Hollywood has birthed some real stinkers over the years. For every Citizen Kane, Schindler’s List and Chariots of Fire, there’s a Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Room or Santa Clause Conquers The Martians. According to revered actor Paul Newman, however, the absolute worst film of the 1950s was one he was unfortunate enough to star in, a movie so terrible it makes Shallow Hal look like On The Waterfront.
The plot is simple: Paul Newman plays a Greek slave called Basil, and why the hell anyone thought Basil was an authentic-sounding ancient Greek name remains a mystery. After discovering his talent for sculpting, he starts a new life as an artisan, marrying his beloved Deborra. Again, this is Ancient Greece, not 1950s Swindon, as the names suggest. Shortly after they’re wed, Basil is offered the job of a lifetime: casting and engraving a special cup for Jesus to use at the Last Supper. While a mysterious magician sets about convincing the crowds that he is the new messiah, Basil travels to Rome and then to Jeruselum to complete his holy task.
This is The Silver Chalice, a 1954 historical epic directed and produced by Goodbye Mr. Chips director Victor Saville. Based on Thomas B. Costain’s 1952 novel of the same name, it was one of Saville’s final films and marked Paul Newman’s screen debut. Despite boasting a star-studded cast featuring the likes of Virginia Mayo, Jack Palance and Walter Hampden, the critics were not impressed by The Silver Chalice. Following a premiere in the small town of Saranac Lake, countless publications dubbed the film an overblown, over-produced and largely vacuous mess.
One of the film’s few saving graces was Paul Newman, who recieved a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Basil. Newman, meanwhile, was rather ashamed of his involvement with The Silver Chalice, later taking out an advertisement in a Hollywood trade paper to apologise for his performance ahead of a TV screening of the film, in which he urged people not to watch it. Rather frustratingly, the tactic backfired, and the broadcast received unusually high ratings. Newman later called it “the worst motion picture produced during the 1950s” and is rumoured to have given a private screening of the film at his home, handing guests pots and pans to hammer with wooden spoons during particularly awful moments.
Martin Scorsese has since confessed that The Silver Chalice is a guilty pleasure of his. In a 1978 piece for Spectacle titled Martin Scorsese’s Guilty Pleasures, the director wrote: “The Silver Chalice is one of the reasons I hired Boris Leven to design New York, New York. Giant and The Silver Chalice: any man who could design those two films . . . that’s it, I had to have him. The Silver Chalice, which is a bad picture, has no authenticity. It’s purely theatrical, and this is mainly due to the sets. They’re clean and clear; it’s almost like another life, another world. We don’t know what ancient Rome was like, so why not take the attitude Fellini had with Satyricon: make it science fiction in reverse? The Silver Chalice came close to that fifteen years earlier.”