Tag: Anne Baxter

The Ten Commandments (1956)

The Ten Commandments (1956)

DeMille’s massive, camp epic sets the table for what we expect from Biblical epics

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Cast: Charlton Heston (Moses), Yul Brynner (Rameses II), Anne Baxter (Nefretiri), Edward G. Robinson (Dathan), Yvonne De Carlo (Sephora), Debra Paget (Lilia), John Derek (Joshua), Cedric Hardwicke (Seti I), Nina Foch (Bithiah), Martha Scott (Yochabel), Judith Anderson (Memnet), Vincent Price (Baka), John Carradine (Aaron), Olive Deering (Miriam), Douglass Dumbrille (Jannes)

“Let my people go!” Close your eyes and think of Moses. Chances are you’ll see an image of Charlton Heston, arms spread wide, parting the waves to lead his people to freedom. Heston had been partly chosen for his resemblance to Michelangelo’s sculpture of the famous law-giver. It’s also a tribute to how Cecil B DeMille’s slightly ponderous, very-very-serious Biblical epic pretty much defined what we expect from Bible stories.

The Ten Commandments would be DeMille’s final movie (and for all its many flaws, it’s way more deserving of the Best Picture Oscar than the valedictory pat-on-the-back his penultimate film got). It’s basically a triumphal capturing of his self-important style, with sonorously devout voiceover and a faultless hero chiselled from marble an excuse to fill the screen with action, campy scheming and lots of sexiness. The Ten Commandments became a massive hit because it’s a rollicking pile of nonsense and something you could persuade yourself was “good for you” because it’s about the Exodus.

It’s a BIG film. DeMille delivers an opening direct-to-camera address, dripping with pompous self-satisfaction, where he piously tells us about the level of historical and Biblical research he’s carried out. The credits list a stack of professors, historians, religious experts and, last of all, the Holy Gospels as sources (presumably the Gospels’ writers got no cut of the vast profits). DeMille, as per his style, marshals thousands of extras and some huge (and distinctly sound-stage looking) sets to play out a series of tableaux, many of them rooted in classic silent-movie framing and techniques. Special effects abound to create plagues (disappointingly the film skips seven of them) and parting of the Red Sea. DeMille narrates with the grandiose aloofness of a Sunday School teacher.

It’s almost enough grandeur to make you overlook this pageantry covers a rather camp, frequently silly piece of entertainment. The film is ripe with buff actors striking poses: Heston does a lot of this during the first half, matched by Brynner (who worked out at length so as not to be shown-up). Opposite them, gorgeous Israelite and Egyptian babes fawn and flirt. The film is at least as interested in the love/hate relationship between Moses and Nefretiri as it is in the Word of God, not least because DeMille knows that this soapy stuff really sells.

Perhaps that’s why Anne Baxter plays Nefretiri with a level of campy purring that would be almost laughable, if you weren’t sure that she’s in on the joke. Relishing the chance to play a sex bomb – in costumes designed to stress her assets – Baxter simpers, flirts, drapes herself across Heston’s ram-rod (in every way but one of course – he’s righteous man of God) Moses and gets to utter lines like “Oh Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid adorable fool”. She mocks and cajoles Rameses into rejecting Moses’ demands, partly because she can’t stand Moses is immune to her charms, partly because she can’t bear the idea of Moses leaving Egypt (and her) behind forever.

Ten Commandments elevated Heston to the rank of the immortals. Few actors could carry the weight of films like this as well as he. His performance is in two acts. The first is the visionary, egalitarian adopted son of the Pharoah: the guy who builds the best cities, turns rival kingdoms into allies, gives the stuffy priests’ grain to the slaves (even before he finds out he’s one of them) and whom Seti (a haughtily British Cedric Hardwicke) would rather took over the kingdom than Rameses. Discovering his roots, he morphs over a (long) time into the white-haired, broad-shouldered prophet, speaking most of his lines in sonorous block capitals (“BEHOLD. THE POWER. OF GOD” that sort of thing). Very easy to mock, but only Heston could have played such woodenly written silliness with such skilful conviction.

He generously said he believed Brynner gave the better performance. Brynner does have the more interesting material. A playboy monarch who is true to his word and seems (at first) torn with how he feels about this adopted brother who overshadows him at every turn, Brynner adds a lot of light and shade to a character written as a pretty much straight villain. Moses is presented as such an imperious stick-in-the-mud, it’s a little tricky not to feel a bit sorry for the put-upon, inadequate Rameses, for all he’s a tyrant.

Heston was the only actor who went on location for a few key shots (the others all perform on sound stages or in front of green screens). Keeping things sound stage based allowed DeMille to have complete visual control over the set-ups. This suited his conservative camera movements and editing – most of the scenes take place in a few carefully extended mid-shots, that allow us to soak up the pretty costumes and the theatrical acting. The Ten Commandments is partly a flick-book of devotional pictures – so much so that a tracking shot into Seti’s face when he banishes Moses stands out for the amount of camera movement.

That doesn’t stop DeMille throwing in plenty to look at in frame. With Heston spending half the movie as (in some cases literally) the voice of God, John Derek’s Joshua carries the action torch: chiselled of chest, he’s introduced zip wiring to save Moses’ mother from being crushed by a mighty stone. Like most of the “good” characters he gets very little to actually work with: the decent Jews are either excessively pure or aged men of physical weakness who commentate on the wonders around us. Still, it’s better than the hilariously cheesy dialogue of the regular Israelites (“We’re going to the land of milk and honey – anyone know the way?”) that contrasts laughably with the Biblical pastiche Moses and the other principals speak in.

DeMille has plenty of fun with the doubters and naughty among the Israelites. Edward G Robinson goes gloriously over-the-top as quisling Dathan, blackmailing Joshua’s girl Lilia (a timid Debra Paget) into years of servitude and taking every single opportunity to undermine Moses’ leadership. It works as well: no wonder Moses gets so peeved – the slightest set-back and the Israelites seem ready to stone him. Dathan leads the final act Golden Calf orgy (DeMille’s voiceover tuts constantly, while letting us see as much of the action as the censor would allow) while Moses is up the mountain picking up the Word of God.

Robinson has the tone right though: the cast is stuffed full of OTT actors. Vincent Price plays a perverted Egyptian architect with lip-smacking glee. Judith Anderson jumps over the top as Nefretiri’s nursemaid. Nina Foch (one year younger than Heston!) plays Moses’ adopted mother with grandiose gentleness. They know this is a big, silly, pose-striking pantomime passing itself off as a piece of devotional work.

But that’s why its popular. DeMille knows that people don’t want to see a devotional lecture – or even really have to think that much about the rights and wrongs of an Old Testament story that sees the Lord strike down a load of kids with a murderous cloud (even Moses is torn by this for a minute). The Ten Commandments is huge in every sense, full of campy nonsense, pose-striking acting and a mix of stuff it’s taking very-very-seriously and campy ahistorical nonsense. It’s a winning cocktail that doesn’t make for a great film (or even, possibly, a good one) but cemented it as a landmark everyone recognises even if they haven’t seen it. In a way, making it one of Hollywood’s most magic epics.

All About Eve (1950)

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis become deadly rivals in All About Eve

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz

Cast: Bette Davis (Margo Channing), Anne Baxter (Eve Harrington), George Sanders (Addison DeWitt), Celeste Holm (Karen Richards), Gary Merill (Bill Sampson), Hugh Marlowe (Lloyd Richards), Thelma Ritter (Birdie), Gregory Ratoff (Max Fabian), Marilyn Monroe (Claudia Casswell)

At a theatre awards ceremony, a table of people watch Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) collect the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement. She thanks them all effusively. They stare at her with mute loathing. I guess that’s show business. Mankiewicz’s biting and witty film boasts possibly one of the greatest scripts for the movies ever written, a biting expose of rivalries and backstage politics, that also manages to find a lot of warmth for its characters. Arch, but in its own strange way tender hearted and hopeful, its Mankiewciz’s greatest achievement.

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a gifted actress and one of the leading lights of Broadway, as well as the on-stage muse of playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), close friends with his wife Karen (Celeste Holm) and in love with her director Bill Sampson (Gary Merill). But Margo is just beginning to worry, now she has reached her forties, that her parts are drying up. Into her world arrives Eve (Anne Baxter), a besotted fan who swiftly becomes first her assistant then her understudy and eventual replacement. Despite her sweet exterior, Eve is fiercely ambitious determined to find fame and success – and only cynical theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) seems to notice.

All About Eve cemented Mankiewicz as Hollywood’s go-to for high-brow literary entertainment. Which is odd when you think about it, because what makes All About Eve work – and enduringly popular – is that it’s a fantastically quotable soap, played with relish. It’s not a million miles away from a ten-part, cliff-hangers aplenty Netflix drama. But it stands out because of Mankiewicz’s craft – when you pen lines as cutting, acerbic, tender and true as those in All About Eve, is it any wonder that Hollywood sees you as the next Fitzgerald?

And the dialogue is sparkling, from start to finish. From a cuttingly dry opening voiceover from George Sander’s Addison DeWitt – beautifully delivered, crammed with cynicism, cattiness, pride and purring contempt (“Minor awards are for such as the writer and director since their function is merely to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it.”) that it sets the tone for a film where dialogue is king. Mankiewicz is not much of a visual stylist – only the final shot, a besotted fan starring into an endless series of mirrors – sticks in the mind, and his approach as a director is intensely theatrical, but it doesn’t matter when his dialogue sings.

All About Eve works as both a supremely entertaining peek behind the curtain and also a neat parable about ageing, change and relevance. Perhaps there are few better examples of the changing of the guard, than the impact of growing old on a woman in theatre: from girlfriend to mother, with hardly a role in between. It’s the change Margo is dreading. And as she grows too old for her leading lady roles, what has she actually to show for it? Not much in the way of family or happiness.

If Eve looked closer, perhaps she’d wonder if it was worth it. As Margo makes clear in her dressing room and at a party thrown for Bill, she’s not got much to look forward to. (It’s not often commented on that the film’s most famous line, “Fasten your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy night”, is followed by an evening of Margo’s maudlin self-pity). For all her glamour and fame, it’s clear Margo is unhappy: “So many people know me. I wish I did” she says at one point, and for all the whirlwind of her life, she’s not exactly over-burdened by close friends.

It’s easy to forget, because All About Eve is so well known for being a bitchfest – and Mankiewicz’s cutting one-liners are genius – that you forget its lead is a sad and lonely figure, and the film presents a conservative view of motherhood being a crucial role for a woman. We don’t automatically remember this speech’ but it’s crucial for Margo: “There’s one career all females have in common – whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed – and there he is.”

Margo is the signature part for Bette Davis, but memory has distorted it. You can expect it to be a parade of sharply barbed attacks, but it is much more than this. Yes, she does these with aplomb (“I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be”), but under the regal grande dame, there is a rather vulnerable woman, scared about where her life is going and terrified of being unloved. For all the Davis fireworks, it’s an affecting – and perhaps this is why it became such a gay icon, during those years of people forced into the closet –vulnerable and lonely performance.

That vulnerability contributes to the sense of vampire story. Eve arrives in the dead of night, inveigles her way into Margo’s life and then slowly takes that life over. Eve is almost draining Margo’s life force, leaving her even more aware of the lonely impact of her choices. There’s the suggestion of sexual obsession in Eve – standing on stage, holding Margo’s costume in front of her and imagining the applause, Eve seems as much besotted with Margo as she does with becoming her. And of course Eve is a unknowable fake. Anne Baxter’s gentle, butter-wouldn’t-melt sweetness is just the right side of phoney. Only Thelma Ritter’s (very funny) bitchy dresser detects dictates her invented backstory about a deceased husband is baloney (“What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.”).

Later Birdie will comment Eve is studying to become Margo – and that’s spot on. As Eve moves further up the ladder, Baxter drops her gentleness and becomes increasingly steely. “A contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition – and talent. We deserve each other” Addison will tell her – and he’s spot on. Eve’s driving motivation is ambition, and anyone is fair game if it will help her move up the greasy ladder of theatrical success.

Eve uses everyone. She manipulates Karen into making Margo missing a performance – then invites the press in advance to her performance, which is met with raves. Afterwards Eve gives an interview in which she lacerates Margo as a bitter has-been holding her back. It’s enough for Karen – and Celeste Holm is very good as this gently supportive woman, with the firmest principles of anyone on show here – but the men can’t let go. It takes an attempted seduction to drive away Bill, but the weaker Lloyd seems to be sucked into her web (the film is coy about the implied affair). It should be clear that Eve is a force draining energy out of everything she can, determined to get to the top.

And we know she gets there: after all we’ve seen her win the Sarah Siddons prize! But Eve has none of Margo’s soul. The film ends with her meeting the even more vainly empty Phoebe, who Addison immediately recognises is intent on the same scheme as Eve was. And so, the whirligig of time brings in its revenges. Eve has learnt everything from Margo, except how to be a human: she has all her technique and none of her heart. The film even manages to feel a bit sorry for her – a woman who has achieved everything she wants, and finds it makes her neither happy nor popular.

It’s the heart of Mankiewicz’s film, perhaps even its warning message. What is the point of all this greatness, if all you have to show for it are false-friendships with poisonous pals like Addison? It’s the moral message behind a film filled with one-liners and wonderful speeches, a masterclass in theatrical writing for cinema. Bette Davis is superb, funny and heartfelt. Baxter is quietly terrifying. Ritter and Holm are superb and Sanders is so well case in this role, you wonder if Mankiewicz somehow invented him specially for it. All About Eve may be grand, soapy entertainment – but soap has never been smarter than this.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Tim Holt can’t understand how the world is changing in The Magnificent Ambersons

Director: Orson Welles

Cast: Joseph Cotton (Eugene Morgan), Dolores Costello (Isabel Amberson Minafer), Anne Baxter (Lucy Morgan), Tim Holt (George Amberson Minafer), Agnes Moorehead (Fanny Minafer), Ray Collins (Jack Amberson), Erskine Sanford (Roger Bronson), Richard Bennett (Major Amberson), Don Dillaway (Wilbur Minafor), Orson Welles (Narrator)

In early 1940s, Orson Welles was given the sort of contract by RKO directors normally only dream of. The freedom to write, direct and star in films of his choice and, most of all, the power of “Final Cut” – the dream of all his contemporaries. All this for a 25-year-old who had never made a film. It was unheard of – and it was never heard of again. The reaction to Citizen Kane had been full of praise from the critics but that hadn’t saved it from box office disappointment – nor the savages of the Hearst press or the jealousy of his peers. The chickens would well and truly come home to roost on The Magnificent Ambersons, the second picture in Welles’ deal.

The film itself is an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel. The Ambersons are a powerful and rich Midwestern family at the turn of the century – but the film charts their decline and fall as the modern age (represented by the motor car) slowly leads their world of genteel wealth and entitlement to a close. It’s a particularly challenging concept for the youngest member of the clan, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt) to come to term with, the spoilt young son of Isabel (Dolores Costello), who has grown up expecting his every whim to be met without question. His hostility focuses on Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), his mother’s rejected suitor (now renewing his interest with her widowhood) and inventor who has patented a new form of motorcar. Things are complicated by George’s own love for Eugene’s daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter), a young woman who expects George to want more from life than just to live off his family’s wealth.

It’s impossible to discuss The Magnificent Ambersons without mentioning its status as perhaps the greatest “lost film” ever. Welles’ original cut of the film was a little over two hours long. He completed the cut and then flew to Brazil to begin collecting footage for his next project, It’s All True a part-documentary, part-fiction film (which in the end was abandoned). While he was out of the country, the film was roundly rubbished at a test screening. RKO panicked and demanded cuts. Welles had foolishly surrounded his right to final cut for the film and sent back a list of suggested changes (some have argued the list was deliberately bad to force the studio to make no changes), but refused to fly back to supervise things. 

So his editor Robert Wise (later a two-time Academy award winning director) cut the film down to just over an hour and twenty minutes. Cotton and Moorehead were corralled into filming some new scenes to hurriedly wrap the story up and give it the studio mandated “happy ending”. Welles wasn’t happy, but still wouldn’t come back to fight his corner. His notes were destroyed and eventually the remaining negative of the deleted scenes were burnt. So the truncated shadow is all we have.

I call it a shadow, because that is what the film feels like – an afterimage of a true masterpiece, like a dream you can almost completely remember. In some ways it’s an even more confident and controlled piece of film-making than Kane, a wonderfully assured and graceful piece of film-making that mixes luscious long-takes with a triumph of techniques and little details (both of performance and technical work). Welles captures this all within a triumphantly impressive set, an elephantine house of at least three stories with a winding grand staircase, that allows him to film from different, heights and angles as well as indulge a series of graceful tracking shots that all proceed and accompany the actors through the house.

Welles matches this with a storyline that captures a sense of a country in a state of change – a tipping point of modern America as the Henry Jamesian Old Americans, with their wealth and inherited English-class system, gave way to industrialist new money. These two worlds sit awkwardly against each other, constantly compared and contrasted – Eugene’s car factory is a noisy, piston filled Ford-ist church, a world away from the formal gentility of the Amberson home. 

Welles also captures this in a series of wonderful vignettes, not least an early scene featuring Morgan driving Isabel and her siblings through the snow bound countryside in his prototype motor car, at first passed by an arrogant George with Lucy in a horse and sleigh, then having to bail George out when the sleigh turns leaving him and Lucy stranded. George is reduced to pushing the car to getting it started – getting a face full of fumes for good measure – a humiliation that hardens his stance against the modern world (and Eugene) all the more.

Because for George – superbly played with a fragile ego and utter lack of self-awareness by a preeningly weak Tim Holt – the world has a certain order that places Ambersons at the top and the rest of the world at various levels on the way down. And anything that might threaten to change that is rejected at all costs. George expects the world to march to his tune without him putting in the faintest effort – and when it doesn’t, his whole life is a desperate raging of petty attempts to assert his control.

This focuses above all on exerting a bullying moral force on his mother, a woman who loves her son but also wants to explore the romantic feelings she has for Eugene (and by extension her understanding that the world is changing). George makes this choice stark – him or Eugene – a choice no mother can be expected to make. Dolores Costello is superb as a woman who has spent her life shutting her eyes to her son’s selfish nature until it’s too late to change, who sacrifices her own desires for the good of her family.

The whole film is a feast of sublime acting, a reminder of how Welles could get the best out of actors (all regular collaborators of his). Joseph Cotton’s earnestness is perfect for the upright and decent Eugene, too proud to let his resentment and anger show. Ray Collins is wonderfully sweet and endearing as Jack, George’s generous and open-minded uncle. Anne Baxter has a radiant honesty that hides a determined spine of moral certainty as Eugene’s daughter Lucy. Perhaps finest of all is Agnes Moorehead (Oscar nominated) as Aunt Fanny, George’s spinster aunt, who has worn a mask of contentment over her own frustrations and resentments for so long she only slowly begins to work out what she actually feels about anything at all. Moorehead’s performance walks a brilliant line between careful underplaying and explosive dynamics – she has at least three striking emotional breakdown scenes of such brittle honesty that it’s enough to move you to tears.

All of this comes together into a superb package of sublime film-making and intelligent story telling. The problem is it’s too short. The later scenes really bear the brunt, with Wise’s cutting trimming much of the connecting meat between the key scenes. Events towards the end seem to happen with no build up – characters suddenly die, fortunes are swiftly lost, years disappear from one scene to the next. As the film accelerates through its final half hour, narratively it begins to make less and less sense. Then the studio caps on a functionally filmed happy ending (Wise does at least ape Welles’ tracking shot techniques – he was a very capable director) which rings utterly untrue with the sadly elegiac story we’ve been watching (superbly narrated by the way by Welles).

It makes The Magnificent Ambersons a wonderful, incomplete masterpiece. It’s the filmic equivalent to those parts cut off from The Night Watch or Ucello’s Battle of San Romano. What we are left with is still awe inspiring. But it could have been even more.