Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Ten Commandments on the big screen

I wasn’t going to see Cecil B. DeMille’s production of The Ten Commandments on the big screen presented by Turner Classic Movies, Fathom Events, and Paramount Pictures. I’d seen it a dozen times on TV and thought it might not hold up in the 21st-century. On almost a whim, I decided to go and was glad I did.

At the bus stop, I met a woman who was also going to see the movie. We talked about it on the way there and chatted about the other classic movies we saw on the big screen recently. At the theater, I met a member of my film club and a neighbor. The audience was quite diverse. There were old folks with walkers and canes, parents with small children, and single folks, like me.

During the introduction of the film by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, we learned that we were going to see The Ten Commandments in its original road show version—overture, intermission, entr’ act—which was the way many movies were shown back in the day when I was a kid. The lights went down and the overture played the stirring score by Elmer Bernstein and I was hooked.

Moses and Rameses, two princes of Egypt

The epic directed by the legendary DeMille was his last film; he died three years after the film’s release. Sure there are parts of the film that are stilted and a bit hokey by today’s acting conventions, but I found most of the film very powerful. I was surprised at how emotionally I reacted to the movie. The plight of a people in bondage, living under a cruel leader, eventually finding freedom and redemption, still resonate—at least it did with me. It was like Sunday school come alive. I found myself remembering Bible verses and the stories from the book of Exodus.

Anne Baxter as Nefritiri
I always used to make fun of Anne Baxter’s uttering of the line, “Oh Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” But for some reason, it didn’t seem so campy on the big screen. And I must say, Baxter’s performance as Nefretiri—one of the most sought after roles of the 1950s—is all in. She really brought the Egyptian queen to life. The other performances were equally strong. Charlton Heston as Moses is impressive and he has the physical stature necessary for such a role. Yul Brynner is equally impressive as the vain and power-hungry Rameses II. Both have genuine screen presence and the commanding voices to match. Edward G. Robinson is properly sinister as Dathan. Yvonne DeCarlo—years before she became a TV icon on The Munsters—as Sephora and Moses’ wife is radiant. Then there’s John Derek as Joshua and Debra Paget as Lilia. Derek seems saddled with the most stilted spiritual sounding dialogue, but again, somehow on the big screen, it worked for me.

The scenes in Egypt were impressive, especially the Exodus. The sheer number of extras involved in that scene is staggering; I can’t imagine how difficult it was to get all of that on film. Did they get it in one take? I doubt it. The film employed a lot of blue screen and matte backdrops. Sometimes these devices were noticeable and obvious, but at other times not so much. With the parting of the Red Sea scene, the blue “halo” from the rear screen process photography gave it a “miraculous” look.

Moses confronts Rameses

The restoration that Paramount did in 2010 is near perfect. The film looked brand new and I can only imagine what audiences in 1956 though. Of course, 1956 was a simpler time and scenes that we think are corny or campy today weren’t back then. But the size and sheer spectacle of the production must have been extraordinarily impressive. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards (it won one for Best Visual Effects) and was the top-grossing film of the year. It still ranks high on the list of all-time movie moneymakers, coming in at number seven when grosses are adjusted for inflation.

If you’ve never seen a movie like The Ten Commandments on the big screen, you should. It really makes a difference.

There’s another screening of this classic film this Wednesday. Click the link to see if it’s showing in your area.

Backstory: Many top actresses were considered for the role of Nefritiri, including Audrey Hepburn Ann Blyth, Rhonda Fleming, Colleen Gray, Vivian Leigh, and Jane Russell. For the role of Sephora, the stars considered were Anne Bancroft, Linda Darnell, Grace Kelly, Barbara Hale, Patricia Neal, Ruth Roman, Jean Peters, and Barbara Rush.

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