Friday, April 14, 2017

SOLOMON AND SHEBA (UA/Edward Small Productions 1959) Twilight Time

King Vidor’s swan song to an industry he helped create and shape, along with Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, was Solomon and Sheba (1959); a highly questionable Bible-fiction melodrama, nee would-be epic. It’s debatable what the celebrated introduction of Sophia Loren did for American cinema. Undeniably, it opened the floodgates for a small army of fractured English-speaking smoldering voluptuaries like Gina Lollobridgida to follow in her footsteps. But neither the glimmer of sex from Gina nor the immensity of Yul Brynner’s smooth-pated masculinity could salvage this film from becoming a turgid little mess. Based on a story by Crane Wilbur, Solomon and Sheba suffered a lengthy gestation period, an arduous shoot on location in Spain and the tragic death of its original star, Tyrone Power – dead at only the age of forty-four. Power had endured longer than any of his contemporaries – even Errol Flynn – as the cinema’s go-to swarthy swashbuckling stud-muffin, despite being long in the tooth for it. Having begun Solomon and Sheba with verve, Power, while rehearsing a duel with costar, George Sanders in the stiflingly inhospitable heat, suddenly dropped to his knees, stricken with a fatal heart attack. Sanders, generally deemed as ‘not very nice’ was equally as afflicted, not with a case of conscience; rather, a bad bout of anxiety. After all, he could now add ‘public executioner’ to his repertoire of professional accomplishments and cruelties.
In recasting the part of the Israelite king with Yul Brynner, independent producer, Edward Small sought to salvage what he could of Power’s footage, using long shots of Power astride his steed in the final edit to keep a reign on Solomon and Sheba’s escalating budget. But the interpretation of the Divine as a sort of ‘seek and ye shall receive’ entity is rather obtusely handled in Paul Dudley, George Bruce and Anthony Veiller’s lumbering screenplay: a mangling of Christianity and faux reverence to God as though he were equal parts glorified tooth fairy and genie of the lamp, granting wishes at will with a complacent air of aristocracy. It seems anyone who prays to the Almighty has their prayers instantly heard and answered, be they Israelite, Pagan or somewhere in between – a very liberal notion that also rather defeats the purpose of converting Pagans to Christianity. Why bother if God is on speed dial 24/7? Evidently, Vidor had hoped – or perhaps, even prayed – his ‘something new’ approach to the Lord would reinvigorate this time-honored, and badly worn, sword and sandal quickie, conveying less of the Holy of Holy’s and veering disastrously afar and askew from the historical record, more stringently adhered to in the 1921 silent classic, The Queen of Sheba.
Tricked out in Super Technirama and stereophonic sound, Solomon and Sheba ought to at least have looked the part. Regrettably, there is a leaden pretentiousness to this faux Hollywood glam-bam. It permeates the more rugged styling. Periodically, the film aspires to rise to the level of a DeMille epic, a sort of summer stock company of The Ten Commandments wannabe, fabricated with all the decorous accoutrements a la an Edith Head, or, in this case, Ralph Jester, who vacillates in pouring the hourglass figure of Ms. Lollobridgida into one tantalizingly skimpy outfit after the next. Undeniably, Mr. Jester’s dispensation of chic good taste rises to a level of grotesque tackiness during the infamous orgy. This scene takes its cue from the ‘Romanesque’ offerings of both DeMille and Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis (1950), though without the cleverly devised and disguised sumptuousness to carry it off. Worse, it is as though Vidor has forgotten some thirty years has elapsed since the public was first exposed to this sort of hysterical nonsense; sexy young gals gyrating to a primal drumbeat, their glistening navel jewels bouncing off some very flat tummies and well-rounded hips, accompanied by shirtless, chest-thumping muscle men, their arms and legs extended in ridiculously patterned silliness, meant to invoke masculine virility. There is no subtlety and virtually no sense of maturity to recommend the moment; Vidor, relying on squirmy gesticulations as code for a sort of artless/witless eroticism; passé almost from the moment the movies first learned to talk.      
So much for sex, it seems – the objective to titillate with harrowing displays of affection further hampered by Gina Lollobrigida’s inability to render any line of lust-laden dialogue with even a hint of ‘come hither’ spontaneity. English, so obviously her second – and extremely distant – language, Lollobrigida strains to overthink every last syllable; tongue-twisted and stumbling about each annunciation; Brynner’s patient and forthright Solomon doing all he can not to laugh in her face or take her over his knee in joyous abandonment for a butt-slapping spank a la Cole Porter’s ‘Kiss Me Kate’. It might have enlivened their love-making considerably. Knowing Tyrone Power’s rather stiff-britches approach to some of his later Technicolor swashbucklers, I can imagine how he and the loquacious Lollobrigida might have been more aptly suited to one another. But, having lost Power to the ages jettisons all notions of good taste and worse, discards even a hint of fidelity to the historical record. Instead, director King Vidor presents us with pseudo- antiquity; the kind that makes no sense whatsoever other than the bizarro-land chaos afflicting typical Hollywood B.C. costume dramas, succumbing under the weight of their own elephantiasis. 
Given Brynner’s intolerable fallaciousness – he thunders like a Russian bear in a Victorian novel – and King Vidor’s implacably placid battle sequences (they look as though to have been shot as part of a high school prank on how not to graduate from stunt work finishing school) the final death knell here is the script; Messers Veiller, Dudley and Bruce badly bungling the precepts of treason and war, spiritual awakening, familial greed, international relations, and, politics – sexual or otherwise.  George Sanders is a sneering villain straight out of central casting, or, at least, George Sanders-ville; an enclave of justly celebrated, enterprising deviants.  After an ominous main title sequence, given over to a dirge by Mario Nascimbene (with an uncredited assist by Malcolm Arnold), we are introduced to Prince Solomon (Yul Brynner) and his boastful brother, Adonijah (George Sanders); a pair of preening peacocks in cumbersome robes, breastplates and effeminate headdress. Adonijah has set a trap for the marauding Egyptians near the Israeli border; effectively driving their forces from his encampment. To his great dismay, the warrior prince quickly learns from one of his captives that the Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida) has pledged her lot with the Egyptians against Israel. Aside: there is nothing either in scripture or archaeology to suggest Sheba was the Pharaoh’s pawn or ally.
Word reaches the encampment, King David (Finlay Currie) is dying in Jerusalem. Adonijah is more pleased than concerned, for he has already accepted the throne and vows to overturn what he misperceives as the weaknesses in their father’s rule, to pillage and conquer Egypt in bloodshed. It will not be as easy as he believes. For upon confronting Sheba and her troops in the desert, Adonijah is momentarily beaten into submission with the crack of her whip. Alas, Solomon has already left for Jerusalem, gravely concerned. Arriving home, he is comforted by his ward, Abishag (Marisa Pavan), just in time to hear David’s proclamation. It seems God has spoken in a vision to anoint Solomon as the heir apparent of all Israel. Alas, this revelation drives a wedge between the brothers; Adonijah vowing to pledge his troth with the Egyptian armies sooner than see his birthright usurped by his younger sibling.  David makes Solomon promise he will erect a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, containing the stone tablets brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses; a promise he once made to God, still left unfulfilled these many years later.
Solomon vows to rule as his father would have wished. He prays for guidance and is granted God’s protection if he will heed the will of the Divine and allow it to rule the course of his own heart in perpetuity.  Solomon’s allegiance to God is repaid with a golden era of peace. He is embraced by the people as a benevolent and just ruler. Moreover, he desires to bridge the chasm created by his appointment to the throne; offering his brother command of the Israeli army – a decision that both perplexes and momentarily softens Adonijah’s heart. The temple for the Ark is built and Solomon dedicates it to the glory of God and the legacy of his late father. Meanwhile, in the land of Sheba, the Queen is informed by her trusted advisor, Baltor (Harry Andrews) the Egyptian Pharaoh (David Farrar) has grown displeased. More amused than threatened by Pharaoh’s wrath, Sheba vows to conquer Solomon not through battle, but by plaguing his heart with lust for her, thereby learning his secrets and his weaknesses and using both to destroy him. While there is little to suggest such a plan was ever hatched, and even less to hint the Queen and Solomon became fated by love – if, at all – undoubtedly, Vidor and his wordsmiths have concocted such obvious trappings to ensure good box office. Even more ironically - it worked. Audiences made Solomon and Sheba a solid hit.
The Queen arrives in Jerusalem in a manner befitting her imperious stature, also her ego; draped with gold and jewels and delivering a menagerie of rare hand-loomed clothes, Arabian horses, acrobats and entertainers at Solomon’s feet. Yet, her greatest offering is to follow; a pledge of loyalty to gain Solomon’s favor as an ally. He is most pleased and accepts Sheba’s display without question, even allowing her to sit at his side at court. Her presence is a dividing force among the resident courtiers. But Solomon illustrates both his compassion and wisdom during a dispute between two women over a child. The rightful mother (Claude Dantes) explains how her roommate, having accidentally killed her own baby by laying upon it, has stolen her infant son as a replacement. The other woman vehemently denies this claim. So Solomon decrees for the Captain of his Guard, Josiah (Jack Gwillim) to draw his sword and cut the child in two; that both women may claim their half, whereupon the maternal instinct kicks in and the rightful mother casts herself in harm’s way between Josiah’s sword and the boy, offering the child to the other woman to spare its life. Recognizing the truth, Solomon justly awards custody to the woman who sought to protect the child from death.
Sheba uses every feminine wile at her disposal to seduce Solomon but to no avail. And although it was understood Solomon would take Abishag as his wife, his desire is already enflamed by Sheba’s tricks. Unable to rid himself of the suspicion the queen has come to Jerusalem with less than altruistic intensions, Solomon decides to confront Sheba in her private chamber. He bluntly puts to her the question of her real purpose. But now it is Sheba who has changed; stirred by Solomon’s kindness, enough to respect him and reveal how her journey had begun as one to destroy him at Pharaoh’s behest. Solomon knows this to be true. But he also realizes the effect his goodness has had on Sheba, and thus accepts her into his bedchamber. A romance, however sterile, causes consternation between the ministers who, at first, approach Adonijah for counsel. Adonijah refuses to act as their intermediary. Yet, he cannot help but to realize how Sheba might be exploited, perhaps, even against her will, to bring about Solomon’s demise.
Baltor chastises Sheba for softening towards Solomon. She has betrayed Pharaoh’s trust and thus threatens her own future sovereignty. To illustrate the sway she holds over Solomon, Sheba asks to hold a Pagan celebration in Jerusalem; a request at first denied, but then granted. Solomon’s advisors are dumbstruck and angered by his acquiescence. He has grassed God’s trust by allowing another graven image to be worshipped within the walls of the city. Solomon pledges his love to Sheba. In response, her life is threatened by assassins loyal to Adonijah and Solomon’s heart begins to harden towards his own people. He grants Sheba the right to practice her Paganism in Jerusalem; reluctantly resisting to attend the ceremony. Abishag pledges her devotion to Solomon in Sheba’s stead. But Solomon, driven to distraction, now skulks off to Sheba’s festival, leaving Abishag to return to the temple containing the Ark of the Covenant to pray for forgiveness for her own failure to keep Solomon’s faith pure. Lightning strikes the temple, destroying a portion of its façade and killing Abishag in the process. Sheba outwardly claims a victory, but behind closed doors she is bitterly angry for her part in bringing ruination on this nobleman – God’s emissary on earth, as it were.
God sends a pestilence to Jerusalem. The elders of the tribes rebel and separate; the fertile lands turning to dust. At the same time, Pharaoh engages Adonijah to march on Solomon and destroy his armies and the city. Abishag’s father pledges his armies in defense of Solomon. But the battle is bloody and incurs epic casualties. Sheba repents her sins to God, promising to depart Jerusalem at once and build a temple to Solomon’s God, if only God will hear her now and spare her beloved from certain death.  The next afternoon, Solomon sets his forces upon a craggy cliff, the reflection from their shields blinding Adonijah’s and Pharaoh’s forces as they charge over the steep embankment to their deaths. In Jerusalem, Adonijah orders Sheba to be stoned; the crowd taking its vengeance on ‘the pagan slut’. Too late, Solomon returns victorious to the city, smiting his corrupted brother in a duel and discovering Sheba’s badly broken body lying at the base of the temple. His loyal guardsman explains how Sheba freely sacrificed everything – even life itself – so God might hear her prayer for the restoration of his throne in Jerusalem. Before the Ark of the Covenant, Solomon hears the voice of God proclaim that because Sheba was pure of heart she will be restored to life, though not to him, so she may return to her own kingdom and bear Solomon’s child; the keeper of the faith in two lands.
Solomon and Sheba is hardly a perfect entertainment. Moreover, it must rate as one of the most grotesquely inaccurate Bible-fiction epics to emerge from Hollywood.  Awkward moments of stoic introspection aside, the movie is monstrously sentimental in its last act – even ludicrous in its ‘go and sin no more’ happy ending, meant to inspire renewed devotion to the Christian faith. The production is as hampered by its rather miniscule budget and lack of set pieces. Recall, only for a moment, in this same year – 1959 – William Wyler stunned audiences and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the grandest Bible-fiction epic of them all; the eleven-time Oscar-winner, Ben-Hur; an infinitely more satisfying and resplendently mounted super colossus from MGM. Solomon and Sheba lacks such total investment in its spectacle. Moreover, it is denied the ‘Wyler touch’; a natural affinity Wyler had for instilling humanity into the grandeur of the exercise. In its place, director, King Vidor toggles between moments of lushness – too remotely parceled off to make a consistent impact on the eye – and his even more tragic adherence to staged melodrama; heavy on the treacle/light and disingenuous on Biblical-inspired truths meant to be taken at face value. It’s the artifice that submarines the glories of these production values; moreover, the lack of consistently high production values that belie what morsels of verisimilitude ought to have come from drama book-ended by flash, pomp and circumstance. In the end, none of it gels, either effectively or perhaps, even as it should on the most remedial level. The end result: Solomon and Sheba is a real dud. 
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, via its alliance with MGM/Fox Home Entertainment, is hugely disappointing.  Solomon and Sheba was photographed in Technirama; an 8 perf 35mm process that ought to have yielded remarkable razor-sharp clarity in 1080p, particularly since the movie was shot by cameraman extraordinaire, Freddie Young. Alas, MGM’s hi-def transfer is almost certainly created from less than perfect 35mm reduction prints instead of an original 8-perf camera negative. We have mis-aligned frames and more than a handful of dupes, quite obvious in 1080p and thoroughly distracting. Color density and balancing are just adequate, although nowhere near the level of visual proficiency built into Technirama. Film grain is inconsistently rendered. It’s there, then it’s gone, then it’s heavier than ever and quite unexpected.  The DTS 2.0 audio is, again, merely present and accounted for instead of delivering the wallop it likely had in discreet stereo during the film’s original theatrical release. As surmised, I am not a fan of MGM’s hi-def efforts in general and this one in particular. It’s not TT’s fault. They are working with what’s been offered. However, this does not let MGM off the hook. Twilight Time has given us the barebones isolated score track and a trailer as extras. Want some solid advice – pass on this one. MGM/Fox’s general lack of investment on catalog releases in hi-def is not worth your time or money.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


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