Lost & Found: Noah’s Ark

[Image courtesy of Warner Bros.]

By Liam Syrvalin, Contributor

The holiday season is upon us! For some, this might bring feelings of joy, warmth, and comfort; for many others, the holidays bring severe stress, discomfort, or sadness. However, the one constant throughout all of these emotions is terrible Christmas movies. Alas, one particular movie stands out from the rest for being an entirely different kind of awful. It’s not your typical low-budget Peacock-original Christmas movie, nor is it a straight-to-DVD sequel of a hit cable holiday movie. The film in question is a movie that could only exist in the time and space it was created in, and it shouldn’t have been allowed to exist in that realm in the first place. The movie I’m talking about is the mostly silent film Noah’s Ark, which first premiered in Hollywood in 1928. To get into why this movie is important for film history, we have to start with the setting it was birthed from.

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1928 is in the middle of an extremely interesting transitional period for the world of cinema. Many movie studios were trying the implementation of paired video and audio in film in a rare, temporary style of sound synchronization known as a “part-talkie.” In this style, there are one or more scenes where the actors and set on-screen are synced up with dialogue or singing. Noah’s Ark is a perfect example of what a part-talkie is, with many scenes, particularly the biblical scenes, set to an orchestral score, with a few scenes that are visually synchronized with dialogue. The Warner Brothers were responsible for production of the film, and they would go to great lengths to ensure a truly biblical feel of power was sensed by viewers of the movie. 

Some production details about films of this era are lost in time; however, one particular incident during the filming of a scene for Noah’s Ark would stick in the minds of many viewers of the premiere. This is the scarily realistic flood scene early on in the film’s 135-minute runtime. First viewers of the film on November 1, 1928 were not just watching a very well acted stunt involving a flood; they were watching extras actually fight for their lives. Extras struggled for air and space as they fought off 600 thousand gallons of an absolutely furious surge of water. An edited down version of this scene made it to the restored version, and is available to watch for free on YouTube. 

This was not a scene the extras were prepared for. The majority of them knew there would be a flood scene, but there were no remarks made as to how much water would be coming for them, or how the producers and director planned on keeping them safe. As one would think, this would not be a filming that everyone involved would walk away from. There were numerous injuries that would become apparent after the camera turned off. Three extras drowned on set, right then and there. A young John Wayne, who had been cast as an extra in one of his very first films for Noah’s Ark, almost drowned right along with them in the chaos. They were under the assumption they were just doing another job, walking away with a meager check. The thought probably never even crossed their mind before filming that this production might actually kill them in the pursuit of biblical realism.

Even more mayhem had ensued aside from the staggering three fatalities. One man was so gravely injured that his leg needed to be amputated. The silent-film superstar Dolores Castillo, the lead actress of the film, caught a severe case of pneumonia from the scene. Apart from that, so many people had broken bones and other serious injuries that it’s not even certain how many people suffered them. All that’s really known quantity-wise is that there were a total of 35 ambulances attending to the wounded after filming the scene, according to actress Olive Borden’s biography. The director of the film, Michael Curtiz, actually had been notified of the lack of safeguards and procedures in place for the shooting of the scene by earthquake and fire survivor, as well as cinematographer, Hal Mohr. In response, Curtiz nonchalantly replied, “They’re just going to have to take their chances.” Mohr, disgusted, immediately walked off set, and his role was assumed by Barney McGill. In Curtiz’s mind, he was willing to do absolutely anything to “make the greatest picture ever made.”

It’s extremely safe to say that it was in the opinions of most that this movie was not “the greatest picture ever made.” The New York Times described the New York premiere as a film that “frequently bordered on the ridiculous.” This was actually much nicer than The New Yorker’s opinion of the release, which they called, “an idiotic spectacle.” After the first premiere of the film, Warner Bros. pulled the movie for heavy revision, which would seem reasonable enough without the controversy. 

The movie was a shocking two hours and 15 minutes; an extremely long movie, which supposedly was boring and very badly produced, according to the audience response. This revision involved cutting around half an hour of footage from the movie, including many of the scenes involving dialogue. It’s unclear how much, if anything, was cut or lost from the flood scene between first premiere, re-release, and restoration.

Due to the three fatalities and massive amount of injuries among the actors and actresses, stunt safety regulations were written and implemented a year after the film debuted. Aside from that, the movie itself performed well enough at the box office. It made its budget back, with about half a million as surplus. The original premiere of the movie, however, is considered to be entirely lost. 

This 27 minutes of film that we’ll never be able to view is a crushing reality. Not because the film is “the greatest picture ever made.” Not even because it’s remotely good. Not because there’s more controversial footage back there, we really have all we need to see in that department, but only because it’s such an interesting case in the world of film history. Never again will we see this kind of wanton carelessness for fellow human life in the production of a major film, which apparently wasn’t even good. Never again will we see this weird mixture of mostly instrumental scores set to violent biblical scenes, mixed in with extremely odd and primitive post-production concerning dialogue. Never again will we see the entirety of this film as Hollywood or New York saw it in 1928. Never again will we see the full runtime of this nauseatingly boring, strangely produced, yet morbidly interesting movie.

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