Silver Chalice, The (1954): Paul Newman Screen Debut in Stiff Historical Epic

Fresh off from the Broadway stage, Paul Newman made his feature screen debut at age 29 in The Silver Chalice, a film that was dismissed at the time as a preposterous flop.

Yet 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.

Reportedly, the “Silver Chalice” caused embarrassment to Newman himself, who claimed to have cringed whenever it shows on TV. To be sure, the narrative is dull, episodic, and overblown, containing many awkward moments that don’t flatter Newman, but the picture boasts an interesting visual look and production design.

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

A film version of Thomas B. Costain’s novel, “Silver Chalice” lacks the clarity and dramatic momentum of the literary source.  End result is a kitschy Christian yarn about Nero’s villainous machinations, and the court intrigues and power plays of early Christian figures, such as Peter, Luke, Linus and Ignatius, all staged in a ponderous style, despite the fact that they are played by competent character actors.

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 Amrican 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 quick brushes of 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.  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 and throughout the 1960s. You could 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 make him famous for the next three decades or so.

The film featured unusual semi-abstract settings and decor, created by the stage designer Rolfe Gerard in a striking departure from the standard of other  Hollywood biblical “epics.”

Oscar  Nominations: 1

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

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 small theater production of MGM’s 1950 blockbuster historical epic, “Quo Vadis,” with the latter’s stylized sets and without a good plot or even lions or other extras.