Levy’s Anatomy: The Silver Chalice (1954): Paul Newman’s Screen Debut in Historical Epic–Could Critics Be Wrong in Initial Response?

Reevaluating and Elevating an Unfairly Dismissed and Panned Epic–Giving Movies Second Chance

Fresh off from the Broadway stage, Paul Newman made his feature screen debut at the age 29 in The Silver Chalice, an historical film that was totally dismissed–rather unfairly–at the time as a critical flop.

The Silver Chalice
Silver Chalice poster.jpg

Film poster

However, seen from today’s perspective, the movie deserves a second look, even if it only gives a brief glimpse into the forceful, confident, charismatic mega-star performer that Newman would become in a few years.

Reportedly, The Silver Chalice even caused embarrassment to Newman himself, who claimed to have cringed whenever the movie played on TV. (Actors also could be “wrong” in assessing their work).

To be sure, the narrative is rather stiff, episodic, and overblown. And it contains too many awkward moments, which don’t flatter Newman as an accomplished actor and handsome star.

But, at the very least, the picture boasts an interesting visual look and production design and a fantastic Oscar-nominated score.

Our Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

The actors are staged in a ponderous, uninvolving mode, despite the fact that they are played by competent character actors.

The supporting cast includes: Virginia Mayo (who gets top billing!) as Helena, Pier Angeli as Deborra, Jack Palance as Simon Magus the villain, Joseph Wiseman as Mijamin, Alexander Scourby as Saint Luke, Walter Hampden as Joseph of Arimathea, Lorne Greene as Peter

There’s also a brief appearance by Natalie Wood, who plays Helena as young woman, just one year before she made the iconic, Rebel Without a Cause.

The screen version of Thomas B. Costain’s well-received novel, titled “Silver Chalice,” lacks the clarity and dramatic momentum of its original literary source.

Overall, it is a kitschy Christian yarn about Nero’s villainous machinations, the court intrigues, and power plays of early Christian figures, such as Peter, Luke, Linus and Ignatius.

Constantly shifting panoramas and vistas, which are the best element of the picture, the plot centers on a young Greek Sculptor named Basil (Newman), who is sold into slavery through the machinations of a conniving uncle who wants the boy’s inheritance.

Arriving in Rome, Basil is subjected to deprivations until he wins recognition for his bravery and talent.

Basil is later courting two vastly different women, the shy, loving, and self-effacing Deborra (Italian born Pier Angeli) and the more flamboyant, enticing, and voluptuous Helena (the very American Virginia Mayo, who seems out of place), who had known him in childhood.

Later on, in Jerusalem, Basil becomes involved with Christian leaders and is eventually commissioned to create a reliquary, a receptacle for the chalice from which Christ allegedly drank at the Last Supper.

In the quick brushes of the ensuing plot, Basil runs afoul of various pagan villains, forced into exhibitions of swordplay, then captured and escapes, and eventually wins freedom and happiness

Newman’s embarrassment with the film might be understandable for a young and ambitious plyer, associated with the Actors Studio.

Not All Critics Were Dismissive

However, it should be noted that several critics of the time were kind and hospitable to the fledgling talent.

Though misdirected to act in a stiff, wooden style, there are clear indications of the charming Newman to come in the late 1950s (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

You could easily spot the vibrant physique, the fabulous blue and alert eyes, and the hypnotic gleam that the later Newman would become known for. Even detractors of the film would have to acknowledge his naturally virile magnetism, his onscreen charisma, which would benefit his stature for the next four decades.

The film featured remarkable semi-abstract settings and decors created by the stage designer Rolfe Gerard, boasting a striking style that departs from the standards of other Hollywood biblical “sand and sandals” epics.

The original, multi-layered dramatic score by Franz Waxman deservedly earned an Oscar nomination.

 

Oscar  Nominations: 1

Franz Waxman’s musical score was nominated for an Oscar Award, but it did not win.

Negative Reviews (Sample):

One of the nastiest critics, John McCarten, famously wrote in the New Yorker: “As the Greek sculptor, Paul Newman, a lad who resembles Marlon Brando, delivers his lines with the emotional fervor of a Putnam Division conductor announcing local stops.”

The critic Otis Guernsey observed in the New York Herald Tribune, that the movie was a limited epic about early Christians, Palestinians rebels, and Nero, in a mammoth-sized continuity running over two hours long.

Still other reviewers thought that the Silver Chalice looked like a smallish theater production of MGM’s 1950 blockbuster historical epic, “Quo Vadis,” lacking the latter’s more interesting plot and better defined characters.

Cast:

Virginia Mayo as Helena
Pier Angeli as Deborra
Jack Palance as Simon
Paul Newman as Basil
Walter Hampden as Joseph of Arimathea
Joseph Wiseman as Mijamin
Alexander Scourby as Luke
Lorne Greene as Peter
David J. Stewart as Adam
Herbert Rudley as Linus
Jacques Aubuchon as Nero
E. G. Marshall as Ignatius
Michael Pate as Aaron
Natalie Wood as a young Helena
Booth Colman as Hiram
Terence De Marney as Sosthene
Robert Middleton as Idbash
Ian Wolfe as Theron
Lawrence Dobkin as Ephraim
Philip Tonge as Ohad
Albert Dekker as Kester
Strother Martin as Father

Credits:

Directed by Victor Saville
Screenplay by Lesser Samuels, based on The Silver Chalice novel by Thomas B. Costain
Produced by Victor Saville
Cinematography William V. Skall
Edited by George White
Music by Franz Waxman
Distributed by Warner Bros.

Release date: December 20, 1954

Running time: 135 minutes

Budget $4.5 million (US)
Box office $3.2 million (US)