[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Union Pacific (1939): the comedy of turning heads.

After these erratic years, divided between epics and modern films, DeMille returned to the only tried-and-tested standard, that of adventure films, and particularly Westerns.

From 1934 until his death, DeMille did not make any more contemporary films, with the exception of The Greatest Show on Earth, based on the exoticism offered by circus spectacle, and The Story of Dr. Wassell, which rests on another exoticism, that of the war in Indonesia. It was perhaps a mistake, for these two modern films are the best of this period. Never again, in the twenty years that followed, did he experience commercial failure.

Almost all these films centre on a male star, Gary Cooper (four films) or Fredric March or Joel McCrea. The hero is often provided with a double, a friend, a rival or an opponent, who goes astray or, being the only one to survive, prevails over him (The Plainsman, Union Pacific, North West Mounted Police, Reap the Wild Wind). This recalls the two brothers of The Ten Commandments, even the two DeMille brothers.

These films are less ambitious, less innovative on the artistic level. Sobriety is the rule here, in contradiction with our filmmaker’s usual impulse. Movies like The Plainsman (1936) or The Buccaneer (1937) are very professional, highly accomplished films, one based on the glorification of Western myths, the other on excess, but there is nothing, or almost nothing, in them that allows us to recognize C.B.’s handiwork. In The Plainsman, the actors are always in character: they always have something to do, and that’s what gives the film its entire power.

We recognize our auteur a little more in Union Pacific, a spirited film which recently met with a peculiar success: selected in 1939 for the first Cannes Festival, which was cancelled due to the war, it was awarded the grand prize of the festival sixty years later—a slightly excessive reward since Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings is more strikingly original and powerful. Union Pacific takes up a motif dear to DeMille, that of trains and railway disasters, which was already central to The Road to Yesterday and Saturday Night. Particularly noteworthy is the row of fifteen drunken heads in the saloon that turn around one after the other, and another effect that has been repeated many times since: the villain is about to shoot the hero, who turns around and kills him; he has seen the villain’s reflection in the mirror.

Another feature common to all these films: from 1939 onwards, DeMille only shot in colour. He was the first filmmaker in the world to abandon black and white for good. After several oscillations between monochrome and polychrome, Hawks took the plunge only in 1953. For Vidor, it was 1954; Ford and Hitchcock waited till 1962. One film towers above the rest while respecting the same principles as the other films of the decade. It’s The Story of Dr. Wassell (1943), I’ll come back to it.