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Biblical epics were all the rage throughout the 1950s, and even more so after the enormous success of The Robe (1953), the first film released in the new wide screen method of Cinemascope. The studios spared no expense on wide screen color epics with lavish sets and costumes and a cast of thousands. The Silver Chalice, Warner Bros.'s 1954 biblical saga was mostly typical of the genre, but with some atypical qualities that make it memorable.
Based on Thomas B. Costain's best-selling novel, The Silver Chalice is the story of a young Greek artisan who is sold into slavery and later commissioned by early Christian leaders to design and create a receptacle for the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper. British producer-director Victor Saville had acquired the rights to the novel soon after it was published. When The Robe became a huge hit, Saville made a deal with Warner Bros. to produce The Silver Chalice at the studio. Saville's career had ranged from several immensely popular British musicals in the 1930s to MGM dramas in England and America in the '40s, to low-budget Mickey Spillane crime thrillers in the early '50s. A religious epic in Cinemascope was a new challenge for him, and he determined to try a new approach. Instead of having the standard elaborately realistic settings, he hired theatrical designers Boris Leven and Rolf Gerard to create dramatically stylized sets. Instead of choosing his cast from movie actors experienced in costume epics, he turned to the New York stage for new faces, including Canadian actor Lorne Greene, and in the leading role of Basil the sculptor, 29-year old Method actor Paul Newman, in his film debut.
As Saville ruefully admitted in his memoir, "Method acting does not go well with a toga." Newman's performance looked as stiff and uncomfortable as he felt. "The moment I walked into that studio I had a feeling of personal disaster," Newman later recalled. The critics noticed his discomfort. Several saw a resemblance to Marlon Brando, but without Brando's panache. John McCarten of the New Yorker wrote that Newman "delivers his lines with the emotional fervor of a Putnam Division conductor announcing local stops." A.H. Weiler of the New York Times noted that "he is given mainly to thoughtful posing and automatic speechmaking...he is rarely better than wooden."
Newman and the rest of the cast didn't get much help from The Silver Chalice's stilted, ponderous script. Lorne Greene, who plays the Apostle Peter, slowly and solemnly intones his pseudo-biblical gibberish as if it were the Word of God. Virginia Mayo is all heaving bosoms and villainously arched eyebrows as Helena, the courtesan who was Basil's first love. (Look for a blonde, teenaged Natalie Wood in early scenes as the young Helena.) But at least one of the stars, Jack Palance, who plays a megalomaniac magician, managed to have some fun with his character, delivering an over-the-top performance that steals the movie.
The dramatic modern sets in The Silver Chalice were controversial. To some critics, they looked cheap. Otis Guernsey of the New York Herald Tribune described them looking "like a little theatre production of Quo Vadis?" But a review in Fortnight called them "remarkable." Victor Saville found the audience reaction to The Silver Chalice "satisfying," but claimed that Jack Warner took scissors to the film, and "The emaciated Warner version of The Silver Chalice did not do justice to either Thomas Costain or me."
Paul Newman famously called The Silver Chalice "the worst film made in the 1950s." When it was first televised in Los Angeles in the 1960s, he took out an ad in one of the trade papers that read, "Paul Newman apologizes every night this week-Channel 9." In spite of, or perhaps because of Newman's hatred of his film debut, the passing years have given The Silver Chalice a patina of camp. Seen today, the starkly minimalist sets look ever so mid-century modern. And the laughter at Newman's pained posturing and tortured line readings, Virginia Mayo's flouncing femme fatale, and Jack Palance's bravura turn as a mad magician is more affectionate than derisive.
Producer: Victor Saville
Director: Victor Saville
Screenplay: Lesser Samuels; Thomas B. Costain (novel)
Cinematography: William V. Skall
Art Direction: Boris Leven
Music: Franz Waxman
Film Editing: George White
Cast: Virginia Mayo (Helena), Pier Angeli (Deborra), Jack Palance (Simon), Paul Newman (Basil), Walter Hampden (Joseph of Arimathea), Joseph Wiseman (Mijamin), Alexander Scourby (Luke), Lorne Greene (Peter), Natalie Wood (Helena as a child).
C-135m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri