Monday, October 18, 2010

Tonight's Movie: The Ten Commandments (1956) at the Egyptian Theatre

Tonight was a very special evening celebrating the 88th anniversary of the Egyptian Theatre: a screening of a restored print of Cecil B. DeMille's epic THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956).

It was a particular honor to watch this film in the company of Lydia Heston, the late Charlton Heston's wife of 64 years, and the Hestons' son Fraser.

The evening began with an introduction by Paramount Vice President Ronald Smith, who discussed the restoration, which included making a new VistaVision negative for archival purposes. When they were reconstructing the decaying soundtrack, they were able to locate an original whip from the film to recreate a sound effect!

Fraser Heston then made a few welcoming remarks:

Mr. Heston expressed how much his family appreciated the restoration and being part of such a special evening. He concluded his remarks by quoting what his father would often say when he attended screenings: "Movies should speak for themselves. We hope this movie speaks to you."

Fraser Heston appears in the film playing Baby Moses. When he was born, the first person the Hestons heard from was DeMille, who sent a telegram saying "Congratulations! He's got the part!" Here are father and son in a publicity still:

At intermission there was a fascinating display of jewelry seen in the film. Someone was explaining what jewelry was worn by each character, but I was unable to absorb those details as I wanted to quickly take my photos and move out of the way so that others could have a close-up view:

It should be fairly simple to match up the various pieces seen above with stills from the film.

The movie was shown complete with Elmer Bernstein's overture and intermission music. I had never seen the film before and enjoyed it very much. While some of the Oscar-winning effects, which were cutting edge at the time, look slightly primitive to the modern viewer, it's remarkable to realize what was accomplished with the technology of the day, and the "Angel of Death" vapor in particular remains an incredibly stunning effect. The film was completely absorbing, holding the viewer's attention for a long running time of 220 minutes.

The print was absolutely remarkable; the closeups of Anne Baxter especially wowed me. The film was warmly received by the audience -- although a few of the more broadly played line readings drew a few chuckles -- and when Heston's Moses raised his arms to part the Red Sea, the moment drew sustained appreciative applause. It's fairly rare for a dramatic movie moment to receive that kind of reaction.

I've never been a big fan of filmed versions of Biblical stories, but the movie felt very respectful, especially due to dignity and passion of Heston's performance. It's hard to imagine anyone else with the force of character, the size, and the voice to play this part. It was an interesting choice to have Heston's own voice used when God speaks to Moses.

Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter were highly entertaining as Rameses, Moses's competitor for the Egyptian throne, and Nefretiri, the future Pharoah's future queen. There were a few moments where I thought they overdid it and briefly teetered on the edge of camp, but DeMille's not exactly known for subtlety anyway, and they always reeled it back in.

I thought Nina Foch (Bithiah, the Egyptian princess who adopts the infant Moses) and John Derek (Joshua, who believes early on that Moses is the deliverer promised by God) came off especially well among the large cast. I also enjoyed seeing Yvonne DeCarlo as the shepherdess Moses marries.

The huge cast includes Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Edward G. Robinson, Vincent Price, Martha Scott, Debra Paget, Dame Judith Anderson, John Carradine, and Henry Wilcoxon (Marc Antony from CLEOPATRA). DeMille wanted the very frail H.B. Warner to "go out with his boots on" and brought him in for one of the most touching lines as the exodus begins; it was Warner's last film appearance. There are many more interesting names throughout the extended cast credits.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is available on DVD. I plan to purchase it in order to learn more about the film via the DVD documentary and commentary.

All in all, this was an absolutely marvelous evening from start to finish.

Previous Egyptian Theatre posts: Tonight's Movie: Cleopatra (1934) at the Egyptian Theatre; A Visit to the Noir City Film Festival.


Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

Very cool! That jewelry is amazing. What an honor to be able share this experience with Heston's family and at the Egyptian Theatre! Thanks for sharing.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Irene said...

It's been too many years to count since I saw it on the big screen - now just the TV during Easter or something. This must have been so wonderful to see that way.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Moira Finnie said...

Thank you so much for this report, which made me feel as though I had a front row seat on this terrific event. If Paramount is smart, someone will reproduce those beautiful necklaces for today's market--they would definitely be prized by women today.

I first saw The Ten Commandments (1956) during a re-release in a movie theater in the late '60s and thought it a splendid spectacle then and it remains compulsively enthralling today, despite the strides made in special effects since the '50s.

The performances of all the actors, especially that of Yul Brynner and Edward G. Robinson as well as Heston always seem to vibrate with an electricity that few actors can match today--even when some of the lines become amusing with repetition.

Btw, the green mist representing the Angel of Death descending on Egypt still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up!

Please excuse my ignorance, but has or will this restoration be transferred to DVD/Blu-Ray? Thanks so much, Laura.


1:37 PM  
Blogger DKoren said...

How neat! Thanks for a great write-up on this! Love the pics of the jewelry exhibit. I've seen this film once on the big screen and it was so much better than seeing it on TV. My favorite big-screen moment was when they raised the obelisk. That looked fantastic on the big screen, a great effect that was very impressive. And yeah, that green mist is very creepy still.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks to all of you for the comments. It really was a remarkable evening -- I'm fortunate to have been able to see both this film and CLEOPATRA (1933) for the first time on the big screen at the Egyptian. What an appropriate place for those titles!

Moira, I definitely was smiling the last time or two Rameses sighed "Moses, Moses...!" You're absolutely right about the cast -- actors like Heston, Brynner and Robinson are, as the saying goes, "bigger than life."

My understanding from the comments made last night is that this version should be coming to Blu-ray. I'm uncertain about whether it will be released as a standard DVD, but I hope so. In the meantime, I'm in a quandary -- do I buy the 50th Anniversary DVD or wait in hopes of an even better print? I'm anxious to watch the documentary, on the heels of having seen the film, so I somewhat doubt I'll be patient enough to wait for another DVD release. According to this article, the restored version may have been what was shown on ABC last spring.

Best wishes,

7:00 PM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

This was great. I wish I could have been there. Though, I have to admit, it would have been torture to keep myself from saying the lines out loud. This movie was an annual Easter event in my house, and in younger days my brother and I would throw the lines back and forth to each other, sometimes making up our own. "So let it be written, so let it be done" remains a favorite when asked for a favor.

Nobody beats Edward G. Robinson, though. All he's missing is the cigar.

Thanks for taking us along.

4:40 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

That's one of my husband's favorite sayings too, Jacqueline! I got a kick out of hearing it in the film for the first time. Thanks for sharing your memories of the film. :)

Best wishes,

8:48 AM  
Blogger Terri said...

You lucky dog! That sounds like one great evening!!!

4:07 PM  

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