Saturday, January 31, 2009

Jean Simmons turns 80

It was on this day in 1929 that actress Jean Simmons was born. You can watch her just after midnight on TCM as the female lead in Elmer Gantry, opposite Burt Lancaster. However, I'd like to comment on a different movie, The Robe.

Richard Burton stars as the Roman tribune Marcellus, who is sent to Judea around the year AD30. If you know your history and a bit about religion, you know this is right about the time when Pontius Pilate had Jesus crucified. Well, poor Marcellus has the privilege (if you can call it that) of seeing the crucifixion, and winning Jesus' robe when the soldiers gamble for Jesus' vestments after the crucifixion. The robe has quite an effect on Marcellus, with strange things suddenly happening to him as though he were a character in one of those bad 1950s horror movies. It quite frankly horrifies Marcellus, who decides he'll do anything he can to destroy Jesus' robe, which he has since given away.

Cut back to Rome. Jean Simmons plays Diana, a woman who knew (and loved) Marcellus when she was young, but grew up to become a ward of Emperor Tiberius when her parents died. The Empress thinks Diana would make a good wife for the heir to the throne, Caligula, who got Marcellus sent to Judea in the first place. Diana tries to intercede on Marcellus' behalf, but this only makes things more difficult since jealous Caligula wants Diana. Eventually, you know that Christian virtue is going to win out, with Burton realizing that the touch of Jesus' robe is actually a good thing, and Diana realizing it too, and ending up with Marcellus.

How this happens, though, takes far too long. This is the sort of Biblical-based epic that Cecil B. DeMille might have made, except that it was actually Henry Koster and the people at Fox in charge of it all. Still, we get the requisite dose of Christianity, with an ending that's pious beyond belief, and ludicrous to the point of inducing howls of laughter. Did they think anybody would believe this? And at nearly two hours and fifteen minutes, they could have easily cut a good half hour out. Perhaps one of the reasons they didn't is that this is one of the very first movies Fox released in the new Cinemascope widescreen format, and they must have thought that people would want to see stunning panoramas in widescreen -- two hours' plus worth of panoramas. It couldn't have been for the story. Still, Jean Simmons is lovely to look at here.

If you want to watch The Robe now, instead of waiting for Easter, which is probably a more suitable occasion, you are in luck. The Robe is available on DVD.

1 comment:

zarzuelauk said...

80th Birthday greetings to Miss Simmons reiterated! We had a little dinner party tonight for select friends, toasting her good health with a fine Mersault, before settling down to watch her beautiful, subtle and touching portrayal of the hapless Lily in the recently released R2 DVD of Footsteps in the Fog opposite her then-husband Stewart Granger. The way she moves from little Tweenie-Maid victim, through Lady Macbeth of the Drawing Room and finally to noble, tragic heroine is supremely moving. Good on you, Miss Simmons, and thank you for so many wonderful performances!