King of Kings (1927) - A Restoration and a Review

Grace Cathedral

A bit of backstory for me regarding King of Kings, I grew up seeing it on television over Easter weekend on one of the Bay Area's local stations, KTVU, year after year in my youth.  I regard this as my first silent film.  It has long been a favorite of mine regardless of how many decades it has been since I last sat down and watched it.  This March 24th screening was my first time seeing the film on a screen larger than a 27 inch television. 


The film was presented in the Nob Hill landmark Episcopalian Grace Cathedral on Palm Sunday eve, it was truly a night to remember.  David Briggs played the 7,466 pipe Aeolian-Skinner organ in the cathedral and filled the space with a huge sound.  The restoration of the film was quite simply, fabulous.  I am at a loss for words to describe it, it was just gorgeous.

I am not sure if the screening was sold out.  I was sitting in the midsection of the pews.  Plenty of seating behind and the crowd looked good.  The atmosphere beforehand was not exactly reverant since we all were in point of fact, in church.  Lively discussions were happening until it came time for the introductions. Then the audience fell silent.  Anita Monga made some initial comments and then introduced Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films. Bromberg, ever the entertainer with his charming big personality, told the story of how Lobster came to acquire the rights for King of Kings.   He shared a touching story of screening the film, not the print we were about to see, with his wife Violene (who shockingly not a silent film fan).  Neither of them were much on the religious film no matter David Shepard's urging, then they sat and watched it without a break and were mesmerized.  They bought the rights.  Tragically for Serge, his close friend and colleague David Shepard passed away in January 2017, and his own wife passed a few months later.  The restored film is dedicated to them both, and it could not have been a more apt and beautiful tribute.

The film opens with some very self-important title cards to let you know you are about to see a Very Important Picture.  The first reel is in Two-Color Technicolor and the restoration on the Technicolor is so bright and fresh.  If it truly looked like this in 1927, people must have been utterly amazed, as was I. 
This being De Mille, there is a tiny bit of camp in the first reel (see title card below).  We are in Mary Magdalene's palace, she is surrounded by various adoring clientele, of course one of the elder Romans is the most debauched (and fey adjusting his curls).  Sojin has a small bit as the Prince of Persia. 

Sojin Kamiyama as a Prince of Persia

Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdalene is pouting and put out that Judas Iscariot has not been to visit her in days.  One she worms his location out of one of the men and bets are placed, she roars out orders to be made up and dressed in her most alluring manner to not only get Judas, but to score a conquest of the carpenter.  This all leads up to one of my most favorite title cards in all of silent film.



From this point forward, the campiness ends and the story covers the last days in the life of Christ in simple and straightforward fashion.  Jeannie MacPherson's scenario relies more on quotes from the New Testament to tell the story. 

Christ is portrayed by a sober H.B.Warner.  Warner at the time he played in the film was 51, rather than the younger man of 33.  His figure is often framed by a halo effect by virtue of backlighting from cameraman J. Peverell Marley.  Marley got his start working on De Mille's 1923 epic The Ten Commandments and worked with De Mille for the rest of his career as well as a long stint for 20th Century Fox.

H.B. Warner

De Mille's reputation as a filmmaker is one of producing big epic films. De Mille is caricatured as stalking about in his breeches and boots commanding hoards of extras and browbeating his stars to recite ridiculous dialogue.  To the boots and breeches, when De Mille arrived in California in 1914, the knee high boots were a good thing and quite probably a very good preventative measure with rattlesnakes in the wild foothills.  After a fashion, I am sure it became habit.  He was, after all, a very theatrical man. 

De Mille's most famous sword and sandal films have their share of pure camp and can also be more than a little preachy.  That's half the fun of his later films, just sit back and enjoy. Anne Baxter is the very best thing in the 1956 The Ten Commandments, except Yul Brynner's pectorals (hubba hubba).

People forget, or they do not know, De Mille was a very skilled director in the silent era.  He made some really crackerjack movies before 1920.  His society comedies like The Affairs of Anatol, Don't Change Your Husband or Why Change Your Wife? are great fun, completely entertaining, of their period and not high art.  De Mille's earlier work like The Golden Chance will show you, just was a terrific director he could be. 

Back to the preachy, you would think that doing the story of Christ on film would be the ultimate in preachy proselytizing.  General Lew Wallace's novel Ben-Hur certainly was (as were both the 1926 silent and the deadly dull 1959 sound remake by MGM). 

De Mille certainly used the flashback in many of his silent films to go back to ancient times and share just how much fun sin could be, before the modern reformation.  This is where De Mille fools you, King of Kings is epic in scale, but ever so simply told. 

Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdelene
This is a 1920's film, no courtesan in ancient Israel ever looked like Jaqueline Logan.  There is a requirement of the need for a little suspension of disbelief.  Nobody in the ancient world looked like any of these people.  But you know, that's okay.   

For a film that is such an epic story, De Mille works in small scenes.  It is a Cliff Notes of the last days in the life of Christ.  The simplicity itself is moving.  Where the film thunders to life is Christ in the temple.  H.B. Warner spends most of the film being vaguely saintly, touches of humor, until he rages in the temple. 

 
H.B. Warner, stoic and quiet as Jesus

Christ fighting temptation of Satan
 Joseph Schildkraut as Judas Iscariot is very pretty in the beginning, as he descends to become the betrayer and then wears his grief he does chew quite a bit of scenery.  It's marvelous!  Rudolph Schildkraut yes, Joe's dad) plays Caiaphas with a really fantastic High Priest Hat and he chews some scenery, too.  All in a good way when you get to hiss him as the villain and cheer his bad end.

You know the end of the story, so I am not going to recap it here.  My dvd software died in the middle of preparing this, so I do not have all the screen caps I wanted to show off the print quality.

The print on this film is utterly gorgeous.  We must than David Shepard for convincing Serge Bromberg/Lobster Films to purchase the rights for this film.  This is the very best version of the film I have seen, beats the Criterion Collection release by leaps and bounds.  The DVDs are not available in the US (at this time, will they be through Flicker Alley, I do not know?)  That said, the Lobster Films set (both the long and shorter version of the film) is available via amazon.fr and has my highest recommendation.  The DVDs are region free and playable in the US.  I tested on my PC dvd drive and our regular player, works just fine. 

I have to thank The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Grace Cathedral and Lobster Films for presenting this really special evening and premiere of this new restoration.  I thoroughly enjoyed the evening.  The rest of the audience did, too. 

 
 
 
Joseph Schildkraut as Judas.  He did chew a bit of scenary.
 

Mary Magdelene being cleansed of the seven deadly sins


Luxury casting, great Japanese actor Sojin as a Persian prince.

Rudolph Schildjraut as Caiaphas

Raising Lazarus from the dead.





Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.









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