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Irwin Allen's production of 'The Story of Mankind' has been called one of
the worst films ever made, a film so bad that it has NEVER been released
video, and barely ever appears on television (and only then in a VERY
abbreviated form.) This is UNFAIR! While the film is intentionally (and
sometimes unintentionally) campy, it has many milestones that make it
of respect. First, it is Ronald Colman's final film (he died a year after
the release), and he still shows the urbanity, the kindness, and the
that made him unique. Second, it is the last theatrical appearance of the
Marx Brothers (although they appear separately), and Harpo plays the harp
one last time, a bittersweet experience. Third, Vincent Price plays the
Devil, and certainly no actor is more perfect for the role! Fourth, the
foreshadows Irwin Allen's later work, on television ('Voyage to the Bottom
of the Sea', 'Time Tunnel') and in film ('The Poseidon Adventure', 'The
Towering Inferno'). There are other milestones to this film, as well, but
think you can see my point!
The story is VERY loosely based on Henrik Van Loon's wonderful, witty history of the human race (which is a fabulous read, if you ever get the chance!) The 'basic' framework of the story has been changed into an 'End of the World' tale, set in the heavens. High Judge Cedric Hardwicke must decide whether or not Earth should be allowed to blow itself up, after the creation of a 'super' bomb. Two counsels are selected; for the Prosecution is the Devil (Vincent Price), sly and sarcastic, and pleased that God's ultimate creation has fallen on it's face; for the Defense is the Spirit of Mankind (Ronald Colman), an entity that carries the essence of all of Man's achievements, both good and bad.
As both sides present their cases, the 'history' of the world is played out, using Warner Brothers' stock footage and guest star cameos. Among the most memorable of these cameos are Virginia Mayo as a vampy Cleopatra, Peter Lorre, a lazily derranged Nero, Hedy Lamarr as a pious Joan of Arc, Harpo Marx miming Sir Issac Newton, Groucho Marx leering and wisecracking as Peter Minuit, buying Manhattan Island, and Dennis Hopper as a WAY over-the-top young Napoleon!
Throughout the proceedings, Price and Colman (who had appeared together seven years earlier, in 'Champagne for Caesar') trade barbs over Man's worthiness, in exchanges both funny and sadly true, at times!
'The Story of Mankind' is NOT classic cinema, but it is fun, and has a kind of charm uniquely it's own. It should NOT be forgotten!
THE STORY OF MANKIND (1957) is a very elusive all-star misfire about a heavenly debate over should earth survive or be wiped out. For the defense, you have the Spirit of Man (Ronald Colman), for the prosecution, you have Satan (Vincent Price having a ball!) They each call examples of humanity by showing famous good and evil people. We see little skits involving Nero (Peter Lorre making googly-eyes at members of an orgy!) Napoleon (22 year old Dennis Hopper playing the part like a naughty frat boy!) Christopher Columbus (miscast Chico Marx), Issac Newton (even more miscast Harpo Marx!) The cast gets stranger and stranger. Aging Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc? Where was everybodies agent? The end result looks like the biggest celebrities in Hollywood are doing a 5th graders' play! An amazing film, a tape I treasure!
Irwin Allen's first venture into all star spectacle was one all star
disaster. The Story of Mankind contains some of the most incredible
casting decisions of all time. Virginia Mayo as the blond Cleopatra,
Dennis Hopper chewing the scenery with Napoleon, Peter Lorre dining on
the scenery for weeks as Nero, Marie Wilson as Marie Antoinette as a
roadshow Marilyn Monroe, that's just some of them.
The film also is known for being the last film which featured all three of the Marx Brothers though they all have different roles. Chico plays a monk who is Christopher Columbus's confidante, Groucho euchres the Indians out of Manhattan island as Peter Minuit, and most astonishing of all, Harpo Marx as Sir Isaac Newton who discovers gravity when an apple conks him on the bean.
Holding all these portrayals together is a story where mankind itself is being judged. A super H Bomb is about to be discovered and let loose will do in the world's population. It's Judgement Day a coming.
But mankind has its advocates and detractors. Speaking for the prosecution is Old Scratch who's been bringing the worst out in man for centuries in the form of Vincent Price. But man has his good side as well and who better than Ronald Colman to demonstrate man at his most civilized best. Colman and Price plead their case before The Judge played by Cedric Hardwicke.
In those three individuals you have some of the finest speaking voices the English language ever knew. When the film is on them as they each bring out the exhibits for their case it's a pleasure to listen to. Then when the focus is on the individual stories, you want to scream in agony.
What was Irwin Allen driving at, I'm still trying to figure it out. Was he deliberately camping it up with some of these casting decisions? If it was satire, it just doesn't get off the ground.
This was Ronald Colman's farewell film and while it's hardly something I'd like to go out on, I can't think of any man who could have stated the case for civilization any better.
So when you see The Story of Mankind, fast forward through some of the exhibits and treasure every moment the advocates are before the judge.
Unlike most people, I really enjoyed this film. Not only was it unintentionally funny, but it had all the elements that would later be associated with many of Irwin Allen's latter works (stock footage and an all-star cast). Vincent Price is at his sinister best playing Mr. Scratch, the devil, and Ronald Colman is wonderful as the spirit of mankind. Too bad this film isn't on video or DVD because it truly is a cult classic that is an acquired taste.
THE STORY OF MANKIND (1957) is not a good movie, but it's a fascinating
one on several levels. I'm most intrigued by the central event of the
film, a debate over the fate of mankind undertaken, in a heavenly
tribunal, between the "Spirit of Man," played by stately English actor
Ronald Colman (in his final film), and a rather more sinuous type, Mr.
Scratch (aka the Devil), played by Vincent Price on the cusp of his
emergence as a major horror star. Colman speaks in defense of mankind,
while Price argues for allowing the species' impending self-engineered
demise. (This was the Atomic Age, after all.) Price offers concrete
examples of man's inhumanity to man (and nature) and the various
atrocities the race has committed, establishing a whole pattern of
misconducttheft, exploitation, slavery, mass murder, rape, pillage,
plunder, perversion--that extends from Ancient Egypt right up to the
present day. Colman glosses over these things, preferring to expound
rather vaguely on man's lofty ideals and dreams of progress,
exploration, and artistic achievement. When Colman brings up Leonardo
da Vinci, for instance, Price points to da Vinci's detailed plans for
highly destructive weapons of war. Price seems much more outraged by
the crimes of mankind than Colman is, which marks his character as the
true moralist in the film.
(In real life, Colman and Price were good friends and one exchange of dialogue in the da Vinci scene, where Colman insists that Price "knows nothing about painting," while Price responds that he "never pretended to be an art expert," is an in-joke reference to Price's already considerable reputation by that point as a connoisseur, collector and historian of art.)
On a more mundane note of cinephilic appreciation, I tried tallying up all the footage taken from earlier movies with historical themes. (Any time you see a shot with multiple extras and lavish sets, you know it's from a different movie.) Early on, for instance, we see John Carradine as the pharaoh, Khufu, sharing a scene with Price and Cedric Hardwicke (as the celestial judge). All three were in Cecil B. DeMille's spectacle from the previous year, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), which took place in Ancient Egypt. Yet when this scene transitions to shots of pyramid building, they don't use clips from DeMille's film, but instead rely on clips from another film set in that periodLAND OF THE PHARAOHS (1955). Why? Because THE STORY OF MANKIND is a Warner Bros. production and the only color film clips they could use without having to pay exorbitant fees would have to come from Warner Bros. films. So when they go to the Trojan War, we see clips from HELEN OF TROY (1955). And when they go to the Crusades and other scenes from the Middle Ages, we see clips from KING RICHARD AND THE CRUSADERS (1954). Piracy and ship battles between England and Spain for supremacy of the seas? CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER (1951). Elizabethan England? THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (1939). Western scenes? DODGE CITY (1939). There were some clips I didn't recognize, though, such as the shot of Rome burning. (QUO VADIS?, 1951, was an MGM production.) Producer-director Irwin Allen would expand on this practice of mixing cheaply shot studio scenes with more lavishly filmed clips in his TV series, "Time Tunnel," some nine years later. (By then, of course, Allen would be at a different studio and have to rely on clips solely from 20th Century Fox.)
The recent cablecast of this film on Turner Classic Movies (on March 14, 2011) was beset by technical problems. The film often froze up and went black. This happened most egregiously during two sequences, one with Cleopatra (Virginia Mayo) and one with Peter Minuit (Groucho Marx), so I missed several seconds from each. I must say I didn't recognize Ms. Mayo in the dark wig. In another sequence, 45-year-old Hedy Lamarr turns up as the teenaged Joan of Arc(!). Marie Windsor plays a much taller and older Josephine to Dennis Hopper's Napoleon. (Josephine actually WAS taller and older than Napoleon, but not by that much.) Shakespeare is described by Queen Elizabeth (Agnes Moorehead) as a "young actor-poet," but is played by veteran character actor Reginald Gardiner, who'd been in films for 25 years at this point. Why couldn't they recruit bigger names to play Shakespeare and such other key historical figures as Columbus (Anthony Dexter) and Lincoln (Austin Green)?
Silent star Francis X. Bushman (Messala in the silent BEN-HUR) plays da Vinciand has no dialogue. Cathy O'Donnell plays an early Christian in Rome some two years before appearing in a vaguely similar role in the BEN-HUR remake. In one piece of gimmick casting, Jim Ameche appears as Alexander Graham Bell, a role closely identified with his more famous brother, Don Ameche. (I'm guessing they tried to get Don to recreate it, but were turned down.) Seven actors in this cast went on to guest star on TV's "Batman": Vincent Price, Cesar Romero, Reginald Gardiner, Edward Everett Horton, Francis X. Bushman, Marie Windsor and Ziva Rodann.
For years I only knew this film as the last to feature all three Marx Brothers. On that basis, I'd always thought it was a comedy. It isn't. Still, it struck me as pretty funny to see an opening credits sequence where Francis X. Bushman, Franklin Pangborn and Dennis Hopper are among the many listed together ABOVE the title.
The opening titles of this historical epic one of the most
notoriously misjudged films in Hollywood history boast no fewer than
25 stars but, having personally gone through it, I have to say that its
reputation is entirely justified! I'd always been interested in it, of
course, yet I'd practically given up hope of ever catching the
and, eventually, I only managed to come across a soft-looking,
panned-and-scanned VHS copy with forced Spanish subtitles (which will
more than suffice under the circumstances).
Actually, the central premise isn't half-bad a tribunal in outer space(!), presided over by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, convenes to determine whether mankind should be allowed to go on living or else let it obliterate itself via the misuse of nuclear weapons! In fact, the opening half-hour or so is fairly decent but, as soon as one realizes that the film will be a constant parade of Hollywood stars stolidly appearing (portraying is hardly the correct term to use here) as famous historical figures who are subsequently given little of consequence to do it becomes a depressing, repetitive and altogether rather dull charade!
At least, the main roles of The Spirit Of Man (a suave and gracefully aged Ronald Colman in his last film) and Mr. Scratch aka The Devil (a typically genial turn by Vincent Price) are ideally filled something which, alas, can't be said of most of their colleagues: Hardwicke himself merely gets in a few inane phrases between Colman and Price's rebuttals, but, for good measure, we also have to contend with John Carradine (as a campily-dressed Pharaoh), Peter Lorre (as a thoroughly miserable Nero, which is ironic given that the role had often inspired actors towards hamminess!), Virginia Mayo (unrecognizable as Cleopatra), Hedy Lamarr (an embarrassingly miscast Joan of Arc), Dennis Hopper (as a wimpy Napoleon Bonaparte!) and, surely the weirdest casting choice of all, the Marx Brothers (appearing in their final team effort, albeit separately: Chico barely registers as a monk in the Christopher Columbus episode, Groucho incongruously appearing fully in character, with glasses and wisecracks intact[!], as obscure American Pilgrim Peter Minuit, and Harpo, ditto, as a mute and harp-playing Sir Isaac Newton)!!
The various re-enactments (amidst which Colman and Price are free to roam) display a rampant use of stock footage thus making the film seem more expensive than it actually is and naturally end with the present i.e. 1957 crisis; in hindsight, the script's constant reference to the "Super H-bomb" is amusing and dates the show more than anything else! At a mere 100 minutes, such an ambitious enterprise was doomed from the start and, indeed, it feels too much like a crash-course in World History (intercut with elementary bits of Philosophy). Perhaps, the kindest thing that can be said about THE STORY OF MANKIND is that, for better or worse, it did pave the way for Irwin Allen's heyday as a producer of star-studded Hollywood blockbusters.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I can't understand why many seem to hate this.
This movie ties together many of the overlapping settings of the historical and Biblical epics of the fifties, using set pieces, props, and costumes similar to those seen in other movies. Here, however, the story attempts to run through all of human history, with a frame story about the human race being on trial, with a guilty verdict meaning h-bombs will go off all over the world. The prosecutor is the devil, played with fiendish glee by Vincent Price. OK, so it's a little hokey calling the defender "The Spirit of All Men," but I think that's one of the things that gives this movie a sense of period charm. The Spririt of Man is incidentally played quite well by Ronald Coleman, in his last film. It is also the last movie in which Groucho, Harpo, and Chico Marx all appear, but not together. Groucho plays Peiter Minuet buying Manhattan from the Indians, in a scene played purely for campy humor. Chico isn't funny at all as a monk who thinks the world is flat, and Harpo, we are told, is meant to be Isaac Newton, discovering gravity. Most of the other performances are well done, though.
Other hokey things are that the trial is supposedly taking place in outer space, which is depicted as a region of clouds and blueness. There is something called "The Great Clock of Outer Space," which, when striking midnight, may signal the end of the world.
But at its heart, the movie addresses the problems of WMDs and the eternal question of whether Man is basically good, or basically evil; and poses it in what I think is an interesting way. Also, anyone who likes the look of costume epics of the fifties should like the look of this movie.
The technological development of the H-Bomb has caused the court of
heaven to put mankind on trial.
Should man not be-allowed to proceed with his new invention or should he be allowed to blow himself to eternity? Somewhere in outer space (for it could hardly be held in heaven) the trial of the centuries takes place. Arguing for allowing man to blow himself up is Scratch (Vincent Price). Arguing for the goodness of mankind is The Spirit of Mankind (Ronald Coleman).
Scratch and Mankind then take the court (and the audience) on a tour throughout history showcasing some of the most interesting and important events and people that have shaped the world in which we live. The premise of the film is similar to a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Picard and the Enterprise crew have to defend the obliteration of mankind from a high powerful being known as Q who has put mankind on trial.
It is a film that touches on philosophical and theological issues but is more interested in highlighting historical events so it doesn't become a deep spiritual film filled with profound thought and insight. It starts out with an interesting premise, but as it travels along through history, although still interesting, seems somewhat respective and begins to be a tad bit tedious and thus maybe a little bit boring.
Of the more interesting moments includes Groucho Marx as Peter Minuit who swindled Manhattan Island from the Indians and Harpo Marx as Isaac Newton. Chico Marx plays a monk advising Christopher Columbus about why sailing across the world would be a bad idea. How can you go wrong with the Marx Brothers.
Overall 'The Story of Mankind' is interesting enough to watch especially if it is in a history class. It could have kept the hosts and perhaps could have had more engaging portraits of history. It has a fun premise and some good dialogue between Scratch and Mankind. But as an intriguing and gripping film about history it would be better to go with 'Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure'.
What does the court decide in the end? At the very least they decide to end the film.
The Story of Mankind when I saw it was a movie I initially found
difficult to rate. Mainly because it is a big mess. Having said that
somewhat, it is a mess that is worth seeing.
The production values are hardly high art, but they are decent. The sets are okay, the costumes are interesting and the cinematography is not exceptional but not exactly cheap either. I liked the premise as well, and it started off decently with Sir Cedric Hardwicke presiding over things nicely. There is also some good performances. Ronald Colman gives far from his best performance, but he is very suave and convincing, Marie Antoinette is nicely coquettish and Agnes Moorhead chews the scenery with glee. It was also nice to see the Marx Brothers, Harpo and Chico aren't really that funny but Groucho is though there was the odd moment not to do with Groucho more to do with the writing and the way the characters were written that came across as more offensive than amusing. Best is Vincent Price, with his powerful voice and magnetic presence, he is gleefully wicked.
However, the direction falls flat as if it is unsure of which direction to go whether it wanted to be a history lesson or an exercise in camp. The dialogue is mostly absolutely abysmal, but it is so hard not to laugh at how bad it is. The film goes at an uneven pace with some segments faster than others or better acted and written. The characters are little more than stereotypes and caricatures and badly explored ones at that, and there are some unintentionally hilarious ideas incorporated into the story especially with Joan of Arc. I liked the leads and Moorhead and Groucho, but the rest of the cast are just bizarre. Peter Lorre though isn't too bad, perhaps too young and somewhat too effeminate too but there are some moments of unexpected poignancy, but Hedy Lamarr is woefully miscast as Joan of Arc and a very over-the-top Dennis Hopper does nothing with the role of Napolean.
Overall, The Story of Mankind is a mess, but it was worth watching and I personally wouldn't put it on my worst movies ever list. 4/10 Bethany Cox
Mankind is on the verge of discovering the secret of the Super H-bomb
so a special tribunal meets in outer space to discuss what to do.
Arguing on behalf of mankind is the Spirit of Man (Ronald Colman).
Arguing that humanity must be destroyed is Mr. Scratch (Vincent Price).
They both use examples from history to make their cases.
Here are some of the historical reenactments. Cavemen discover fire in the middle of an attempted murder and rape. Cleopatra (Virginia Mayo) kills her brother and seduces Caesar and Marc Anthony (Helmut Dantine). Peter Lorre plays a drunken Nero laughing while Rome burns. The most embarrassing episode belongs to Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc. Her Joan wears bright red lipstick and a terrible wig. Her trial is presided over by Henry Daniell dressed as Santa Claus. Agnes Moorehead hams it up as Queen Elizabeth I, who receives military counsel from William Shakespeare! Groucho Marx plays Peter Minuit in a painfully unfunny comedy segment where he rips off Indians for Manhattan island. Marie Wilson is a bimbofied Marie Antoinette. 21 year-old Dennis Hopper is a soft-spoken Napoleon with 37 year-old Marie Windsor as his Josephine. Among the other stars we see in this are Cedric Hardwicke as the celestial tribunal's judge, John Carradine as Pharaoh Khufu, Charles Coburn as Hippocrates, Chico Marx as a monk offering advice to Columbus, Edward Everett Horton as Sir Walter Raleigh, Harpo Marx as Isaac Newton, and Don Ameche's younger brother Jim as Alexander Graham Bell.
Today Irwin Allen is best remembered for his contributions to television like Lost in Space or his '70s disaster flicks like The Poseidon Adventure. The Story of Mankind wasn't Allen's first film but it was his first notable one. This movie came about during the heyday of Atomic Scare movies. The decade was full of them, usually in a sci-fi setting. There were some great classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still made during this era rife with paranoia. This film has the reputation of being one of classic Hollywood's biggest stinkers. Personally, I like it! But part of why I like it is because it's so flawed. It's got an all-star cast, most of whom are laughably misused. The script is terrible with some of the corniest dialogue you'll ever hear and some truly cringeworthy speeches. The history is inaccurate and blends myth with fact. It's all filmed in lush Technicolor but on cheap sets with tons of stock footage. Still, I can't help but enjoy it. It's a movie that falls squarely into the "so bad it's good" camp for me. Taken seriously, it's ridiculous and offensive to your intelligence. Taken lightly it's quite a bit of cheesy fun.
It has the distinction of being both Ronald Colman's final film and the final film to feature the main three Marx Bros. together (although they bafflingly share no scenes). By the way, listening to the Devil's point of view, it struck me how that is the more likely view we'd see advocated today, not only in films but in real-life discourse as well. Kind of depressing. Worth seeing for a variety of film fans but especially for fans of Price and Colman, who have two of the most pleasant voices the movies ever knew.
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