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July 29, 2005

Solomon and Sheba

King Vidor - 1959
MGM Japan Region 2 DVD

One of my favorite scenes in Frank Tashlin's Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958) is of Marilyn Maxwell as an actress starring in a Hollywood costume epic of ancient Egypt. Tashlin's best moments were usually loving bites of the Hollywood hand that fed him. In this case, the Maxwell and cast are singing the title song to the film she is making, The White Virgin of the Nile. Within the span of a few minutes, Tashlin had satirized the costume epics of the Fifties that followed success of The Ten Commandments.

I was reminded of Tashlin's spoof by a scene in Solomon and Sheba. Gina Lollobrigida, as Sheba, presides over a "pagan ceremony". Her cloak removed, she is wearing an outfit from Bellydancers 'R' Us. Moving her arms and hips like a hootchie kootchie dancer, she is joined by a cast of men and women who leap and shout in what looks like a parody of Cecil B. De Mille or is the worst Broadway musical number ever choreographed for film. The scene comes to a, ahem, climax, when Yul Brynner, as Solomon, and Lollobrigida, along with the other men and women, get to know each other (in the biblical sense).

Between Solomon and Sheba, and his previous film, War and Peace, King Vidor must have felt more like a general than a director. For the second time in a row he was dealing with what must have been extraordinary logistics, with literally hundreds of people on screen in several wide screen battles. Some of the shots of riders and chariots were similar to his work on Duel in the Sun. Compared to the older film, Yul Brynner and George Sanders are even less convincing as brothers than Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotton. As voluptuous as she is, Gina Lollobrigida is a less compelling love interest than Jennifer Jones. Having original lead Tyrone Power die before the completion of filming probably took its toll on Vidor. As it turned out, this was Vidor's last Hollywood film, although he made himself available to mentor some younger directors.

At 141 minutes, the film starts to feel overlong until the final battle. The Egyptian soldiers and charioteers are blinded by the sun reflected in the shields of Solomon's army. In their zeal to attack Solomon, the Egyptians cannot prevent themselves from going forward towards the canyon that separates them from Solomon's army. Hundreds of soldiers and horses are seen hurling into a literal valley of death. For a few minutes, one is reminded of what "spectacular" meant in the days before computer generated special effects.

Posted by peter at July 29, 2005 04:35 PM