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

Joan the Woman (1916): Joan (Geraldine Farrar) on the stake, first attempt at colour for DeMille.

DeMille was seen as a tyrannical and domineering filmmaker, as affirmed by the choice of his favourite costume (jodhpurs in particular) which contributed to making him the perfect macho.

At the same time, one notices that he was someone who thought a lot about the interests of his collaborators and was very faithful to them: no other filmmaker can boast of having made their first forty-four feature films with the same cinematographer, Alvin Wyckoff in this case. Jeanie MacPherson was his go-to screenwriter from 1915 to 1937 and was instrumental in developing the couple conflicts in his high-society films. From 1919 to 1956, he had no other editor than Anne Bauchens. In almost all his films between 1918 and 1956, he cast his ex-girlfriend Julia Faye, even if she had lost some of her appeal with age. It is quite moving to find the same names in the credits of both the 1956 and the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, not just Bauchens and Faye, but also cameraman Peverell Marley.

It is clear that he acted like the head of a theatre company, obliging Paramount to put some of his collaborators on permanent contracts, even if they didn’t work every year on his films. He got angry with the company, which wanted to break with this principle.

He produced fifty-two films between 1926 and 1928, sometimes on dense and unusual melodramatic subjects. It was an opportunity for him to hire most of his favourite actors and technicians, who would have otherwise been shown the door at Paramount.

I can think only of Chabrol who could assemble a veritable family of collaborators over a very long period of time. This is very different from the method of a creator like Maurice Pialat, who changed technicians from one film to another, or even during the shoot.

It was typical of a theatre director to sometimes give each of his favourite actors very different roles (Theodore Roberts labelled a crooked old billionaire or a wheezy grandfather, and suddenly turning into Moses, Raymond Hatton, the handsome Frenchman of The Little American transformed into a small-time accountant in The Whispering Chorus) that didn’t always suit them exactly. It could work very well in the theatre because of the audience’s distance from the actor. It sometimes becomes risky in cinema, with its tighter shots. Look at this thirty-four-year-old actress who plays Joan of Arc.

In Why Change Your Wife and Madam Satan, the hero doesn’t recognize his wife, who is dressed and made up differently. In The Whispering Chorus, it is the other way around. It’s an accepted convention in the theatre, which doesn’t work in cinema, where you feel, in the tighter shots, that the husband is very close to the wife and cannot fail to recognize her.

Two devices, frequent in DeMille’s work, derive from the theatre: the use of a small window in the background (The Squaw Man, The Ten Commandments, Union Pacific) and the use of a curtain (The Road to Yesterday, Samson) which opens and closes at will onto another set. A pure filmmaker would have moved from one set to another, with camera movement or scene changes.

A man of the theatre: this is obvious, since in his early days, he adapted several plays and tried to hire the best actors from Broadway. He favours static shots, such as the brilliant 1:42 minute shot in Union Pacific where he follows the evolution of a courtship. And he made films in every genre, like a theatre director who can tackle Scapin the Schemer as well as Phèdre.

In cinema, the director is generally more pigeonholed. Look at Hitchcock or Chabrol (crime films), Leone and Joseph Kane (Westerns), Capra or Edwards (comedies), Craven or Romero (horror films).