Noah’s Ark (1928)

Screencap from Noah's Ark

Noah’s Ark was Michael Curtiz’s first big Hollywood film, and it certainly is epic. Modeled on Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) and DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923), it parallels a modern story of love and war with a spectacular biblical myth. This is a grand statement film that compares the Old Testament deluge to the flood of blood in World War I. What keeps the grand from becoming grandiose is the appealing melodrama of two lovers from opposite sides of the war (an American man played by hunky George O’Brien and a German woman played by the gorgeous Dolores Costello) who are torn apart in the great conflagration. Curtiz gives us large scale spectacle up the grand wazoo, but he is equally deft with the human scale story. Just as touching as the tale of two lovers is the depiction of ┬áTravis’ love for his best friend, Al, which leads to male weepie moments of the highest order.

Screencap from Noah's Ark

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The film is mostly silent but is notable for having a few sound segments. They don’t really seem to add much, but Warners was the earliest adopter of sound technology, so no doubt they felt they needed to showcase it in their big productions. As was fairly common in 1928, there’s a pre-recorded soundtrack for the whole film, even the parts without dialogue. The music, which combines original compositions with bits from classical composers, is very effective. I’ve wondered before whether it was possible to synch these Vitagraph recordings with action on screen, and it’s done here with sound effects and even a song sung by Louise Fazenda’s tavern maid character.

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The other thing this film seems to be famous for is the flood sequence in the climax, which is a truly impressive piece of special effects work. I see the claim made in several places (including Wikipedia) that three people drowned in the making of this scene, but TCM’s page about the film says these rumors have never been confirmed. Nobody denies that Dolores Costello caught pneumonia from spending so much time in the water in her very fetching virgin sacrifice outfit. (The whole cast plays roles in both parallel stories.) Curtiz compensated her somewhat by giving her many glamorous closeups throughout the film.

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I’ve said before that 1928 was one of the greatest years in Hollywood, and one of the things that always strikes me about productions from this era is how efficient the story-telling is. Noah’s Ark opens with biblical scenes depicting the Tower of Babel and the Golden Calf and then uses montage to transition to scenes from Wall Street — particularly striking on the eve of the stock market crash of 1929. From there the story is off like a rocket, tossing us onto the Orient Express in 1914, hurtling across a Europe on the verge of war. Curtiz sets up the main characters and an anxious, conflicted mood, and then throws the train off a bridge. In fact, it’s only when the first talkie sequence arrives that the action slows down, but even in the depiction of the swoony romance there is always an underlying sense of tension and conflict. It’s a full-blown classical Hollywood construction of romance, melodrama, action, humor, message, and spectacle that constantly shifts moods with dynamic energy and effectiveness.

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As striking as the film’s equation of the Flood with WWI’s ocean of spilled blood undoubtedly is, as a message movie Noah’s Ark suffers from the fact that WWI was not, in fact, the War to End All Wars. Not only does the early montage of Wall Street excess seem to herald the stock market collapse of 1929, but the earnest concluding plea for eternal peace can’t help but remind us that an even greater global bloodbath was only ten years in the offing. “Those ten million men have not died in vain,” says the preacher, which ironically, with historical hindsight, only makes it seem that they have. Maybe they should have gone with the virgin sacrifice after all?

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