Paul Newman’s 1st Movie: “The Silver Chalice” (1954)

A young Greek artist, Basil (Paul Newman), is commissioned to cast the cup of Jesus in silver, and sculpt around its rim, the faces of the disciples and Jesus. He travels to Jerusalem, then eventually, to Rome to complete the task. Meanwhile, a magician, Simon (Jack Palance), is trying to convince Caesar and the Romans that he is the new Messiah. James Dean was offered the role of Basil, but he and his agent thought the script was poor. Newman, who was a finalist for the role of Cal Trask in East of Eden (1955) that eventually was played by Dean, and made him a star, took the role, which Newman later regretted. While shooting East of Eden, Dean went over to visit Newman on the set of this film, where he met the love of his short life, a young Italian actress- Pier Angeli (Deborra, a Jewish merchant’s daughter/convert to Christianity).

I had a cocktail dress. Nero had a cocktail gown. -Newman (joking re: costumes in this movie)

Let’s begin with the good points; it got 2 Oscar noms- one for William Skall’s color cinematography and the other for Franz Waxman’s musical score. A teen Natalie Wood makes a brief appearance. That’s it- sorry to say! The story is boring, it drags b/c of its long running time, and the dialogue is bad (which caused some viewers to laugh). There are some sad-looking (minimalist) sets which were obviously built on a soundstage. No one can call a movie “epic” w/ sets like that! Newman is looking gorgeous (as usual); his legs aren’t “too skinny for a toga,” as he later commented. You can tell he had no direction; he doesn’t seem to know where to turn or how to say a line! As a young actor, Newman said that he was “cerebral, rather than intuitive.” I’ve never heard of this director, Victor Saville, so maybe he left Hollywood? Mayo seems to be sleepwalking, while Palance is SO campy at times (that some viewers admitted they were entertained). Of course there are worse movies than this, BUT you don’t need to watch!

[1] The Silver Chalice is best remembered for a Variety ad that Paul Newman took out after he got famous and apologized for, not only his performance in this film, but also the film itself. Of course, doing something like this is only going to get people interested in the film, so I’m sure many people have watched this because of Newman’s plea for you not to.

[2] They [actors] are hindered by very sketchily written characters and as dreary and stilted a script as you can get… Victor Saville’s direction never comes to life and the story feels overlong, stodgy and over-stretched with scenes that are either stagey, superfluous or unintentionally funny…

[3] Mayo looks as though she just left the chorus line of The Goldwyn Girls and had the artists paint her eyebrows in what someone must have assumed would resemble women of antiquity. She saunters around in her veiled costumes as though she is about to break out into a burlesque queen’s rendition of a bump and grind song number.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

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