Saturday, March 19, 2016

Hill Number One (Jerry Fairbanks Productions, St. Paul Productions, Family Rosary Crusade, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I repaired to his place to watch the two-videotape set I’d just picked up at the Wherehouse, a tribute to James Dean consisting of the documentary The James Dean Story (the 1957 Warner Brothers production, co-directed by George W. George and Robert Altman — “Yes, that Robert Altman,” I hastened to assure Charles) and an ultra-obscure (and deservedly so) 1951 telefilm called Hill #1, produced for “The Family Network” by a Catholic organization, which turned out at the end (I kid you not!) to be a one-hour infomercial for rosary beads. This truly bizarre production was directed by Arthur Pierson (a name which sounds vaguely familiar, though at this time I can’t think of any of his other credits — probably that’s just as well) and begins in a war scene (either World War II or Korea, I couldn’t tell which, since it was obviously shot in the Hollywood hills anyway, though the dialogue did identify the battle as taking place somewhere near or around the Pacific Ocean), then suddenly flashes back to Jerusalem, A.D. 29, after the Crucifixion and before the Resurrection. The leap is explained by the fact that the soldiers in the opening scene are bitching that now that they’ve taken Hill 46 (just after they took Hill 39) they’re just going to be sent into battle to take Hill 51, and their chaplain (who is dressed in an identical uniform, except his helmet has a cross painted on it) is going to tell them the story of Hill Number One and how it was taken by one man. The scene then cuts to the palace of Pontius Pilate, well played by Leif Erickson in what is far and away the best acting job in this bizarrely inept film. The Jewish merchant Joseph of Arimathea is begging for the body of the recently crucified Christ, and a reluctant Pilate gives it to him. At this point I leaned over to Charles and said, “This film is on the edge of high camp, but at least it hasn’t gone over the line.”

A moment later it did, as Joseph and his friend Nicodemus did a secret visit to the spice lady (I’m not kidding) to get the anointing oils and spices to prepare Christ’s body for entombment. Joseph and Nicodemus showed us they were on a secret errand by pulling the flaps of their turbans across their heads (one would think that would only make them look more conspicuous, but that’s “B” filmmaking for you), and the actress who played the spice lady managed to underact so baldly she created no impression at all (except for a warning that worse was to come). Worse came when Mary, the Mother of God, came onto the screen; Pierson had undoubtedly instructed this poor actress to enact sorrow by hanging her head down in every scene and speaking all her lines in a drugged-out monotone, and she followed orders all too faithfully. As the film rolled on I got the impression that, apparently, Pierson had allowed the actors playing Romans to act with some amount of emotion (in fact, too much emotion — the writing of Pilate’s part in particular almost seemed to demand relentless overacting, and Erickson complied), but the actors playing Christ’s disciples were instructed to speak their lines in a “reverential” monotone and pose with all the animation of the wooden figures of the Christmas Nativity scenes in Balboa Park. Not only that, but Pierson had his camerapeople light and stage these scenes to resemble those horrible religious paintings that are found on church calendars and postcards, and while this look isn’t quite so bad in black-and-white as it is in color, it’s still pretty dreadful. Although the producers of this film were Catholic rather than Baptist, Charles concluded that what we were watching looked very much like what Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s religious movies would have looked like had his producers been able to finance them on the strength of the “profits” from Plan Nine from Outer Space. So where does James Dean fit into all of this? He plays the Apostle John (not John the Baptist, as the “Quality Video” box maintained) and gets all of about four lines of dialogue, hardly enough to judge his acting — though even when he’s silent he does get some of those long, burning close-ups that did become a trademark of his later acting style. — 6/21/96


Charles and I broke out the James Dean: The Television Legacy boxed set I ordered not long ago containing the bulk of Dean’s surviving work on 1950’s TV. We started at the beginning, with two one-minute commercials for Pepsi-Cola — which so emphasized the “bounce” you would supposedly get from drinking it I wondered if they were still sneaking in cocaine even after Coca-Cola had drawn back from it (and substituted caffeine, which is not a natural component of the coca plant, because it was the closest they could come to cocaine and still have something legal) — which featured Nick Adams and showed Dean lurking in the back. I couldn’t help but think of the exchange in the film Citizen Kane in which Bernstein (Everett Sloane) recalls of Kane (Orson Welles) that I was with him “before the beginning — and now it’s after the end.” Nick Adams was in Dean’s film career both in these “before the beginning” Pepsi commercials and “after the end,” when director George Stevens realized while he was editing Dean’s last film, Giant, that Dean’s recording of the final speech was unusable and, with Dean dead, called in Adams to dub it. Then we ran the peculiar 1951 filmed TV show (most of Dean’s TV work was live, but this one was shot on film and had at least somewhat better production values than usual) Hill Number One, produced by Jerry Fairbanks Productions along with a couple of outfits called “St. Paul Productions” and “Family Rosary Crusade” — reinforcing the impression Charles had of it when we first watched it together from a Madacy video two-pack in the 1990’s that it was “an infomercial for rosary beads.” The time we saw it before Charles and I thought it was pretty useless — Charles joked that though the inspiration for it was Catholic instead of Baptist, it was like what Ed Wood’s religious movies would have looked like if he’d got enough money from Plan Nine from Outer Space for him and his Baptist backers to finance them — but it came off a bit better this time. It begins with a modern-day sequence set during the Korean War that’s actually pretty good even though it’s War Movie 101: an artillery crew is shown (first via stock footage but then in new film showing the actors hired for it) shelling Hill Number 46 to try to support the infantry in taking it. The soldiers — including Roddy McDowall as “The Professor,” the intellectual in the company — are wondering what the point of all this is. They’re also waiting nearly an hour for a pot of coffee they’ve been promised, and when the coffee arrives it’s brought by a chaplain (Gordon Oliver) who’s readily distinguishable because his helmet has a small white cross painted on in front. The chaplain explains that it’s Easter Sunday and therefore it’s a good time for him to explain that the point of all this fighting was made by the man who 2,000 years earlier took Hill Number One — Calvary — and took it alone.

The film then flashes back to one of the less often dramatized parts of the Christ story, the three days between Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection (indeed, one reason I was showing this now was that Holy Week is coming up and it seemed like an appropriate time), and the uncertainty among Christ’s apostles and supporters in the Jewish community — including his mother Mary (Ruth Hussey), Joseph of Arimathea (Nelson Leigh), Mary Magdalene (Jeanne Cagney, James Cagney’s sister, wearing one of the tackiest blonde wigs of all time), and Nicodemus (Regis Toomey) — over what they’re going to do now that the “Master,” as they call him, is dead. Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pontius Pilate (Leif Erickson, who impressed me the first time I saw this but now seems to turn in one of the most horrendous overacting jobs of all time — still, he has star charisma of a sort which the rest of the ragbag of actors cast in this production don’t show) and begs permission to claim the body of Jesus and bury it in the tomb he’d already set aside for himself. Pilate agrees as long as the entry to the tomb is sealed with both a rope and a stone to make sure nobody steals Christ’s body and then claims that it was resurrected. For two days nothing much happens except that Pilate misses his wife Claudia (Joan Leslie — so this tacky TV production reunites two cast members from the great 1942 musical Yankee Doodle Dandy, Joan Leslie and Jeanne Cagney); Cassius Longinus (Henry Brandon) says that he stuck Christ with a spear while he was hanging on the cross (I thought the Gospels had this happen while Christ was actually walking through the streets of Jerusalem before he was put up on the cross) and the mixture of blood and water that came out of the wound splashed into his eyes and cured them of the twitch and partial blindness that had afflicted them all his life (though if he was partially blind how did he get into the Roman army in the first place?); and both he and the Centurion (Frank Wilcox, playing a role John Wayne would later play in The Greatest Story Ever Told) thus became convinced Jesus was indeed the Son of God, as he claimed. (I believe the actual Biblical texts are a bit more ambiguous as to whether Jesus himself ever said he was the son of God.)

Then the news comes that Christ has indeed exited the tomb — the rope is untied and the stone rolled away — of course on the production budget available to Jerry Fairbanks and his director, Arthur Pierson (who has three feature-film credits on and quite a lot of TV work) all they could do is show us the tomb with the rope untied and the stone rolled away, and I found myself wishing they could have licensed the footage of the actual Resurrection from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent The King of Kings — unless the cost to use it would have been through the roof, it would have been a good idea to go after it rather than this lame cop-out that simply showing us the tomb after Christ’s exit without depicting that actually happening. Arthur Pierson directed two films with Marilyn Monroe — Dangerous Years (1947), in which she had a bit part (it wasn’t the first movie she made but it was the first in which her footage survived to the final cut), and Home Town Story (1951), a peculiar political movie which begins as Frank Capra and ends as Ayn Rand (the story looks at first like it’s going to be about a corrupt businessman who’s polluting the local environment and is responsible for an industrial accident in which a child is trapped; later the film takes a hard Right turn and the businessman turns out to be the good guy) — and also helmed the odd 1949 TV version of A Christmas Carol (retitled The Christmas Carol) narrated by Vincent Price (though he made a bad mistake in having Price merely tell the story instead of playing Scrooge, at which he would have been better than the actual actor in the role, Taylor Holmes). But this is the first Pierson production I’ve seen in which he directed but didn’t write — the writer is uncredited but lists James D. Roche — and the writing sometimes comes close to the reverent power Pierson, Roche and their producers were obviously hoping for, but most of it is the usual religious treacle. Also, virtually everyone in the cast overacts — though Ruth Hussey, perhaps overcome by the obvious challenge of playing the Mother of God, underacts so extremely she comes off as a zombie (the White Zombie/I Walked with a Zombie type of drugged-out living corpse rather than the Night of the Living Dead type of mindless brain-eater), and James Dean, virtually alone of the cast members in the Biblical part of the story, tries to deliver a performance that’s actually credible as a normal human being.

He’s playing the Apostle John (not John the Baptist, as the Madacy video box had it — of course, as Charles pointed out when we first saw this, John the Baptist had been dead quite a while before the events in Hill Number One happen!) and he’s only in two scenes, one in which both the Jews and the Romans are lurking around the tomb and a later one in which the surviving apostles and Jesus’s backers meet to discuss what they’re going to do next. (Perhaps the most convincing thing about Hill Number One is how well Pierson and Roche dramatized the confusion any tight-knit group of activists goes through when their founder and most charismatic figure gets killed — no doubt this is also what the Mormons went through after Joseph Smith was lynched and what al-Qaeda went through when Osama bin Laden was shot down by U.S. SEAL’s.) Dean only has about four or five lines in the show, but he speaks them in a crisp, clear tone of voice — the Brandoesque mumbling was to come later — while he already had the sullen stare down pat. He’s also the only actor playing a Jewish male who doesn’t have to wear a full and outrageously false-looking beard. During the show I joked at one point, “Cue the dumb stock music,” but in fact Hill Number One had an original score — albeit by Charles Koff, not exactly one of the major names in film scoring then or now — and, at least partly because it was shot on film (albeit on some pretty familiar locations — the site of the tomb had previously featured in so many Republic Westerns one expected to see cowboys and/or Indians ride by), it had far superior production values than most early-1950’s TV, but it’s still a pretty silly religious program and it’s weighted down by the risible closing sequence in which Father Patrick Peyton, who may have been a real priest but was also the “type” Central Casting would have sent if the producers had called and said, “Send up an Irish-American priest,” delivers the rosary-bead pitch and defines “meditation” as the act of praying while fingering the beads. That definition sits rather ill these days when even the least-informed Americans generally associate the term “meditation” with a quite different spiritual tradition from Catholicism or, indeed, any form of Christianity or Western religion generally. — 3/19/16