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

The Godless Girl (1928)

DeMille’s obsession with money is characteristic of him.

He is the only filmmaker who has taken the trouble of drawing up a financial inventory (cost and revenue) for each of his films. Chabrol and I tried, but gave up mid-career.

The numbers supplied by C.B. are incidentally fudged, even if they are accounted down to the last cent, since they are apparently based on box office receipts, from which the exhibitor’s share and, if possible, the cost of prints and publicity should obviously be deducted. As The Godless Girl didn’t work at all, ashamed of such a low score, he even added export earnings, which are absent from the numbers of other films.

There was a ten-dollar note with his image on it, and some of his films, such as Why Change Your Wife, feature a coin in the credits with his profile engraved on it.

It’s a very understandable obsession since DeMille was born into a Protestant family. And unlike Catholics, Protestants, especially the New England Protestants, considered that making money, and a lot of money, went hand in hand with religious fervour. Some congregations even got part of their funds from the management of brothels, which did not pose any moral problems for them.

Moreover, the DeMille family lived hand to mouth. In 1913, at the age of thirty-two, Cecil, who, like many actors, was struggling to find work, had a lot of debts. They were more than repaid with the exceptional revenues from The Squaw Man. There is a vengeful side to him, a lingering jealousy towards great fortunes, a ferocious desire to never be in a tight spot again. He was hence determined to acquire as many possessions as possible, to have the most massive budgets (insofar as it isn’t him who finances them). It was an obsession which diminished a little towards the end of his life, since he seems to have given up on the profits of The Ten Commandments to the benefit of a humanitarian institution.

In any case, C.B. was the only one to have remained the king of the box-office from the beginning to the end, from 1914 to 1956.

The presence of money is pronounced in his visuals, not just in the choice of luxurious sets, but also in the plots themselves: there are messages showing changes at the stock market in The Cheat, Adam’s Rib, The Golden Bed, Why Change Your Wife, and even in Chimmie Fadden Out West. At one point in Forbidden Fruit, the dollar sign appears superimposed on the iris of a businessman in love. Curiously, everything about the stock market changes in record time. One becomes very rich or is ruined in one second, with the appearance of schematic and contradictory bits of paper, or cursory, somewhat inappropriate wire messages. This didactic and unrealistic depiction of numbers in writing was, to be sure, the rule in the American cinema of the time, where the majority of the public, unaccustomed to the use of accounts or the pen, easily accepted these conventions. You just have to see the very, very crude forgery that the accountant of The Whispering Chorus commits.

In the same vein, we could mention the small, very showy insert from The Godless Girl that convinces no one—an almost comical addition, even, which states that, in contradiction to what we see in the film, things generally go well in correctional facilities.

This religion of money, of the number of viewers, was to play a dirty trick on our filmmaker, who was led to extol only his most spectacular and successful films to the detriment of less conspicuous works, since it obscured older works that were much more likely to stand the test of time. Godard was thus led to badmouth Cecil DeMille, because he identified him with The Ten Commandments, which, in my opinion, isn’t among his thirty best films.