Discovering DeMille (An Epic Post)

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When I was a child my third favorite film (behind only The Wizard of Oz and The Poseidon Adventure) was Cecil B DeMille’s 1956 Biblical epic The Ten Commandments, which was shown annually on television during the Passover/ Easter season. I am aghast in retrospect to realize the film was less than 20 years old when I discovered it. At the time, as all films from the 1950s did, it seemed like a relic of a long ago history, almost a document from Biblical times itself. I wasn’t old enough to have experienced firsthand that revolution in sensibilities that had occurred bit by bit during the 1960s, giving everything that had come before it that canned, stuffy and formal feeling. The crack had mostly happened during my own lifetime, although in my infancy. All I knew was that was there a marked difference between contemporary culture and all that had come before, and the gulf was so great that even a few years seemed like a century.

And the more and more we study it we realize the reason for that “century’s difference” is because for decades Hollywood was clinging to certain standards, rules and expectations inherited from the 19th century. In television variety it was palpable in the “clean” shows that had been ushered in by the old Keith and Orpheum circuits. In Hollywood films, there was a melodramatic aesthetic in writing, direction and acting borrowed whole cloth from the theatre of the gaslight era. Cecil B. DeMille was one of the central figures in bringing it there, and lovingly tending it through all sorts of encroachments for over four decades. The public loved him for it, even if by his last years they had forgotten what he represented.

DeMille and his brother William (father of the choreographer Agnes DeMille) were second generation theatre-folk, who came up during the melodrama era. Their father Henry was a playwright, teacher and administrator at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Their mother Beatrice also taught acting and became a theatre promoter. Both brothers graduated from AADA. Cecil started out as an actor for Charles Frohman around the turn of the 20th century. Both brothers collaborated frequently with David Belasco, William as a playwright, Cecil as producer and director. (C.B. also claimed that Belasco had plagiarized The Return of Peter Grimm from him).

Much like D.W. Griffith had just a few years earlier, DeMille was to transplant his theatrical sensibility from the stage to the screen, becoming one of the founders of Hollywood (both the industry and the way it tells stories) in the process. The crucial project was The Squaw Man (1914), DeMille’s first film as director, as well as the first for Famous Players-Lasky (which was to become Paramount), as well as the first feature to be shot in Hollywood. Starring Dustin Farnum it was also one of the first westerns, helping to establish the viability of the genre. First, first, first.

The smash success of The Squaw Man meant that DeMille and his storytelling vision were here to stay, as was the studio that would become Paramount, as well as features, the western, and even, for awhile The Squaw Man itself (DeMille would remake it in 1918 and 1931). The Squaw Man had been based on a 1905 stage play. DeMille went back to that well for many of his future successes. His follow up, for example, was the first adaptation of the smash Broadway comedy Brewster’s Millions (the film is now lost but you can read about it here). Other early DeMille films were adaptations of Belasco plays (both westerns) Rose of the Rancho (1914) and The Girl of the Golden West (1915). In 1915 he adapted Bizet’s opera Carmen, which was parodied that same year by Charlie Chaplin. Another hit for DeMille that year was The Cheat, which made a star out of Sessue Hayakawa. 

Starting in 1919 he made a series of hit films with Gloria Swanson who’d just signed with Paramount after some fledgling success starring for Mack Sennett in a string of comedy shorts. DeMille made a star out of Swanson (the basis for the relationship you see when they essentially play versions of themselves in Sunset Boulevard (1950)). Most of these films were sophisticated marriage comedies, a genre DeMille was best known for during this period (Ernst Lubitsch would take it over a few years later). The DeMille-Swanson comedies were Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), Male and Female (1919 – -an adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton), Why Change Your Wife? (1920), Something to Think About (1920) and The Affairs of Anatol (1921).

In 1923, he made his first Biblical epic The Ten Commandments, a very different film from the one of the same name he was to make two decades later. This one juxtaposes the story of Moses with a modern melodrama in which a man is forced to confront (and keep) those commandments. It establishes a template that has become an American staple, and much credit to DeMille as the pioneer. It is the type of film where we get to have our cake and eat it too….living vicariously through the peccadilloes of a sinner, enjoying their misdeeds, sexual and otherwise, and then making it “moral” by giving them their comeuppance in the end. It is the perfect genre for an ostensibly Puritanical people, allowing for both titillation and a disavowal of same all in the same experience, diabolical in its ingenuity. Hollywood thrives on this Janus-faced subterfuge to this day.

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Truly — it’s hard for me to say what was more attractive to my young self about DeMille’s Ten Commandments remake: the miracles (the parting of the Red Sea, the burning bush, the plagues, the fire from the sky that write the commandments onto the tablets) OR husky voiced, half naked Anne Baxter as Nefritiri, a wholly fictional creation of Demille’s, gratuitously introduced into a Bible story purely to sex it up, so as not to alienate adult males in the audience with too much virtue. A lizard-like vamp in the Gloria Swanson tradition, this character just about single-handedly fanned the latent embers of my libido into existence several years before puberty was scheduled to arrive. Thank you, Holy Bible!

DeMille’s second installment in his Biblical series continued this tradition by telling the story of Jesus in King of Kings (1927) through the eyes of the harlot Mary Magdalene, giving us a lascivious dance to enjoy before we buckle down to the redemptive story of the Savior. And The Sign of the Cross (1932) is bloody amazing (literally) with its scenes of orgies and Christians being tortured in the Roman coliseum, a spectacle for us to abhor and relish simultaneously. (And once you see Charles Laughton as Nero, cackling madly from his perch on a hill as Rome burns beneath him, you will never forget it).

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DeMille proved himself a genius of the epic on other counts, as well. He solved many special effects problems to achieve his miracles (I actually think the parting of the Red Sea effect in the 1923 Ten Commandments is more effective than the later one). And he loved directing crowd scenes — proved himself a master of it, chiefly by virtue of dictator-like control, and an insistence that every single extra have a character and a motivation so that their faces wouldn’t spoil the overall effect by lacking expression.

If DeMille had a “genius” one has to say it is more as a producer than as a director. Fellow directors and critics scorned him to a degree I don’t happen to share, just because I admire his acumen — he knows what will score with audiences. And the entire scale has shifted since DeMille’s time. What looked like gratuitous pandering in his own day looks charming, quaint and historical from the modern perspective. There is nothing too graphic; no pornographic sex or geysers of blood, as later film makers would include in treating the same kind of material. Nor would there have been even if the standards had allowed it. DeMille was a man of his time. He was genuinely religious; his father was a lay reader in the Episcopal church. DeMille had first gotten the idea of telling the story of The Ten Commandments as a boy, sitting in a church pew. I too am an Episcopalian — that least Protestant of all Protestant sects, which has one foot and part of another still in Rome. Like the Catholics, we know how to put on a good show, one that is sensational in every sense of the word — within limits

A typical DeMille touch is the climax to one of his first talkies Madam Satan (1930), which is set in a masquerade ball on board a zeppelin, because…well, just because. Because it’s cool — does there need to be another reason? Cleopatra (1934) starring Claudette Colbert offered more lurid thrills, but the Hays Code went into effect soon after and he began to tell other kinds of stories for a time. The Plainsman (1936) offered Gary Cooper as a very unHickokian Wild Bill Hickok sans long hair, mustache or beard, and Jean Arthur as a relatively well-scrubbed Calamity Jane.

Union Pacific (1939) returned DeMille to an epic backdrop, telling the story of the railroads and their role in bridging the American continent. The film features a spectacular train crash, one of the best on film (paving the way for a similar one DeMille would stage in The Greatest Show on Earth years later). Yet the public has not embraced it as a classic, probably because “hero” Joel McCrea is a “trouble-shooter” who busts striking railroad workers (a most un-populist standard bearer — DeMille was a Republican), and Barbara Stanwyck gives a rare bad performance, affecting one of the worst Irish accents ever committed to film. (I am pretty sure the opening titles of Star Wars are borrowed from those of Union Pacific, though:)

In these years, DeMille dusted off his old thespian chops to host the Lux Radio Theatre (1936-1944). This fact I think explains why you hear his sonorous, clipped narration on The Greatest Show on Earth and The Ten Commandments as though DeMille were supplying the voice of God himself.

In Samson and Delilah (1949) DeMille found the perfect blend of lusty, lurid romance and Biblical epic, with Victor Mature and Heddy Lamarr in the title roles, helping to launch a new cycle of Biblical and Roman pictures that would not end until the Taylor-Burton Cleopatra would effectively kill the genre in 1963. DeMille capped off his career with his biggest pictures ever, The Greatest Show on Earth, a star-studded commercial for Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus; and his remake of the Ten Commandments. Charlton Heston starred in both.

Ill health plagued his last years, preventing further films with his imprimatur as director, although he did executive produce a remake of his earlier swashbuckling picture The Buccaneer in 1958. He died in early 1959.

His legacy? It’s mixed. As we have said, the 1963 Cleopatra really did kill big budget Roman and Biblical epics. DeMille’s pictures had transcended some of their more craven elements because they were so lavish. There are scenes in his films that literally steal your breath away. Later….Bible movies were often made for television, cheaply, with lots of stars in the DeMille mold, but mediocre in every other aspect. Another successor, an unlikely one, but a real one I think is producer Irwin Allen. If you watch one his first films The Story of Mankind, you will perceive the relationship – -it is cobbled together with footage from historical costume dramas. Later, Allen would bring big budgets, all-star casts, and special effects to bear in creating the genre of the disaster movie, where the hand of God uses the forces of nature to punish mankind for his sins, just as it had in the films of DeMille. And, at a more mundane level….just watch any film on the Lifetime network, any movie where our enjoyment comes from experiencing both the crime and the punishment. You can take this all the way back to the melodrama stage of the 19th century. At the center of that historic transition is Cecil B. DeMille.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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2 Responses to “Discovering DeMille (An Epic Post)”

  1. You didn’t mention Intolerance, which is my favorite of his films.

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