April Showers: Noah's Ark (1928)
Though April showers may come your way, they bring the flowers that bloom in May, so if it's raining, have no regrets. It isn't raining rain, you know. It's raining violets. Join us as we play in the rain this month.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: The film juxtaposes the turmoil of The Great War (WWI) and the Biblical story of Noah's ark. Dolores Costello and George O'Brien play roles in each segment. In the "modern" story, they meet in the aftermath of a train crash caused by the wrath of God provoked by passengers discussing morality on board. They fall in love but their relationship is put on pause when the war breaks out. In the Biblical story, O'Brien becomes the subject of mutilation and slavery when he dares to question the sacrifice of his betrothed, a virgin (Costello). God intervenes by creating a great flood.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: To be completely honest, I spent the last few days wondering what the relationship between the two different plots in this film is. Your explanation does clear up some of the confusion, but not all of it. The two scenarios still don’t completely add up, but people were flocking to theaters to see this for the spectacle, and that’s exactly what I was excited about as I sat down to run this film as well. In that sense, Noah’s Ark delivers and then some.
SG: I think the war is comparable to the flood in the destruction it creates. The filmmakers are saying the death tolls are the result of excessive sin.
Anyone who has seen the Hollywood documentary series will remember the discussion of this film. Costello called it "Mud Blood and Flood" because of the number of injuries and deaths that occurred on the set. During the flood scene, director Michael Curtiz put people in front of the real set where they were more likely to be injured for the sake of realism. Cameraman Hal Mohr refused to shoot these scenes because of the lack of preparation in regard to safety, so Barney McGill handled the flood. Photoplay's reviewer said, "We are still wondering how the flood scenes could have been made without loss of life." Some people claimed that someone did die during the filming of the deluge scene, but there is very little surviving paperwork from the production, so the death is unconfirmed. We do know that Costello was knocked unconscious by the force of the water and O'Brien's big toenails were ripped off. One extra lost a leg.
RB: I had long been fascinated by Costello’s stories of the making of this film in Hollywood, and the legends at this point are likely what anyone is going to recall when they consider this film. However, while researching this piece, I’ve discovered various bits and pieces that lend a shadow of doubt to the story. We know that the Hollywood series, while essential viewing, is not always an infallible source (Hal Roach’s tall tales about the making of the Laurel & Hardy classic, Big Business come immediately to mind).
There are no contemporary accounts of death taking place on the set of Noah’s Ark, and while it’s possible that the negative publicity was swept under the rug, it is curious that other films that had injuries sustained onset were reported on. The earliest mention of the accounts as Costello reported seem to root from Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By, which was not published until 1968. Is it possible that Costello’s firsthand account was not embellished or colored by the passage of decades between her time on set and the interview? Absolutely it is. Unfortunately (or fortunately), it’s also a story that I simply cannot accept at face value any longer. Please keep in mind that I am ONLY referring to the death of extras onset. That injuries were incurred during the flood sequences is irrefutably true.
SG: The flood scene wasn't the only one that proved to be treacherous. In the Biblical sequence, O'Brien was meant to be hit with a collapsible spear, but was stabbed with a real one instead. He kept acting, and Curtiz encouraged him, even asking for a close-up of the wound for the film. Curtiz was struck by karma when he berated a stuntman for failing to fall down the temple stairs the way he wanted him to. Curtiz ascended, then fell the way he wanted the stuntman to fall, and broke his left leg. He returned to the set from the hospital the same day and insisted the stuntman fall the way he had demonstrated.
The clip of O'Brien lifting his eyes to the raining heavens as his sight is restored was used in the Silent Sunday Nights introduction on Turner Classic Movies.
RB: The use of that clip really solidifies that this is one of maybe 10 or 12 silent films that most buffs consider to be essential viewing. It definitely has quite a reputation.
SG: But I wouldn't consider it canon. The story isn't as engaging as perhaps was intended, probably because the love story feels routine. I felt more emotion between Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and O'Brien than between O'Brien and Costello. It is, however, a technically masterful film. The photography by McGill and Mohr is quite sophisticated. The use of double exposures and dissolves in the beginning liken the worship of the Golden Calf with the worship of money in the stock market. There are many beautiful close-ups, especially of Costello, whose luminous face radiates from the screen. It is astounding that so many of the flood shots were usable considering how easily they could have been ruined by water on the lens. Curtiz visually illustrates the destruction of the war with the Biblical flood by filming a map with burning points across Europe which are slowly overtaken by water spewing up from beneath to eradicate all the land.
RB: It’s a visually stunning film in its dreamlike qualities. Nothing ever seems completely real, often having more in common with a nightmare both in terms of how the film was shot, and the lapses in storytelling due to, I presume, the truncated print that we currently have available for viewing, which is a UCLA restoration dating back to 1989.
SG: According to a Picture Play magazine article, the idea for the film came to producer H.M. Warner when he witnessed a bustling New York City from his office during a rainstorm in the mid-20s. He then handed the idea to Darryl Zanuck and Curtiz who developed it further. The studio could not gather the required funds (ultimately $1 million) to shoot it until several years later. The climactic scene was shot at the old Vitagraph studios and required fourteen cameramen and 4000 extras. There could be no retakes; the set could only be destroyed once.
RB: Supposedly, C.B. DeMille already had plans to film the Noah story, intending to call the film The Deluge, but Warners laid claim to the rights (another online reviewer commented that they were perplexed at the notion of claiming to have rights to any story from the Bible, a point that I agree with). DeMille moved onto work on The King of Kings and Warners began work on this title.
SG: This is a silent-talkie hybrid. The dialogue sequences come off as clunky and awkward, but they are thankfully relatively few. Most of the sound we hear is music by Alois Reiser, and that effectively illustrates the story.
RB: In 1957, the legacy of the film was popular enough that Robert Youngson capitalized on the popularity of The Ten Commandments by editing Noah’s Ark into a 75 minute feature with a new soundtrack and narration throughout. According to John McElwee’s Greenbriar Picture Shows blog, the film, treated as a new release with the tagline “THE MOST SPECTACULAR PICTURE OF ALL TIME!” did fairly well in arthouse theaters, but in the big first run houses, audiences in some cities left and angrily demanded their money back. I’m sure that Youngson’s narration is more awkward that the dialog sequences that we dealt with in this film. (It should be noted that Leonard Maltin recommends avoiding the edited reissue; although it seems to me that it barely exists at this point).
SG: Chaplin's The Gold Rush edit with narration works well, but I imagine that's because it was the original filmmaker doing the editing. Youngson's version likely cheapens the grand spectacle of the original Noah's Ark. I am rarely a fan of someone else monkeying with another artist's work.
Overall, I found the Biblical scenes in this movie to be slow and heavy-handed with lots of title cards and grand acting. The modern scenes played infinitely better, but had much less spectacle. According to Alan Rode's book on Curtiz, Writer Arthur Caesar teased the director for "taking a book that's been a hit for nineteen hundred years and making a flop out of it." Two stars.
RB: The film wasn’t really a flop, although I’d concede that it probably didn’t do as well as hoped. It turned a $500,000 profit in the US and then stacked more profit in foreign release, although the reviews weren’t particularly kind in any aspect except the special effects. The Sydney Morning Herald praised the photography but blasted the “rambling narrative” and “tawdry and ostentatious pageant” of the ark scenes. Likewise, Liberty argued that the film was lavish but prone to being “infantile” and complained of the “preposterous” plot. I tend to agree with these reviews. The film is well worth watching, but ultimately is done in by how serious it takes itself. Two stars.