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Thursday, July 7, 2011

LAND OF THE PHARAOHS (1955)

Howard Hawks’ only film made in CinemaScope was this Egyptian epic, a catastrophic flop that would keep him off the screen for nearly five years. It’s certainly a huge thing with thousands of extras milling about as Jack Hawkins’ Pharaoh builds his pyramid to the advanced architectural plans of captive rival James Robertson-Justice. (The British accents alone on these guys could cut marble in a quarry.) But there’s a snake in the grass, slinky Joan Collins who weds Pharaoh; beds treasure guardian Sydney Chaplin; and dreads seeing all that royal loot buried. On the small home screen, Hawks’ WideScreen interiors can look distant & static, but much of the location work is handsomely designed (by the great Alexander Trauner) and still looks impressive. It helps compensate for some stiff acting & mind-numbing dialogue. (William Faulkner gets top billing for the script, but don’t you believe it.) Still, acting gaffes & bad lines didn’t kill this pic, story construction did. There’s no first act! We’re told about a big battle Pharaoh almost lost; we just don’t see it. We hear about some sand-shifting roadworks that trap the Egyptian army, but we must have come in too late. They say that Pharaoh’s scouts were sent ahead of the line and fought their way back to save the day, but no one filmed it. Instead, the film begins as troops & prisoners-of-war march in a victory parade. Joan Collins’ standard domestic bitchery gets a full development, but everything that’s unique about Egypt, ancient warfare & the enemy’s engineering marvels that Pharaoh uses to make his theft-proof tomb is shortchanged. Too bad, that's the interesting stuff.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The film was shot in WarnerColor, a ‘Tri-Pac’ knock-off of EastmanColor, which produced the odd tint or two. Here, the green titles in the palace interiors get the exact tone of a high-class Las Vegas washroom. Maybe that’s why everyone’s wearing towels all the time.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Ernst Lubitsch’s final German feature, DAS WEIB DES PHARAO/THE LOVES OF PHARAOH/’22, which stars Emil Jannings & Paul Wegener, is a remarkably convincing period melodrama. No DVD yet, but there are good surviving materials. Hopefully, a class outfit will get their hands on it.

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