It is a long-standing tradition of the Hendersonville Film Society to mark Thanksgiving by showing a turkey, but the choice of Irwin Allen’s astonishingly awful The Story of Mankind (1957) takes both drumstricks, both wings and all the white meat, perhaps leaving the parson’s nose—which, come to think of it, the film rather resembles. I hadn’t seen this amazing mess since high school, and I’d have been happy to leave it there. The premise has the Spirit of Mankind (Ronald Colman) arguing the case that the human race oughtn’t be allowed to blow itself up with the “Super H Bomb,” while Mr. Scratch (Vincent Price) argues that they ought. A heavenly tribunal (you can tell it’s heaven by all the dry-ice mist) headed up by Sir Cedric Hardwicke sits in judgment, while bizarre casting—Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc, Harpo Marx as Sir Isaac Newton, Groucho as Peter Minuit, Virginia Mayo as Cleopatra—and stock footage delivers the history of civilization. It is mind-curdling in its concentrated ghastliness.
All things considered, it’s not that hard to imagine Irwin Allen’s involvement here. This, after all, is the same Irwin Allen responsible for such 1960s television as The Time Tunnel, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space and Land of the Giants. To say that the man was not known for his taste and discernment would be an understatement of some note. It is much less easy to understand why former Hitchcock writer Charles Bennett—who also worked on Night of the Demon the same year—was involved, but the records indicate that he, too, was indeed culpable in some way.
In any case, you have this childish premise—vaguely related, I suppose, to some kind of “ban the bomb” mind-set combined with a toddler’s concept of theology and a burlesque comic’s notion of history—and a bunch of personalities and stars picking up a few bucks on a spare afternoon by appearing in these skits. I originally saw this because it was notable as the final appearance of the Marx Brothers, which is technically true, but they appear in three separate skits, so it hardly matters.
As noted, Groucho plays Peter Minuit, who buys Manhattan from some folks dressed up like Indians (including Groucho’s then-wife Eden Hartford) from the Western Costume Company. It’s handled like an episode of Groucho’s You Bet Your Life TV show—except it’s not as funny. The Indians say, “How,” and Groucho responds, “Three minutes and leave ‘em in the shell.” That, by the way, is as funny as the movie gets, which should tell you all you need to know about the movie. If it doesn’t, there’s always Harpo’s Isaac Newton, who not only discovers the law of gravity, but appears to be the first man to use harp strings for an apple slicer, thereby paving the way for the Veg-o-Matic. Chico’s role as a monk listening to Christopher Columbus (Anthony Dexter) is completely negligible.
Production values are marginally better than those of a Bob Hope TV special, but only marginally. Other than its extremely curious curio value, The Story of Mankind is probably more valuable as one of those object lessons for all actors. This turned out to be Ronald Colman’s last film, which is probably only slightly less embarassing than Street Fighter (1994) must have been for Raul Julia. Please, people, think about the ramifications of what you sign up to make! I know I wouldn’t have wanted to face St. Peter with this movie fresh on my conscience.