The Story of Mankind (1957)

Article 1996 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-1-2006
Posting Date: 1-29-2007
Directed by Irwin Allen
Featuring Ronald Colman, Vincent Price, Cedric Hardwicke

When mankind invents the Super H-Bomb several decades too early, a high tribunal is called to decide whether mankind should be destroyed or allowed to continue its existence. Mankind is put on trial, with Mr. Scratch, the devil, serving as prosecuting attorney, and the Spirit of Mankind serving as defense attorney.

Whatever its merits, there is no doubt that this movie possesses a very high curiosity value; its array of stars playing various historical figures guarantees that. Just listing the names could take up this whole review, but let’s get it over with; Ronald Colman, Hedy Lamarr, the Marx Brothers, Virginia Mayo, Agnes Moorehead, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Charles Coburn, Cedric Hardwicke, Cesar Romero, John Carradine, Dennis Hopper, Marie Wilson, Helmut Dantine, Edwart Everett Horton, Reginal Gardiner, Marie Windsor, and, now just picking a few noticeable names out of the rest, Franklin Pangborn, Henry Daniell, Francis X. Bushman, Nick Cravat, Anthony Dexter, Don Megowan, William Schallert, Abraham Sofaer, Bobby Watson (as, of course, Adolf Hitler) and Angelo Rossitto.

Given that this is an Irwin Allen movie, I pretty much discarded from the outset any possibility that the movie would actually manage to say anything profound about human nature, and sure enough, the movie’s philosphical pursuits are vulgar, obvious, muddled, and often dull Still, the actors forced to reckon with these sections of the story (Colman, Price and Hardwicke) come off with their dignity intact, and Price did get a laugh out of me with a passing comment about his views of painting. For the rest, it’s mostly an adventure to see how well the various name stars fare against utter miscasting and abysmal writing. Some come out all right; at least Groucho (as Peter Minuit) is allowed to ad lib to his heart’s content, Dennis Hopper wisely underplays his Napoleon, Cesar Romero retains his dignity, and Harpo plays Harpo. Others get by as best they can (Carradine, for example), and some are forced to overact by the necessity of the script (Peter Lorre as Nero), while others overact of their own free will (Agnes Moorehead as Queen Elizabeth manages to give perhaps the worst performance of her career here), while others are thoroughly wasted (Edward Everett Horton’s role consists of nothing more than having a flagon of beer poured over him, and Chico Marx is relegated to trading a few non-humorous lines with Anthony Dexter, who is playing Columbus). Two-thirds of the movie is made up of the philosophical discussions and the cameos; the rest is stock footage.

So what’s the verdict? Given the lack of real philosophical insight as a forgone conclusion, the question becomes – is the movie much fun? Sadly, the answer is – not really. A few moments stand out, the curiosity value will draw you in occasionally, but mostly the movie is on the dreary side. Most of the fun I had was spotting some familiar faces, my favorite being that of Angelo Rossitto as a dwarf chasing a woman during the Nero sequence. Even given my expectations, this one proved disappointing.



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