Friday, July 11, 2014

The Silver Chalice or: Paul Newman & the Holy Grail

Hi kids, and welcome to my blogathon. Well okay, it's not really my blogathon. This is actually my oh so humble contribution to someone else's blogathon. To be more precise (and why shouldn't I be?) this is my contribution to the Accidentally Hilarious Blogathon over at the classic film site, Movies Silently. The basic gist is this: we write up something or other on a classic movie that is...um, not in the realm of greatness. In other words, bad films...but bad films that are actually enjoyable. At least I think many of the films being talked of in this blogathon are rather fun. Anyhoo, enough of this introductory blah blah blah. Let's get on with my oh so humble contribution, premiering a day or two early of the July 13th blogathon start.

Victor Saville's 1954 Cinemascope biblical epic, The Silver Chalice, set just a handful of decades after Jesus, should be considered an important film in the career of Paul Newman - for two very integral (and opposing) reasons. The first being that it was the iconic actor's big screen debut. The second being that it was the iconic actor's most hated film of what would eventually become an oeuvre of nearly sixty motion pictures. Newman even publicly apologized for his performance in this movie. Upon finally watching the film, after seeing it listed among Martin Scorsese's favourite guilty pleasures, I can certainly see why Newman disliked it so much (he is rather terrible in it and through probably no fault of his own), but I gotta admit, even with its nearly universal bad acting, a script that makes one's ears bleed and an overall "do-you-like-movies-about-gladiators" vibe, I kinda liked it. So go ahead and scoff if you must, but I am not going to change my mind.

The Silver Chalice is the true definition of what a guilty pleasure movie should be (as opposed to Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharaohs - also on the aforementioned Scorsese list - which is, by all accounts, says the unabashed auteurist, a legitimately well-made film), which is where one derives enjoyment from a movie that is poorly made and/or sappy and/or cheesy and/or whatever other adjective one wishes to include. Though in reality the idea of a movie's pleasure bringing on the emotion of guilt is probably a misnomer of sorts, since I feel no guilt from my love of The Silver Chalice - or from any other film one might call, out of necessity of getting your point across to an audience, a guilty pleasure. Like I said before, and like I will probably say again before this whole shebang is over, I liked the damned film, so get used to it.

Two things in particular stand out to make me like this film so damned much. And no, Newman's rather lackluster performance (he is right to hate his performance here) is not among them. The first is the art direction and set design, courtesy of production designer Rolfe Gerard, Art Director Boris Leven and set decorator Harold Bristol. From the gaudy feast of Nero (set inside what appears to be the Roman equivalent of DC Comics' Hall of Justice!), where everyone eats what appears to be silver and gold food (actually the menu looks quite strangely yummy to this bizarre foodie) while scantily-clad, blue-skinned women (the kind of girls Captain Kirk would so take his boots off for!) gyrate around to a poppy jazz score that is so out of time and place it almost goes the entire way around again and becomes perfectly scored. We also get the simple geometrical designs of Jerusalem that make this holy city an abstract wonder to behold, as Newman's slave/artist Basil (a role originally turned down by James Dean) and the gorgeous Pier Angeli (James Dean's one-time lover) flee from Roman soldiers across the rooftops of this strange, exotic city, made even stranger and more exotic through staged architecture. Everywhere one looks (and thanks to the patented Cinemascope widescreen process, there are a lot more places to which one can look), and no matter the lack of charisma from Newman (who would have it in spades in future movies!) and the quite idiotic preenings of co-star and Roman femme fatale Virginia Mayo, one is given a sight to behold, indeed.

The other thing that stands out is (of course!) Jack Palance as the dastardly Simon the Magician (I assume based upon Simon Magus), wouldbe usurper to the aforementioned Jesus and all-around sly kook. Crazier than I have ever seen him, Palance, even while giving such a soft-spoken kind of performance, hands in probably his most queerly wicked role ever. Practically leaping out of the veritable closet as the no-good Simon, Palance is wonderfully kitschy in a role that he may very well have been oblivious to its camp goofiness. I mean c'mon. His playing with snakes and wearing the things he wore. He must have known, right? I mean, he is preening about in red superhero-esque tights with a cape and what appear to be giant black sperm designed into them. This get-up is adorning the actor when he decides that he can fly (an idea that, of course, does not come off so well for good ole Simon). He is by far, the most interesting character in the movie. Of course it is this very campiness that makes the movie so damned enjoyable (guiltily or not!!).

No matter that Newman took an ad out in 1966 (its television premier) decrying the picture and asking everyone to not watch (its ratings were phenomenal thanks to this actually) and would have friends over to watch it, handing out pots and pans and mallets and such in order to loudly criticize, like I said several times already (and I have forewarned of such again) I liked the damned thing - lock, stock and a big smoking Jack Palance. And to close out, below are several great shots from the movie (including Simon's aforementioned sperm outfit), showing just how succulent the imagery was/is, that were only magnified when I was lucky enough to see it projected up on the big screen. That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.




9 comments:

  1. I remember the day Paul Newman died. I had just returned from a trip to McDonald's for coffee, only to read an email from a friend telling me of Newman's passing. As I began writing a tribute to post on my blog, I looked down, only to see Newman staring at me from my cup of "Newman's Own" coffee. Freaky.

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  2. The part where Palance leaps to his death and the Roman emperor whines, "He didn't FLY." kills me every time.

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  3. I have to admit, when I got to your screencaps, I burst out laughing. Those COSTUMES! I dig, I dig. I think I will finally have to break down and see this one. You've sold me. Thanks for joining the fun!

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  4. Thanx for stopping by everyone. And Fritzi, glad to be aboard.

    See ya 'round the web.

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  5. Oh this is on my list to see because I heard it is so bad. Now that I see Jack Palance in her sperm outfit with a conehead I really have to see it. My fav bad film that I love is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen". I know-bad but I don't care and it is a new film (in my eyes). Oh well

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  6. I am sooo glad you included this in the blogathon because it deserves its rightful place in the Accidentally Hilarious Hall of Fame. I really appreciated the background info you provided – I had no idea Paul Newman apologized for his performance in this film.

    Great review!

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  7. And to think...I actually like this movie. What the hell does Newman know!?

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  8. IMO, Jack Palance's Simon the Magician is what makes "The Silver Chalice" worth seeing. A memorable character with one of the great movie demises.

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  9. Yes Gary, Palance is fantasteeeeek in this film. One of the most bravura performances from a guy who pretty much gives nothing but bravura performances.

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