Here is Hunter entering the theatre in 1961. Sorry I can’t show you the pose I struck in that very spot last night, trying to adopt Hunter’s movie star smile. Part of the reason Kendall and I wanted to attend this special showing, apart from never having seen this 3-hour Technicolor extravaganza on the Big Screen where it belongs, is that we have long heard stories of Jeffrey Hunter. He was the first husband of Kendall’s mom’s close pal, actress Barbara Rush. Hunter died in 1969 at the age of 42. Barbara is still going strong and looks more beautiful than ever.
This is what the the gorgeous couple looked like in the early 50s. Seen here as a toddler, their son Christopher is now the 56-year-old father of young twins. Though Rush and Hunter were already divorced by the time “King of Kings” was made, the delightfully irreverent Barbara used to love telling people, particularly members of the clergy, that her first husband was Jesus Christ and that she raised Jesus's son.
Another draw to last night’s screening was that acclaimed writer Ray Bradbury was there to introduce the film. Why, you may ask? Because Bradbury is the one who wrote the narration that Orson Welles reads throughout “King of Kings” and without which even the most devoted biblical scholars would have been hard pressed to follow the storyline. Bradbury was first approached by producer Samuel Bronston because they felt they didn’t have an ending for their film. “Have you tried looking at the Bible?” Bradbury asked. The writer wrote a few new scenes and a brilliant narration that tied the whole film together, but he got no writing credit for the film because screenwriter Philip Yordan balked and Bradbury didn’t have enough clout to insist. Orson Welles didn’t get credit either, Bradbury told us, because MGM wouldn’t cough up the extra dough that on-screen credit would have required. Welles’ reading of Bradbury’s words is perfect, of course. Did anyone in the history of the movies have a better voice than Mr. Welles? Bradbury said he is proud of the finished product but bemoaned the fact the studio didn’t use some of the additional scenes he wrote that he thought would have made it much stronger.
“King of Kings” came at a time when biblical epics were all the rage and it enjoyed commercial success but also received some critical pans and was probably the first such film that didn’t get a single Oscar nomination, not even for Miklos Rozsa’s amazing score. “King of Kings” was directed by Nicholas Ray, the respected director of “Rebel Without a Cause” as well as one of Barbara Rush’s best flicks, “Bigger Than Life” with James Mason and the classic “Johnny Guitar” starring Joan Crawford. He also directed the weird cult classic “Party Girl” starring the late Cyd Charisse.
Many of these old films that tackled such heady subjects as the Bible tend to be laughable when viewed today, but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed “King of Kings.” Unlike some of the other depictions of the story, this one focused on the takeover of Judea by the Romans and the treatment of the Jewish population by Caesar's emissaries. It provides an interesting context for the eventual popularity of a certain carpenter from Nazareth who has some new ideas about how his people can achieve a lasting inner peace even though their lives are filled with hardship and injustice. Jesus is called "rabbi" throughout the film by his Disciples. I wonder how this went over when the film reached the Bible Belt and the folks who refused to acknowledge the Jewish origins of their savior. Ray Bradbury told us the shocking story that at one point producer Samuel Bronston had decided to delete Judas Iscariot from "King of Kings" because he worried that people would perceive the film as anti-Semitic. Bradbury finally brought Bronston back to his senses by asking him to consider what the hordes of observant Christians would think of a Jewish producer removing the integral figure of Judas from the story of Jesus Christ.
As I said in an Easter post I wrote two years ago about all the cinematic Christs of my childhood, to many people and in the opinion of many critics, Jeffrey Hunter was the definitive Jesus, even with his piercing blue eyes and decidedly non-Middle Eastern appearance. I think he did an excellent job in the role and is certainly more fun to watch than Max Von Sydow in the laborious “Greatest Story Ever Told” or Jim Caviezel in Mel Gibson’s insufferable “Passion of the Christ.”
It fascinates me that Jeffrey Hunter isn’t more well known today considering how big he was for a short time in the 1950s. Is it because he died so young? Because of his good looks, he started out in pretty boy roles such as “Take Care of My Little Girl” and “Belles on Their Toes” with Jeanne Crain, and “Dreamboat” with Clifton Webb and Ginger Rogers, but in 1956 he was cast in what I think is his greatest film, John Ford’s “The Searchers” with John Wayne and Natalie Wood. It was John Ford who suggested Hunter to Nicholas Ray when they were looking for someone to play Jesus in “King of Kings.” Other great performances by Jeffrey Hunter can be found in films such as Ford’s “The Last Hurrah” and “The Longest Day” but I wonder if his movie star looks actually hurt him in the industry. And, of course, what would have happened to his reputation had he not turned down the lead role in “Star Trek.” As any Trekkie knows, it was Jeffrey Hunter who piloted the U.S.S. Enterprise as Captain Christopher Pike in the pilot for Gene Roddenberry’s series. When the show was picked up, Hunter chose to concentrate on his movie career instead, opening the door for a very lucky William Shatner to take the captain’s seat. A few years later, Hunter lobbied for the role of Mike Brady in “The Brady Bunch” but producer Sherwood Schwartz thought he was “too good looking to be an architect.” Jeffrey Hunter died a few months before the show premiered in 1969.
“King of Kings” is riddled with people who were destined for major stardom and yet somehow didn’t quite make it. The one that really caught my attention in the film was a young actress named Brigid Bazlen. You can tell by the ad campaign that MGM was trying to turn Bazlen into the next Elizabeth Taylor. Indeed, in her role as the seductive Salome, she is a dead ringer for Taylor at her most stunning. Bazlen was the daughter of Chicago newspaper columnist Maggie Daly and as a young girl had landed the lead in a local children’s show on WGN-TV called “The Blue Fairy,” one of the first shows that the Chicago station filmed in color (the other was “Garfield Goose and Friends” which I mentioned in my previous post). MGM snapped Brigid up with a long-term contract, clearly envisioning huge fame for the raven-haired beauty. “King of Kings” was supposed to be her big break into the major leagues but instead it all but killed her career. Not that she was bad in the role—in fact, I think she was extraordinarily good. But the creepy factor of this young 15-year-old seducing the middle-aged Herod in the film and then demanding John the Baptist’s head on a silver platter may have turned the stomachs of 1961 critics and they were not very kind to the actress. She made one more film for MGM and then was dropped like a hot potato. She later did some TV work but sadly, like Jeffrey Hunter, died in her early 40s.
Other actors I enjoyed in the film included Siobhan McKenna as the Virgin Mary (though she didn’t seem so much the virgin), Frank Thring as the vile Herod Antipas, a very young Rip Torn as Judas Iscariot, a hyper Harry Guardino as Barabbas, Robert Ryan as John the Baptist (not long after he founded the progressive school my daughter now attends), Hurd Hatfield as the ambitious Pontius Pilate, and Swedish beauty Viveca Lindfors as his corrupt wife Claudia. I loved Lindfors and actually had some personal encounters with her before her death in 1995, including a long talk in a Parisian post office one day in 1979 when we were both trying to make phone calls to the States (in the Dark Ages, you had to go to the post office to make such calls abroad).
Yikes, forgive my stream-of-consciousness rambling, I can really get lost in this stuff. But I was happy to journey back last night and watch the original road show dye-transfer Technicolor print of “King of Kings” that hasn’t been projected in a theatre since I was 2 years old. The colors were magnificent. Looking at an old newspaper from 1961, I was amused to see that while “King of Kings” enjoyed a successful run at the Egyptian, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was premiering at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre just down the street. In what was probably a coincidence, that film also screened last night at the Cinematheque’s other theatre, the Aero in Santa Monica.
Who knew that 1961 was such a good year for movies? Many other great films were also playing on Hollywood Boulevard at that time: El Cid, Splendor in the Grass, Two Women, Summer and Smoke, Jules and Jim, A Raisin in the Sun, Flower Drum Song, The Misfits, Judgment at Nuremburg, and a few other guilty pleasure favorites of mine such as Pocketful of Miracles, Lover Come Back, and The Parent Trap. Jesus Christ—what a year!