Peter Lorre

Vintage 1957 – Irwin Allen’s The Story of Mankind”

Story Mankind Color PosterIn 1957, disaster film maestro Irwin Allen (The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno) directed and released his first feature film, The Story of Mankind. Story was also a disaster film, with a very 1950s trope – potential nuclear-bomb annihilation of the world.

The setting is a courtroom – a “High Tribunal” in “The Great Court of Outer Space.” Scientists have almost unlocked the secret to H-bomb production. Can they be allowed to continue? The court is in session.

The fate of mankind is debated by Vincent Price as devilish “Mr. Scratch” and film legend Ronald Coleman as “The Spirit of Man.” Price and Coleman recall great and horrific moments in mankind’s history to present their case. Allen used stock footage from previous movies interspersed with close-up clips featuring history’s most famous or infamous characters.

And speaking of film legends, take a look at this partial cast list (in alphabetical order):

  • John Carradine – Khufu
  • Charles Coburn – Hippocrates
  • Reginal Gardiner – William Shakespeare
  • Cedric Hardwicke – High Judge
  • Edward Everettt Horton – Sir Walter Raleigh
  • Dennis Hopper – Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Hedy Lamarr – Joan of Arc
  • Peter Lorre – Nero
  • Groucho Marx – Peter Minuit
  • Chico Marx – Monk
  • Harpo Marx – Sir Isaac Newton
  • Virginia Mayo – Cleopatra
  • Agnes Moorehead – Queen Elizabeth I
  • Cesar Romero – Spanish Envoy
  • Marie Wilson – Marie Antoinette

Screenwriter Charles Bennett maintained that Allen paid each of the many near-the-end-of-their-career actors a slender $2000 to appear.

The Great Court’s verdict? No spoilers, now! Should you see it? Utgard14, one of IMDB’s Top Reviewers, has this to say:

“This film has the reputation of being one of classic Hollywood’s biggest stinkers. Personally, I like it! But part of why I like it is because it’s so flawed. It’s got an all-star cast, most of whom are laughably misused. The script is terrible with some of the corniest dialogue you’ll ever hear and some truly cringeworthy speeches. The history is inaccurate and blends myth with fact. It’s all filmed in lush Technicolor but on cheap sets with tons of stock footage. Still, I can’t help but enjoy it. It’s a movie that falls squarely into the ‘so good it’s bad’ camp for me. Taken seriously, it’s ridiculous and offensive to your intelligence. Taken lightly it’s quite a bit of cheesy fun.”

Story Mankind BW Poster

Image Credit: Warner Brothers

July 18, 1957 – Cyd Charisse Shines in “Silk Stockings”

On July 18, 1957, one of the last great Hollywood movie musicals premiered in theaters.  Silk Stockings, a song-and-dance remake of Ninotchka, starred Fred Astaire as Steve Canfield, the Paris-based director of a new production for aquatic movie star (think Esther Williams) Peggy Daiton (Janis Paige): a musical adaptation of War and Peace. Steve enlists Russian composer Peter Boroff (Wim Sonneveld) to compose the score, but the Russians want Boroff back.  Commisars Brankov (Peter Lorre), Bibinski (Jules Munshin), and Ivanov (Joseph Buloff) are dispatched to persuade Buloff to return, but succumb to the pleasures of decadent, capitalistic Paris themselves (with help from Steve).  The Russians back home then up the ante with their “secret weapon”: special agent Ninotchka Yoschenko, who personally puts the “cold” in the Cold War.  Cyd Charisse takes on the role of Ninotchka, originally played by Greta Garbo in the 1939 version.  Will Steve win Ninotchka over?  Will Peggy’s movie career make the transition from pool to steppe?  Will Brankov, Bibinski, and Ivanov settle for bad vodka after tasting French champagne?

Embed from Getty Images

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse as they appear in “Silk Stockings.”

With Astaire and Charisse, we know there will be great dance numbers, and Cole Porter’s score provides plenty of humor and opportunities for dazzling footwork.  Silk Stockings was Astaire’s last movie musical; his hint for this post-release announcement was smashing his signature top hat in his final solo number, The Ritz Rock and Roll (a parody of the emerging musical genre).  Cyd, while an actress not quite up to par with Garbo (a tall order), shined as brightly as the City of Lights in her dance numbers.  She held her own with Astaire (another tall order). She also partnered well with Gene Kelly in several films, including Singin’ in the Rain, Brigadoon, and It’s Always Fair Weather.  Charisse had previously paired with Astaire in Ziegfeld Follies and The Bandwagon.  The beautiful (former) Tula Ellice Finklea from Amarillo, Texas was able to make a wonderful new name for herself in America’s movie star elite.

Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Evening Standard/Getty Images