Friday, November 30, 2012

The Story of Mankind

I mentioned late yesterday evening that today is the birth anniversary of Virginia Mayo, who was born on this date in 1920. One of her movies I've only barely mentioned, much less done a full-length post on, is The Story of Mankind, which finishes up the day's Mayo proceedings at 6:00 PM.

Mayo, like most of the cast members, only shows up briefly, but more on that in a bit. The movie was released in 1957, during the Cold War when the fear of nuclear war was running high. In the framing story, mankind has invented a new weapon known as a "Super H-Bomb", one which would destroy the earth as we know it if it were ever used. It's up to God to decide whether or not we humans should be allowed to survive, or to use the weapon and annihilate ourselves. God has set up a trial, with Sir Cedric Hardwicke playing the presiding judge. Arguing for the prosecution -- that is, for the proposition that Man should be allowed to destroy himself -- is the Devil, played by Vincent Price. Trying to save mankind is Ronald Colman, as the "Spirit of Mankind". Man may be a mess, with rape, war, pillage, plunder, and oppression and if the idea were tried in a movie nowadays, you know they'd throw in a bunch of environmental propaganda. Let's just say the list of ways Man has screwed up is long and varied. On the other hand, Man has made many artistic and scientific achievements, not including the fact that we can see this movie 55 years after it was released. And so the two advocates go at it, albeit in a genteel debate.

The idea of a heavenly (or hellish) trial is a conceit that's been used in a number of movies, with the two most closely applicable here being A Matter of Life and Death and Two of a Kind. The former is excellent for a whole lost of reasons, including the casting of the couple in love, while Two of a Kind suffers from the fact that its leads have surprisingly little chemistry together. Casting winds up dooming The Story of Mankind as well. The Devil and The Spirit of Mankind put forward their evidence by using specific examples from mankind's history, and it seems as though every single example has been deliberately selected to be as badly miscast as possible. Birthday girl Mayo, for exaample, plays Cleopatra, with a 40-something Hedy Lamarr playing Joan of Arc. For the men, there's Peter Lorre as Nero, a young Dennis Hopper as Napoleon, and Charles Coburn as Hippocrates.

The highlight (or lowlight), though, is probably the Marx Brothers. This is their last movie, although they don't appear together. Chico plays a monk in the Christopher Columbus sequence; Harpo plays Isaac Newton discovering gravity; and Groucho plays Pieter Minuit, swindling the American Indians out of Manhattan Island. It's jaw-droppingly screwed-up stuff. Who could have thought any of this was good casting. And as such, large portions of the movie are an utter disaster. Yet, that's what makes the movie so much fun. It's one of those movies that's so bad it's good. You'll be laughing at it, even though it's not a comedy.

The Story of Mankind has gotten a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive.

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