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

The Cheat (1915): Tori, the evil Japanese (Sessue Hayakawa) tries to seduce the heroine (Fanny Ward).

It has often been said that DeMille couldn’t use his actors well.

But there is no way to say for sure.

In his films, the actor is often very sober, but it isn’t to the detriment of the film at all.

If The Cheat marked viewers’ minds in 1916, it was because the character played by Sessue Hayakawa was absolutely impassive. This was a new attitude in silent cinema, where actors overplayed to compensate for the lack of speech. This discretion was often generalized in C.B.’s films. A paradox that is finally quite positive: the actors are a bit self-effacing while the film manifests a constant delirium. A happy balance: what would it have been had they overplayed?!

To be sure, in the silent period, there are still a few excesses: the eyerolling of Schildkraut in The Road to Yesterday, of Rod La Rocque, the evil hero of The Ten Commandments, or of Jack Dean, the husband in The Cheat. But it was difficult then to escape these practices, which can even be found in a masterpiece like Murnau’s Sunrise, where George O’Brien overdoes it. There are some rather forced expressions by secondary characters playing comic reliefs, but it’s a principle that has always existed in cinema and which we find in the roles played by Akim Tamiroff (North West Mounted Police, The Buccaneer, Union Pacific), Roland Young (Madam Satan) or Trixie Friganza (the aunt in The Road to Yesterday).

And then, there are some very nice performances: Raymond Hatton, the accountant of The Whispering Chorus, is tremendous in an original role, with multiple changes in appearance. Charles Laughton chews the scenery in The Sign of the Cross, but that’s normal since he plays an uncommon character, Nero, here fat and spineless to an extreme. He was so astonishing that Sternberg called upon him to essay the role of Nero’s adoptive father, Emperor Claudius. And he would be called upon again to perform in Salomé and Spartacus.

For scenes with a large number of extras, DeMille had found an effective system: “I have assistants in the crowd who direct half or a third of the extras. Behind the assistants, there are a few handpicked actors, each responsible for the performance of a subdivision, and finally, behind each of these actors, there is a group of extras who follow their instructions.” It’s a method of subdivision of direction and responsibilities that imparts great variety to the extras’ performance, and makes it possible to avoid the overly classical crowd that acts mechanically.