The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Silver Chalice

They can't all be winners, right?  Over a long career, at some point movie stars have to have a dud every so often.  In most cases though you'll never hear the star actually admit that part of the equation.  Well, most cases other than Paul Newman.  One of Hollywood's greatest actors and a true legend, even Newman had to start somewhere, making his screen debut in 1954's The Silver Chalice. It's been critically roasted, and more than that, roasted by Newman who took out a full page ad in a newspaper in the 1960s to encourage TV viewers not to watch this movie when it was shown on TV.  Now that's the kind of honesty we need more of.

Let's get this out of the way early.  'Chalice' is a bad movie, a truly bad movie, that is entertaining in its awfulness.  It was an early trendsetter in huge Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments, The Robe, King of Kings, Spartacus and many others.  But you know what all those epics had going for them?  A somewhat decent script and some actual scale in terms of sets, costuming and 'a cast of thousands.'  Directed by Victor Saville, 'Chalice' has none of those things.  Other than an impressive cast full of not quite yet stars and some hopefully unintentionally funny scenes, this one is a big stinker.

Twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a Greek silversmith in Antioch by the name of Basil (Newman) is fighting for his freedom after his uncle throws him into slavery.  He is offered freedom by a man named Joseph of Arimathea (Walter Hampden) who presents a challenge for him as an artist.  Joseph owns the cup Jesus used during the Last Supper and wants to give it a proper resting place in the form of an immense chalice that will feature the faces of all those closest to Jesus, mainly the apostles.  Basil accepts the challenge and goes to work, but surrounding powers want to get their hands on the Holy Grail, including a revolutionary group led by Mijamin (Joseph Wiseman) and a magician named Simon (Jack Palance).

I'll start with the positives -- however few there were.  The cast is something to behold because many of the actors and actresses involved went on to much bigger and better things, Newman obviously at the top of that list.  There's also Italian beauty Pier Angeli, future Bonanza star Lorne Greene as Peter, a young Natalie Wood as a slave girl, E.G. Marshall as Basil's adopted father, Michael Pate as Angeli's worrying father, and Virginia Mayo as the key ingredient in the always interesting love triangle. Of course some of these parts are nothing more than a 'blink and you'll miss them' appearance, but with as 'involving' as the story is, it shouldn't be hard.

One of the selling points of these huge historical epics was the lavish sets, costumes and uses of thousands of extras.  'Chalice' basically passes on all three of those -- okay, the costumes are interesting.  The sets are absolutely ridiculous, and I'm guessing about $18 was spent putting them together.  It's very clear these are on soundstages with gigantic stage-like curtains in the background standing in for actual background.  At times, the sets look like Legos or Duplos assembled by toddlers.  They're so bad it becomes funny to see how cheesy they look.  Check out the backgrounds in THIS scene, the inside of a temple. It looks like they drew in 'the bricks' with a sharpie marker.

Newman later stated in interviews that he thought this was his worst ever performance.  I haven't seen all of them, but I'm inclined to agree.  He's miscast as a Greek to begin with, and he hasn't developed that on-screen persona, that charm that made him so likable in so many later movies.  The rest of the cast isn't exactly challenging for any Oscars either.  Mayo looks done up like some sort of drag queen with eyebrows that look like they'd stab someone.  Her sexy magician's assistant (seems right at home in a biblical movie) is torn between Basil and Simon, but she looks too ridiculous to even take too seriously.  As for the rest of the cast, Angeli has a sexy accent, and Wiseman is a creepy enough 2nd villain.

But more than all the cheap sets and sluggish dialogue, the one star really breathing some life into the movie is Jack Palance as Simon, a magician who believes he has the talent, the ability to convince the Christians he is more powerful than Christ.   He chews scenery like nobody's business, hamming it up with his monologues and magic tricks.  His Simon also provides one so unintentionally funny moment late in the movie that I almost felt bad for having laughed...almost being the key word.  It's the one true worthwhile part of this dud, but if curious, watch it at Youtube starting here with Part 1 of 15.

The Silver Chalice <----trailer (1954): * 1/2 /**** 

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