Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tonight's Movie: The Crusades (1935) at the UCLA Festival of Preservation

This evening was the final night of the UCLA Festival of Preservation, and we had a marvelous time seeing a beautifully restored 35-millimeter print of Cecil B. DeMille's THE CRUSADES.

As I watched this excellent film at the Hammer Museum's Billy Wilder Theater, I reflected that as much as I appreciate the access we have to see countless movies at home, there is simply nothing quite like the experience of seeing a beautifully projected 35-millimeter print in the dark with an audience. The glowing black and white beauty of the huge "silver screen" has an impact which simply isn't possible at home. Watching films at home can be special too, of course, but seeing a number of films on the big screen in recent months has underscored for me part of the reason I remember similar experiences from my teen years so vividly. Those large black and white images shining in the dark have a way of burrowing into the memory banks and staying there.

I should make it clear at the outset that I am responding to THE CRUSADES strictly as a film and am making no judgments about its historical accuracy, or lack thereof. As a movie, this film is DeMille at his best -- a gripping story which balances the proverbial cast of thousands with a more intimate, tenderhearted tale of romance and Richard the Lion Heart's burgeoning religious belief.

I had found Henry Wilcoxon a bit of a goofball at times in CLEOPATRA (1934), but I must say I was pleasantly surprised and quite impressed with his performance as King Richard. Richard begins as an oafish, rather immature man not especially cognizant of his responsibilities as king. He undertakes the Crusade not out of religious faith, but as a means of legitimately escaping his betrothal to waspish Princess Alice of France (Katherine DeMille, the director's adopted daughter).

To Richard's surprise, marching off to the Crusades leads him not only to the love of his life -- the exquisitely beautiful Loretta Young as Berengaria, Princess of Navarre -- but to true religious faith and understanding. The film's final scenes touched me deeply and made my eyes mist a bit, as did an earlier sequence where, under deep political pressure to cast aside his wife, he not only refuses but instead crowns her as his co-sovereign. Wilcoxon does a superb job believably depicting Richard's gradual transformation from an irresponsible rabble-rouser into a true hero. I'm very glad I had another opportunity to judge his acting skills as he is excellent in this film.

Loretta Young was the epitome of star power, particularly in the '30s. She was just 22 when she starred in THE CRUSADES, but she already had dozens of credits. I'm not sure how many actresses could have successfully carried off this particular role. Berengaria is no meek heroine, but a woman of nerve who spars with the large, potentially terrifying Richard and who calmly drinks from a glass of water to assure Saladin (Ian Keith) it's not poisoned. Berengaria is also quietly religious and eventually deeply in love. No one else in Hollywood had Young's soulful eyes or could have conveyed these aspects of Berengaria's character so beautifully. The sacrifices she is prepared to make for her husband and for peace seem completely authentic as portrayed by Young.

Loretta Young was, in fact, in the early stages of her pregnancy with Clark Gable's child when she filmed THE CRUSADES, and her peaceful countenance throughout the film does not reveal the enormous stress she was under off the screen. Some actresses of the era are known to have had multiple abortions, but Young never considered that an option. As recounted in UNCOMMON KNOWLEDGE and FOREVER YOUNG, upon completion of THE CRUSADES Young and her family undertook an elaborate plan to cover up the pregnancy, which simultaneously allowed Young to keep her daughter Judy (whom she was said to have adopted) and saved both her career and Gable's -- which also gave her the means to support her child. It was, needless to say, quite a different era.

The supporting cast of THE CRUSADES is excellent, including Ian Keith as Saladin, Sultan of Islam, who is ultimately proven to be a more sympathetic and nuanced character than one might expect. Sir C. Aubrey Smith is also effective as "the Hermit," who persuades the kings of Europe to go to war to free the Holy Land.

Richard's retinue includes Alan Hale and William Farnum; his nemesis, Philip of France, is played by C. Henry Gordon. Joseph Schildkraut, Ramsay Hill, Montagu Love, Hobart Bosworth, Mischa Auer, and George Barbier are also among the very large cast.

This is the third DeMille film I've seen in a theater in the past six months, and like his other movies, I tend to think that this film is one which would have its dramatic power somewhat diminished on a small screen. Truth be told, I found the film overly violent in a couple of spots, but my 13-year-old son had no such qualms (grin); for the most part we both thoroughly enjoyed it. I love that a film released over 75 years ago still has the power to hold multiple generations spellbound for over two hours; the film clocks in at 125 minutes. The film's sweep is such that we chuckled when we overheard someone in the theater say at the conclusion, "Compared to this, GONE WITH THE WIND seems like a little movie now!"

THE CRUSADES is on DVD as part of the 5-film Cecil B. DeMille Collection. The DVD is available via Netflix. (Update: The movie is also now available as a single-title DVD release in the Universal Vault Series.)

The movie has also had a release on VHS.

(2023 Update: Kino Lorber will release THE CRUSADES on Blu-ray in March 2023.  Additional Update: My review of the Blu-ray is here.)

As a side note, tonight's print of THE CRUSADES was preceded by a brief DeMille-narrated prologue added for a rerelease in the late '40s.

This evening THE CRUSADES was preceded by a restored print of the short HOLLYWOOD EXTRA GIRL (1935), about a young background extra (Suzanne Emery) from Central Casting dreaming of a big break while working on THE CRUSADES. The cast includes Ann Sheridan, not playing herself, but appearing as another extra named Genevieve. Sheridan also appears in THE CRUSADES -- though not as an extra, but in a speaking role as a distraught slave girl in the movie's opening scenes.

Related posts: Tonight's Movie: Cry Danger (1951) at the UCLA Festival of Preservation; Tonight's Movie: Cleopatra (1934) at the Egyptian Theatre; Tonight's Movie: The Ten Commandments (1956) at the Egyptian Theatre.


Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

"The glowing black and white beauty of the huge "silver screen" has an impact which simply isn't possible at home...Those large black and white images shining in the dark have a way of burrowing into the memory banks and staying there."

So well put, and I confess, I have yet to experience that adventure. Your description is irresistable.

5:40 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jacqueline, I really hope you have the opportunity one day. I know you would especially appreciate the experience, and I'd love to hear your take on what it's like.

Best wishes,

12:49 PM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

In the making of feature on "The Ten Commandments" DVD, they discuss DeMille's concern about being able to film in Egypt. R

Representatives from the king said the family was so pleased with how Saladin was portrayed in "The Crusades" that the Egyptian government gave DeMille the fullest cooperation.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Kevin, the gentleman who introduced the film (I'm afraid his name slipped my mind) had spoken with Cecilia DeMille Presley by phone about THE CRUSADES and she asked him to share that very story. :)

Thanks for mentioning it here, I hadn't remembered to do so!

Best wishes,

2:20 PM  

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