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Monday, September 25, 2006

Life Was Cheap On Noah's Ark

Once upon a time there were epics like Noah’s Ark. Enough, in fact, that we took them for granted. This particular one cost a million dollars and at least two lives. The money spent was well publicized. Those who died or were injured were not. Names as well as their specific fates are unknown today. One man was said to have lost a leg. None of this story got out at the time. Whatever documentation arose from the incident was purged from studio files long ago. It is often said they got away with murder in Hollywood --- does Noah's Ark support that assertion? Director Michael Curtiz turned massive drums of water loose on 5000 extras, and it was every man for himself. Latter day landscapes faked up with computerized generated cataclysms amount to small beer beside real floods with players struggling for real. Dolores Costello remembered the horror of Noah’s Ark fifty years after it was completed. "Mud, Blood, and Flood" was what she called it. Wounded extras laid outside her dressing room door as fleets of ambulances carried away victims of the carnage. It must have taken some adroit handling on Warners' part to keep all this under wraps. Noah’s Ark was designed for all-out showmanship. The show started outside New York’s Winter Garden Theatre with lighted displays and a forty-foot blimp hovering over the marquee. Eight "sunlight arcs" poured changing colors on the leviathan as wires caused it to dip and sway toward a giant replica of an ark electrified with rain effects and clouds of steam. Inside the auditorium, more deluge greeted the audience as wind and water signaled the Vitaphone overture. First-nighters paid eleven dollars a seat, and all were filled. Subsequent tickets went for two dollars, which caused resentment among critics whose lukewarm response to Noah’s Ark was in part a rebuke of Warners for having oversold what they called an "ordinary and derivative picture." Seventy-seven years have a way of changing perspectives however --- a remade Noah’s Ark might well startle for its social agenda as set forth in a dynamic opening reel. Sobering glimpse of biblical era excesses precede a montage of jazz age depravity. The Worship of the Golden Calf Remains Man’s Religion is the title preceding a frenzied day on Wall Street, where barter and loss of fortunes result in bloodshed on front steps of the exchange. Was this chaos and immorality a natural consequence of capitalism gone mad? Further dissolves depicting suicide, prostitution, and alcohol abuse suggests so. Here was society badly in need of overhaul --- and this was months before the Wall Street crash. Was Warners reading tea leaves? Theirs is a merciless commentary. Skyscrapers are modern Towers of Babel. Unsubtle as it is, Noah’s Ark packs a mean wallop with that opening, so much so that we’re almost sorry to see it veer toward prosaic melodrama for an hour that follows. Wartime and biblical settings toched viewership nerves in 1929. They had seen similar treatments in The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, The Big Parade, inbred blockbusters that had earned well and pleased many. Noah’s Ark never pretended to be anything other than grand spectacle. What it stole would later be stolen from it. Pagan soldiers burn out George O’Brien’s eyes and bind him to a gristmill. DeMille got even for Warners’ pillage from his own biblical epics by lifting this plot device wholesale and using it in Samson and Delilah --- twenty years hence. Producers knew better than to be too original with this sort of material --- certain expectations had to be met. In Noah's Ark has trains wrecked, maidens abducted, villains dying horribly, an exhibitor’s dream picture. Even against the million dollar negative (Warner’s biggest outlay as of that year), there was profit of $523,000. Foreign sales were stimulated when director Michael Curtiz appeared on camera and narrated a series of Vitaphone trailers (in the appropriate language) for Hungarian, French, German, and Austrian theatres. Dialogue sequences spurred the domestic boxoffice. Isolated here and there, and accomplishing nothing other than bringing the narrative to a dead halt, they were a necessary evil and useful sop for fans who wanted more for their ticket price. Dolores Costello took a critical rapping ("emotionless, stilted delivery"), but the climactic flood swept off disappointment from that. Noah’s Ark ran aground for sixty years after its initial release. Being a silent-sound hybrid made revivals untenable. An initial rescuer was producer Robert Youngson, who had championed Noah's Ark during the early fifties when he was employed in Warner Bros.’ short subjects department. A lifelong film buff and later compiler of vintage comedy compilations, Youngson edited a group of one-reel subjects culled from silent spectaculars such as Don Juan, Isle Of Lost Ships, Old San Francisco, and Noah’s Ark. When Associated Artists bought the Warners pre-49 library for television release in 1956, they ended up with the surviving silent negatives as well, including Noah’s Ark. While 16mm prints were being prepared for TV sales, AAP established a subsidiary called Dominant Pictures, whose mission was to squeeze whatever theatrical bookings they could out of the old Warner product before the video dump. Youngson approached Dominant with his idea of re-editing and "modernizing" Noah’s Ark for a 35mm re-issue. Since they now owned the picture anyway, there was little to lose. The 1957 version would be shorn of all intertitles and talking sequences. Newsreel narrator Dwight Weist provided non-stop explanation and commentary throughout a truncated Noah’s Ark, but this was all the access we had to the film until Robert Gitt and his UCLA restoration team got hold of the project in 1988. What’s now shown on TCM is their handiwork, and other than missing footage here and there, it is the complete 1929 general release version. The definitive production and restoration history of Noah's Ark was written by Scott MacQueen and published in Issue 12 (Winter 1991-92) of The Perfect Vision. This is a great piece of scholarship and highly recommended.

1 Comments:

Blogger Poptique said...

There's a great shot of the marquee - smoke n'all - in another one of the Robert Youngson compilations (possibly Days of Thrills and Laughter).

Certainly a sight to see!

8:25 AM  

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