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The Story of Mankind (1957) was an ambitious project by producer/director/writer Irwin Allen; a fantasy film about an alien tribunal who review the history of humanity as they decide whether or not to intervene when scientists on Earth create a super-bomb and are likely to detonate it. Loosely based on the 1921 best-seller of the same name by historian Hendrik Willem Van Loon, the film was a campy hodge-podge of sketches starring some of Hollywood's greatest stars at the end of their careers. It was the final film for Ronald Colman, the Marx Bros., and character actor Franklin Pangborn.
The casting can only be described as odd. Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc purportedly earned screams of laughter from the audience as she urged them to "Attack!" Agnes Moorehead plays Queen Elizabeth I, Dennis Hopper is Napoleon, comedian Marie Wilson appears as Marie Antoinette, and Peter Lorre struts about as the Emperor Nero. The Marx Bros. appear in the film, but never share a scene together with Groucho Marx as Peter Minuit, who bought Manhattan from the native Americans, Chico as a monk and Harpo - in an inspired bit of casting - as Isaac Newton, but instead of being hit on the head with only one apple as he discovers the theory of gravity, he is buried in them. Other choices seem more logical: Ronald Colman, with his elegance and golden voice plays The Spirit of Man, who argues with the Supreme Tribunal (led by Sir Cedric Hardwicke) in favor of the human race by pointing out the positive things we have achieved. Francis X. Bushman, who appeared in Cecil B. DeMille epics, plays Moses and Vincent Price is The Devil. Actor Jim Ameche, brother of Don, plays Alexander Graham Bell, which is a nod to his brother's hit film The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939).
With the exception of Colman, Hardwicke and Price who got their regular salaries because their parts were much larger, the other stars made $2,500 for their brief cameos that took about a day to film. Agnes Moorehead was so pleased with her own appearance in The Story of Mankind that she commissioned a portrait of herself in costume. Screenwriter Charles Bennett's experience was not as happy, later remembering "That was dreadful. Because Irwin wanted desperately to have the first [writing] credit on the story, so everything I wrote, he wanted to cut out. I hated everything to do with that picture."
Irwin Allen's own Cambridge Productions shot The Story of Mankind, which Warner Bros. agreed to produce. Many of the stock scenes came from the Warner Bros. vaults, with the Egyptian footage coming from Land of the Pharaohs (1955). It did not escape the notice of the critics who remarked on the amount of Warner Bros. stock footage used, especially in the latter half of the film, inferring that Allen had run out of ideas and taken the cheap way out.
Critics were unanimous in their drubbing of Allen and the film. The New York Times review of November 9, 1957 was titled, 'Story of Mankind' Unravels at Paramount. In it, the critic noted "Irwin Allen, the producer, director and co-writer of the movie, has faced up gamely to his towering challenge and gone down fighting on practically every count. The result is a protracted and tedious lesson in history that is lacking in punch, sophistication and a consistent point of view...As the cast list above indicates, he has assembled a battery of "name" actors to play the many famous figures that fumble their way through this charade. And he has given them handsome sets to move through and tasteful costumes to wear, and has lighted the whole business pleasantly for the color cameras. [T]he main trouble is that the debate as to the moral tendency of man -- for good or evil -- introduces every conceivable clich. It is the kind of pontification that any kid who has ever dozed through a history class has learned to see through." The New Yorker described it as "[A] West Coast interpretation of history as it might have been made if one of the Warner brothers had been around to gas things up a little...Mr. Allen isn't quite as stupendous as Cecil B. DeMille, who was, of course, born with a CinemaScopic caul, but he does toddle admirably in the footsteps of the Master as he pursues the fortunes of forty-nine leading characters, forty-nine thousand subsidiary characters, and enough livestock to keep the King Ranch grazing lands chewed down to the roots. I don't think I could reasonably be expected to identify all the forty-nine leading actors in The Story of Mankind but I guess I should point out the Joan of Arc in question is Hedy Lamarr, who uses a kind of baby talk as evidence of the saint's virtues." Perhaps the funniest critique of the film came from Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times who wrote "If the High Tribunal ever catches this picture, we're goners."
The Story of Mankind was a flop of the worst kind at the box office. It barely lasted a month in the theaters before being pulled, despite all the advertising and offers of discount tickets to students. It didn't hurt anyone's career, though. Irwin Allen continued to make movies, later gaining fame with his adventure films such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), and the disaster films The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and The Swarm (1978).
Producer: Irwin Allen
Director: Irwin Allen
Screenplay: Irwin Allen, Charles Bennett (writer); Henrik Van Loon (novel)
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Art Direction: Art Loel
Music: Paul Sawtell
Film Editing: Roland Gross, Gene Palmer
Cast: Ronald Colman (The Spirit of Man), Hedy Lamarr (Joan of Arc), Groucho Marx (Peter Minuit), Harpo Marx (Sir Isaac Newton), Chico Marx (Monk), Virginia Mayo (Cleopatra), Agnes Moorehead (Queen Elizabeth I), Vincent Price (Mr. Scratch/The Devil), Peter Lorre (Nero), Charles Coburn (Hippocrates).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Hart, Henry, ed. Films in Review
"History on a Pinhead", The New Yorker, Nov 16, 1957
McGilligan, Patrick Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age
The Motion Picture Guide
"The Story of Mankind Unravels at the Paramount", The New York Times 9 Nov 57
White, Patricia Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability
Youngkin, Stephen D., Bigwood, James, Cabana, Jr., Raymond G. The Films of Peter Lorre