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

The King of Kings (1927): images of decadence before the coming of Christ.

It would seem that DeMille was rather unaware of the value of his films and those of others. As proof, here is his list, made in 1952, of the ten best films:

  1. Cabiria (Pastrone)
  2. The Birth of a Nation (Griffith)
  3. Ben Hur (Niblo)
  4. The Ten Commandments (DeMille)
  5. The King of Kings (DeMille)
  6. The Big Parade (Vidor)
  7. The Sign of the Cross (DeMille)
  8. Gone with the Wind (Fleming-Selznick)
  9. Going My Way (McCarey)
  10. Samson and Delilah (DeMille)

What this reveals (outside of his megalomania) is that DeMille paid heed above all to box-office success, the Oscars, the length of films, and big subjects or ancient/historical spectacles. The list thus excludes the best of his work and favours more questionable movies.

DeMille had reached the top of the industry very quickly, so he could hardly find anyone to contradict him. This explains the presence of implausible elements, shifts in tone and blatant digressions in his films (sometimes to the credit of the film, but not always).

The Crusades is often treated with irony: Lubitsch, Paramount’s production manager, was amazed at C.B.’s meticulous attention to detail, which made sure that every button on a uniform was closed properly, every trouser crease straight. However, Graham Green noticed that, in one scene, the mass was said according to the Anglican rite (established in 1533) while the crusade is set in 1180.

Missing the forest for the trees…

It is highly likely that DeMille took the story of each of his films at face value, reading Four Frightened People or The Road to Yesterday literally, whereas if you really like his films, it is by approaching them ironically.

And only then do they take on their full value.

Should we despise this body of work because it contains many original effects, but probably unintentionally?

I don’t think so. Many great moments in many films are due to chance: Eisenstein’s highly syncopated editing can be explained by the fact that there were often only short pieces of film strips in the USSR. At the end of The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941), when we don’t see the ailing Herbert Marshall come down the stairs before dying, the camera remains on an immobile Bette Davis, who doesn’t give him his medicine. And this ellipse, which endows the scene with great power, was due to the fact that Marshall had a wooden leg in real life…