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

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Throughout the 20th century, American press was in the grip of the most disconcerting empiricism.

In general, it tore DeMille to pieces from 1921-1925 onwards. It believed that any film accused of implausibility was bad. Critics ended up seeing him only as a commercial filmmaker. Intellectuals only accepted filmmakers considered serious, such as Wyler, Stevens or Zinnemann. Few Oscars outside of secondary categories (editing, special effects), with the exception of The Greatest Show on Earth, a sort of end-of-career tribute.

There are many books on C.B. in America, alas in the vein of Gala, and devoid of attention to the art of cinema.

In France, The Cheat received rave reviews in 1917, beginning with those written by Louis Delluc, who was rightly sensitive to the film’s narrative economy, precision and sense of ellipse. For him, The Cheat was “the Tosca of cinema”. It was, he wrote, “the first time a film deserved the name of film”. The praise is a little hard to understand today, since hundreds of films have subsequently copied The Cheat.

And then, the situation deteriorated in our country too. DeMille was classified among the filmmakers who gave in to pure commerce—Westerns, adventure films, epics etc. For many, DeMille was about quantity, and thus the negation of quality, Hollywood in all its horror. The critical line of the New Wave excluded DeMille: Rivette, who saw almost every film, always refused to attend a screening of The Ten Commandments. Some critics excoriated DeMille without having seen his films.

Paramount had understood the situation well: the original release of The Ten Commandments, in 1958, was only in French, as it was for minor Italian melodramas. These films were therefore catalogued as not belonging to the artistic domain. Having said that, it was acceptable, at a push, to listen to Moses or Delilah speak not Hebrew, but French. It was nevertheless less atrocious than listening to them speaking in English, an academic and very “Mid-Atlantic” English that is often quite comical to our ears.

Reactions appeared little by little: first, a rather rebellious and laudatory article by Jacques Doniol-Valcroze in Cahiers du cinéma in 1951 titled “Samson, Cecil and Delilah”. Then came acts of defence at the initiative of the second generation of critics at Cahiers du cinéma, later taken over brilliantly by the Positif magazine, under the talented impetus of Jean-Loup Bourget and Pierre Berthomieu, and also by the Cinémathèque française, which devoted two full-length retrospectives to our filmmaker. This allowed us to discover a very important part of his work, hidden for many years: Kindling, The Golden Chance, Saturday Night, The Road to Yesterday, The Golden Bed etc.

Apart from a few films where the interest is constant throughout runtime (Kindling, The Cheat, Why Change Your Wife, Saturday Night, The Godless Girl, The Greatest Show on Earth), there are a certain number of works where one sequence stands out clearly from the rest. They are not to be despised for all that. John Ford used to say that what we retain from a film is not the plot, but rather one or more special moments, which may outdo more harmonious masterpieces.

Here are seven of them, which can be examined in more detail.

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

The Whispering Chorus (1918): suspense; the woman who expects the worst (Kathlyn Williams) behind the bay window at dawn, with the city in the  background (a setting that inspired Murnau in Nosferatu)

A large number of filmmakers borrowed from DeMille. First of all, Howard Hawks. To be sure, Hawks didn’t care about C.B. For him, he was the model of what not to do. Hawks’ cinema is based on the absence of effects, sobriety and plausibility. And much of C.B.’s work is based on grandiloquence, flashy effects and implausibility.

Hawks began by parodying DeMille in Fig Leaves (1926): the return to antiquity, in certain sequences, takes up the principle dear to DeMille of inserting a sequence set in the past into the continuity of the present. Except that in DeMille, and particularly in Male and Female, which seems to be directly copied by Hawks, the past has a dramatic or emphatic value. For Hawks, the past contains comic virtues.

The character of the quirky zoologist who thinks only of his profession and his brontosaurus skeleton played by Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938) is the obvious replica of Prof. Nathan Reade, played by Elliott Dexter in Adam’s Rib (1923).

The comedy of remarriage, frequently embodied by Cary Grant in the years 1937-1940, and notably in His Girl Friday (1939), evidently derives from the trilogy Don’t Change Your Husband / Why Change Your Wife / Saturday Night filmed twenty years earlier.

At the beginning of Hatari! (Hawks, 1961), a wounded hunter in an isolated terrain urgently needs a blood transfusion. But his blood group is very rare. The only one who can give him his blood is the Frenchy Gérard Blain, who has just had a rather brutal quarrel with the hunting troop. The transfusion takes place in a heated atmosphere: receiving blood from someone you hate…

Well, the same scene, written by other screenwriters, was already there towards the end of The Greatest Show on Earth (1951), played by Charlton Heston and Cornel Wilde. The adaptation rights were presumably bought by Hawks. But probably not, since in America the rights belong to the producer, and Paramount was DeMille’s producer and the distributor of Hawks’ film.

The trickle of blood dripping from the ceiling in Rio Bravo and falling into the beer, I’ve already seen it in an old C.B. western, The Girl of the Golden West, I think.

Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs was shot just before The Ten Commandments. But it is quite obvious that it was with the intention to overtake DeMille, since there was a huge publicity around C.B.’s film well before its release, and it was good to make use of it at no cost. From Samson and Delilah, Hawks borrowed the idea of the final shot, the slow fall of the curtain, as well as the principles of the sexy, treacherous heroine, and the architectural structure as the pivot of the drama.

The ending of A Place in the Sun (Stevens, 1950) seems to be inspired by The Whispering Chorus (1918): in these two films, an innocent death row inmate calmly goes to the electric chair because, although he did not kill anyone, he has committed a serious offence in other respects. There is an echo of this paradox again in Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark (2000).

The borrowing becomes evident when looking at the magnificent opening of Why Change Your Wife (1919), where the husband is shaving in the bathroom when his wife tries to take toiletries from the cupboard in front of him, and they get in each other’s way. The same scene can be found in The Marriage Circle (Lubitsch, 1923). It is noteworthy that Lubitsch conveys the same thing in less time, in a more lively, elegant way. DeMille, for his part, insists, repeats the effects. As if he was afraid that the audience wouldn’t understand, as if he wanted to prolong the humour of the situation indefinitely. It’s true that DeMille is often heavy-handed. But so are Dostoyevsky and Thomas Hardy. It’s part of their personality, their charm. A compelling heavy-handedness.

The tramp is afraid of the operation that will restore his beloved’s eyesight (City Lights) because she has never seen him and will probably find him a bit stupid: the idea comes from Fool’s Paradise. The hooks of the shower curtain falling one by one, pulled by the hand of a Janet Leigh trying to grab onto it after being stabbed to death (Hitchcock’s Psycho) was already there in The Ten Commandments of 1923, where Rod La Rocque kills Nita Naldi.

The architect’s wife’s going up on a freight lift to join her husband at the top of a building in Vidor’s Fountainhead was there a quarter-century earlier in the same The Ten Commandments, albeit with less force, and in the novel of the same name, published in 1943 and written by Ayn Rand, a friend of C.B.’s. The influence of the filmmaker can be seen not only in films, but also in literature.

Cleopatra (1934): the montage sequence; tight shots of armours foreshadowing Alexander Nevsky (1938).

Don’t think that the borrowings exist only in America.

Take Nosferatu (Murnau, 1922): the daybreak in the city of Bremen, visible from the wide windows where the heroine is standing, awaiting a very threatening future, well, it comes from The Whispering Chorus (1918), when Jane Tremble awaits the announcement of her first husband’s execution.

The very oppressive reformatory where Louise Brooks is confined in The Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst, 1929) appears to be a copy of the one in The Godless Girl, made the year before.

The atmosphere of the high-society comedies that DeMille shot between 1918 and 1920 served as a model for the Swedish film Erotikon (Stiller, 1920).

The Return of Vasili Bortnikov (Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1953) takes up an idea from For Better, for Worse: the supposedly-KIA husband who returns home to find his wife remarried.

The master-servant exchanges, with the barter of clothes and the mistaken victim of shooting, at the end of The Rules of the Game come straight out of The Heart of Nora Flynn (1916), which Renoir must have certainly seen in Paris on one of his furloughs.

I, too, had a variation on the theme of The Whispering Chorus in Death’s Glamour (2005), which also steals a scene from The Golden Bed. My Origins of a Meal (1977) borrows its depiction of can manufacturing from Triumph (1924), and its basic principle from The Sign of the Cross, which shows the entire journey of the donkey’s milk.

Let’s be honest. Borrowings are not a one-way street.

DeMille was inspired by his favourite film, Cabiria (Pastrone, 1914), as evidenced by the overloaded, kitschy Mexican sets of The Woman God Forgot (1917) and those of the Philistines’ Temple in Samson and Delilah (1949).

The ancient interludes in the high-society comedies made between 1919 and 1923 recall the Babylonian sets of Intolerance (Griffith, 1916), whose multi-temporality DeMille tried to reproduce, at least partially, in The Road to Yesterday (1925). From Intolerance, DeMille also borrowed the race between a car and a train at the beginning of Manslaughter.

The Siege of Orleans (Joan the Woman, 1916) is a replica of the Babylonian ramparts from the same Intolerance. This point has been disputed, as Griffith took pains to work in secret, but it was an open secret, especially since DeMille had collaborators who were quite close to Griffith, such as Monte Blue, Tully Marshall and Jeanie Macpherson.

In C.B. DeMille’s films, we find a number of iris-in and iris-out shots, like in Griffith.

The idea of making a film about pharaohs and pyramids (The Ten Commandments) certainly comes from The Loves of Pharaoh (Lubitsch, 1921) and its imposing sets.

The montage sequence of Cleopatra (1934) is inspired by Eisenstein. We find here the visual and framing effects of Time in the Sun, released in 1933, which is a shortened version of Que Viva Mexico! We also notice the syncopated montage of attractions from The General Line and October. On the other hand, it could be argued that the Teutonic Knights of Alexander Nevsky are inspired by the tight shots of helmets in Cleopatra, made four years earlier.

And the shots of Cleopatra on horseback just before the battle are very reminiscent of the Marlene Dietrich of The Scarlet Empress, thanks to the involvement of Travis Banton, the costume designer of both films.

The birdcage in Madam Satan (1930), which symbolises the weight of social conventions, is a response to the famous cage in Greed (Stroheim, 1923).

Stroheim again: In The Greatest Show on Earth (1951), Cornel Wilde, on his return in the circus, amazes with his right arm, which is always hidden by the raincoat he always has on. Charlton Heston snatches his raincoat: Wilde has a prosthesis. It’s a tribute to a famous and identical shot in Foolish Wives (1921). There were a lot of commonalities between DeMille and Stroheim, who were both curiously cast as actors in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. A vision of a decadent world of debauchery and orgies. Stroheim shows it with great crudeness. DeMille reveals it stealthily, with a humour that does not really exist in Stroheim’s films and which softens the harshness of the facts.

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

Unconquered (1946): Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard saved from drowning at the last minute.

When I was writing at Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s and 1960s, we were all practitioners of the auteur policy. If a director was brilliant, it was on all his films. There are indeed very few failures in the work of Renoir, Hawks, Hitchcock, Chaplin or Lubitsch, and none in that of Tati or Eisenstein, who only made seven or eight films. Those who failed often enough became suspects: if Ford failed in three films in a row (Mogambo, The Long Gray Line, Mister Roberts), it meant that our estimation was wrong. And yet, Seven Women, Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath remain major works.

DeMille was thus challenged with supporting evidence: the mediocrity of The Crusades, The Woman God Forgot, Carmen, A Romance of the Redwoods, The Trail of Lonesome Pine, Chimmie Fadden Out West, Maria Rosa, The Unafraid, Rose of the Rancho, Till I Come Back to You, The Squaw Man of 1931 etc.

I have to say that, when a director makes more than fifty-five feature films, there are bound to be blunders.

And then, directors of the early days or of Hollywood at the time of its splendour were not looking to present an absolutely spotless record of achievements. They didn’t even know that films could remain indefinitely in memory. They turned out turkeys just like they went to the toilet or made laundry lists. And they couldn’t know for sure whether one of their many projects would give a good result. DeMille’s first priorities at the beginning of his career were to fulfil the wishes of Famous Players-Lasky, which wanted to make the most of his name, and to put his team to work. When he didn’t have a project under his belt, DeMille would shoot another Squaw Man. There was nothing to write, or almost nothing, and off he went. Maria Rosa seems to have been undertaken solely to familiarise the great star Geraldine Farrar with cinema before giving her more important roles. Till I Come Back to You was probably the result of a diplomatic agreement with the Belgians to restore the coat of arms of their fugitive king (The Cheat had already mentioned Red Cross’s aid to the Belgians, and C.B.’s ancestors came from Holland). I notice that, apart from more ambitious productions such as Carmen or The Woman God Forgot, almost none of the failed films is detestable, but they turn out to be insipid and uninteresting.

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

Don’t Change Your Husband (1918)

Seventy films. Today, nine are missing.

Only short excerpts remain of three of them, which do not give an idea of the films: The Devil Stone (1917), which is a melodrama, as is Feet of Clay (1924), and a western, The Squaw Man from 1918.

And four films from early 1915, a period when DeMille was uninspired, are completely lost: two comedies, The Wild Goose Chase and Chimmie Fadden, probably in the same vein as its mediocre sequel Chimmie Fadden Out West, a melodrama (Temptation) and an adventure film, The Arab, probably along the lines of The Unafraid and The Captive. Then there are two comedies, The Dream Girl (1916) and We Can’t Have Everything (1918), partly set in the film industry, with Tully Marshall in the role of a director who may well have resembled DeMille.

I would be very curious to see it, especially since it was shot during a successful period, the year of Old Wives for New and Don’t Change Your Husband.

However, the biggest loss is that of Feet of Clay (1924), bookended by two absolutely remarkable productions, Triumph and The Golden Bed, an exuberant melodrama.

It appears that DeMille helped out with some sequences in films made by others, but the filmmaker did not think it right to mention this in the lists of his films. One of these, Chicago (1928), made by Frank Urson, is well known.

[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…

[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.

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

Why Change Your Wife? (1919)

DeMille’s intertitles contain comments on the action shown and, of course, the words uttered by the characters.

These comments are often characterized by their length and pompousness.

Look at the final title card of Why Change Your Wife: “And now you know what every husband knows: that a man would rather have his wife for his sweetheart than any other woman; but Ladies: if you would be your husband’s sweetheart, you simply MUST learn when to forget that you’re his wife.” Or the introduction to The Road to Yesterday: “Everyone in this audience has felt an unaccountable Fear, either of the Dark or the Unseen, of great Height or great Depth. Everyone has felt an instantaneous Dislike for some individual: an instantaneous Love for another; a great Trust of some, a great Fear of others. How do you account for this? Is the cause hidden in the Present, the Future or the Past?” Another gem: “Just as the tempest sweeps everything before it, the madness of a moment conquers everything, even Love” And another: “When morning finally arrives, ruthless virtues prove stronger than Love, and ruin a home.” This pompous quality can sometimes be found in the visuals: at the beginning of Male and Female, a high-society comedy set indoors, there is a shot of the clouds, a shot of the sea, another of the Grand Canyon, whereas everything is taking place is London. This grandiloquence often has to do with the involvement of Cecil’s brother, William, and screenwriter MacPherson. But Cecil obvious accepted it, even if clashes with the simplicity of the dialogues.

The grandiloquence is all the more questionable since an intertitle doesn’t last forever and since we don’t always have the time to understand such convoluted formulations.

We must bear in mind that DeMille was a Bostonian, a proud product of an ambitious theatre scene, and he wanted this ambition to be seen in his films. Like many of the silent cinema greats, Griffith and Gance in particular, DeMille was a failed playwright. In his work, one can sense a contradiction between an elite, highbrow, tasteful side (C.B. DeMille’s finest exegete, Sumiko Higashi, uses the word genteel) and a desire for a popular cinema. The two are hard to reconcile, but our filmmaker manages it quite well.

Besides, it should be noted that there are often pretentious intertitles in Griffith’s or Stroheim’s films: some title cards of Greed make you laugh.

But the intertitles are sometimes brilliant. Listen to this magic phrase found in the play The Road to Yesterday in 1906, and reused in the film of the same name twenty years later, although it was already used rather gratuitously in Male and Female in 1919: “Through lives and lives, through hells and hells, till the will that made has unmade, thou shalt pay, and pay, and pay.” This phrase has then obsessed DeMille for years.

The intertitles can sometimes have a great comic value or reveal a clever subtility. A kid tosses a banana peel on which the hero of Why Change Your Wife slips and soon becomes bedridden. And just before that, there is this marvellous title card: “If this were fiction, the train would be wrecked or they would have a terrible automobile accident on leaving the station. But in real life, if it isn’t a woman, it’s generally a brick or a banana peel that changes a man’s destiny.”

A great fan of shipwrecks and car accidents, DeMille, while making fun of himself, manages to make us believe for a moment that what he shows is life, and not fiction…

The dialogue sometimes contains interesting refrains. The hero of the Western Union Pacific doesn’t have the reactions of a cowboy at all. He always says “maybe”. The same film contains some fine lyrical lines. A passenger in a train on fire remarks, “If we’re gonna burn after we’re dead, let’s get some practice.”

And the writing doesn’t leave out private jokes. The alcohol that Bebe Daniels offers to Thomas Meighan (Why Change Your Wife) comes out of a fine bottle called “Forbidden Fruit”, the title of the film C.B. will make six months later. The broken record in the silent version of The Ten Commandments carries the label CB 465. The ship-owner of Reap the Wild Wind is called Devereaux, as was the special effects supervisor employed by Cecil Blount DeMille. One of the troopers in The Crusades answers to the name ‘Blount’. The hero of The Godless Girl is named Hathaway, like C.B.’s assistant. Wassell’s competitor is called Wayne, like the actor of the previous film. The train in Union Pacific has a name: Old MacPherson, the name of the screenwriter who was no longer working with him, but whom he salutes in passing. The fake vitriol attack (with eyewash) in Why Change Your Wife is based on an incident between two of C.B.’s mistresses, Julia Faye and Jeanie… MacPherson. There are surely many other wordplays that I haven’t been able to spot. There are perhaps more private jokes in DeMille’s films than in Godard’s.

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

Akim Tamiroff in North West Mounted Police (1940): Technicolor Western comedy.

C.B.’s conservatism is not limited to politics.

DeMille is a man who doesn’t travel much; either the studio, or outdoor locations in California, or somewhere not too far. In his Canadian film, North West Mounted Police, it is clear that the distant exteriors in the background, photographed with transparencies, were shot by Arthur Rosson’s second unit. It wasn’t until the two last projects that C.B. deigned to actually travel, following the circus troupe around Florida (The Greatest Show on Earth) or going to Egypt (The Ten Commandments).

He often filmed the same thing. He may be the only one to have shot two remakes of one of his films, The Squaw Man in this case.

Forbidden Fruit is a new version of The Golden Chance, made five years earlier. Four Frightened People looks a lot like Male and Female. Don’t Change Your Husband and Why Change Your Wife are almost twin films. The Girl of the Golden West and A Romance of the Redwoods have very similar screenplays. Not to mention the two versions of the Ten Commandments.

He was to shoot a remake of The Buccaneer in 1957, but finally, overcome by age, he made way for his son-in-law, Anthony Quinn.

His special effects didn’t change. The painted canvases and schematic transparencies worked well in 1916. Why not do the same thing forty years later, even if the audience had become more demanding?

A train moves across the screen from left to right. The camera echoes the movement, panning slowly to the right, in the same direction as the locomotive. In the foreground, in front of the train, are three women, clad in sarees, striking a graceful pose before a tree, their heads gently responding to the moving vehicle behind them. The edge of the panning camera stops just to the right of the tree. We expect the train to come into view after it passes the tree, but no, the iron horse simply vanishes behind its trunk, as if swallowed by this compositional element. This shot, worthy of a John Ford, constitutes the opening of Bengali academic and experimental filmmaker Ashish Avikunthak’s seventh feature, Glossary of Non-human Love, one of the five Indian films screened in June at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR).

And it’s a shot unlike anything else in contemporary cinema, combining movement and stasis, a classical idea of plastic beauty with some SFX magic. It will be a question of such incongruencies and anachronisms all through Avikunthak’s film, which, we are told, is set in a future when Artificial Intelligence has taken over human life. Divided into 64 chapters, variously titled “Jealousy”, “Affection”, “Remorse”, “Delusion”, “Perfection”, “Rebirth” and so on, the film offers a series of vignettes in which half-a-dozen men and women, presumably hollowed out by AI, try to understand the cumulus of emotions and sensations around physical love.

The chapter names have little relation to what we see in the vignettes; if there is a connection, it is mostly oblique, for instance the chapter titled “Shadow” where an actor plays shadow cricket, or the one called “Non-Duality” where another performer smokes with a CGI double of hers. Many of the vignettes are propelled by dialogue, but the lines are shared by different actors such that none of them has any fixed identity. Several scenes feature the performers in the nude, composed into striking tableaux or engaged in minimal but precise movements, with their desexualized nudity echoing the blank states that their minds are. What sounds like residual memories of lovemaking are invoked, as are mythological and historical accounts; the difference between past and present, male and female, gods and humans all vanish in this collective stream of consciousness.

It is a tall order to process Glossary of Non-human Love in any meaningful way in one viewing, especially for those who don’t speak Bengali, caught as the eyes are between its visual provocations and the subtitles. Unless your name is Ashish Avikunthak, trying to closely follow its philosophical arguments will not take you very far. It will, in any case, take you away from the primary pleasures of the film, which lie not in its text but on its surfaces.

There is always something of formal interest in each of the vignettes, the film constantly experimenting with newer ways of composing them. At times, it is the gonzo camera angles that prompt the viewer’s eye to recompose space; elsewhere, it is the fragmented compositions in which the frame is divided into multiple rectilinear subframes, each one competing for our attention. Or it’s the fine-grained sound design, which suggests a world beyond what we see. Some sketches are presented as single-shot tableaux while others are distributed across several settings, jumping from one to another even in the middle of a single line of dialogue.

It is, however, the use of architecture in the film that is most striking. Discounting the outdoor locations, Glossary of Non-human Love is shot inside half-a-dozen different residences in Kolkata and Mumbai. The buildings range from angular, modernist designs to colonial structures and traditional brick houses; their peeling paint, rusty ironwork, double doors and grilled windows with Indo-Mughal motifs, scorched courtyards and general lived-in quality possess a nonhuman sensuality and warmth that stand in contrast to the icy, naked bodies of the performers.

Despite the dead seriousness of its subject, Glossary is also a film with a subtle sense of humour. Many of its indoor scenes are intruded upon by the external world, either visually through the windows or in the form of ambient sound, which pierces the Great Art Film Experiment conducted by the filmmaker and his collaborators, hermetically sealed within expressly emptied houses. In this, and in its attention to the textures of everyday living, it joins the cinema of Tsai Ming-Liang, whose work too taps into the spiritual possibilities of the quotidian spaces.

Equally provocative, but in another manner, Kerala-based filmmaker Don Palathara’s fourth project Everything Is Cinema is told entirely from the point of view (and the camera) of a Malayali filmmaker called Chris, unseen but voiced by Palathara himself. Chris, we learn, went to Kolkata in January 2020 to shoot some kind of a remake of Louis Malle’s documentary Calcutta (1969). But the project comes to a halt with the outbreak of the pandemic, and Chris is stuck in an apartment in the city with his partner, an actress called Anita (Sherin Catherine). At this point, his film turns inward, with Chris now shooting Anita in her daily routine.

The city documentary may have turned domestic, but the filmmaker’s gaze remains that of an outsider, with Malle’s voiceover over street scenes of Calcutta giving way to Chris’ voiceover over monochrome images of Anita. We see right away that their relationship is in tatters: the pair is estranged; Chris can’t stand Anita and subjects her to a barrage of criticisms on the soundtrack, ranging from mild rebuke for her supposed hypocrisies to misogynistic tirade. With little self-awareness and much self-love, he assumes a higher moral and intellectual stand, regularly quoting philosophers and undercutting Anita’s supposedly pseudo-progressivism.

Even within the confines of a private space, Chris and Anita are enacting a filmmaker-actress duo, that classic model of modernist filmmaking with its own gender biases: the camera-wielding filmmaker is the creator-subject (thoughtful, capable of Deep Emotion) with the capacity to describe the actress-object (shallow, conceited if interesting and colourful), not very unlike the power dynamic Malle found himself in in relation to the city he was filming. The camera, in Chris’ hands, becomes the vehicle of objectification and abuse.

The impression one gets, however, is that Chris is somewhat thick in the head. Making this film, he thinks he is incriminating Anita, finding irrefutable proof of her vanity and vileness. The poor idiot even assures us that he isn’t manipulating the footage to place her in an unfavourable light. But the visual evidence incriminates only him. Nothing in what we see of (and hear from) Anita confirms Chris’ negative characterization of her in the voiceover. He generously offers to intersperse footage of Calcutta as a welcome break for the viewer from having to constantly see Anita’s face, but it only serves as a welcome break from his obnoxious monologue.

So Chris’ film gets out of his hand and turns against him. The camera frame, instead of imprisoning the figure it contains, indicts the one behind it. In one of his many moments of self-flattery, Chris compares himself to the protagonist of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff (1979), a man who can’t relate to the world around him unless he sees it through the frame of a camera. But in fact, he is closer to the protagonist of another Kieślowski film, A Short Film About Killing (1988), which immerses us entirely into the subjectivity of a murderer. There are moments where we sense that there may be a more reflective, nuanced individual in Chris, as when he wonders why Anita stopped writing or when he mulls over the possibility of collaborating with her, but it’s these contradictions that serve to throw his darker thoughts into relief.

Palathara’s film is patently treading on dangerous ground. In its very concept, it offers the viewer a space to intimately identify with the deranged impulses of a woman-hater. But unlike a work like Gone Girl (2014), this identification is kept in check in different ways. Firstly, the (presumably) liberal audience of the film already has their sympathies aligned with Anita, especially as she is obviously in the right here. There are, then, scenes of Anita speaking for herself before the camera—like Malle’s subjects who return the camera’s gaze—puncturing Chris’ descriptions of her. Finally, Palathara amps up Chris’ odiousness to a breaking point—and this is arguably a failure of nerve on the part of the film—that we are more hostages to his point of view than accomplices.

The film doesn’t always succeed in working out solutions to the problem of identification posed by its framing concept, but for the most part, we are kept in a state of fugue, laughing sometimes with Chris and sometimes at him. And Palathara certainly deserves credit for taking the risk, for not settling for an easier way out by, say, telling the story from Anita’s perspective. His film is less a cinematic exploration of a relationship gone sour and more an investigation into the ethical questions of cinema through the time-tested device of a marriage-in-crisis picture. In just that, the film accomplishes more that most domestic dramas out there.

 

[Originally published at Mint]

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

Why Change Your Wife (1919) : on the left, the ridiculous, snobbish musician Radinoff (Theodore Kosloff) looking for pleasure; on the right, Sylvia Ashton.

C.B.’s detractors did not fail to accuse him of opportunism.

His similarly-themed film The Warrens of Virginia released seven days after The Birth of a Nation to take advantage of the hype surrounding Griffith’s film.

The Little American went into shoot four days after war was declared in Germany: that way, DeMille knew exactly what meaning he could give the film, set in France during the war.

Japanese protested, shocked by the brutal character played by Sessue Hayakawa in The Cheat. No problem: the intertitles turned the character into a Burmese, even though Hayakawa didn’t have Burmese features at all. Since there are six times fewer Burmese than Japanese, Paramount limited the risk of losing viewers…

If there are other countries or races that could be offended by C.B.’s xenophobia, he would take two steps forward and one step back: The Little American thus offers a good German very different from the evil Jerries. The Redskins of Unconquered are cruel and stupid, but there is a good Indian, the alibi Indian, who sacrifices her life to save Gary Cooper. Same thing with the good Yellow Hand (The Plainsman) or Big Bear (North West Mounted Police), sometimes overrun by their rough groups. Let us also mention the chivalrous Saladin (The Crusades) among the Muslims fighting the good Christians. But, despite these efforts, the negative impression prevails.

Reading various books on American filmmakers, one notices that DeMille is not considered for the quality of his films, but as a public figure. The same thing happened, in a slightly different way, with Elia Kazan and Claude Autant-Lara.

Every biography of the American filmmaker foregrounds his attitude during the Screen Directors Guild meeting of 22 October 1950 and the days before: he had enthusiastically sided with those who were in favour of the “witch hunt”, and many film writers had declared from this that his cinema was detestable.

It must be said that the supporters of McCarthyism, if their MO was stupid and politically incorrect, weren’t entirely wrong on the facts, since they were close to Solzhenitsyn’s position brought to light twenty years later in The Gulag Archipelago. But McCarthy had two flaws: he was mad and he was dumb. He ultimately did great harm to the struggle against Stalinism by constantly extolling a questionable American Way of Life, and embodying an attitude of struggle that excluded the expression of basic freedoms, although the menace was limited to the USA, and contributed to making martyrs out of leftist activists whom everyone was to feel sympathetic for.

In the 1920s, DeMille was not hostile to the communist experiment. And he even went to Moscow in 1931 to study the possibility of a coproduction with the USSR. It was only afterwards that he became disillusioned. He found that, in the Stalinist system, two hundred million Soviet people slaved away in very difficult conditions, exploited by two million apparatchiks who did nothing, and that disgusted him. He was also probably influenced by his Russian émigré friends, actor Theodore Kosloff and novelist Ayn Rand.

Contrary to what has been written, The Volga Boatman (1926) isn’t an anti-communist movie at all. With cunning and opportunism, it places White Russians and Reds on the same scale, showing the flaws and the qualities of each of them. It’s the smart attitude of an exporter: C.B. wanted to please everyone so as to not lose a market. This Day and Age (1932) can be read both as a glorification of fascists who take the law into their own hands and as an apologia for a new youth that supports the New Deal by directly getting involved in the fight against gangsters. The film was even sued for plagiarizing from Fritz Lang’s M, which is the exact opposite of a fascist plea.

The Godless Girl was released in the USSR like some of his other films. Had he been an outspoken opponent, Stalin would not have allowed him to come to Moscow. And a film like Kindling is a study of the life of the poor classes in America. C.B. cast Edward G. Robinson, Howard Da Silva and Lloyd Bridges at a time when they were blacklisted by the McCarthyists. He hired a leftist, Sidney Buchman, as his screenwriter (The Sign of the Cross). Talent comes before politics. There has never been a single example of opposition to communism in C.B.’s films. C.B. has in fact denounced witch hunts in The Road to Yesterday, while McCarey, Wellman, Sternberg, Kazan, Fuller, Ford, Curtiz, Hitchcock, Vidor, Lubitsch, Mamoulian, Hawks, Huston, Ray as well as Bergman and Dovjenko sometimes dipped their feet into the Cold War with one or more of their films.

It is true that the negative character of the pharaoh played by Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments evokes Mao, but it is a subliminal meaning that I am one of the very few to have detected.

Born and raised in New England, DeMille was certainly a conservative and a right-winger, as were almost all American filmmakers born before 1904. Newer generations, who were fifteen years or younger at the end of the Great War, which changed everything, especially for the United States, had a more open and critical attitude. It is not an absolute law: Milius the reactionary was born in 1944, and Strand the leftist in 1896. But it is a good rule of thumb.

He certainly played a strike-breaker at Paramount. But let’s not make a big deal of it. As the critic Jean Domarchi said, Balzac was more Marxist than Ostrovski. Every good film has a Marxist sense. And the class struggle between masters and servants is extremely present in C.B.’s work.

Towards the end of Union Pacific, Indians massacre the railroad people with great savagery and destroy everything in their way. It is true that a white man sitting in the train, played by Anthony Quinn, had killed one of their own without any real motive. And our heroes take down every Indian who appears at the window of the crashed train, following a repetitive ritual which borders on comedy. These scenes undeniably derive from a racist attitude that can also be found in North West Mounted Police or The Plainsman, with the Indians manipulated by shady whites and driven to revolt, and Unconquered, which the critic Bosley Crowther deemed “as viciously anti-Redskin as The Birth of a Nation was anti-Negro”. Indians are shown here as very cruel, preparing to scalp poor Paulette Goddard, and particularly stupid, since they take a compass or a watch with a musical saw for a magical instrument. It should nevertheless be noted that this kind of scene, which lends the film a certain panache, figures in many Westerns from 1935-1945. But The Squaw Man shows Indian people in a favourable light. The squaw in the film saves the hero from death and goes so far as to kill his most dangerous rival, before committing suicide in a gesture of great nobility. Their half-breed child is happily accepted by the new wife.

More problematic is C.B.’s attitude towards the rich Japanese man who brands the heroine with hot iron in The Cheat. There is obviously a close link between his sadism and the fact that he is Japanese. C.B.’s competitor Griffith did not fail to reverse the trend with the good Chinese of Broken Blossoms. Strange and manipulative Orientals are also found in The Whispering Chorus and The Ten Commandments of 1923 (the shady Sally Lung), not to mention the very backward population of Siam (Fool’s Paradise). The principle is to characterize the villains as coming from a distant country (the good guys are Americans, a well-known refrain).

Or coming from a not-so-distant country: the English were the first enemies of the New England settlers during the War of Independence, until 1776. And DeMille takes pleasure in showing the regressive side of English mores and their aristocracy (Male and Female, The Road to Yesterday). The tribunal of Old Bailey, which sentences the frail Paulette Goddard to death, is rather cruel (Unconquered). The tacked-on endings of Kindling and Male and Female prove that the solution to all the hardships of the poor classes or servants lies in immigration to the paradisiacal Midwest. The cruel Saran of Gaza, who persecutes Samson with all his force, is portrayed by the very British George Sanders. Ray Milland plays a rather detestable and dubious dandy in Reap the Wild Wind, a film that turns the tables at the end, to our great surprise, since it is he who marries Paulette Goddard, triumphing over John Wayne, the eternal but flawed cowboy. Other Englishmen, Herbert Marshall (Four Frightened People) or Roland Young (Madam Satan), play rather ridiculous characters.

Judas is played by an Austrian, Joseph Schildkraut. And the evil Pharaoh has the features of Yul Brynner, with an Asian appearance. The French come across a little better: in The Greatest Show on Earth, Sebastian is a caricatural, professional seducer, but the accident he suffers makes him more likeable. The weak point of the French is obviously sex (Rosa in Fool’s Paradise). And let’s not forget that the crooked Sally of The Ten Commandments of 1923 has a French mother. That explains everything.

A deeper form of racism concerns intellectuals. The targeted character is Rady, short for Adrian, who is played by the Russian Theodore Kosloff in Why Change Your Wife as an arty, snobbish and parasitic musician whose music is a drag, and by Casson Ferguson in The Road to Yesterday as a scrawny, atheistic and scornful little socialite who comes across as an odious snitch in the film’s Elizabethan episode: an original and astonishing characterization. It looks like a forebearer to Tennessee Williams. Other targets: Nazzer Singh the hypnotist, a disciple of Mesmer’s (Theodore Kosloff again, the perfect villain of The Affairs of Anatol), the moustached dandy and crook called… Schuyler Van Sutphen (Don’t Change Your Husband). The villain in The Greatest Show on Earth is named Kurt. But he dies while saving his sweetheart: redemption once again…

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