• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Monday, December 23, 2019

    The Nativity (1952)
    (aka The Play of the Nativity of the Child Jesus)


    Those who follow me on Twitter will know that I have been running a Nativity Film Advent Calendar but there's one film that I have owned for about a decade yet have only just seen. Marketed as The Nativity and available on DVD via various Mill Creek collections, I'd always thought it was something akin to a Christmas special for the Living Bible series. As it happens though it's nothing of the sort.

    The production is a made for television Christmas special for Westinghouse Studio One that originally aired on CBS on December 22 1952. Both of the copies I have are even accompanied by Westinghouse's adverts for their own products - themselves historical artefacts, not least because for this exceptional production they have chosen to bookend the film with them, thus leaving the main performance unsullied by commercials. It's also interesting though to hear the technical descriptions of problems viewers might be having with their earlier and/or inferior TV sets which could be remediated by them switching to a Westinghouse one.

    Anyway, the production itself is not so much a TV film as the filmed performance of the medieval style mystery play. The opening titles cite the 14th and 15th century mystery plays of York and Chester, even apologising for the use of archaic language. It's unclear who has welded together these plays, whether this is the work of a much older writer, or whether it's simply that a modern screenwriter has selected the both of them. Certainly the fact that the rhyming patterns seem to vary throughout the production suggest some kind of blending of these two traditions.

    The film is shot in black and white and the dialogue is accompanied by the Robert Shaw Chorale performing ancient carols and choral music in a wonderfully evocative fashion. The combination of the archaic dialogue and the music really conjures the atmosphere of the latest iteration of a long running and much cherished tradition. This is enhanced by the high contrast lighting. The shots seem to exist largely in darkness punctuated only by the occasional shafts of light. Silhouetted figures are everywhere. It's no doubt a technique borrowed from film noir - shroud the cheap sets in darkness, and not only do you avoid the impression of cheapness, but you also lend a great deal of atmosphere.

    As ought to be expected the plot plays it fairly straight. Mary hears she is to have God's child and heads to Bethlehem with Joseph. Angels visit the shepherds in the fields. Three kings arrive in Judea from afar and whilst they stop at Herod's palace for directions, Mary has her child. The shepherd's arrive, followed by the kings, before both the latter and Joseph himself hear God tell them of the threat to Jesus's life.

    What's interesting is where the elaboration in the text lies compared to more modern productions. The discussions and inner lives of Mary and Joseph seem of little consequence, but eloquent verses of poetic praise usher forth from the mouths of the magi, yet somehow this does not feel out of place.

    In a year where I've watched numerous Straub-Huillet films and read and thought a great deal about their concerns with multiple layers of history and the rigorous adaptation of poetry/prose this feels strangely fitting. I don't know of a link between Huillet/Straub and this production's director Franklin Shaffner (who would go on to direct Planet of the Apes (1968) and win an Oscar for his direction of Patton to years later, but the slow long-takes, relying on gradual zooms and pans rather than editing feels reminiscent and perhaps goes back to Bresson and beyond. It's a shame the transfer is rather poor, because I suspect a proper restoration, with sharp images accompanied by crisp sound, might really be something.

    Prior to this Shaffner had already completed a drama called Pontius Pilate (1952) for Westinghouse, which usually appears in the same collections as this programme, so I will have to review that one in the run up to Easter. There's nothing in the synopsis on the back of the DVD to suggest it is also based on 15th century texts, but who knows...

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