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A young American living in France is totally disillusioned with life after having fought during World War I. His plight is recognized by a wise old priest who comforts him with the story of Noah's Ark and The Great Deluge, a parable that explains how evil will be washed away as in those great Biblical events. Like many films produced during the transition to sound, Noah's Ark was primarily a silent feature with a few talking sequences. Actually, it was originally conceived as a silent film and then given last minute doctoring to include dialogue, a decision dictated by the huge success of Warner Brothers innovative sound feature,The Jazz Singer (1927). In drawing parallels between a modern story set during WWI and the biblical story of the Flood, Curtiz was clearly influenced by D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and Cecil B. Demille's The Ten Commandments (1922), two films which had similar themes.
The scope and budget was certainly big for its time and a major undertaking for a young, aspiring movie mogul like Darryl F. Zanuck. His career at Warner Brothers began as a writer in 1924. Ever ambitious, he established himself as a producer within four years. Noah's Ark was his first film assignment and - befitting his youthful enthusiasm (he was only 26 years of age), he vowed to "make the greatest picture ever made". Although that statement is a bit lofty, Noah's Ark is still a remarkable film on many levels.
Probably the most astonishing sequence is the Flood, which is still impressive by today's special effects standards and was every bit as harrowing to shoot as it appears onscreen. Curtiz had a huge tank containing more than a million gallons of water constructed with access spillways leading to the tops of the Babylonian temple set. Sadly, his zeal to obtain authenticity in this scene made him shamefully neglectful of safety precautions. His emphasis on realism was so intense that when cinematographer Hal Mohr (a survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire) questioned him about the lack of adequate safeguards for the film's players, Curtiz reportedly replied, "They're just going to have to take their chances." Mohr was so appalled at Curtiz's comment that he walked off the set and his duties were taken over by Barney McGill. But the deadly stunt proceeded as planned. The contents from the tanks were released and 15 cameramen and countless extras thrashed about in the water for hours. Many extras were injured (one reportedly died, but this morbid rumor has never been confirmed), but they were not alone in their pain. The film's leading lady, Dolores Costello, developed pneumonia for being in the water too long and Guinn Williams injured two ribs!
Before one judges director Michael Curtiz too harshly, it should be said in his defense that he was working for one of the most micro-managed, accountancy-oriented studios in Hollywood. And Curtiz, still a relative newcomer (he was brought to Hollywood by Jack Warner only two years prior) felt obliged to turn out his first big film as a director on time and on budget. which he always did - using his natural gifts of meticulousness, speed and technical ability. In fact, these qualities would make him the most prolific director of the following decade: an amazing 44 completed feature films between 1930 and 1939. Granted, some of these varied in quality and production values, but a number of these film are classics: Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Captain Blood (1935) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) to name a few. Followers of silent films should relish the performance of Noah Beery. Although now he's known as the brother of Wallace Beery and the father of Noah Jr. (James Garner's dad "Rocky" in the Rockford Files), he was arguably the busiest villain during the silent era (he had made over 60 features by the time of Noah's Ark). Beery was the classic heavy, a powerful presence with a wicked grimace and a deep, resonant voice that was as seductive as it was menacing. His performance here strikingly captures the essence of why he was such a fine and popular villain for so many years.
On the other hand, fans of Myrna Loy may be disappointed by her lack of screen time in this film. She appears as one of the dancing girls in the Broadway sequence and as a slave in the Biblical sequence - small parts which only garnered her a tenth place billing in the credits. This was often the case during her stint with Warner Brothers where she was relegated to being a little more than a bit player at the studio. Luckily, her fortune improved when her contract was picked up five years later by MGM and Loy assumed the role of the sophisticated, elegant leading lady in refined comedies like The Thin Man (1934) and Libeled Lady (1936).
Yet despite all the efforts of those involved, Noah's Ark failed domestically at the box-office and with the critics. The New Yorker called it "an idiotic spectacle", while The New York Times stated that the film "frequently bordered on the ridiculous". It did however, have a much better reception in Europe, where it almost recouped its budget of $1.5 million. Even today, film historians view Noah's Ark as an important early talkie artifact. It's also the first notable American film in the career of the prolific Curtiz. There is also a relevant connection between this film and the current cinema; the film's heroine, Dolores Costello, was one of the leading box-office attractions of the late silent and early sound era and also happens to be the grandmother of Drew Barrymore!
Producer: Robert Youngson (uncredited), Darryl F. Zanuck (associate) (uncredited)
Director: Michael Curtiz, Darryl F. Zanuck (uncredited)
Screenplay: De Leon Anthony (titles), Anthony Coldeway (adaptation) (as Anthony Coldewey), Darryl F. Zanuck (story)
Cinematography: Barney McGill, Hal Mohr
Film Editing: Harold McCord
Original Music: Alois Reiser (uncredited), Louis Silvers
Principal Cast: Dolores Costello (Mary/Miriam), George O'Brien (Travis/Japheth), Noah Beery (Nickoloff/King Nephiliu), Louise Fazenda (Hilda/Tavern maid), Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams (Al/Ham) (as Gwynn Williams), Paul McAllister (Minister/Noah), Myrna Loy (Dancer/Slave Girl).
by Michael Toole