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Noah’s Ark (Movie 1929): Piety + Spectacle Mix

George O’Brien Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams Paul McAllister Noah’s Ark
Noah’s Ark with George O’Brien, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, and Paul McAllister.
Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Of all the films from that magical moment when silent movies merged into sound, nothing is as effective as Michael Curtiz’s Noah’s Ark: it has a romantic story, splashy scenes, and plenty of disasters. Add to that some Biblical babble and you have what can be best described as an “epic.”

In Noah’s Ark, two American chums bumming around Europe on the eve of WWI get personally involved in the drama when their country enters the conflict. Travis, played by handsome male lead George O’Brien, and his best friend, Al (Gwynn Williams), meet the German national Marie (Dolores Costello), an entertainer in a traveling show onboard the Orient Express. Also on the train we see a “holy man” our heroes protect from godless thugs who won’t let him have a seat. Right away we know who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys.”

The first disaster comes when a bridge washes out and the train wrecks. The guys manage to rescue Marie from near death, and romance blossoms between Marie and Travis. Also in hot pursuit of Marie is a Russian official, Nickoloff (Noah Beery), who tries unsuccessfully to woo the lady. When she rejects his advances, he vows to frame her and turn her in to the allies as a spy. When Travis follows Al into combat, he leaves Marie behind to continue her stage act.

My favorite moment comes during a battle scene when Travis and Al meet up in a foxhole. When Al is killed in an enemy attack, Travis weeps and holds his lifeless body in his arms, resulting in a poignant and rather homoerotic tableau.

Meanwhile Marie is caught by Nickoloff and forced into prison for being an enemy spy. She is brought before a firing squad, but is discovered by her husband just as the volleys are about to ring out. When he races to her aid, there is an enemy shelling and everyone is trapped underground! And that’s only the first section of the story.

The parallel story kicks in when the “holy man” begins to preach from the rubble. He compares the war atrocities to the Biblical story of the flood. But instead of drowning in water, all humanity is being drowned in blood. That signals the story of Noah’s Ark. This is when Genesis becomes the victim of poetic license, as the screenwriters merge that fable with the tale of Samson.

Nevertheless, we still see a world full of sin and evil. The people of Akkad worship another god instead of Yahweh, so the trouble begins. Noah, played by the modern-day “holy man” Paul McAllister, has three sons who are coincidentally played by George O’Brien as Japheth, Gwynn Williams as Ham, and Malcolm Waite (who also has a role in the modern story) as Shem. Additionally, we meet the lovely, virginal, white slave girl Miriam – played by Dolores Costello – who is to be sacrificed to the pagan god by the evil King Nephiliu, played by (you guessed it) Noah Beery. The story has come full circle.

As most people already know, the god Yahweh instructs Noah to build an impossibly large boat to house his family and a set-pair of every animal on Earth to protect them from the flood which is to come. But Japheth is imprisoned for trying to save Miriam. He is blinded and condemned to turn a mill wheel until he drops dead.

Then the rains come and things really begin to get exciting again. Water, water everywhere. It comes not only from the skies, but also from the fancy pumps placed strategically underground by the Noah’s Ark set designers and visual-effects personnel.

Now, this is the stuff that film history is made of. Common Hollywood lore describes how some movie extras were actually drowned during the making of this scene. How realistic is that? Here is where Curtiz competes with Cecil B. DeMille for spectacle and scale. Bodies are seen washing away and drowning in the deluge. Japheth raises his blind eyes up to his god and his sight is restored so he can save Miriam from the brutality of the pagans.

But what saves the audience from the brutality of the hard theater seats is the pacing. Curtiz and producer Darryl F. Zanuck had a good instinct for moving this drama along so it does not stagnate at its 100-minute running time; they’re ably assisted by the nimble fingers of editor Harold McCord. As a result, the action is well presented, without ever bogging down with too much detail. I should add that the story, originally by God, was developed by Zanuck and adapted by Anthony Coldeway.

The happy ending (for Noah’s family, that is) could have been made better with just a touch of Technicolor to cement the appearance of the rainbow that sealed God’s promise not to destroy the Earth by water anymore. Good news for those of us who can’t swim.

© Danny Fortune

Noah’s Ark (1928). Director: Michael Curtiz. Screenplay: Anthony Coldeway; from Darryl F. Zanuck’s original story. Cast: George O’Brien, Dolores Costello, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, Noah Beery, Louise Fazenda, Malcolm Waite, Paul McAllister.

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