Friday, August 14, 2009

The Robe

I finally got around to watching the new DVD of “The Robe” (1953) and was really surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I’ve always liked the film, mainly due to the glorious Alfred Newman score, but always found it more than a bit plodding and talky.

But Twentieth Century Fox put a ton of money into restoring this historically significant movie (the first Cinemascope offering) for DVD and Blu-Ray release, and the results look spectacular. I felt like I was watching it for the first time and the two hour and 10 minute running time just flew by. I was captivated from beginning to end, even while recognizing its faults.

“The Robe” details the effect the title garment - the robe Jesus was wearing when he was crucified - has on the Roman centurion Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) who led the crucifixion. Thanks to the Robe and the early Christians he meets on his journey, he is converted to Christianity and returns to Rome, under the rule of the depraved Caligula (Jay Robinson).

“The Robe” was based on a huge best seller written by Lloyd C. Douglas, a Protestant minister whose books often contained spiritual themes, such as “Magnificent Obsession” and “Green Light.” The novel really struck a chord with World War II audiences, with its message of faith and trust in mankind.

The movie follows the book’s core incidents, though much was obviously left out.

There is much to enjoy while watching “The Robe” but, sadly, the acting is not one of them. Richard Burton earned his second of seven Academy Award nominations and this was one nomination that was not deserved. His magnificent speaking voice is pretty monotone throughout and his facial grimacing and contorting when faced with the magic properties of The Robe are pretty embarrassing now. Jean Simmons who plays Diana, who fell in love with Marcellus when they were children, isn’t given much to do though she looks as beautiful as ever and has a good scene where she denounces Caligula before the gathered Roman court.

Acting chops go to, no kidding, Victor Mature, as the Greek slave Demetrius. Always a very likable actor, Mature gives one of his best performances as the anger-filled slave who sees his life transformed by the events at Calvary.

The other standout performance is Jay Robinson’s gloriously fruity Caligula. Caligula was the maddest of all Roman emperors and Robinson is a joy to watch in each scene. He’s even loonier in the film’s sequel, “Demetrius and the Gladiators” (1954), where he thinks the Robe will give him magic powers.

The film is happily loaded with familiar faces: Dean Jagger as one of the first Christians; Michael Rennie as Peter; Torin Thatcher plays Burton’s father, a Senator who pleads with his son not to incur Caligula’s wrath; Richard Boone makes the most pensive Pontius Pilate imaginable; 1950s science fiction hero Jeff Morrow engages in a pretty good sword duel with Burton; Dr. Pretorius himself, Ernest Thesiger, plays the wise Tiberius; future General Burkhalter Leon Askin plays a slimy tradesman; and an uncredited Michael Ansara plays Judas with great theatricality, aided by some impressive thunder and lightning effects. Also uncredited is Mae Marsh, former leading lady to D.W. Griffin, as the woman who assists Demetrius after he is beaten by the Romans.

For a director unused to the widescreen process, Henry Koster does a good job of positioning his actors within the wide Cinemascope frame, especially in the Calvary sequence and the scene where Burton and other early Christians stage a raid on a Roman prison to rescue Demetrius

Koster will likely never earn praise for his style, but he directed many movies I’m very fond of. There’s always a great deal of warmth that shine from his films. Unlike the stereotypical tyrannical director, I always get the impression that Koster liked people, imperfections and all. He directed several of my favorite Deanna Durbin films, including “First Love” (1939); “Spring Parade” (1940); and “It Started with Eve” (1941). Two of his best loved films that remain popular today are “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947) and “Harvey” (1950). His name also appears on the charming “Come to the Stable” (1949) and the John Philip Sousa biography “Stars and Stripes Forever” (1952). Good movies all, and I think Fox entrusted him with “The Robe” due to the humanity he brought to his projects.

(Koster was also lucky enough to be married to uber-cutie Peggy Moran, a starlet best remembered today for her heroine turn in “The Mummy’s Hand.” (1940). If I was married to Peggy Moran, I’d celebrate humanity too.)

The best part of “The Robe” is the exquisite musical score of Alfred Newman. It’s one of the most famous scores in movie history, and was one of the first scores to have its excerpts re-recorded for LP back in the early 1950s. The score, re-issued several times over the years on LP, cassette tape and DVD, has rarely been out of print. Quite an achievement.

It’s a magnificent score, filled with beauty, lyricism, tenderness and excitement. So many highlights I can’t begin to list them all, but I always liked the exquisite treatment of the love theme as Marcellus’ boat leaves the Roman dock for Palestine and Diana looks at him from the pier. Ironically the film’s most famous theme, the glorious “Hallelujah” chorus at the end, was likely not Newman’s but composed by Austrian composer Ernst Toch for the 1939 film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Toch was a well-known composer in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s who fled his country during the rise of Nazism. He settled in Hollywood where he taught, composed symphonies and also wrote musical scores for movies. Newman was incredibly busy in 1939 and by necessity farmed out portions of his scores to ghostwriters (a common practice then and now). There’s pretty strong documentation that Toch, not Newman, composed the Hallelujah chorus in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in the scene where Quasimodo swings from the bell tower to rescue Esmeralda from hanging.

Newman liked it and re-used it in his Academy Award-winning score for “The Song of Bernadette” (1944), but it’s given its most lavish treatment for the final scene of “The Robe.” In the 1950s, no other studio orchestra could match the 20th Century Fox Orchestra and Chorus, and they really do the piece justice. We’re talking goose bumps here.

Careful listeners can also hear it played faintly during the climatic scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) when George Bailey is running and yelling through snowy Bedford Falls on his way home.

“The Robe” was a massive hit for Fox, and resulted in a very entertaining sequel the next year called “Demetrius and the Gladiators.” Victor Mature was back, as was Michael Rennie’s Peter and Jay Robinson’s Caligula. They’re joined by Susan Hayward (as Messalina), Debra Paget, Ernest Borgnine, Anne Bancroft, Barry Jones (as Claudius) and a pre-Blacula William Marshall.

In one of the great injustices in Oscar history, Alfred Newman’s score for “The Robe” was not nominated for Best Score. (See, “Dark Knight” fans, the Oscars have long been known for head-scratching omissions). Composer Franz Waxman was so incensed at this that he resigned from the Academy in protest. The following year when he was given the assignment of “Demetrius and the Gladiators”, he re-used several of Newman’s themes in key scenes and the two shared a title card on the film.
Gerry, the guy I rent movies from in Westmont, Westmont Movie Classics (over 15,000 titles!) tells me “The Robe” is one of his most popular titles, renting out pretty much every weekend. He purchased extra copies to meet demand. More than 50 years later, “The Robe” still continues to entertain and inspire.


Classicfilmboy said...

Great post! When I have time (ha!), I'll have to check it out on DVD. I remember how bad the acting was, and I think that taints my opinion of the film. But the picture quality and technology of today's TVs may make it worth my time. Great thoughts on the musical score, too.

Kevin Deany said...

Brian: The new DVD is a real treat. The old DVD was pretty grimy looking and before that all those years watching if full frame on WGN with commercial interruptions every 10 or 15 minutes made an already long film pretty interminable.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it properly presented and with no interruptions.