Monday, April 2, 2012

Ham and Cheese: C.B. de Mille's "The Ten Commandments"

The rites of spring are upon us and you know what that means: Easter! Mother's Day! Graduation! The annual broadcast of Cecil B. De Mille's "The Ten Commandments"!

Made in 1956, C.B.'s "The Ten Commandments" is the ne plus ulta of massive movie epics. And because it's a C.B. De Mille massive movie epic, Junk Cinema lovers know exactly what they'll be getting (and in CinemaScope, too): casts of thousands, huge gaudy sets, plaques of locusts, hilariously miscast actors, portentous dialogue and sex, sex, sex, sex ,sex.

C.B. began this winning formula back in 1932 with "The Sign of the Cross". This supposedly uplifting religious parable is actually a Pre-code Hollywood eye-popper that would send Rick Santorum running for the exit . Charles Laughton is the openly gay Roman Emperor Nero who has an entourage of half naked slave boys at his beck and call. Claudette Colbert is his wife, a sexually insatiable Empress who has her eyes on upright Marcus Superbus (Frederick March in a curly wig). Marcus, in turn, loves the devoutly Christian Mercia, whose parents were used as human torches at one of the Emperor's many decadent parties.

Weird love triangles were not the main focus of the movie, however. In fact, the highlight of "The Sign of the Cross" was the full scale slaughter of Christians to lions, elephants, bears, pygmies and Amazons at the Coliseum. One poor Christian gal is even decked out in a floral bikini and strung up between posts, all the better to be chomped to death by crocodiles. Although the Christians have it bad, the poor imported pygmies have it even worse: they're forced to battle the Amazons to the death (eat your heart out, "The Hunger Games"!). One poor pygmy bastard is stabbed in the gut by an Amazon's spear and then paraded around like a trophy. Ouch.

C.B. always defended his type of sexy spectacle by pointing out that you had to show the evil that the good was meant to overcome. Fair enough. However, that approach meant the only fun people in his movies were the bad guys, because the good guys were often boring and stiff. As sweet and devout as Mercia is, she just couldn't compete with randy Empress Claudette Colbert, lounging in her milk bath, yelling at her best friend, "Take off your clothes and get in here!"

By the time C.B. made "The Ten Commandments", though, he'd toned things down a bit. Instead of full scale slaughter and peek-a-boo nudity, he ladled on the religious sentiments and calls for International Brotherhood. In Charelton Heston, C.B. found a square jawed hero who could mouth his pretentious dialogue with utter conviction. And Chuck, whatever his defects as an actor, looked good in a toga.

Unfortunately, both C.B. and Heston took "The Ten Commandments" soooo seriously that it ends up being a parody of itself. Instead of an inspiring religious drama, we get a 4-course Velveeta banquet of miscast actors, hokey special effects, eye-rolling acting and unexpectedly wacky dialogue. In short, C.B. made the longest, tackiest, talkiest soap opera ever: "The Bold and the Beautiful, B.C."

How nutty is "The Ten Commandments"? Let us count the ways.

10. Miscasting makes the heart grow fonder. Chuck Heston may have been a good choice to play Moses (he'd win his Best Actor Oscar playing Ben Hur, after all), but other members of the cast were not so lucky. The prime offender here is East Side tough guy Edward G. Robinson as the kiss-up overseer Dathan. Little Caesar on the Nile? When not kow-towing to the Egyptian enslavers, Robinson engages in a sneer-off with the equally miscast Vincent Price as Baka, the Egyptian architect who has the hots for virtuous water girl Debra Paget ( "Beauty is but a curse to our women," observes one elderly slave, sadly). And who can ever forget the very English Sir Cedric Hardwick as the grumpy old Pharaoh Sethi? Dame Judith Anderson is here too, playing the Mrs. Danvers of slaves, Memnet. Last but certainly not least is Yul Brynner as Ramses, Moses' arch-rival to succeed Sethi as Pharaoh and claim the hand of Princess Nefertiri ( the hot-to-trot Anne Baxter). Brynner, no slouch in the sneering department himself, strides through the entire movie completely pissed off at everybody.

 Why so testy? Is it because Moses beats him building the Pharaoh's newest city? Is it because Moses gives the slaves a day off once a week from their labors? Is it because Moses helps free a granny slave from being crushed between two boulders (but doesn't realize she's his real mom!)? Is it because his ponytail is too tight? My guess is he knows he looks utterly ridiculous and he's kicking himself for agreeing to play an Egyptian Snidely Whiplash opposite Heston's Hebrew Dudley Do-Right.

9. Am I hot or is it just me? However, if there is one performance that shoots this flick straight into the camp stratosphere, it belongs to Anne Baxter as Princess Nefertiri. Gussied up in the latest Egyptian bob hairstyle and with enough eye make-up to make Lady Gaga pause, Baxter swishes around "The Ten Commandments" like a later-day Theda Bara. Her character is promised to the next Pharaoh and she makes no bones about who she prefers: "You will be king of Egypt and I will be your footstool," she warbles to a bemused Moses.

This, naturally, makes the pissed off Ramses even more pissed off, if you can believe it.

"I could never love you," Nefertiri haughtily informs him.

"What does it matter?" Ramses replies. "You will come whenever I call you and I will enjoy that very much. Whether you enjoy it or not is your own affair."

"You adder!" Nefertiri spits back.

But wait! There's more! This is how Ramses describes married life to his very reluctant almost-fiance: "You will be mine. Like my dog or my horse or my falcon--except that I shall love you more and trust you less."
Nefertiri, meanwhile, continues to only have eyes for Moses, even after he's unmasked as "The Hebrew Deliverer" and spends his days toiling in the mud pits.

"They may be your people," she whines when Moses is brought before her,"but do you have to wallow with them, smell like them?" When Baxter fails to convince Chuck Heston to reclaim the throne of Egypt, she sighs to no one in particular, "Why do I have to be in love with the king of fools?!"

Only Joan Collins in "The Land of the Pharaoh's" does a goofier job impersonating a Nile cobra than Baxter.

8. How to marry a Messiah. "The Ten Commandments" is amazingly sexist, even for 1956. All the women in this flick are empty headed husband hunters: Nefertiri, her various hand maidens, the daughters of the Bedouin Sheik who stumble upon Moses in the desert, even poor Lilia (water girl Debra Paget). Although Moses eventually settles on the serious minded Sephora ( B-movie royalty Yvonne De Carlo) for his wife, at times his stay in the Bedouin encampment resembles "The Bachelor" TV show, with all the women posing and preening and hoping to snag a rose from Chuck. The only thing missing is a bad girl contestant like Courtney Robertson talking smack about the other gals and smarmy host Chris Harrison reminding everyone that anyone axed by Moses will be sent packing.

7. Wagons ho! The flight of the Jews from Egypt looks like an "Up with People" parade. I'm sorry, but shouldn't the release from the bonds of slavery be more majestic? Instead, "The Ten Commandments" reduces this historical event to just another extended family road trip: kids looking for lost toys, camels munching on people's food stocks as they amble along, old codgers complaining about the heat and some smarty-pants asking, "We're going to the land of milk and honey. Anybody know the way?"

6. Hey, kids, let's put on an orgy! It is indeed a strange quirk that so many religious spectacles like "The Ten Commandments" so often wallow in decadent behavior. Once the weary Jews set up camp and Moses goes up to the mountain top to receive the word of God, they decide to party like it's 1999: they shoot beer bongs, bang tambourines, make out in the bushes and dance wildly. Thoroughly disgusted by these Spring Break shenanigans, even C.B. (who doubles as the movie's director and narrator) sputters about the "idolatry and lasciviousness!"

But C.B. shouldn't be so high and mighty. In his "The Sign of the Cross",  Empress Claudette Colbert throws a racy 'do where performers enact "The Dance of the Naked Moon" and wrap themselves around horrified Christian girls. In 1960's "Solomon and Sheba" (starring Yul Brynner), the Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida) tosses a wild pagan party that was meticulously over seen by "orgy sequence adviser" (!) Granville Heathway and choreographed by Jaroslav Berger, ballet chief at Switzerland's Bern State Theater. Even D.W. Griffith's silent epic "Intolerance" featured a Spring Break-type bash that would do any frat boy proud.

Why include such lewd theatrics in what was meant to be a spiritually uplifting film? Probably to keep the audience awake and give the extras something more fun to do than push bricks and wail about their sorry plight. It also follows C.B.'s regular pattern of wallowing in and then condemning sinful behavior. And have no fear: in "The Ten Commandments" Chuck Heston eventually breaks up the party, tells everyone off and the revelers feel as ashamed as any 16 year old caught with their pants down.

5. So it is written, so it is dumb. The really fun thing about "The Ten Commandments" is the hilariously pretentious dialogue the actors are forced to deliver straight faced through out the entire flick. Although C.B. makes a big deal in the movie's prologue about all the egg-head scholarly types who helped fashion the script (with a little help from the Bible, of course), that merely ensures that EVERYBODY in the film, from the lowliest slave to the highest noble, talks like a totally self-involved grad student majoring in some obscure subject.

For instance, when Moses' adoptive ma Bithiah (Nina Foch) warns her son that princess Nefretiri is "dangerous", Moses replies, "An intoxicating danger, mother."

Later, when Bithiah pleads with Yachabel (Moses' birth mother) not to tell Moses that he was born a  lowly Hebrew slave, the old lady sighs, "My lips might deny him, Great One, but my eyes never could."

See what I mean?

Do scriptwriters really believe people once talked this way? Here is a typical exchange between water girl Lilia (Paget) and her cuddlemate Joshua (John Derek, future husband of Ursula Andress, Linda Evans and Bo Derek):

She: "Does it take the entire Nile to quench your thirst?"

He: "No, only your lips."

Check out this exchange between Ramses, who wants to sniff out the Hebrew Deliverer, and Dathan, who is more than happy to help him.

R: "You have a rat's ears and a ferret's nose."

D:(taking no offense) "To use in your service, true son of Pharaoh."

R: "Add to them the eyes of a weasel."

Even Moses' wife Sephora and ex-Nefretiri get into the act. When these two finally meet and share their gripes about Moses, Sephora states, "He has forgotten both of us. You lost him when he went to seek his God. I lost him when he found his God." You half expect Nefretiri to reply, "Tell me about it" in response.

Finally, who can forget grumpy old Pharaoh Sethi giving this piece of advice to heir apparent Ramses: "Harden yourself against subordinates. Have no friend. Trust no woman." You can't help thinking to yourself, "Well, that worked wonders for Dick Cheney, so it should work great from Ramses."

4. Soap gets in your eyes. Even though "The Ten Commandments" is about monumental human and divine events, in final analysis the flick is just a bloated soap opera with togas. The cast may include A-list names from film and theater (Heston and Brynner were Oscar winners, Hardwick and Anderson had titles), but they still plotted, schemed, sneered, suffered and wailed enough to give the emoters on "The Young and the Restless" a run for their money.

In fact, you practically need a flow chart to keep straight all the plots and counter-plots C.B. has cooked up.

While waiting patiently for the Jews to be set free, the viewer is asked to ponder the following dilemmas: will sour-pickle servant Memnet keep quiet about the true heritage of Princess Bithia's baby son? Will Moses and Ramses ever stop battling for the throne of Egypt? How will the love triangle of Moses, Nefretiri and Ramses be settled? Will Lilia ever be free of leering Baka and Dathan and finally be united with cuddlemate Joshua? Can Bithia convince Yachabel not to spill the beans about Moses' Hebrew origins? Will grumpy old Pharaoh Sethi ever forgive Moses for being the Hebrew Deliverer? And who does Moses really love? Glitzy good-time girl Nefertiri or loyal wife Sephora? Tune in tomorrow for another edition of "As the Pharaoh Churns"...

3. Those little extras. It is interesting to note that among the massive cast, crew and camels that populate "The Ten Commandments", some interesting stuff was happening just out of camera range. For example, Yul Brynner was furiously pumping iron so he's looked ripped enough along side the brawny Chuck Heston--who was not, by the way, C.B. 's first choice to play Moses. He wanted William Boyd of "Hopalong Cassidy" fame, who turned down the part so fans of his westerns wouldn't feel slighted. Nina Foch, cast as Moses' adoptive mom, was actually one year younger than her movie son. Meanwhile, Frasier Heston, Chuck's real life son, played baby Moses on screen. Musician Herb Albert, of Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass fame, appeared as a Hebrew drummer. Among the sauntering extras was Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer of "The Little Rascals" and Robert Vaughn (future star of "Teenage Caveman") making his film debut. Finally, it took so long to film the famous orgy sequence that Chuck Heston claimed one fed-up female extra wailed, "Who do I have to #*@% to get out of this movie!"

2. The great I am. Chuck Heston is perfectly cast to play Moses: he's tall, ripped, square-jawed, stands ram-rod straight and is bursting with self righteousness. However, in keeping with C.B.'s formula that the good guys must always be unrealistically perfect and the bad guys Snidely Whiplash bad (and thus more fun to watch), he turns Moses into Little Lord Fauntleroy.  After all, he's nice to his mom, is a fair-minded slave driver, joins his people in bondage and resists sexpot Nefretiri's attempts to get him back into her bed and on the throne of Egypt. Even the Ethiopians he conquers like him! The only remotely bad thing Moses does is neglect wife Sephora once he finds God and begins pestering Ramses to "let my people go." Dutiful  '50's wife that she is, Sephora only complains about this once, to Nefretiri, who has her own complaints about the big lug.

Still, Heston's Mr. Perfect act begins to grate very quickly. That's why it's always a relief when Ramses swaggers on. He clearly hates Moses' guts and is positively gleeful when he's declared the next Pharaoh, is handed Moses' girl and then dumps his rival out into the desert to fry. Another of the flick's highlights is seeing what a brat Ramses and Nefretiri's son turns out to be (Moses' tyke, in contrast, is a little angel). Not only does he have pop's sneer, he defiantly kicks Moses' staff when he turns up at the palace telling Ramses to yet again free the Jews from slavery. Had the little snot not succumbed to the plague like all the rest of the first born, he'd be a nastier tyrant than his dear old dad.

1. Of course it's bad, but it could be worse! Believe it or not, "The Ten Commandments" is not the worst slice of biblical baloney Hollywood has churned out over the years. For all its over the top faults, "The Ten Commandments" is still jam-packed with enough cheesy goodness to keep movie goers interested. Other divinely inspired epics were not so fortunate.

For example, consider the plight of 1961's  "King of Kings" which starred a clean scrubbed Jeffery Hunter in the title role and earned the nickname "I Was a Teenage Jesus". Then there was "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965) directed by the great George Stevens and starring Max von Sydow. This flick was just a long, pretentious snore with a distracting list of guest stars in bit parts: Look! There's Charelton Heston as John the Baptist! And John Wayne as a Roman solider! And Sidney Pointier helping Jesus carry the cross! And Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate! "The Robe" (1953), meanwhile, starring a pre-Liz Taylor Richard Burton, takes the novel approach of having Jesus' tunic pester the heck out of anybody that comes into contact with it. Later, viewers were treated to "In Search of Historic Jesus" (1980) starring John Rubinstein as You Know Who. This flick asked folks to ponder if Jesus was "the Son of Man or the Son of God" and if the Savior found the time to visit North America during his life time (my guess is no). The year 1968 gave us "The Shoes of the Fisherman", where an all star cast holds its collective breathe as the Vatican takes it's own sweet time trying to pick a new Pope. The eventual winner is Anthony Quinn, a former labor camp prisoner just recently released by the commies. This movie was dubbed "Zorba the Pope" and features an owly/scowly David Jansen trying to keep his wife and mistress apart while he tries to score an exclusive interview with the next Pontiff.

Of course, if you like your Jesus with musical accompaniment, there is the rock opera "Jesus Christ Super Star" (1973) penned in part by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the chipmunk cheeked British composer who has also tortured audiences with "Cats", "The Starlight Express" and "Phantom of the Opera". Like your Jesus dripping with blood? Check out Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ", where Jesus is hit, kicked, smacked, punched, slapped, shoved, pounded, pummeled, water boarded and whipped within an inch of his life...and that's just during the opening credits!

Happy Easter!

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