Before planes, snakes had a colorful history



Let us now praise snakes. Yes, with the frenzy surrounding Snakes on a Plane, they may have come to embody the unbridled glee of trashy filmmaking. But without the snake in the garden - of Eden, that is - we humans wouldn't have gained knowledge of good and evil - and the uproarious or mortifying consequences that make up great romantic comedy and drama.

My own gratitude to cinematic serpentry dates back to seeing John Huston's The Bible (1966) on the giant D-150 screen, in which Eve was played by a gorgeous Swedish student named Ulla Bergryd (now senior lecturer at the Institute of Sociology at the University of Stockholm). Huston made her flowing red-gold hair match the color of the forbidden fruit on the Tree of Knowledge and shrewdly flung it around her chest to shield her bosom from family audiences. She appeared even more fetching after Eve tasted the apple and learned shame and covered more of her private parts with the now-obligatory fig leaf. For that vision I have to thank the serpent - in Huston's film a hissing human dancer up a tree who, cursed by God, changes into an enormous slithering python crawling on his belly. (If my ear and memory serve, Huston provided the voices both of God and the serpent - with different accents, of course, but sending a subversive mixed signal.)

Snakes in tales of amorous temptation have their victimized and sensitive side, too. The boy protagonist of the Graham Greene-Carol Reed The Fallen Idol (1948) keeps a cute, secret pet snake named MacGregor. Due out in a Criterion Collection special-edition DVD Nov. 17, the movie is a small classic about a young lad in a London embassy (Bobby Henrey) who witnesses marital strife and sudden death. The boy's hero, the head servant (Ralph Richardson), has fallen in love with an embassy typist (Michele Morgan), but is married to a harridan (Sonia Dresdel) who refuses to set him free. The snake defines their characters: The shrewish wife hates and ultimately kills MacGregor; the long-suffering husband tries to help the boy hide him away from her. Until his martyrdom, the snake may be the boy's best friend - the one creature in the movie who never lets him down.

Snakes can also be comically heroic. The apex of snakes in movies comes in Preston Sturges' beguiling, sexy piece of romantic slapstick, The Lady Eve (1941). Right from the beginning, a cartoon snake in a top hat, sporting a maraca where the rattle should be, does a high-spirited tropical dance down the side of the opening credits, ending up curling in and out of Sturges' name. The hero of the comedy is an ale heir named Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) who also happens be a top amateur ophiologist, the type of herpetologist who specializes in snakes.

Pike boards a fancy ocean liner with his new catch, a Brazilian glass snake, "Emma," and his grizzled man, Murgatroyd (William Demarest), who helps keep Emma fed and Pike free of gold-diggers. Barbara Stanwyck plays con artist Jean Harrington, who works scams with her father, Handsome Harry Harrington (Charles Coburn); they see Pike as an easy mark - he even does pathetic card tricks - but then Jean falls in love with him.

Emma the snake provides the key to the sexiest-funniest scene in cinema. Pike asks Jean if she'd like to come into his cabin to meet "Emma."

Jean thinks he's just handing her a line, but when she sees a Brazilian glass snake consorting with Pike's pajamas she erupts with a howl and dashes back to her own cabin, Pike in tow. To reassure her there are no snakes in her room, Pike checks under her bed. Emma the snake has upped this couple's adrenaline level and romantic ante, and Jean soon snuggles up to Pike for comfort. In a scene unmatched for intimate heat without much explicit "action," she continues to muss his hair and caress his cheek for minutes. He says "Snakes are my life, in a way."

They talk about romantic ideals, and Jean, after one charming, semi-cynical statement after another, surprises herself by stating that she wants to marry someone who will "take me by surprise." She ends the conversation with, "I think I can sleep peacefully now"; Pike tickles her when he answers, "I wish I could say the same."

In this giddy upending of the Eden myth, the too-naive Adam and the too-experienced Eve learn through dizzying and intensely satisfying comic-romantic complications that they can't shake each other even after they betray each other repeatedly. The snake from the opening credits returns to bring down the curtain, still shaking his maraca (this time in a white-gloved hand), as his body encompasses two apples bearing the words "The End."

If Snakes on a Plane is not your cup of venom, go out and rent the Criterion Collection DVD of The Lady Eve, the funniest and hottest and classiest movie ever to feature a man, a woman and a matchmaker that slithers on its belly.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.