The Story of Mankind
Irwin Allen for Cambridge Productions/Warner Brothers
directed by Irwin Allen
starring Vincent Price, Ronald Colman, Hedy Lamarr, the Marx Brothers (= Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx), Virginia Mayo, Agnes Moorehead, Peter Lorre, Charles Coburn, Cedric Hardwicke, Cesar Romero, John Carradine, Dennis Hopper, Marie Wilson, Helmut Dantine, Edward Everett Horton, Reginald Gardiner, Marie Windsor, George E. Stone, Cathy O'Donnell, Franklin Pangborn, Melville Cooper, Henry Daniell, Francis X.Bushman, Jim Ameche, David Bond, Nick Cravat, Dani Crayne, Richard H.Cuttig, Anthony Dexter, Toni Gerry, Austin Greene, Eden Hartford, Alexander Lockwood, Melinda Marx, Bart Mattson, Don Megowan, Marvin Miller, Nancy Miller, Leonard Mudie, Burt Nelson, Tudor Owen, Ziva Rodann, Harry Ruby, William Schallert, Reginald Sheffield, Abraham Sofaer, Bobby Watson, Angelo Rossitto
screenplay by Irwin Allen, Charles Bennett, based on the novel by Henrik Van Loon, music by Paul Sawtell
Moses, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Nero, Joan of Arc, Christopher Columbus, Shakespeare, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Hitler, Hitler (Bobby Watson), Marx Brothers
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Man has invented the super-H-bomb 50 years early and now wants to
launch it to destroy pretty much everything, so the case of humankind is
brought to the High Tribunal of Outer Space (lorded over by Cedric
Hardwicke). Mankind is defended by the Spirit of Mankind (Ronald Colman)
in court while the Devil himself (Vincent Price) pleads for mankind's
destruction. To state their case, both the Spirit and the Devil move
through history, chronicling the achievments and misdeeds of humankind,
which are often found side by side.
Like in the Stone Age, when the
concepts of good and evil developed, in Ancient Egypt, where evil pharaoh
Khufu (John Carradine) had the pyramid's built while Moses (Francis
X.Bushman) led his people to the promised land, in Ancient Greece, where
the Trojan war was fought and modern philosophy was developed. Next, it's
off to Ancient Rome and the stories of Caesar (Reginald Sheffield) and
Cleopatra (Virginia Mayo), Nero (Peter Lorre) and the dawn of Christianity
... which leads us directly to the Dark Ages, to Joan of Arc (Hedy Lamarr)
and ultimately to the rennaissance. Enter Christopher Columbus (Anthony
Dexter) - who's for some reason adviced by Chico Marx -, who directly
leads to the exploitation of the American natives, on to Queen
Elisabeth I of England (Agnes Moorehead) fighting Spain and supporting
Shakespeare (Reginald Gardiner). Then Peter Minuit (Groucho Marx) buys
Manhattan from the Indians and Isaac Newton (Harpo Marx) discovers gravity
while playing a harp. This ultimately leads to the American Revolution,
the French Revolution, Napoleon (Dennis Hopper), the American Civil War,
and both World Wars (with Bobby Watson playing Hitler one last time).
until now the trial could have gone either way, but when the Spirit of
Mankind presents his last two exhibits, a kid and a bible, he has won the
council over for his cause. But while man is left off the hook this time,
he is also given a stern warning for his own future.
Story of Mankind is frequently quoted as one of the worst films of all
time, which quite frankly it isn't. Sure, it's a film that's terribly
undecided whether it wants to be a comedy or a tragedy, a message movie or
light-footed entertainment, and it's representation of mankind's history
is as moronic as it's misleading. Also, the idea of casting the three Marx
Brothers in a film and not letting them do a single scene with each other
doesn't exactly spell genius.
But that said, one can't deny the film's
very likeable camp value, one can't deny the gusto Vincent Price puts in
his intentionally over-the-top performance, and the film's weird
interpretation of human history is nothing if not funny - unintentionally
so, I give you that, but funny nevertheless.
Basically, The Story of
Mankind is a movie not to be taken seriously, even if it was (partly)
meant that way. That doesn't make it a masterpiece, I give you that much,
but it's at least brainless entertainment - which is more than I can say
about a lot of films ...
review © by Mike Haberfelner
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