintain the nightclub pace for a full 90 minutes. Caddy at least makes a pass, however feeble, at telling a story: Dean and Jerry, a golf pro and his caddy, are such cutups from tee-off to hole-down that they are driven off the golf courses of the nation and into show business. In transit, Jerry does a memorable song & dance routine, playing an international-set sissy, and manages not to offend because he never for an instant loses the idiotic innocence of a small boy showing the gang what his big sister does in front of the mirror.

Unfortunately the film fails, like most of its predecessors, to exploit Jerry’s unusual gift for “gallows laughter,” the rich, traditional Jewish humor of the schlemiel* which he is sacrificing for the easy money in pun and jargon and in the barefaced leer.

Island in the Sky (Warner) opens with a crash landing in the frozen Canadian North and closes, naturally enough, with the rescue of the survivors. Based on a novel by Ernest Gann, the film gives Director William (Battleground) Wellman a fine documentary chance to explore the hazards of arctic flying and to train his camera on a bleak but beautiful terrain (the picture was made, not in Labrador, but in the Donner Lake region of northern California). What slows things down is the high-blown rhetoric of the script, the tediously familiar characterizations of the flyers, and the endless invisible choirs that form the musical background of every shot of storm-cleared sky.

As the pilot of the downed transport, John Wayne plays perfectly the lean and leathery hero that has made him a top box-office attraction for years. His crew is pictured as a pack of irresponsible children who would not last ten minutes in the wilderness without Wayne’s paternal guidance: one of them does not follow Wayne’s orders, and as a result freezes to death; Wayne has to slap another out of hysteria, cajole a third into courage. The high-strung pilots of the rescue planes include such familiar character actors as Andy Devine and Allyn Joslyn.

* Defined by Sholom Aleichem as a man who escapes only imaginary dangers.

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