The 1929 version of Noah’s Ark is rather infamous. Directed by cinematic chameleon Michael Curtiz, its flood sequences are legendary, and there’s a longstanding rumor that three extras drowned during shooting. I’ve been wanting to see this film for years, and when I finally got to take it in it was everything and nothing I was expecting. Part talkie and part silent, the film is a firm classic among movie buffs, and I get that but I don’t.
Put it this way: When I think of Noah’s Ark, I totally think of trench warfare. Don’t you?
Heh. Nope. More on this in a minute.
The film opens with a shot of the Ark on Mount Arrarat. The dove is long gone, the flood waters have receded, and Noah and his family are standing in a circle praising God for their deliverance. We have about two seconds to take this all in before the film cuts to the Tower of Babel. Then we see God using Moses to deliver the Israelites out of the bonds of slavery, for which they thank him by worshiping the golden calf.
Finally, the film plants us at…1 Wall Street?
Yeah, we’re now in the present day, where gold is still god and man is still greedy. The new Tower of Babel is the skyscraper. Men are horrible to each other and don’t care that their actions bleed over into the lives of their fellow humans. They’re careless with their money to the point that they squander it on gambling, and when they can’t make more they kill themselves. What a world.
Above all, no one is listening to Jesus, who said, “Peace be still” and calmed the stormy waters. However, comeuppance is on the way.
One night in the summer of 1914, the Orient Express is speeding across the French countryside during a rainstorm. The passengers are shooting the breeze–some are reading, others are carrying on. A mother chastises her two small children. A pretty German girl, Marie (Dolores Costello) peruses a paper while a creepy Russian Secret Service officer, Nickoloff (Noah Beery) eyes her greedily.
In the midst of it all, a white-bearded minister (Paul McAllister) sits reading his Bible and the passengers around him sneer at him, citing their various idols such as money, power, or military might. The minister warns them to be careful because they just might bring down God’s righteous judgement on them, and right after he says that, a bridge is washed out and the train plunges into the river.
Marie survives, but she has to be pulled from the wreckage by a young American, Travis (George O’Brien), who’s traveling in France with his friend, cab driver, Al (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams). The three of them stagger over to a nearby inn and secure rooms for the night. Unfortunately, creepy Nickoloff follows them and tries to sneak into Marie’s room. He and Travis get into a knock-down, drag-out fight before Travis flees the inn with Marie and Al. Suspicion is on Marie because she’s a German in France and tensions are running high.
Travis and Marie get married before the war starts. Al signs up right away, but Travis hesitates since he’s a newlywed. It only takes the sight of Al and the other soldiers marching out of town to change his mind, and much to Marie’s dismay he runs to join them. He and Al are sent straight to the trenches after basic training, and Al is killed.
Marie keeps busy even though her husband is away–she joins a dance troupe and tours camps putting on shows for the men. One night creepy Nickoloff (sorry, I can’t think of him in any other way) is in the audience, and he recognizes Marie, who rejects his advances. Nice fella that he is, he frames her for being a spy and hauls her off to be executed by a firing squad. The minister from the train is somehow on hand to offer comfort to the condemned, who are blindfolded and tied to poles to await their deaths.
However, it just so happens that Travis is a member of the firing squad, and when he sees Marie is one of his targets he goes crazy. Travis pleads so hard for Marie’s life that his commanding officer takes pity and releases her.
The two of them don’t have long to celebrate, though, because there’s a war on and howitzer shells are falling. Marie, Travis, Nickoloff, and the minister are all trapped in a basement, and while they wait to be rescued (or not), the minister tells them they should confess their sins to God and prepare for death.
And then, finally, we’re back in Bible times. The minister is Noah, Travis is Japheth, Marie is Japheth’s wife, Miriam, Al is Ham, and creepy Nickoloff is King Nephillim. One of Marie’s coworkers (Myrna Loy) is there as well, only now she’s a slave girl. King Nephillim is mad with power, and he demands everyone worship the god Jaghuth on pain of death.
Noah and his family ignore the edict, of course, and try to live their lives as best they can. One day, Noah spies a burning bush (!) and a flash of lightning on tablets of wood (!!) reveal a command from God (!!!) to build an ark of gopher wood because a great flood is coming to cleanse the human race of its wickedness.
Eh. Noah never saw a burning bush, and God certainly didn’t send him any flaming commandments on tablets of any medium. That was Moses. The Ten Commandments tunic-riding is just a wee bit too obvious here, but to be fair, having God speak through flaming type may have been a matter of logistics. Anywhoo…
The family get to work on the Ark right away, and the locals are curious. They also jeer. And try to set fire to this strange new edifice, which, much to their frustration, doesn’t succeed. Oh, and King Nephillim gets angry that the family isn’t worshiping Jaghuth, so he hauls off Marie to be a human sacrifice. When Japheth follows her, he’s captured himself and put into slave labor, where he’s blinded by a hot poker. And this is all before the flood starts.
Our present-day hero and heroine aren’t completely out of the picture, though. They have a little more to do before the credits roll.
Sigh. How do I sum up Noah’s Ark succinctly? Well…the whole film is a metaphor for the depravity of man and the consequences of defying God. The message is excellent if muddled from a narrative standpoint. Noah and his floating zoo are courtesy motifs, and brief ones at that. It’s odd that they called the film Noah’s Ark, because it seems like false advertising.
Who knows, maybe the studio in charge, Warner Bros. was trying to make the production look more impressive than it was. Or maybe they were worried that the saga of Noah and the flood wasn’t enough to fill out a feature film. Either way, it’s not the movie it proports to be.
The screenplay was written by future 20th Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck, and it’s clear he badly wanted to make a Cecil B. DeMille movie. The Ten Commandments, which came out a few years prior to Noah’s Ark, was so successful other filmmakers wanted to get some of DeMille’s glory for themselves.
The movie is definitely not all bad, especially for an early sorta-talkie. The actors do the usual thing of hovering around a barely-hidden microphone, but it doesn’t throw them. The acting is excellent and fairly natural. Dolores Costello is a dewy-eyed heroine who is nicely matched by George O’Brien. It’s fun to see Myrna Loy speak what may have been her first lines in a sound film, too.
Plus, the special effects in the Biblical sequences are amazing. There’s a lot of water. So much water, in fact, that Dolores Costello herself almost drowned, but as it was, she did contract pneumonia. It was a tough shoot for her; she later referred to Noah’s Ark as “mud, blood, and flood.”
She wasn’t the only one who had problems, though. The studio anticipated that the flood sequence might be dangerous, so they had a fleet of ambulances outside the soundstage just in case. There were trained stuntmen on the set, but plenty of green-as-grass extras as well. Even the cameramen got pummeled by the rushing water, so shooting the flood scenes probably wasn’t fun for anyone.
For all the trouble the cast and crew endured, Noah’s Ark sank at the box office. I can’t imagine why. Audiences probably saw the contrived mix of twentieth-century intrigue with the Biblical account and said the 1920s equivalent of “Hard pass.”
Nowadays, the film is a curiosity more than anything, or at least that’s how I see it. It’s a transition film with one foot in the silent world and one in the talkie world. The movie gives a great snapshot of what Hollywood was capable of at that point in its history in terms of spectacle and special effects. The big key to watching this movie seems to be checking one’s expectations at the door. More than once, if necessary.
Hope to see everyone tomorrow for Steve’s Love Goes On Blogathon. As always, thanks for reading…
Noah’s Ark is available on DVD from Amazon.