Posted in: DVD, Essays, Technology

“The Robe” introduced a new Scope

"The Robe" restored for Blu-ray
"The Robe" restored for Blu-ray

Whatever you think of the biblical blockbuster, The Robe, there’s no question that its phenomenal popularity marked a turning point in movie history.

Twentieth Century-Fox, which previously treated it rather shabbily on DVD, tape and laser disc, is finally recognizing its significance with a Blu-ray Special Edition that’s loaded with extra features. Among them: a featurette about the history of CinemaScope, a discussion of the script’s political implications, and an enthusiastic introduction by Martin Scorsese, who vividly remembers the impact it had at the time.

Just weeks after The Robe’s much-ballyhooed debut as the first Scope release in the fall of 1953, the movie was challenging Gone With the Wind by setting new box-office records, and theater managers were widening their screens and beefing up their sound systems.

Before the year was over, Scope had won the battle over screen shape and size, and even movies designed to be “square,” like Shane, were stretched and distorted to suggest a panoramic effect. A few major-studio films, including the Judy Garland remake of A Star Is Born, were partially reshot to take advantage of the new process.

The Robe led the way in replacing small screens and transforming monophonic sound systems. Although some critics suggested that wide screens were suitable only for photographing snakes and funerals, and Charlie Chaplin and Frank Tashlin made fun of Scope in their late-1950s films, the system eventually had an artistic impact. Hollywood’s famous 1950s spectacles and musicals were affected, and so were such meticulously designed wide-screen classics as La Dolce Vita, The Innocents, Jules and Jim and most of Robert Altman’s movies.

But it wasn’t a first. Abel Gance had experimented with a Cinerama-like sequence in 1927’s Napoleon, and Raoul Walsh used an early 70mm process called “Grandeur” when he cast John Wayne in 1930’s The Big Trail. Disney had made imaginative use of stereo in 1940’s Fantasia. Box-office disappointments all, they failed to capture the public’s interest.

The Scope of "The Robe"
The Scope of "The Robe"

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why The Robe accomplished what previous wide-screen/stereo experiments had not. It was based on a Lloyd C. Douglas novel so popular that it had lodged at the top of The New York Times’ best-seller list for an unprecedented three years in a row (1943-1945). Unlike the first 3-D and Cinerama releases, the movie wasn’t a stunt.

It was a Grade-A attraction, lavishly produced and starring two young Oscar nominees in the leading roles. Richard Burton (nominated for My Cousin Rachel) was cast as Marcellus, the Roman tribune who is just following orders when he crucifies Jesus. Jean Simmons (nominated for Ophelia in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet) played Diana, Marcellus’ childhood sweetheart, who tries to understand his sudden fascination with Christianity.

Simmons’ spirited performance adds a subversive complication to a movie that is sometimes regarded as religious propaganda. When Marcellus tries to convert her to a religion based on justice and charity, she resists, claiming “the world isn’t like that. It never has been and never will be.” Sounding downright pagan, she declares “I’d marry you if I had to share you with a thousand gods.” When she chooses to join Marcellus in martyrdom, she does so primarily because she’d rather share death with her husband than life with the mad Caligula.

Burton’s performance is more problematical, though it’s possible that Marcellus may be unplayable (Gregory Peck, Tyrone Power and Spencer Tracy were up for the role at various points in its long production history). A boozing cynic who can’t keep track of the women he’s wronged, Marcellus goes through a guilt-ridden conversion following the Crucifixion. Trouble is, he threatens to become as insufferable as a dry drunk who’s suddenly found religion. His grasping attempt to persuade Caligula to follow Jesus’ teachings is the film’s most risible moment.

Jay Robinson’s flamboyant Caligula gives this sometimes static picture exactly what it needs: a villain to remember. Only 22 when he was cast, Robinson claimed that after the film came out, “there were Caligula fan clubs around the country, kids cut their hair like Caligula, and I got thousands of fan letters each week.”

Alfred Newman, who had a knack for composing the music for religious pictures (The Song of Bernadette), came up with one of his strongest scores, including an especially gorgeous melody for Diana. It was a minor scandal at the time when Newman failed to win an Academy Award nomination for his score, even though The Robe earned nominations for best picture and actor (Burton).

Richard Burton surveys the marketplace
Richard Burton surveys the marketplace

It also won Oscars for costumes and art direction and a nomination for Leon Shamroy’s pioneering cinematography, which impresses most in the expansive opening marketplace sequence. The director, Henry Koster (The Bishop’s Wife), may not dazzle with his imagery (the finale is especially stagebound), but the movie is more alive to wide-screen possibilities – and the sense that it’s An Event – than most early Scope releases.

With all this going for it, Twentieth Century-Fox nevertheless hedged its bets by filming The Robe twice: once in Scope, and once in the old “flat” or “square” ratio. If Scope had lost the gamble, the studio had a backup plan. Among the special features on the new DVD is “The Robe Times Two: A Comparison of Widescreen and Standard Versions,” which shows how each scene was restaged.

The film itself underwent one major change in recent years. Originally the credits claimed that the screenplay was by Philip Dunne, but in 1997 the Writers Guild decided to give the top writing credit to Albert Maltz, a blacklisted writer who had previously done uncredited work on Broken Arrow and Casablanca. Could some of Caligula’s rabble-rousing have been inspired by HUAC’s tactics?

Koster was Jewish and fled a promising directing career in Germany to set up shop in Hollywood in 1936. If there’s a hint of Hitler in Robinson’s Caligula, that may be entirely intentional. (The new disc includes a 1969 audio interview with Dunne and video interviews with the offspring of Koster and Dunne. Maltz died in 1985.)

Robinson and Victor Mature, who played Marcellus’ slave, Demetrius, returned in Delmer Daves’ action-oriented 1954 sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators, that was much less popular than The Robe, though some argue that it’s the better sword-and-sandal epic. In the late 1950s, The Robe and Demetrius were successfully reissued as a double bill.

When The Robe made its network television debut on Easter Sunday in 1967, with only one commercial break, it once more drew a huge audience. It became an Easter-season television tradition for many years, though it was eventually eclipsed in that role by another biblical box-office phenomenon: The Ten Commandments.

[The Robe debuts on DVD and Blu-ray from Fox Home Video on Tuesday, March 17, 2009]

© 2009 John Hartl

Victor Mature
Victor Mature