Saturday, July 27, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Noah's Ark (1928) at UCLA

Tonight was a fascinating viewing experience, seeing the part-silent, part-talkie NOAH'S ARK (1928) at UCLA. The 100-minute release version restored by UCLA was shown in 35mm as part of the ongoing Archive Treasures series.

NOAH'S ARK was one of the earliest American films directed by Michael Curtiz, and the film was introduced tonight by historian Alan K. Rode. Rode's forthcoming biography, MICHAEL CURTIZ: A MAN FOR ALL MOVIES, is expected to be published by the University Press of Kentucky approximately one year from now.

Rode said that Curtiz's refusal to use miniatures for the flood sequence led to cameraman Hal Mohr leaving the production; Mohr shares credit with Barney McGill. The flood sequence is quite astonishing in its realism and brutality, as Curtiz had many thousands of gallons of water dumped on extras who were very realistically fighting for their lives. Leading lady Dolores Costello contracted pneumonia during the filming of this sequence, while George O'Brien lost his big toenails.

Many extras were injured during the flood sequence, and Rode mentioned that it's a Hollywood legend that some extras were killed and Warner Bros. covered it up. He said that to date he's been unable to find any evidence that this was true; however, as he said, one has no trouble believing it when watching the movie!

It's been rumored, incidentally, that John Wayne and Andy Devine were among the flood extras.

NOAH'S ARK has additional historical interest as it's from the "transition era" of silents to sound. It's a spectacle which was three years in the making, and THE JAZZ SINGER (1927) came out partway through the film's production. NOAH'S ARK begins with a musical overture and has a complete Vitaphone musical soundtrack composed and conducted by Louis Silvers, as well as some special effects sounds. The film also has talking scenes; Noah Beery (Sr.), who plays the villain, has a voice which is impressively deep and scary.

Despite being partially a talkie, NOAH'S ARK has an incredible number of narrative cards, far more than the Harold Lloyd movies I've seen this year. Viewers could be forgiven for thinking at times they were reading a movie rather than watching one!

NOAH'S ARK has a dual storyline, created by one Darryl Francis Zanuck. For most of the film it's a WWI saga telling of the star-crossed love of American Travis (O'Brien) and German Marie (Costello) as the war rages across Europe. It's pure melodrama, complete with a villain (Beery) who does everything but twirl a mustache as he threatens our heroine -- honestly, he might have done that too!

The unbelievable climax of this part of the movie will not be shared here, but the film then segues into what might be called a dream sequence, with a lengthy telling of the story of Noah's Ark. In this section of the film, O'Brien is one of Noah's strapping sons, while Costello is his betrothed.

The film departs from the Old Testament record with a story in which Costello is kidnapped by an evil king (Beery again) to be sacrificed to a pagan god; O'Brien is off to try and save her while his father and brothers build the ark. The movie is quite disturbingly brutal at times, as O'Brien and Costello suffer various forms of torture before the rain starts falling.

To watch this section of the film is to marvel at the sheer audacity of the filmmakers. It rivals and perhaps tops the films I've seen to date by Cecil B. DeMille. The viewer is simultaneously caught up in the story and very aware that in real life hundreds of extras were having untold amounts of water dumped on them; according to Rode, Curtiz was even seen hurling two-by-fours towards some of the extras for added realism!

And it occurs to me I haven't even yet mentioned the train crash sequence near the opening of the that case some miniature work was created to good effect.

O'Brien was in his mid-20s when production began, and he's quite impressively hunky, particularly in the Ark sequence, when he carries Costello for extended periods of time. He's a charmer, as always.

Costello -- Drew Barrymore's grandmother -- has angelic features which were well-suited to her role, as she spends much of the film with her eyes cast upward in prayer. Having only seen her previously in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), I enjoyed seeing her in an earlier role.

The cast includes Myrna Loy in a small but noticeable speaking role as a dancer and Guinn "Big Boy" Williams -- billed as Gwynn Williams -- as O'Brien's best friend. Williams turns up again in the Ark sequence as O'Brien's brother.

This movie is available on DVD via the Warner Archive. It was reviewed by Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant in 2011.

It's also been shown on Turner Classic Movies. TCM has a reissue trailer available on the TCM website.


Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

Oh gosh I need to see this and I'm envious you got to see it on the big screen. I'm adding this to my Classicflix queue right now.

After watching the silent Ben-Hur I'd love to watch another early Biblical epic like this. In Ben-Hur I read that Carole Lombard and Clark Gable were extras in the street scenes. Ha! I was reminded of that when I saw your comment about John Wayne possibly being an extra in the flood scene. I'm kicking myself for not including that in my review.

7:29 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Raquel! If you enjoyed the silent BEN-HUR (which I need to see!), I'm guessing you'd enjoy this. It was a rich, fascinating viewing experience on multiple levels. I'm so glad I went up to L.A. to see it! I'd love to hear what you think when you get it from Classic Flix.

What fun info on the extras in BEN-HUR!

Best wishes,

11:41 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer›  ‹Older