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

Robert Preston in North West Mounted Police (1940).

Many of C.B.’s films turn around the notion of fault: someone, usually quite nice, commits a fault. He redeems himself, either in a more or less heroic death or by confessing his mistake, or by benefitting from the indulgence of a superior.

It begins with The Squaw Man. The squaw kills a man, but it is to protect the one she loves. She confesses her fault and kills herself.

Maggie, the maid of Kindling, becomes an unwitting accomplice to a burglary. Her mistress eventually pardons her.

Edith, a woman of high-society, misappropriates money from a charity, whose treasurer she is, to buy a chic dress she likes, which sets the drama in motion (The Cheat).

The English soldier Eric Trent betrays Joan of Arc, his benefactor, who will be burnt alive because of him. And in 1916, his namesake, also played by Wallace Reid, sacrifices himself deliberately by destroying the German trench posing a danger for French soldiers. Joan, who then appears in a superimposition, is happy. The soldier of 1916 has rehabilitated, in some way, his supposed ancestor.

Marcia, the heroine of The Devil Stone (1917), accidentally kills her husband, who has seized, by dubious manoeuvres, an emerald that brings bad luck. This death and Marcia’s confession ensure that the ill fate no longer works. And the detective chooses to close the case.

The accountant of The Whispering Chorus (1918) commits a forgery. He is tracked down, arrested for a murder he hasn’t committed. But his return home would compromise the future of his wife, who has remarried. And he prefers to atone for his mistake on the electric chair—the “supreme redemption”, according to the film’s French title.

The odious Elizabethan count of The Road to Yesterday is absolved of his crimes when, on his way back to the America of today, he converts to Christianity and rescues his wife from a burning train.

The two protagonists of The Godless Girl inadvertently cause the death of a student, but redeem themselves at the end by saving many lives in a fire accident at the prison.

Ronnie Logan, Madeleine Carroll’s bad brother, deserts his combat outpost, resulting in the death of several other soldiers (North West Mounted Police); he too redeems himself in his death—just like the husband in Union Pacific, responsible for the death of a man during a holdup, and played by the same actor, Robert Preston.

John Wayne (Reap the Wild Wind) is responsible for the sinking of a ship. But in fighting the octopus which threatens the life of his rival, he redeems himself while losing his life.

A jealous Delilah delivers Samson to the Philistines. To make amends, she helps Samson destroy the temple and the power of the Philistines. She dies during this destruction.

The evil animal trainer of The Greatest Show on Earth organizes the holdup of a train, but he tries to prevent the convoy with his sweetheart from crashing, at the cost of his life.

Here we see Christian ideology come to the surface: crime and purifying repentance, or sacrifice. But this is more of a dramatic contrivance than a real ideological message.

The persistence of this motif across films becomes a bit tiresome.

Does it attest to a certain lack of imagination, or a desire to exploit a formula that works very well with the viewer? Filmmakers from the thirties were not afraid to steal from themselves, as films only had an ephemeral life then, exacerbated by technical progress (advent of talkies, of colour).

Other hobbyhorses: the distant sound of bagpipes or music announcing the arrival of rescue troops (The Plainsman, North West Mounted Police, Wassell, Unconquered), wedding through a go-between object (the sword of The Crusades, the necklace of The Road to Yesterday), the glove, a theatrical prop par excellence (The Crusades, The Godless Girl, Fool’s Paradise).

Also note the omnipresence of animals, dogs and cats in the comedies, monkey (Four Frightened People, The Godless Girl), donkey (The Road to Yesterday), wild animals (Male and Female, The Sign of the Cross, Samson), asp (Cleopatra), sharks (Feet of Clay), octopus (Reap the Wild Wind), zebras (The King of Kings), not to forget Noah’s Ark in the circus film. In contrast, children are almost completely absent. They are mischievous characters, confined to secondary roles (The Road to Yesterday, Male and Female, Why Change Your Wife).