Directed By: Irwin Allen
Starring: Ronald Colman, Hedy Lamarr, Vincent Price
Tag line: “The Story of Men and Their Women From the Beginning of Creation!”
Trivia: The Marx Brothers never appear together in this film
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Vincent Price as The Devil. Peter Lorre as Roman Emperor, Nero. Dennis Hopper as Napoleon Bonaparte. And, if that’s not enough to spark your interest, how about an appearance by all three Marx Brothers? With so many stars taking part in The Story of Mankind, I couldn’t possibly pass this movie by!
After receiving word that an earthling has developed the “Super H-Bomb”, a heavenly tribunal is convened to determine the fate of all mankind. Should humans be permitted to destroy themselves with such advanced weaponry, or should the heavens intercede, saving earth from total destruction? Speaking on behalf of us all is The Spirit of Mankind (Ronald Colman), who believes strongly in the virtues of humanity, while The Devil himself (Vincent Price), aka “Mr. Scratch”, argues man is a violent being, and has therefore earned its own extinction. Together, the two take a trip through earth’s long history, using examples ranging from Ancient Egypt to World War II to make their respective cases.
Any hopes that The Story of Mankind might reveal something substantial about the human condition are all but shattered in the film’s opening scene, where two stars, affixed in the heavens, are talking to one another. One star tells the other he’s heard mankind has developed the Super H-Bomb. “Impossible”, the second star replies, “You must be mistaken. Why, they’re not ready, or wise enough to handle it yet”. Yeah, I know…as subtle as an ax to the forehead, right? The film isn’t even historically accurate (Cleopatra didn’t poison her “innocent little brother” to gain the throne. The truth was much more complex, and her “little brother” was far from innocent). So, realizing early on The Story of Mankind fails as both a morality tale and a history lesson, I decided to instead focus on the performances delivered by its gargantuan cast. This is, after all, why I wanted to see it in the first place.
Vincent Price is predictably good as The Devil, and Ronald Colman brings life to The Spirit of Mankind; the fact these two are on-screen most of the movie is a definite plus. As for the rest of the cast, well…that’s where things fall apart. John Carradine does his best as Khufu, the Egyptian Pharaoh who, to achieve immortality, ordered the pyramids built, and Virginia Mayo makes for a bubbly, alluring Cleopatra, yet neither appears really comfortable in their role. Still, they fared better than others, including Peter Lorre, whose turn as Nero is bizarre, to say the least (depressed one minute, bursting out laughing the next). Hedy Lamarr was far too old to play a teenage Joan of Arc, and Agnes Moorehead, normally a solid actress, is so incredibly over-the-top as Elizabeth I that you get the feeling she didn’t even want to be there. Then we have the Marx Brothers. Harpo essentially plays himself, which would be fine if it weren’t for the fact he was supposed to be Sir Isaac Newton, and Groucho fires off a series of one-liners as Peter Minuit, the man who “bought” Manhattan from the Native Americans. As is the case with many of the other performers in The Story of Mankind, you can’t help but wonder as you watch these two comedy legends, “What were they thinking?”
You’ll be scratching your head throughout The Story of Mankind, and at times, your jaw will flat-out hit the floor. Take, for instance, the scene featuring the 3rd Marx Brother, Chico, who plays the father of Christopher Columbus (Anthony Dexter). After listening to Columbus’ plan to find an alternate shipping route to the East, Chico replies, in his stereotypical Italian accent, “You’ll sail right off the end of the earth (which he pronounces “oyth”) and into the dark abyss. Boom! No more ship”.
Seriously, I couldn’t make this shit up if I wanted to!