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Monday, November 5, 2007

Three Controversies (originally published 5/99)

It must be time for the network ratings sweeps. After an endless spate of tired reruns, suddenly our picture tubes have erupted with elaborate specials, made for television movies, and "very special episodes" of our favorite series. While perusing the listings of television events for the month of May, I couldn't help being struck by an interesting pattern. No less than three of the scheduled miniseries are remakes of movies that are remembered as much for the controversy attached to them as for their own merits.

Take, for example, "Noah's Ark." This favorite Old Testament story is being brought to the small screen in the form of a big-budget miniseries. Way back in 1929, that same story formed the basis of a big-budget movie from Warner Brothers. It was released during the period when the American film industry was making the transition from silent movies to talking pictures. Like many films released in 1928 and 1929, "Noah's Ark" was produced with some silent scenes and some talking scenes. Just as Cecil B. DeMille had done with his silent version of "The Ten Commandments" (1923), "Noah's Ark" told two parallel stories, one a modern story and the other the familiar biblical tale.

The director, Michael Curtiz, who would later direct such classics as "Casablanca" (1942) and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938), was known for being a strutting martinet. He was, by all accounts, the very image of the stereotypical old school Hollywood director. In shooting the flood scenes for "Noah's Ark," cameraman Byron Haskin and star Delores Costello later recalled that Curtiz had deliberately put extras in harm's way, bringing down a wall of water on people who were not trained stunt performers, in order to heighten the "realism" of the scene. The many injuries that resulted earned the picture the nickname of "Mud, Blood, and Flood."

Another miniseries that will be presented this month is "Joan of Arc." Although the story of Saint Joan has been filmed a number of times, for many people the one enduring version is that of the 1948 "Joan of Arc" starring Ingrid Bergman in the title role. Although the film as a whole is not highly regarded, Bergman's performance transcends the film's flaws to stand as one of the great achievements of American cinema. Unfortunately, it was just shortly after the release of "Joan of Arc" that Bergman began her widely publicized illicit love affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Naturally, a movie star cannot hope to commit indiscretions without making headlines. In short order, the fact that Bergman had been unfaithful to her husband became common knowledge worldwide. What made it worse, however, was the fact that she had just appeared on the screen in the role of a saint. Gradually, the scandalous headlines began to take a toll on the box office performance of "Joan of Arc."

Also in the lineup for this sweeps period is yet another retelling of the life of Cleopatra. The Queen of the Nile has been incarnated on the screen a number of times, but the most legendary production of all is undoubtedly the massive, four-hour "Cleopatra" of 1963, starring Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Richard Burton as Antony, and Rex Harrison as Caesar. This bloated superproduction was the "Waterworld" of its day, a runaway train with a budget that spiraled so far out of control that no amount of box office success could have generated a profit. At the same time, Taylor and Burton, each married to others at the time, began a headline-grabbing love affair that ironically mirrored the roles they were playing.

If you're curious about the films behind these controversies, "Joan of Arc" and "Cleopatra" are both readily available on video. "Noah's Ark" is not currently available, but I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that it will be soon. It has been turning up with some regularity lately on Turner Classic Movies, which means that a video version has been prepared, even though it has not yet appeared on video store shelves. If you do seek them out, I think you'll find that each of these three films is worth seeing on its own merits, despite the fact that they were in their time overshadowed by negative publicity. They will continue to be watched by movie lovers long after the scandalous headlines, and their TV remakes, have been forgotten.

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