It’s coming up to Thanksgiving time, and, in my conscientious duty to my readers, I’m supplying the turkey. And, fellas, it’s a big one: 20th-Century Fox’s 1954 monumental gobbler, The Egyptian, which has enough stuffing, cranberries, sweet potatoes, and extras in the thousands to satisfy the most ravenous palate. It’s the kind of overloaded feast where you widen your eyes, loosen your belt buckle, and gamely plow in, hoping your blood pressure will hold out longer than the cornbread and pumpkin pie.
Look, I’m not complaining. The Egyptian is a bomb, in CinemaScope and De Luxe color to boot, which makes it a must-see in my book. Any film that gives us mummies, pyramids, peplums, extras rioting in the streets, a cheery John Carradine robbing graves (do I sense early typecasting here?), and such lines as “Thoth, my poor darling!”, is OK by me. As another of Old Hollywood’s highly picturesque versions of the Ancient World, specifically Old Egypt under the pharaoh Akhenaton, it’s a lot more fun, I have to confess in my Philistine fashion, than touring the Egyptian galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yes, I know the Met’s galleries are authentic, but what always comes to mind whenever I’m there is Anne Baxter’s sneering comment from The Ten Commandments: “It’s nothing but a piece of stone with the head of a bird.” Whereas The Egyptian gives us Judith Evelyn guzzling beer like Victor McLaglen at his most fearsomely Irish and making eyes at any passing male torso. No contest there; a guzzling, leering Evelyn has it over stone birds any day. I also like the bit when Gene Tierney walks into a tomb, picks up a mirror, and blows the dust off it. That’s the kind of priceless little human detail that makes even the Ancient World seem right close to home.
If I have any grouse to make against The Egyptian‘s overstuffed effect, it’s that so much of it is devoted to Edmund Purdom. Edmund who?, I can hear you all saying. A surprising fellow to grumble about, as E. Purdom was about the most modest, inconspicuous, unobtrusive performer ever to inch his way, like a diffident snail, across the silver screen. But so mind-numbing was Mr. Purdom’s acting effort in the film’s title role that, after about a half-hour of Purdom-viewing, my two feline pals decided, in their very feline fashion, to take a powder. They flopped themselves down, like furry little soufflés hitting the cold air, and went right to sleep, leaving me to watch the film’s remaining two hours all by my little lonesome.
I can’t really blame them. I haven’t been keeping statistics, but I’m willing to bet that Mr. Purdom is right up there in the rankings of Actors Recommended As Cures For Insomnia. On the Soporific Scale, I’d rate him about 7 out of 10. He’s not as deadly as Reed Hadley, an actor against whose droning voice and unflinchingly stolid mien I need unhealthy amounts of caffeine and taped eyelids to stay reasonably alert. And he doesn’t send me down a slow, dozy slide into dreamland as does the slumberously beguiling Alice Faye. There’s such a soothing quality to Alice Faye, a mother-humming-lullaby sweetness that colleagues like my four-footed ones find appealing. They love anything that’s round and soft and oozes cushiony comfort, and Miss Faye certainly is and does that. She always looks to me as being about as close to an ambulatory pillow as any human can get.
However, Miss Faye could sing, and Mr. Purdom could not, and therein lies his fame. It’s not often an actor makes his mark by who he’s not, but Purdom managed that feat, and he managed it twice. Ronald Bergan’s opening line in The Guardian’s obituary for the actor sums it up: Purdom’s “sad fate,” writes Bergan, was to be best known for a film “remembered more for the star who wasn’t in it.” That film and that star, respectively, were MGM’s The Student Prince (1954) and Mario Lanza. Depending on which source you read, Lanza, after recording the film’s songs, bowed out of the production either because he had an altercation with the studio or he couldn’t fit into the costumes (can you guess which version I go for?). MGM rushed in Purdom as a replacement, and the upshot is that he’s now recalled mainly as a prop for Lanza’s booming vocals. A slim, good-looking, and amiable prop, but a prop nonetheless. Thus the Purdom paradox: fitting into one container—or, in this case, princely costume—but unable to contain something bigger and more desired—a hotter star. It was a twist of fate that the rest of his career couldn’t overcome. Purdom’s the odd case of being famous for not being famous. Or (as Bergan puts it), his is a “reputation as a surrogate.”
The Filmic Fates seemed to have had it in for Purdom. Bad enough mouthing songs for a ballooned Mario Lanza, but then to be a stand-in for Marlon Brando—that one must hang over you like that little black cloud that hovers over Al Capp’s Joe Btfsplk. Brando was the original choice to play The Egyptian, and how many audiences viewing that film in 1954 must have tried imagining the greatest, most charismatic actor of the decade in that role? Instead, they’re watching poor Purdom, looking throughout as if he’d rather be back in old Heidelberg swigging beer with Ann Blyth. How do you compete with the guy who embodied steam heat in a ripped t-shirt? Take a good look at The Egyptian’s poster above, displaying the film’s three heroines (Gene Tierney, Jean Simmons, Bella Darvi) rubbing themselves like cats in heat against that giant head. I wonder if that image was designed with Brando in mind. Surely no one after seeing the film’s rushes could have pictured Purdom, feebly clawing the air with his tiny passions, exciting such animalistic abandon, enough to turn his visage into a sexualized trouser leg. Brando, yes; Purdom—no way. No arguments.
I do feel for Purdom, though. Watching him struggle to carry the huge, dead weight of The Egyptian, like a dachshund dragging a bus, does give you a sense of what the ancient Greeks meant about the experience of pity and terror. Although not top-billed, he’s the film’s central character, a philosophical physician seeking Truth, embroiled in your standard Hollywood historical-epic plot: loads of sin, sex, and salvation in the days when Rome or Babylon was the world’s entertainment capital. I do fault him, however, for a limited palette of expression. In the film’s first half, playing an idealistic, love-struck youth, he slumps forward; as an older, embittered cynic in the second, he slumps back. Perhaps a sympathetic director could have helped Purdom expand his range of expression, by suggesting he slump to the right or the left, but the director here was Michael Curtiz, who was not known for his high opinion of actors, nor for theirs of him.
Curtiz probably had enough on his plate anyway, having to maneuver thousands of extras through elaborate sets and sandscaped vistas, without spending time on a clueless leading man. My guess is that directing historical epics is basically a traffic-cop assignment; you’re there to keep actors, animals, and chariots on the move and to make sure that the money being spent shows on the screen. That Curtiz does. The film overflows with feathers, parades, statuary, spears, brandished swords, brightly painted walls, wigs (braided, beaded, be-jeweled, and even what looks like tie-dyed), and gorgeous dresses for the ladies, the fabric cool and flowing, like pleated water. His handling of CinemaScope is basically unimaginative, the action or actors placed in the foreground while extras fill in the space behind. I did admire one scene in an embalming room: a noirishly lit composition done in one gliding take, with sweaty extras stirring huge vats bubbling with an evil-looking liquid. You half-expect Christopher Lee to come slithering out of one of those foaming tubs. It’s a small scene, but it compresses a whole, scary underworld in its telling.
Speaking of cinematic statuary, I must point out one bird-headed piece of stone on display. That’s hawk-faced Michael Wilding, who looks as if he can barely keep awake whenever he appears. Wilding’s not in many scenes, but his role as the iconoclastic pharaoh Akhenaton makes him the film’s quasi-hero. The 50s were big on Biblical epics that tub-thumped for the virtues of Christianity. And, although happening “thirteen centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ” (as a closing title tells us), The Egyptian‘s story makes a big deal about Akhenaton’s apparent practice of Monotheism, dividing its characters between good people who worship the one god Aton and bad people who worship all those other gods (you know, the bird-headed ones). The Aton worshippers are proto-flower children: they sing and carry lilies and wear white robes and march up and down stairs in elaborately slow processionals, like Busby Berkeley overdosed on NyQuil. Oh please, I murmured, couldn’t we get one old-fashioned DeMille-style orgy? But no, Akhenaton is too noble and pure for any such carnal cavortings; and one glance at Wilding, looking as pale and limp as Leslie Howard at his most mauvely poetical, tells us that proprieties will be maintained. (I’ve always imagined Akhenaton as a bit of a prig, and Wilding’s performance doesn’t disabuse me of that.)
After Wilding, all I can say is thank God or Aton for Victor Mature. I bet you never thought you’d read a sentence like that, anywhere, but I mean it. Mature may lumber onscreen like a rhinoceros disrupting a Bloomsbury garden party, but he knows what he’s doing up there. Playing another real-life character, the warrior and future pharaoh Horemheb, Mature makes no attempt at anything resembling historical ‘authenticity,’ but he probably had an instinctive knowledge that that’s not what audiences go to movies for. He isn’t anything but what he is: Victor Mature, Movie Star. Whatever alchemical fusion occurs in the meeting between the corporeal performer on set and the camera’s recording eye to make an actor into a celluloid icon doesn’t happen with Purdom, but it does with Mature. There he is, throwing back his shoulders and sucking in his stomach whenever a scene requires a heroic stance, giving conviction to such lines as “There’s only one thing that can save Egypt now, and that’s courage.” Mature reacts like a human being to everything around him; he growls, grimaces, and grins lewdly at Gene Tierney. And he was one of the few A-list actors who could wear peplums and high-topped sandals without looking self-conscious about it.
The one other performer who stands out for me is Bella Darvi, Darryl Zanuck’s “discovery,” if I may so express it, and perhaps the film’s most controversial element (supposedly Brando refused to make the film because of her). Darvi plays a Babylonian courtesan who capriciously tempts Purdom to ruin and exile, and I’ve come up with a theory that the producer’s ardor for his protégée was expressed through the number of ornate wigs with which she’s adorned. Darvi wears a different-colored wig in practically every scene she’s in; they seem to function like mood rings, conveying her shifts of temper. In which sense they do more acting than does Miss Darvi.
Frankly, I don’t care whether she acts or not. Much scorn has been heaped on Darvi’s non-performance, but I found her mesmerizing. With her long, predatory jaws and her long, narrow, glazed eyes, she looks like a Warhol drag queen at Mardi Gras; and her somnolent presence and drippily hypnotic voice, which never rises or falls or changes inflection, all add to her exoticism and to her aura of complete, otherly Otherness. I kept watching to see if any expression flickered across that beautiful, high-boned face, thinking that SOMETHING must be going on there. Darvi’s as blank and transfixing to watch as was Juliette Greco, another Zanuck “discovery,” who appeared in his later production of The Sun Also Rises. Seeing these impassive Amazonian ladies, I can’t help but wonder about the man’s taste in women. They’re unsettling in their marmoreal immobility; I get a creepy notion that behind their vacant demeanors are stashed the leather whips and chains. (“I have never asked a man for anything,” Darvi purrs at one point in the film—was that also the secret of her offscreen fascination?)
All quibbles aside, dear readers, if you’re looking for something to watch while digesting your Thanksgiving dinner, and can’t stomach the thought of football, I recommend The Egyptian. It’s got it all: concubines, combatants, clerics, costumes, courtiers, and crowned heads. It gives you malice in the palace, sex in the city, brawls in the barrooms, and musings on the meaning of Life. It even has Bella Darvi delivering, mid-way through, a charming little speech on the nature and habits of cats (yes, cats!), which holds a particular interest for me. I wanted to get my own moggy friends’ expert opinion on it, but, so far, their only response has been drowsy little yawns and hisses when the scene comes up (no, that’s not a steam pipe you hear, that’s my blog). They just can’t seem to stay the course.
I’m afraid it’s all because of Edmund Purdom.
But as soon as they stay awake long enough to listen, I’ll let you know what they think.