For all the talk of an immoral, godless Hollywood mindset, the motion picture studios have known since their earliest days that the Bible offers a rich (and royalty-free) source of story material that comes with a ready-made audience. This formula, which has worked for filmmakers from Cecil B. DeMille to Mel Gibson, will be put to the test once again this weekend, as Paramount unveils its big-budget (somewhere between $130 to $160 million, according to sources) version of Noah, starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Hopkins and directed by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan). Fleshing out the story of the Old Testament patriarch, his family and their seafaring menagerie found in chapters six to nine of Genesis with what, from the trailers, looks to be a mix of CGI effects (all the animals are computer-generated creatures) and “300”-style action sequences, Noah was met by controversy from various religious groups well before its release. The odds are, however, that even with protests, there will be no bloodshed or loss of life as a result of the picture…which puts Aronofsky’s creation one step ahead of the last time a theatrical feature based on the Great Flood was released, Warner Bros.’ 1928 silent/talkie hybrid Noah’s Ark.
With the box office success of DeMille’s original The Ten Commandments from 1923 still fresh in everyone’s minds, Warners head of production Darryl F. Zanuck turned his attention to the Pentateuch and set out to one-up Cecil B. with a lavish spectacle that, like that earlier film, would juxtapose a Biblical dramatization with a paralleling contemporary story. And so, after an opening shot of the title boat resting on the mountains of Ararat with God’s rainbow in the sky, director Michael Curtiz (working from a script based on Zanuck’s own story) depicts such classical blasphemies as the Tower of Babel and the Golden Calf before fast-forwarding to the 20th Century, where gambling and other vices run rampant. Here, too, modern-day Towers of Babel (New York skyscrapers) look down on Wall Street, as a bankrupt investor gives rise to a classic stand-up routine and makes a killing in the stock market by shooting his broker.
The action then shifts to the late summer of 1914, with Europe on the verge of World War I. Just as a Bible-toting old man (Paul McAllister) admonishes his fellow passengers on a Paris-to-Constantinople train for their immorality and lack of faith, lightning strikes a bridge, causing it to collapse and sending the train into the ravine below. Along with McAllister, the crash’s League of Nations of survivors includes German dancer Marie (Dolores Costello); Nickoloff, a lascivious Russian war agent (Noah Beery); and American adventurers/best buds Travis and Al (future B-western cowboys George O’Brien and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, respectively). After an incident at a nearby inn where Nickoloff tries to assault Marie and is roundly thrashed by Travis, who’s taken a shine to her, she and the two Yanks wind up in Paris to live quietly and unaffected by the conflict engulfing the continent. It’s at this point where the heretofore silent movie switches to “talkie” mode (the three or four talking sequences were added during production in a post-The Jazz Singer attempt to cash in on the studio’s new Vitaphone system). O’Brien and Costello are seen canoodling on a park bench while he offers up one of the most un-romantic opening lines in screen history: “It’s wonderful how a train wreck brought us together!”
The trio’s Parisian bliss can’t last forever, however. In swift succession Al, then an at-first reluctant Travis (who’s married Marie in the interim), enlist in the U.S.Army following America’s 1917 entry into the war; Travis winds up accidentally killing Al when he throws a grenade into a German machine gun nest during the Battle of the Argonne Forest; a brokenhearted Marie joins a traveling performance troupe and is recognized by now-Allied agent Nickoloff, who tries to blackmail her, then frames her for espionage; Marie is about to be executed as a German spy when one of the firing squad riflemen turns out to be Travis; and the whole company is buried in an underground vault after an artillery shelling. As luck would have it, one of the people trapped is none other than Bible quoter McAllister, whose comparison of the current “Deluge of Blood” to the Genesis Flood brings us around–finally!–to the story the film is named for.
Just to make sure the twin plots are sufficiently hammered home to audiences, Zanuck and Curtiz had their cast do double duty. McAllister is now seen as the ever-righteous Noah; O’Brien and Williams are his sons Japheth and Ham; Costello is Japheth’s chaste betrothed, Miriam; and Beery doesn’t get to play his namesake but instead is cast as King Nephiliu of Ur. The idolatrous monarch abducts Miriam for a virginal sacrifice to his pagan deity and has Japheth, her would-be rescuer, blinded and sentenced to slave labor. While all of this (none of which, incidentally, comes from Genesis) is going on, the Lord tells Noah (by way of a burning bush and words etched by fire into a mountainside, both lifted from The Ten Commandments) to go build the world’s largest floating zoo and get ready for the mother of all superstorms. “Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven,” says Noah in a response which I’m pretty sure came from the New Testament. God’s not fooling around, either; Just as Miriam is about to be put to death, the skies open up in a torrential–and, some might say, overlong–downpour that wipes out Nephiliu, his kingdom and his followers (along with, as the Good Book states, the rest of the planet). Providentially, Miriam and Japheth–whose sight is miraculously restored–reunite and safely make their way to the Ark just before Captain Noah sets sail.
As the 37-minute flashback wraps up with Noah, his family, and several thousand beasts, birds, and creeping things riding out the storm, we return to 1918, where the villainous Nickoloff dies just as a rescue party digs out Marie, Travis and company. What’s more, they’re coming out in time for the announcement of the Armistice ending the war (How’s that for a coincidence?). It falls on McCallister’s minister to tie everything together by asking in a title card, “Above this deluge of blood, and the graves of ten million men, shall not the rainbow of a new covenant appear–the covenant of peace?” This longing was a sentiment shared by most WWI dramas of the late silent era–J’Accuse, The Big Parade and Wings, for example–but by 1939 it was sadly clear that any such covenant wasn’t going to last.
As a serious drama, Noah’s Ark certainly steers into the overwrought and pretentious more than once in both storylines. Another strike comes courtesy of the lead players. Dual heroine Costello (who was Warner’s answer to Mary Pickford and was nicknamed “The Wounded Little Bird” for her long-suffering characters–not, as one might expect from this effort, for her chirpy voice) looks either cherubic or distraught as the scene requires but manages little more. Meanwhile, O’Brien makes a stalwart enough hero but fails to generate electricity in his love scenes with Costello (frankly, there’s more concern and genuine affection in his front line farewell to Williams). Noah Beery (Oscar-winner Wallace’s brother), however, is a suitably hissable bad guy as both the WWI Russian Lothario and the evil Mesopotamian despot, while the supporting cast includes a young Myrna Loy as one of Costello’s fellow dancers and Mack Sennett veteran Louise Fazenda as the innkeeper’s daughter.
What the film does do fairly well is offer DeMille-style spectacle, from the train wreck scene (done with models and miniatures) to the flooding of Ur and the Temple of Jaghuth. The problem with the Old Testament sequences–and this turned out to be a major problem–is that Zanuck and Curtiz decided to flood the specially designed sets with nearly 15,000 tons of water instead of relying solely on the aforementioned miniatures. The inherent danger was obvious to head cameraman Hal Mohr, who said to the director, “Jesus, what are you going to do about the extras?,” to which Curtiz allegedly replied “Oh, they’re going to have to take their chances,” leading Mohr to walk off the project. Just as he feared, the torrents of water dumped onto the sets tossed actors and crew members around and slammed them into concrete sets (among the thousands who endured this 1920s version of “water torture” were a pair of struggling actors named John Wayne and Andy Devine–good luck trying to spot them in the final film, though). When the shooting was finished, three extras reportedly drowned, one lost a leg from his injuries, and at least a dozen more suffered broken limbs or other serious injuries. The stars were not immune, either, from their extended time in the ice-cold drink: Williams sustained two broken ribs, O’Brien lost several of his toenails, and “Little Wounded Bird” Costello contracted pneumonia.
For all its cost in both money ($1.5 million in 1928 dollars) and human suffering, Noah’s Ark didn’t live up to Zanuck’s or Warner Bros.’ expectations at the box office (New York Times movie critic Mordaunt Hall said in a contemporary review that sitting through it “is a great test of patience”), but the picture eventually turned a profit thanks to worldwide showings. This would have a good place to close my review with a witty statement about how ironic it was that the makers of the film, in ignoring its message of man’s hubris and inhumanity, would up “taking a bath” as a result. The truth is, however, that neither critical brickbats or commercial mediocrity hurt the two men most responsible for the deadly cinematic deluge. Darryl F. Zanuck would go on to co-found 20th Century Pictures (later 20th Century-Fox), and Michael Curtiz would later helm such classics as Captain Blood, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Casablanca, for which he took home the Best Director Academy Award. Both of them, it seems, found a pot of gold at the end of a particularly tragic cinematic rainbow.