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Friday, November 9, 2007

When In Rome, Part 3 (originally published 5/00)

Over the last two weeks we've seen that the currently playing "Gladiator" is only the most recent in a long line of cinematic representations of ancient Rome. Most movies on this subject, including the ones we've looked at so far, have been dramatic or melodramatic in nature. This is not surprising, given the nature of the period in question. The inherent visual spectacle of imperial Rome lends itself to such treatment, as does the historical backdrop, with its wide-ranging military conquests and its curious ideas about providing entertainment to the masses by feeding the underclass to the lions.

Even so, one of the most persuasive lessons of the history of drama is the simple truth that anything that can be used as the subject of serious dramaturgy can also be used as the subject of comedy. The setting of ancient Rome, as it turns out, is no exception to this rule. It has, in fact, proven to be an exceptionally hospitable setting for comic films. To round out our consideration of Roman movies, then, here are some lighter titles to look for on home video.

"The Three Ages" (1923). One of the earliest burlesques on ancient Rome in the movies is to be found in the first feature length comedy released by silent comic Buster Keaton. The structure of the film is meant to be a parody of pioneering director D. W. Griffith's "Intolerance" (1916), which had chronicled intolerance through the ages by weaving together four stories from four separate historical eras, developing the story lines in parallel form by cross-cutting between them concurrently rather than telling the stories consecutively. Keaton portrays the pursuit of love through the ages, telling parallel stories in the Stone Age, in ancient Rome, and in contemporary (meaning 1920s) America. The highlight of the Roman scenes is a comic chariot race, a spoof of the chariot race that had been the centerpiece of the elaborate stage production of Lew Wallace's novel, "Ben-Hur."

"Roman Scandals" (1933). Although largely forgotten today, Eddie Cantor was, in his time, one of the top figures in show business. He moved from being a comic headliner with the Ziegfeld Follies, the pinnacle of success in vaudeville, to a career in radio and in the movies. "Roman Scandals" features Cantor as a modern-day delivery boy who dreams that he is a slave in ancient Rome. As in "The Three Ages," a riotous chase scene involving chariots was a foregone conclusion, all the more so because by this time there had been a spectacular film version of "Ben-Hur" (the 1925 MGM production) to provide additional fodder for parody. If you're not familiar with Cantor's work, this is a good introduction. Be forewarned, however, that the film does include some "humor" based on an extremely disrespectful portrayal of African-Americans. This was commonplace in films of the period, but is uncomfortable to watch for contemporary audiences. The supporting cast includes a young ingenue named Gloria Stuart, who would be nominated for an Academy Award more than sixty years later for her performance in "Titanic" (1997).

"Androcles and the Lion" (1952). Not all comedies revolve around slapstick chase scenes, however, and neither do all comedies about ancient Rome. Playwright George Bernard Shaw's stock in trade was satirical wit. His retelling of the legend of Androcles, who pulls a thorn from a grateful lion's paw, was watered down by Hollywood, to be sure, but enough of the familiar Shavian wit remains to make the film's pedigree unmistakable.

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1966). Plenty of talent went into this screen adaptation of a hit Broadway musical comedy about a Roman slave who is bent on winning his freedom at any cost. The talent behind the camera included screenwriter Larry Gelbart, composer-screenwriter Stephen Sondheim, and director Richard Lester. Featured in the cast were Zero Mostel (in the lead role), Jack Gilford and Phil Silvers. Best of all, returning to the setting of his feature film debut, comic veteran Buster Keaton lent his inimitable touch of class to the proceedings.

Historians, of course, will argue that movies about ancient Rome, despite their sterling track record at the box office, paint a thoroughly inaccurate picture of the Roman Empire. Still, is it so farfetched that movie producers might have a special insight into a culture that regularly fed innocents to ravenous beasts for sport? Just asking.

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