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

Wallace Reid in The Affairs of Anatol (1921).

If we look at DeMille’s whole body of work, we can see that the films often restart completely after two-fifths of their runtime. Oh, it isn’t necessarily at 40% of the film, it can be at 35% or at 45%, even at 30% or 50% (but it’s not as good then). It reminds me of the comment by Truffaut, who wanted his films to take a new direction around the seventh reel, that is, after an hour, a little later than in DeMille’s films.

In the first film, The Squaw Man (1914), there is a change of course when the hero goes from England to the USA. Then there is a new spell when he goes from the East to the West, from New York to the Rocky Mountains. There is also the escape of the protagonist of The Whispering Chorus (1918), who abandons his home and the office where he works as an accountant and, after committing a forgery, takes refuge on a deserted island in the Hudson river. In Male and Female (1919), this journey is unintentional: it is prompted by a shipwreck that forces a family of English nobles to land on a wild island in the Pacific, turning them into a new Family Robinson. And right in the middle of Why Change Your Wife, made a few weeks later, the spouses change partners, even homes, a situation that comes up again in 1921 in Saturday Night. The Affairs of Anatol (1921) branches off abruptly from the city to the countryside, with new protagonists, Abner, the miserly, puritanical peasant in conflict with his wife, Annie. We then leave them, without any real transition, to focus on the city temptress Satan Synne.

There is a complete change, in three seconds, in Fool’s Paradise (1921), where we leave modern Texas behind to go to a still archaic Siam. In its first third, The Ten Commandments of 1923 abandons the pharaohs to follow a rather ordinary American family of our time, in its simple dwelling. Anna Land, the central figure of Triumph (1924), abruptly leaves the can-making factory, where she is a simple worker, to become, overnight, a prima donna at famous operas, before losing her voice and returning to her old job.

The evolution is even more pronounced in The Road to Yesterday, and its passage from 1925 to 1625, from Arizona to England, with the alibi of the train accident that disrupts Beth’s consciousness.

In The Godless Girl (1928), it’s the transfer of the two protagonists from high school to the correctional facility.

Madam Satan (1930) unexpectedly jumps from vaudeville, unfolding in three rooms, to the hero’s arrival in the zeppelin where a massive party is taking place.

This construction scheme was later forgotten, with the exception of The Ten Commandments of 1956, with its departure of the Israeli people from Egypt for their homeland.

DeMille is certainly not the only one to practice this system: let us recall The Wages of Fear (Clouzot, 1953), which is confined for an hour to the small brick-and-mortar city from which the trucks leave, before they begin their spectacular high-risk journey.

At the fifth reel of The Smugglers, I tried to give a new impetus to the film myself, with a long pan shot of the mountains, accompanied by Western-movie music.

But no other filmmaker persevered so much on these lines.

Other filmmakers generally introduce the median break softly. DeMille, in contrast, does it brutally. He tries to surprise the viewer, to shock him. You could almost think that it was another film, that the projectionist has loaded the wrong reel. It’s a shock that is usually an opening up: from the inside of a simple house or apartment, we open up to the vastness of the landscape or a luxurious set. DeMille never wrote about this practice. But it is so systematic that he was necessarily aware it.

Here is a practice dear to American cinema: when the interest of a film proved to be a little feeble, especially during public previews, it was boosted with a big storm scene (Griffith’s That Royle Girl) or the sinking of the Titanic at the end of Borzage’s minor comedy History Is Made at Night, or even the flights to get the miracle cure at the end of John Cromwell’s syrupy comedy Made for Each Other. Except that, in these cases, they were additions made after the shoot, while in DeMille, the doubling was done at the scriptwriting stage.

In my understanding, there were only two cases of late additions in C.B’s work: the montage sequence in Cleopatra and the introduction to The Sign of the Cross, imagined thirteen years after the shooting.

Critics didn’t like these irrational volte-faces. But it is precisely the force of the shock between the film’s different parts that produces the emotion. It’s a very modern force.