Story of Mankind, The (1957)

“Whatever our sins, whatever our shortcomings, we believe the good deeds done by man on Earth far outweigh the bad — thereby earning him the right to survive.”

Synopsis:
When the Super H-Bomb is developed on Earth, a heavenly tribunal is called to determine whether humanity should be allowed to survive. The devil (Vincent Price) argues that humans are inherently corrupt, while the “spirit of mankind” (Ronald Colman) tries his best to defend them.

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Review:
It’s difficult to describe just how awful this infamous historical drama — written and directed by Irwin Allen — really is. Loosely based on Henrik van Loon’s 1921 book (notable for winning the first Newbery Medal for children’s literature), it presents Anglo-centric highlights of humanity from “the dawn of time” to the 20th century — all portrayed by a cast of well-known actors and actresses who should have known better than to sign up for this particular gig. Only Vincent Price (always suitable in campily bad ventures) emerges relatively unscathed; one feels simply awful, however, for Ronald Colman (trying his best in what would be his final performance), and Peter Lorre (looking truly veklempt in his brief cameo as Nero).

While it’s well-known that Allen made ample use of discarded stock footage, scads of money were likely still spent on the creation of so many different sets and costumes; nonetheless, everything looks impossibly cheap and cheesy. Indeed, once Groucho Marx (as a Puritan!) appears on the scene — completely blowing any semblance of historical sobriety out the window — it suddenly struck me that The Story of Mankind might be successful as a comedic play (where low-budget, non-realistic sets are the norm). As a film, however — especially one grappling with such a heady issue as mankind’s ultimate fate — it bombs, big time, in every way possible.

P.S. This turkey is included — appropriately enough — in Harry Medved’s 1978 book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and how they got that way), where he describes Mankind thus: “Fifty-five seconds before the title of the film appears, the names of twenty-five stars are flashed separately on the screen in huge block letters, accompanied by fanfare and drumbeat. The viewer braces himself, expecting the worst — and he will not be disappointed.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vincent Price as “Mr. Scratch” (the devil)
    Vincent Price
  • A truly bizarre all-star cast — including Virginia Mayo as a giggling Cleopatra, Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc, John Carradine as the Egyptian ruler Khufu, Groucho Marx as Peter Minuit (who purchased the island of Manhattan from the Indians), Harpo Marx as (the harp playing?) Sir Isaac Newton, Agnes Moorehead as Queen Elizabeth, Dennis Hopper as Napoleon (actually giving the best performance of the bunch), and, seen here, Peter Lorre (could he look any unhappier?) as Nero
    Lorre

Must See?
Yes, simply for its status as a cult classic, and one of the “50 worst films of all time.” But I hesitate to recommend such a tedious bore.

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2 Responses to “Story of Mankind, The (1957)”

  1. Not a must – and totally undeserving of its status as a cult classic.

    It may very well be one of the “50 worst films of all time” but – unlike bad films like ‘Plan 9…’ – ‘Story’ has about zip entertainment value; very little that induces the interactivity necessary for arbiters of the howl-worthy. It’s just too dull.

    A few measly crumbs hardly suffice: Lamarr’s laughable reaction as Joan of Arc hearing “This is the voice of St. Michael!”; Moorehead unleashed as Queen Elizabeth; Groucho and Harpo opting for vaudeville.

    It’s true that, of those in cameo, Hopper comes off best – along with Marie Windsor. Apart from the somewhat-lively face-off between Price (perfect, again) and Colman (suitably noble, again), these two at least indicate that the verbose project had genuine possibilities.

    It looks as if writer/director Allen had just seen ‘The Ten Commandments’ and figured DeMille was DeWay to go – in terms of scope and tone. ‘Unfortunately’, Allen didn’t pick up on ‘TTC”s considerable camp quotient.

    The most staggering thing about ‘Story’ is its cast list. You simply can’t believe all of these people are gathered together for one film. Then you see the bulk of them shredded away to nothing on all counts (perhaps none more so than poor Lorre!).

    I hunted this movie down for years. Finally, TCM showed it, which is why I have a copy. I’ve just rewatched it and find myself seriously wondering why exactly I DO have a copy…

  2. I’m glad to get confirmation on this one, and am 100% willing to change my vote to “not must see” — though I can’t help thinking that most film fanatics will be at least morbidly curious to check it out. However, it’s s-o-o-o tedious that I suspect a mere 15 minutes or so of “exposure” will suffice — check it out and call it done! This is one of those films whose infamy completely eclipses any inherent worth. ..

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