One of the mystical, personal treasures of loving film is the cyclical timing of the appearances and reappearances of movies. It can take many forms: a feel-good favorite from your early years can show up on cable; a movie you saw in an empty theater 20 years ago –one that everyone else avoided — can suddenly be hailed as an undiscovered masterpiece when you open the NYT; you’re stuck at a Holiday Inn in Podunk for the night and suddenly on comes that movie you’ve been meaning to catch someday.
Well, THE PRODIGAL is neither a favorite, nor a masterpiece nor a film I’ve been meaning to catch. But it is one of my earliest movie-watching memories, as seen from inside a tank-like, mid-fifties Ford at an Atlanta drive-in. I was somewhere around two years old, so all this Metrocolor pageantry and Biblical spectacle registered as vague, swirling information in my consciousness, so that in later years my efforts to recall the film made it seem like a sprawling, breathing Turner canvas of a burning Las Vegas casino.
Which, in fact, it does kinda-sorta resemble…
But instead of painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, this movie is about a different Turner: the mondo cine-celeb Lana.
Very few films say more about sea-changes in the Hollywood Studio System during the 1950s than the collage of ideas, backstory narratives and production technologies enlisted in the creation of THE PRODIGAL. First, this was yet another Biblical costume picture from that era, a product which flowed like communion wine from a washerless spigot once the Southern California culture industry realized the American public was eating up the spectacle of humility and self-sacrifice when portrayed by rich, self-absorbed movie stars. Secondly, the film forebode Lana’s involuntary adieu to her parent studio, M-G-M, after being one of its top moneymakers for a decade. (She made one more Metro film before its top brass labeled her as detritus when they seriously cleaned house.) Thirdly, this was a widescreen effort in “Metrocolor,” one of the many names given Kodak’s cheaper and brassier (and less stable) replacement for the previous industry standard in color film, Technicolor.
Based on an original story by Jesus with additional help from the guy who wrote CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THE PRODIGAL is the hoary tale of the Prodigal Son, who upon leaving his family (in this resurrection) promptly succumbs to Beaver Fever when barely out the front gate. The gal who puts the key in his ignition is Astarte’s high priestess, Samarra (Lana Turner, looking luminous and carnal as always). Samarra — like Turner herself — hypnotizes the masses with stunning beauty and presence during grandiosely choreographed rituals. The attraction by Micah (Edmond Purdom), the prodigal, is returned by Samarra, resulting in a chain of off-screen trysts with kinda-sexy onscreen dénouements. Yet the most enjoyable scene is pure Hollywood camp, when Samarra demos how to apply eye makeup to a preteen pagan-priestess-in-training. But despite her crafted celluloid enshrinement, Lana gets snuffed in the last reel of this one (along with the proto-avuncular Louis Calhern as her pagan sidekick) in a rather nasty way: an angry, monotheistic mob throws stones at her while praying at her altar, causing Lana to fall into a pool of flaming oil.
Fine way to treat a diva, whether from a religious cult or a 20th century artform.
Yet this horrific image of Lana’s death says a lot about major studio schizophrenia and hysteria circa 1955. When television cut off the legs of Hollywood while in full stride, M-G-M panicked. The ultimate, most hallucinatory, turbo-ebullient pack of filmmakers from the Dream Factory era reacted the most irrationally, beginning by throwing careers and ideologies (e.g., their decision to film no more musicals) overboard in an hysterical reaction to their sinking popularity after decades of entrenched success. The peak of this insanity occurred with the thrill-killing of the studio’s ultimate and absolute emblem of their noble and virtuous cine-world, the stalwart heroine Mrs. Miniver, in 1950’s THE MINIVER STORY. So the visual of seeing Lana attacked and thrown off her pedestal into a fiery abyss could also be an emblem for the general freefall of ‘fifties Hollywood.
Biblical stories such as THE PRODIGAL that came out of Hollywood had a lengthy tenure, lasting from Harry Truman’s second term through the Hippie Era. However the brains behind these opuses weren’t usually sincere nor academic in their construction of these works. Here’s a true story as related by Associated Press’ Bob Thomas: when Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures, had a meeting with his brother, who managed the front office in New York, Harry’s brother said Columbia should follow the trend and make religious pictures. “Religion??!?” Harry snapped back. “What do you know about religion?! I bet you can’t even recite the Lord’s Prayer!” Being gambling men both brothers made a wager. “OK, smart guy, let’s hear the Lord’s Prayer.” Harry’s brother started reciting, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” “That’s enough,” Harry said, sliding the money towards his brother, “I didn’t think you knew it.”
Being a major release from the most ‘major’ of major studios, THE PRODIGAL has some hefty pedigrees such as Bronislau Kaper’s music and Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography. But, as is usual in movies, the most subtly impressive technical work is the rigorous color-coordination by the art directors. It’s amazing that the colors sing the way they do since this was produced in the monopack color film that Kodak released to undercut the laborious and expensive Technicolor process, which was eagerly adopted by the studios who gave the filmstock a proprietary name (e.g., Warnercolor, Metrocolor, etc.).
In addition to the cinematographer and scorer, another surefooted veteran sat in THE PRODIGAL‘s director chair: Richard Thorpe, who begat some of M-G-M’s most pleasurable of guilty pleasures, such as various TARZAN movies with Johnny Weismuller, Esther Williams splash-a-thons, the campy Hedy Lamarr vehicle WHITE CARGO, and the remarkable, unsung JOE SMITH, AMERICAN. (And speaking of involuntary adieus, Thorpe also directed Crawford’s final film as an M-G-M contract star.) Yet, again testifying to the ideological mishmash of 1950s Hollywood, the next year after filming THE PRODIGAL Thorpe was handed the assignment of lensing JAILHOUSE ROCK.
Trust M-G-M to hire a guy over sixty to direct a rock ‘n’ roll mashup.