Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Cecil B. DeMille

Did you know The Ten Commandments has aired on TV every year since 1973? That's almost my entire lifetime! My family and I would watch it when I was a kid, but as a grown-up, and a film blogger, I can look at it with an appreciation I didn't have then, now that I know who Anne Baxter and Edward G. Robinson and Yvonne DeCarlo and Judith Anderson and Vincent Price and Woody Strode are, along with Chuck Heston and Yul Brynner. I imagine that most people tuning in to ABC to watch aren't film nerds, though. I've talked about how nice it would be if network television would air other holiday-appropriate classic films, but I think for now, it's this, It's a Wonderful Life every Christmas, and that's it. 

Still, the latter is a sentimental tearjerker, while Commandments is anything but - so what keeps this sixty-year old movie on the air every year? Well, I doubt the reasons go much further than the religious aspect, but aside from that, Commandments is an entertaining movie, an epic in the truest sense and a shining example of Old Hollywood at its most lavish - and credit for that has to go to its producer-director, Cecil B. DeMille.

The very name is evocative of classic Hollywood. He was an original gangsta, one of the first notable directors, along with guys like Griffith, Chaplin and Sennett, to shape the industry and provide it with the images that would influence generations to come. A Massachusetts native, he was the son of playwrights, raised in the Episcopal faith, which explains his love of not only Biblical epics, but the moral dramas that characterized much of his silent-era work.

He and his brother William went to acting school, which led to acting, producing and writing work on Broadway with their father's friend, the playwright David Belasco. When the theater didn't pan out financially, DeMille moved west to try his hand in film, throwing his lot in with Jesse Lasky and Samuel Goldwyn to form the Lasky Company, a predecessor for what would eventually become Paramount Pictures.

Ever see the silent Ten Commandments, from 1923? Apparently it was made as the result of a contest in which the fans could pick DeMille's next movie. Somebody suggested doing the Exodus story and that's what DeMille did. I watched a little bit of it for this post - the escape from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. The visual effects can't help but look inferior today, but seeing all the Israelite and Egyptian extras, their costumes and props, the legions of animals, and the sets, is still a breathtaking sight, given how long ago it was made. And then there's the whole story of how the sets were buried in the California desert...

DeMille's cinematic relationship with Gloria Swanson is common knowledge. He always put her in glamorous films where she's somebody's wife, with an incredible wardrobe, in a luxurious house. The public ate these films up, but as I said when I wrote about Swanson earlier this year, she had just as great a gift for comedy as for drama, and under DeMille, it was stifled. I can't say I blame her for leaving him. They would reunite years later, of course, in the film Sunset Boulevard, with DeMille playing himself and Swanson portraying an exaggerated, alternate version of herself. Seeing them together and knowing their real-life history gives their scene a veracity, a legitimacy that would be missing from two different actors.

For all of his paternal kindness towards Swanson in Sunset, however, most of the time DeMille made James Cameron look like an introvert: yelling at his cast, demanding they do outrageous things for his movies like wrestle lions and whatnot, and when it came to his Biblical movies, he was on another level altogether, as this Telegraph article describes:
...Every morning DeMille would lead the actors and crew [of The King of Kings] in a solemn recital of the Lord’s Prayer. As far as possible, The King of Kings stuck to the story as it appeared in the New Testament – with one exception. DeMille refused to show Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey. That, he felt, was an unacceptable form of transport for the Son of God. 
Along with the rest of the cast, the man playing Jesus – HB Warner – had to sign a contract prohibiting him from doing “anything unbiblical”, not only for the duration of the shoot, but for the next five years. This included playing ball games, or cards, or frequenting night clubs. In fact, Warner, an inveterate skirt-chaser as well as a heavy boozer, had an affair with one of the extras during shooting.
...DeMille’s own behaviour was far more unbiblical than any of his cast's. Married to Constance, a long-suffering bluestocking who refused to let him sleep with her after the birth of their only child – DeMille always referred to her as “Mrs DeMille” – he had a raft of affairs, often running concurrently, with various actresses. It wasn’t until his dotage, he proudly recorded, that he ever spent a Saturday night at home.
Honestly, he sounds more than a little like a religious fanatic. It's not like I had a firm opinion on him before, but reading about him now, he seemed like he had way too much in common with dudes like Fred Phelps and Pat Robertson: judgmental, narrow-minded, secure in their certainty of how they believe the world works. I mean, the man put stone tablets of the literal ten commandments outside government buildings to promote his film. How arrogant is that?

But DeMille was one of the pioneers of American cinema. The history of film would be incomplete without him and his contributions. So once again, you just have to find a way to look past his personal ideology when examining his films - although in DeMille's case, his ideology informed the kind of films he made, so perhaps it's a bit harder to turn a blind eye to his beliefs. I dunno. Regardless, the mark DeMille left on the industry is deep and wide, and not easily forgotten.

Next: Louis B. Mayer

Jack Lemmon   Jean Arthur   Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno   Frank Capra   Bernard Herrmann
Fred Astaire


  1. I enjoy DeMille. Why be subtle when with a wave of his hand he could create MOVIES! It is interesting to see some of his earlier stuff - I find "Carmen" from 1915 to be very noirish. That gypsy girl was the original femme fatale. When I want a big bowl of popcorn and all the grand emotions worn on sleeves I sit back and enjoy "The Greatest Show on Earth" as much today as when I was a gullible kid.

  2. I admit, I haven't seen many of his movies. I was interested in writing about him from the perspective of a large-scale filmmaker who thought and worked big, like Cameron or Lean. CARMEN sounds interesting. Maybe I'll add it to the list for next year.


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