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

The Affairs of Anatol (1921): the peephole that serves every use.

It is generally defined by three characteristics: implausibility, decorative overload and bad taste.

These are indeed the characteristics that can be found in the work of DeMille, the renowned king of film kitsch. They can be seen as negative. And yet, DeMille intrigues us, fascinates us and arouses our admiration.

Let’s first say that plausibility isn’t indispensable to a film’s success. The question isn’t even asked when it comes to animation films. Why should implausibility be necessarily included in the list of charges just because there are actors who are filmed?

Decorative overload is of two kinds:

Either we see edifices to the glory of a god built by the Babylonians, the Aztecs, the Pharaohs, the Philistines, the Romans of the Empire, cruel people who are against the Christians we are supposed to be, against the Buddhists of today. They are all inspired by a taste for extravagance. It’s a universe that is often shown as detestable, but which is striking in its unusual quality.

Or we see the modern world of the 1920s. With post-war wealth comes numerous eccentricities, probably corresponding to reality, but which are exaggerated through the talents of set designers such as Wilfred Buckland, Paul Iribe, and above all Mitchell Leisen (1898-1972), a mannerist who later directed remarkable comedies like Easy Living and Midnight.

And it’s a veritable festival of baroque or rococo ornaments, as noticeable in the costumes and the choice of props as in the sets. Let us randomly mention the safe that looks like a cigar box and which hides a telephone (Old Wives for New), the boots with curved tips in the shape of Viking ships or snakes ready to bite, or the pool that you enter in tailcoats (Don’t Change Your Husband), the skin of an entire beast, complete with the head, on the stairs, likely to make you slip (Saturday Night), the giant peephole in the middle of the door in The Affairs of Anatol, which defeats its own purpose because you can put your hand or head into it, the garden entirely made of sugar in The Golden Bed, the electric machine of the mechanical ballet in Madam Satan, which follows a fashion show with seven models in increasingly bewildering outfits, with feathers in the shape of tentacles, endless trains and furry hairstyles, the huge mansions of Arizona that look like expressionist sets (The Road to Yesterday), and I could go on for a long time… Americans have an adjective to describe this clutter: lavish. You can sense C.B.’s mocking humour in this extravagant display, but he is also making fun of himself since he offered these very things as a source of attraction for his guests during weekend parties at his luxurious second home. Of course, there might be a direct relationship between ancient architecture (allegedly faithful to reality) and the eccentricities of the 1920s (which one supposes are more imaginary), but it is not a given: in Male and Female, the ancient episode comes just after a scene set in the barren backdrop of a deserted island. It’s only C.B.’s unmotivated desire for a flashback that occasions this parenthesis.

Some of the humour is lost today, because we can no longer tell eccentric outfits from normal ones, which have also become very laughable.

Bad taste is obviously part of the game. The worse it is, the better it is. How does one draw the line? By going beyond. A little kitsch would be banal and mediocre. It’s the excess of kitsch that makes for the film’s strength, arouses laughter, mixed with an admiration for the set and costume designers’ inventiveness. After Madam Satan (1930), kitsch has a smaller part to play. From the period of colour films, the interest of costume work is no longer based on extravagance, but solely on the beauty of the outfits and their arrangement in the shot.

Kitsch certainly makes its appearance later too, in Moses’s entrance or in the schematized relationship between Samson and Dalilah, or Paulette Goddard’s lipstick after an aquatic and desert marathon (Unconquered), but it is less present. I miss it a little.