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

Florence Vidor and Elliott Dexter in Old Wives for New (1918): in DeMille, women are fished out.

Even as he nauseatingly made fun of markedly overweight women (Sophy Murdock of Old Wives for New, aunt Harriet in The Road to Yesterday), DeMille cast Gloria Swanson, a pretty but still plump woman, as his star in six films from 1918 to 1921. It was hard to close her bra (Why Change Your Wife). This corresponds well to the predominant feminine aesthetic of the time (we are reminded of the heroine of the recent Titanic, Kate Winslet), but not at all to the canons of our times. Gloria Swanson shot Don’t Change Your Husband at twenty-one, but she looks rather like twenty-eight. We could see this as one possible reason for the disaffection towards C.B.’s high-society films, to which our contemporaries prefer the frail Lillian Gish magnified by Griffith.

All this changed from 1919 onwards. In America, a new category of young girls, the flappers, began to appear. Flapper refers to young girls, but the term was extended, in a mocking way, to many girls between the ages of sixteen and thirty. The flapper is svelte, lean, naughty, does as she pleases, mocks conventions, often goes around without a hat, which was frowned upon at that time, goes neither to the temple nor to the church, and has a very liberated love life. A bit like Katharine Hepburn’s character in Bringing Up Baby. The flapper first appears in DeMille’s work (and I think in American cinema) in the form of Leatrice Joy (whose character kills a policeman while speeding in a car) in Manslaughter. She will appear again, played by Leatrice Joy or Vera Reynolds or Pauline Garon in Adam’s Rib, Feet of Clay, The Golden Bed, The Road to Yesterday and, in an oblique or offbeat form, The Godless Girl and Madam Satan, a film where she is nevertheless a bit silly and threatened by her curves (which ended the career of actress Lilian Roth, who was then sinking into alcoholism, according to her moving autobiography I’ll Cry Tomorrow, which was filmed by Daniel Mann in 1955).

The flapper then disappears, for the good reason that DeMille practically made no modern films anymore. We find an anachronistic echo of the character in the characters played by Paulette Goddard.

In DeMille’s work, eroticism often remains a little outdated and primitive. He shows nudity (Madam Satan, The Sign of the Cross, Cleopatra, Samson, Four Frightened People). That is far removed from suggestiveness, the master weapon of seduction in Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Gene Tierney or Jennifer Jones.