Monday, July 2, 2007

THE PRODIGAL (MGM 1955) Warner Home Video

Richard Thorpe’s The Prodigal (1955) is a ludicrous would-be Bible-fiction epic indicative of the artistic malaise gripping MGM during this fallow period in their illustrious studio history. With the motto of ‘bigger is better’ firmly intact, MGM lavished a great deal of money on this spectacular mishmash, even leveling some of their old backlot sets to build Joppa Square for this movie. Regrettably, the production values are spread more than a tad too thinly over an otherwise feeble and convoluted plot; this one involving the prodigal son.

Micah (Edmund Purdom) is the youngest of a wealthy Hebrew merchant who desires his inheritance prematurely to go and seek his own fortune in the city. However, once in town, Micah gets involved in all sorts of trouble. He liberates a condemned mute slave, Asham (James Mitchell) from the clutches of pagan high priest, Nahreeb (Louis Calhern – looking utterly ridiculous in his fanciful garb and headdress). However, rather than reveal his wrath and contempt from the start, the scheming Nahreeb decides on a more sublime revenge for Micah. He tempts him with the High Priestess Samarra (Lana Turner) a sultry vixen who lures Christians and Jews to their death as human sacrifices inside her lavish temple.

Micah is consumed by Samarra’s feminine wiles. She baits him like a fish, but then inexplicably begins to acquire a conscience and fall in love with him. After Micah is imprisoned and condemned to death, Samarra secretly plots his freedom. But the liberation backfires. The mob has turned restless and vengeful. They corner the high priestess in her temple and topple her into a pit of fire by pelting her with stones. A redemptive Micah returns to his father’s house – wiser, humbled and ready to ascribe to the religion that belongs to his people.

As vintage kitsch, The Prodigal is a rather obtuse study. The screenplay by Joseph Breen, Samuel James and Maurice Zimm is uninspired and archaic to say the least. Great length is spent on presenting an absurd amount of pageantry revolving around the leggy and luscious Lana Turner (then, on her way out as MGM’s reigning sex symbol), as the pagan love goddess. But the spectacle has zero substance in back of it.

Turner is a cardboard cutout – a figure head quite lovely, but absent of any quantifiable charm. As Micah, the dashing prodigal, Purdom is even more wooden and lifeless. What is most tragic of all, is The Prodigal’s production values – curtailed to all but one spectacularly stunning set – Samarra’s temple; a blazing torch lit cavern with silken drapes, mosaic tiled floors and spiral staircases leading to idol statues. In the end, The Prodigal is entertainment only for die hard Lana Turner fans or people who just enjoy a good ‘bad’ movie now and then. But as pure spectacle, or even bad history masquerading as such, The Prodigal is pure trash.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is disappointing. The anamorphic Cinemascope image exhibits satisfying colors, though hardly robust and blazing. As with most vintage ‘scope’ productions, the overall image quality adopts its most predominant color to each scene. Certain scenes are very saturated in outdoor greenery, while set pieces often adopt an unnatural reddish tone. Flesh tones are a pasty orange throughout. Contrast levels are weak at best. Blacks are more deep gray. Whites adopt a bluish tint.

Most discouraging of all is the considerable amount of edge enhancement imported on this transfer. At this late stage in the art of DVD mastering there simply is NO GOOD REASON for digital effects of this nature to continue to occur. The audio is Dolby Surround and captures the essence of vintage ‘scope’ stereophonic recordings. Dialogue is directionalized. Music cues are given a robust and slightly overpowering characteristic that dwarfs the dialogue. Extras are confined to a rather sparse audio commentary and the film’s original theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
2.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
1

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