Noah’s Ark (1928)

Need An Ark? I Noah Guy!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Noah’s Ark was Warner Bros’ attempt to create a Cecil B. DeMille picture and one with very odd results, to say the least. It was a common convention for silent epics to tell two or more concurrent stories, one set in modern times and the others set in the ancient world with these being tied together with the same thematic elements (even Buster Keaton parodied this format in his feature Three Ages). Noah’s Ark from 1928 is not a very good film but it can at least go down in the history books as a bizarrely interesting one.

Noah’s Ark begins with some striking images of the Tower of Babel of which the movie compares to modern day skyscrapers. This is followed by an appearance of the Golden Calf with the title card (*in a booming Charlton Heston voice) “And throughout the ages, the worship of the Golden Calf remains man’s religion”. Cut to images of frantic modern day stock brokers followed shortly by a ridiculous montage of gambling and partying to the dissolve of a statute of Jesus which sheds a tear. Oh boohoo! This moralising couldn’t get more over the top if they tried.

Noah’s Ark is a movie trying way too hard to be profound. It’s already used the Old Testament to try and decry capitalism; the remainder of the film tries to state an anti-war message through the story of the Ark. I’m not a theologian but the connection the film tries to make between Noah’s Ark and World War I isn’t even strenuous at best. The movie’s justification for this is that the war and the story of the Ark both resulted in vast destruction and death. Paul McAllister plays a minister who serves as the biblical counterpart for Noah and proclaims before the movie transitions to the biblical tale itself (*in a booming Charlton Heston voice):

 “The Flood – it was a deluge of water drowning a world of lust!”

“This war – it is a deluge of blood drowning a world of hate!”

“The flood and the war, God Almighty’s parallel of the ages”

Yeah, you tell yourself that Buddy.

I do quite like the basic, melodramatic war story which is charming and mildly engaging. George O’Brien and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams are two American friends by the names of Travis and Al. The two are residing in Europe and may have a sexual thing going on between them as through much of their interactions they remain physically close, are very touchy and even have a romantic look in their eyes. On top of that during the actual Noah’s Ark portion of the film their biblical counterparts Japheth and Ham are even more homoerotic with their exposed chests. Travis, however, is going to marry his German love interest Marie (Dolores Costello), however, war breaks out and not only is married to a woman from an enemy nation but he’s also initially avoiding conscription. – This is one of those films in which the plot if maximised for upmost melodramatic effect.

65 minutes into what is the longest existing version of Noah’s Ark and we finally get what we came for. The portion of the film about the creation of the ark and the proceeding flooding is the best part of the film. Right of the bat, it’s very dreamlike – I just notice that Dolores Costello’s hairstyle is a few millennia off. It also has the most bizarre representation of God trying to communicate with mere mortals, by carving a giant book into the side of a mountain via lightning. If the film was only comprised of this it would be a really good short film. The movie’s much-touted flooding sequence if a spectacular sight with its huge sets, extras galore and water; lots and lots of water. However what’s made Noah’s Ark most infamous in the history books are the sources which say that several extras drowned during the making of the flood and reportedly 35 ambulances were called out to treat the wounded. You only have to watch the sequence itself to see the extras on screen do appear to be in real danger.

Noah’s Ark was a part-talkie and as a result, you have some very stilted acting during the talking scenes but you can’t blame them. The direction of the film is fine but that distinctive Michael Curtiz style is not as apparent as his later talkies. The obvious model train seen early in the film is cute but in comparison to the flood sequence, if realism was their goal then they failed. Also, can a lightning strike destroy a bridge made out of stone?

Myrna Loy is billed at the bottom of the main players screen at the beginning but only appears in one scene, in which she gets to speak and her first time to do so on screen. Sources do state, however, she also appears in the flooding sequence as a golden-winged dancer before the sacrificial altar but this viewer failed to spot her among the carnage. It does seem odd that for a rather high billing that she appears only very briefly in the film. I can only speculate that perhaps she appeared in more scenes in which were removed for re-releases of Noah’s Ark and have since become lost.

Once the story of Noah comes to a close we are brought back to the present and lo and behold, the war has ended and the armistice is signed. The Minister then makes a proclamation to echo Woodrow Wilson’s  famous statement “The war to end all wars” (* once more in a booming Charlton Heston voice):

“I mean that war is now an outlaw, and will be hunted from the face of the earth. Those ten million men have not died in vain.”

Yeah, you tell yourself that Buddy.

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Laughing Sinners (1931)

I’d Rather Laugh With The Sinners Than Die With The Saints

Laughing Sinners is surely some good publicity for The Salvation Army. The plot of Ivy/Bunny (Joan Crawford) leaving her previous life behind and finding happiness in the helping of others is moralising but never came off to me as overly preachy. I like Laughing Sinners despite the film’s inconsistency with sections of the movie having little to no impact on the overall story. The first twenty minutes of set up, for example, could easily have been done in half the time. Yet despite this, there is a powerful emotional undercurrent at the heart of Laughing Sinners with a number of highly moving scenes making up for the less than stellar portions of the film.

At least some of these weaker moments are made passable from the presence of a comical, stereotypical Italian chef to a bizarre dance number in which Joan Crawford is dressed as a scarecrow; go figure. Likewise, another real highlight in Laughing Sinners is a scene in the park depicting a charity picnic which has such naturalism in both its documentary-like appearance as well as the acting; a piece of neorealism which doesn’t feel like a movie set.

As soon as Clark Gable enters the picture at 22 minutes the film truly takes off. Any scene with Crawford and Gable is pure magic with the sincerity in their interactions which at no point feels like acting. I don’t think there’s any other actress of the time who can as effectively as Crawford make you pour out your heart for the poor woman and rarely has she ever looked as angelic as she does here in her Salvation Army uniform. Likewise, many people will laugh at the idea of Clark Gable playing a Salvation Army officer but Laughing Sinners provides a side of Gable I wish more people could see. Like his role of Dr Ferguson in Men In White (1934), the part of Carl Loomis is saintly without delving into the sickly with his ability to project a real sense of warmth especially with his interaction with children.

This is one of the few films in Gable’s career in which he isn’t a romantic lead as he only remains in the friend-zone with Joan. Never again would we see Gable as more of a boy scout and less the alpha male; as he cooks, wears sweaters and aprons and lives with his aunt.

 

The Frisco Kid (1979)

Hanukkah Solo

Its movies like The Frisco Kid which are right up my alley – a totally bizarre, odd ball comedy. A movie which feels like a classic Hollywood western but about a man who is in a totally alien world. The odd pairing of actors Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford works like a charm. Just like how you wouldn’t expect these actors to team up, you wouldn’t expect a rabbi and a Wild West cowboy to be a duo. There’s such pleasure watching the two interact and develop their odd, endearing bromance; Tommy (Ford) has no reason to stay with Avram (Wilder) other than he’s formed a liking to him. Harrison Ford goes from space cowboy in Star Wars to actual cowboy in The Frisco Kid, showing he really had a knack for playing ruffians. However, his character is not just a Han Solo redux. Unlike Solo, he’s not just out for himself but wants to give a helping hand to underdogs.

The Frisco Kid showcases the absurdity of faith but also celebrates it at the same time. Rabbi Avram Belinski follows his faith to a tee (despite being ranked almost last among his peers strangely enough). He would put his life and the lives of others on the line for the Torah or in order to obey the Sabbath. Yet Tommy defends and even lauds Avram’s actions as a man dedicated to his faith, even if he put his life in danger for religious reasons.

Likewise the Native Americans they encounter along their travels have a failure to understand the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In one dialogue exchange, the Indian chief is perplexed that this God can make rain yet he doesn’t because as Avram puts it, “that’s not his department”. Yet the chief asks if he wanted to he could, and Avram replies yes. Yet Avram contradicts this statement later in their discussion when he proclaims God can do anything; the chief responds with “then why can’t he make rain?” and Avram loudly states “because he doesn’t make rain!”. However, on top of this Avram tells the chief that there is only one God and that he’s your God too. Take that as a bit of falsifying another’s faith.

However, The Frisco Kid is a movie which showcases peace and unity between cultures. Along his travels, Avram encounters whites, blacks, Native Americans, Christian monks and the Amish. When he first encounters the Amish he mistakes them for rabbis due to their similar attire, perhaps symbolising that we’re not all so different. Here Gene Wilder shows he is an actor who is not afraid to celebrate their religion and culture on screen; even if he is playing a neurotic Jew but not in an annoying way. The Frisco Kid is a movie which could possibly appeal to the both the religious minded and the atheist alike.

Father Ted (1995-1998)

My Favourite TV Show

Yes, Father Ted is my favourite TV show of all time. In the UK and Ireland, we quote this show as much as the rest of the world quotes The Simpsons, with so many lines and terms from the show becoming implanted into our psyche. I’ve been watching Father Ted since I was a kid and even though I didn’t get off any of the adult jokes back then, the wacky and surreal humour always had me in fits of laughter. I don’t think there’s been a month in the last 17 years that I haven’t watched one of its 25 episodes, yet I still can’t pick a favourite!

Every joke in Father Ted works on so many levels. The setting of the fictional Craggy Island is surely the most backward ended place on Earth but this is all brilliantly downplayed. Whenever anything absurd happens, the characters react in an unsurprised or not surprised enough manner. For example, when Ted discovers Craggy Island has its own Chinatown. Just how does an island off the coast of Ireland have a significant Chinese population and how does a person living there not even know about it?! I could take any joke from this show and list on multiple levels as to why it’s so absurd and surreal. The inconsistencies and even the odd plot hole just makes everything funnier.

I suspect one of the reasons Father Ted became so successful is that it dispelled the notion that the Irish are completely oblivious to the outside world in the sense that the characters talk about popular culture just like people in any other civilized county would. Granted the characters in every other sense don’t act like people in the real world but I believe this one aspect made the show more relatable to a wider audience, from references to bands such as Oasis and Radiohead to various film references (Dougal, we are not watching Aliens!). I’m from Ireland and even to this day, I hear stories from Irish people who have gone abroad and meet people who think Ireland is technologically un-advanced country and that we all live in cottages. One story I always remember was an Irish guy telling me of how he told an American he owned an Xbox 360 and the American couldn’t believe it.

Allow me to hold up my cup of tea to Father Ted. May I continue to watch it for years, with Dougal and Mrs. Doyle and Father Jack forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever…