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

The Story of Dr. Wassel (1943): Gary Cooper prays to Buddha for help… and Buddha obliges.

It’s this aspect that C.B. DeMille is often limited to by dictionaries and common mortals.

Yet, if we look at things in more detail, we notice that he has made, counting generously, no more than eight epics out of the seventy films that comprise his work. In chronological order of the beginning of the story, they are:

1260 BC: The Ten Commandments (1956 version)

1230 BC: the first third of the Ten Commandments (1923 version)

1200 BC: Samson and Delilah

49 AD: Cleopatra (a film with no connection to Christianity)

33 AD: The King of Kings

65 AD: The Sign of the Cross

1189: The Crusades

1429: Joan the Woman

The remaining sixty-two films unfold in a more modern setting, almost all of them between 1815 and 1950. Sixty-two against eight.

There is hence a clear predominance of modern times. What is then the reason for this misleading brand image?

Above all, the much higher cost of ancient films, and as a corollary, the much larger number of their viewers (even if The Crusades was a flop) and the existence of classic scenes (re-enactment of the crossing of the Red Sea).

Then there is the fact that most of these epics are talkies (and not silent) and more recent.

This brand image places DeMille at a disadvantage today, because it is clear that his best work isn’t set in ancient times.

Besides, the idea of DeMille as a Biblical or religious filmmaker is questionable: none of the first forty-four films by our auteur, with the exception of Joan the Woman and, at a push, Something to Think About, deals with a theme of that kind.

It would seem that the reference to Christianity isn’t the decisive element of these films.

As early as 1914, DeMille was a fan of the Italian film Cabiria, a blockbuster about the war between Rome and Carthage, from 218 BC to 202 BC, which was built around the movement of crowds and the grandiose character of Carthaginian architecture, born partly of religious fervour, but a fervour that had nothing to do with Christianity. Similarly, one could consider The Woman God Forgot (1917) as an evocation of Aztec civilization and religion, and appreciate a certain form of respect towards Buddhism in The Story of Dr. Wassell (1943). It’s Gary Cooper’s prayer which, in the course of a magnificent scene, seems to trigger the arrival of British rescue troops. Cleopatra and the unfinished Helen of Troy project have nothing to with the Christian God. Religion certainly interests DeMille, but it’s a general, almost ecumenical idea of religion whose chief merit is having given birth to grandiose and spectacular architectures.

So there was a displacement that took place: for DeMille, who always considered Cabiria to be the greatest film of all time (a rather surprising reaction for an American given all his colleagues praise films from their own country first and foremost), the great pagan spectacle constitutes the chief interest of these “Christian” films (Samson and Delilah, The Sign of the Cross, The Ten Commandments). DeMille bases his art on the fascinating architecture imagined by these Barbarians, these rebels opposed to the true God, all the while extolling the exploits of the true believers who fought them and tried to destroy the monuments erected by the “heretics”. There are few references in DeMille’s work to Christian art, which is less spectacular and original than the art of the so-called barbarians.

There are some in Joan the Woman and The Road to Yesterday, but very few. An ambiguous position: DeMille made all this money thanks to the art of the enemies of these Christians whose tireless missionary he was. The same is true of Antonioni, Fuller and Buñuel. They vilified the world of concrete, war and Christianity, which nonetheless made their best effects possible.

It is true, however, that DeMille sometimes makes fun of this barbaric art by revealing all its extravagances, especially in Samson and Delilah. Be that as it may, if they are ridiculous—it’s the reign of kitsch—this ridiculousness is terribly impressive.

To better understand this late intrusion of Christianity in DeMille’s work, in the forty-fifth film (discounting the very negative image of the gluttonous, chain-smoking reverend in Don’t Change Your Husband), two facts must be taken into account:

The first is that DeMille, born in the most Protestant, Puritan state in America, i.e., Massachusetts, was brought up in an environment deeply marked by religion, thanks in particular to the influence of his father who had studied for a while to become a priest. A traditional religious fervour, which was innate and self-evident, without any particular anxieties or crises, and which remains anchored in the childhood years that produced it.

We will see later that this belief remains very childlike, even childish, which makes for its charm.

The second is that, just before The Ten Commandments of 1923, Hollywood was experiencing a period of turmoil: the drug-induced death of one of C.B.’s favourite actors, Wallace Reid, the murder of director William Desmond Taylor, who was something of a libertine, the suspicious death of a guest on the yacht of comic actor Fatty, the scandal surrounding Chaplin and his first wife, Mildred Harris.

And DeMille was likely to be the next on the blacklist, since he threw very lavish parties every weekend, in the absence of his wife, in his sumptuous country villa, named Paradise, with masked balls and a bordello-like atmosphere. So it was only natural that he should make the first move in imagining an inexistent public referendum, which voted overwhelmingly in favour of a future film on religion. With The Ten Commandments, he became Hollywood’s Mr. Religion, so he became almost untouchable. He was later even named Knight of the Holy Sepulchre.

The reverend (Theodore Roberts) in Don’t Change Your Husband (1918): you’d think Buñuel…

The religious meaning of The Ten Commandments of 1923 doesn’t lie as much in the Egyptian prologue evoking the Exodus as in the modern segment, which takes up two-thirds of the film. Here we have a sanctimonious old mother, slightly mocked for her excessive rigidity (in the first cut, she was even more ridiculous, but it is said that DeMille cut out a lot to smoothen the rough edges), and her two sons, one who does everything by the book and the other who behaves like an aggressive capitalist parvenu: a real-estate developer stealing from his client, he uses poor quality cement for his new building which collapses, killing his mother in the process and violating three commandments—”thou shalt not kill”, “thou shalt not steal” and “honour thy father and thy mother”—and cheats on his wife with a schemer (“thou shalt not commit adultery”) etc. Like the army of Ramses II, he ends up in the waters of the Red Sea, but at the wheel of his posh and powerful speedboat.

A schematic, caricatural and second-hand message that makes the film rather ridiculous, with an excess that is nevertheless (unintentionally) amusing in an ironic way.

Perhaps the best part is this family scene where the good brother, with his girlfriend and the little dog, goes to eat… hot dogs at a corner shop. It’s a pleasant surprise to find such a scene in a film called The Ten Commandments.

And then, there is this other magnificent, very kitschy scene where the evil hero, who is blackmailed by his wily Chinese mistress, finds no other solution than to kill her.

The Ten Commandments of 1956 stretches what was narrated in one hour in the original silent version over three hours and forty minutes. Nine months of shooting, a revenue of $90 million (against a cost of $13 million), thanks to the excessive hype particularly around the famous special effect: the waves that part in the Red Sea to let the people of Israel pass and fall back again to drown the Pharaoh’s army. It’s a special effect done with the help of gelatine masses that swell and spill out under the pressure of gases sent through fine tubes and with the help of the film strip running in reverse. An effect that is in theory better than the one in the silent version: the corridor in the sea is now rectilinear, and not curved, which makes it look much deeper. But the abstraction of black-and-white in the first film was more effective than the essential realism of colour, which here only brings out the artifice even more. This long-awaited and disappointing episode is followed by a sequence which crudely lingers on the arrival of ten consecutive fireballs that engrave the ten commandments on a stone thanks to rather futurist, comic-book-styled effects repeated ten times over. All this ridiculous ceremonial for sometimes highly obsolete messages such as “thou shalt have no other gods before me”—while ecumenism is de rigueur today among Christians, with a kind of inter-union of religions—or somewhat outdated or futile ones such as “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”[1] or “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”.

This effect, too, gives the impression of artifice. That is the paradox of Cecil DeMille’s religious films: all the special effects, which express miracles born of divine will, are very proper, very clean, a bit Ikea-like, hypermodern and futurist even when they are all set in a distant past. The same was true with the angels appearing in The Whispering Chorus and Joan the Woman, which were made forty years earlier and are more striking.

The worst thing is the declamatory quality of the dialogue. I understood everything without ever looking at the subtitles. I was flattered, because I got the impression of understanding English perfectly. But I later realized that this was one of the characteristics of turkeys, and that in great films, like those by John Cassavetes or Woody Allen, it is very hard to understand everything, because there is real work done there, a search for natural speech. I think it was Christopher Fry, the writer-scriptwriter, who noted the particularity of epics: everyone speaks very slowly. Epics marshal very famous, high-profile characters: Moses, Ramses, and it would seem impossible not to bestow them with an authority, dignity and self-assurance worthy of their rank. This is even more noticeable in Cleopatra, where Julius Caesar and Mark Antony also appear. Conclusion: we understand everything, but the diction is monotonous, Oxfordian, and unintentionally comic. These illustrious characters lose all humanity and naturalness. They become reciters, robots without depth. And it’s hard to tolerate this for close to four hours.

Talking pictures didn’t always serve DeMille well, whose art was located at a level of abstraction to which the realism of speech couldn’t adapt. A talking version of The Road to Yesterday would have been ridiculous. Samson and Delilah is above all an adventure film, set incidentally in a Biblical backdrop, where everything is done, like in The Ten Commandments, to introduce Hollywood’s boy-meets-girl and vaudeville’s triangle formulas. DeMille hit back at his detractors: “If you don’t like my films, you don’t like the Bible”. The Bible was very laconic about these episodes from the past. DeMille may not have betrayed it, but he added a whole lot of things he liked and which were likely to appeal to the American public.

The King of Kings, the story of the Passion of Christ, is disappointing in the sense that it remains a stilted, nervous film. DeMille is visibly afraid of making mistakes. It’s religious kitsch par excellence, which benefits from a magnificent work by cameraman Peverell Marley and set designers Mitchell Leisen and Wilfred Buckland. It’s a very sober work, quite opposite to DeMille’s customary style, based on extravagance. There are highly calculated gradations of whites and especially blacks here. The visual ambience of the Passion brings out the gloomy content of this key episode of spiritual life. It is interesting to note that most films or film projects on the Passion, like those of Duvivier, Stevens and Dreyer (which was unfinished), take the sober direction inaugurated by DeMille and by paintings of the previous centuries: the ideal thing, for a subject like this, is to shoot black-and-white in colour.

Understatement reigns supreme: the flagellation of Christ is only shown in silhouette. During the ascent to Calvary, the camera frames the Cross, not Christ.

All this deserves respect, but this humility isn’t exactly C.B. DeMille’s strength, and the viewer is terribly bored over a runtime of close to three hours. The only really interesting moments are the brief stretches where we see the sinner Mary Magdalene in her luxurious chariot drawn by five zebras, recalling the eccentricities of The Golden Bed or Madam Satan.

The King of Kings (1927): the sinner Mary Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan) on her chariot drawn by five zebras.

The Sign of the Cross ends with this implausible episode where Marcus, the head of Nero’s guard, who had hitherto been totally insensitive to the Christian faith, is determined to share the fate of his beloved in the lion’s den. It takes all the talent of our filmmaker to get the public to accept this. Here is a challenge often found in DeMille’s work: it’s completely unbelievable, but we are won over by the filmmaker’s ardour in trying to impose such absurdity on us. I don’t know if we believe it, but we admire Cecil DeMille’s obstinacy, his determination in defying all Cartesianism. He subjugates us, he begs us to take part in his project, and we become, with tears in the eyes, his fans, his dutiful slaves: he has dared to, and we respond favourably to his astounding audacity, all the more so because this kind of scene appears at the very end of the film, after a long preparation. We experience the same thing in The Road to Yesterday, The Volga Boatman, The Plainsman and Unconquered.

The final seconds of The Sign of the Cross moreover contain what could be considered the peak of kitsch art: we stay back inside the prison near the arena, after the Christians have left to be devoured by lions. The jail door begins to close. We then see, in the middle of this door, a bright horizontal slot which seems to be the reflection of a window located behind it. But soon after, we also see an identical, vertical white line that combines with this apparently realistic reflection to form a perfect cross. It seems totally natural, stripped of all artifice: at the beginning of the scene, we accepted this horizontal reflection as a reproduction of reality. And this vertical addition seems to be of the same order… DeMille thus succeeds in his trick of making us accept what is obviously the height of artifice as realism.

Let’s pass over The Crusades, both a flop and an artistic failure, where the intrusion of musical form into a pious film is unproductive and where Henry Wilcoxon’s mediocre and declamatory performance destroys all effects.

The choice of making Joan the Woman warrants some explanation. The film evidently takes a direction opposite to those of the aforementioned films, which fashion themselves as champions of Christianity and those who represent it. But let’s not forget that it was the clergymen of England who burnt Joan at the stake and, like many of his countrymen, DeMille felt certain reservations towards this country, which had totally enslaved the American territory. This is very noticeable in many of his films. Moreover, Joan of Arc came before Henry VIII, so she was the victim of English Catholicism. Puritans and Protestants had nothing to do with it. And the Englishmen who burnt Joan redeem themselves, as we shall see, by helping the French in their fight against the Germans in 1917.

Religion reappears in a more precise manner in films that aren’t Biblical epics, but are set in a contemporary milieu, with pullovers and business suits: The Road to Yesterday (1925) and The Godless Girl (1928).

This unexpected intrusion of religion into the modern world is to be related to the fact that the financier of these films, Jeremiah Milbank, was devout. Both films show the conflict between atheists and Christians, a conflict that, for us French, seems somewhat bizarre in the 21st century, especially as it takes on extravagant dimensions here: in the first of these films, Beth, a 100% atheist, falls madly in love with handsome Jack. A wedding is in sight. But—the horror—Jack comes to the following dinner in his pastor attire. No question of marriage whatsoever anymore…

In The Godless Girl, Judy, the head of a group of atheist students at a high-school opposes George, the leader of the Christian students movement. Brawls. One dead.

In all these films, religion seems to be just a pretext. DeMille is closer to Lewis Carroll than to Daniel-Rops. The protagonists are on one side or the other. They don’t express their motivations, their doubts, the deepest reasons for their eventual changeover, if they exist at all. It’s completely the opposite of films by Bergman, Dreyer or Bresson. Everything remains very superficial.

This means that, except in the case of these last two films, which elevate the sudden change of ideals to the level of a surrealist artwork, the choice of making a religious film doesn’t work out in favour of our filmmaker all that much. It even goes against him. Those who follow public opinion and see DeMille above all as the filmmaker of The Ten Commandments and Biblical epics are likely to not appreciate him at all, whereas watching apparently more modest works like Kindling or Saturday Night has the potential to turn them into enthusiastic supporters. The Biblical films work on their form, their style alone, while C.B.’s modern films combine the filmmaker’s art with the power and humour of a sociological study.

 

Footnote:

[1] Note that this second commandment implicitly prohibits cinema.

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

The Ten Commandments (1956): the “painting” of the three suppliants.

Colour became the fundamental element of these last two periods.

Inaugurating the work on colour in 1940 with North West Mounted Police (probably inspired by his 1908 play The Royal Mounted), DeMille took the easy way out, satisfied with stuffing the frame with the largest possible number of soldiers, with their red uniforms against the blue night. It was the easy way out again, though in a less exclusive way, in Unconquered (1946).

But from Reap the Wild Wind (1941) on, there was a new orientation that was unexpected and which is still forgotten in the work of this filmmaker who is often deemed conventional, primitive and barbaric. There is an exquisite preciousness at work here, the work of a minor master, founded not on bright rainbow colours typically harnessed by Natalie Kalmus, the Technicolor consultant of the time, but on almost pastel-like halftones, buttercup orange, Provence yellow, peacock blue, bright blue, crimson, purple and especially mauve. We don’t see Susan Hayward die, but we understand everything the moment we see her red-and-orange shawl saved from the rubble. It was above all the costumes that made this chromatic extravaganza possible, notably in scenes showcasing the lives of the rich in Key West (Florida) and Charleston (South Carolina) around 1830: cabriolet rides and balls, which are nice opportunities to show richly dressed characters moving around, entering or leaving the frame surreptitiously. Colour in movement is what we find in an even more developed state in Samson and Delilah and in The Greatest Show on Earth; the extras count less for what they represent in the story than for the relation between their costumes in the frame: a touch of crimson here, a touch of mauve there to get a shot of a harmonious, original and ravishing composition. It can be useful to let a costumed extra walk across the foreground very fast. One thinks of the Minnelli of Meet Me in St. Louis, of Nicolas Poussin’s and John Sargent’s mauves. The Greatest Show on Earth poses a problem: does the colour composition owe to DeMille and his staff, or were the ballerinas and clowns of the Barnum circus already dressed like that, with their multicoloured props? I noticed that this work on colour is wholly in line with the one in preceding films like Samson or Reap the Wild Wind.

No matter who did what, the main thing is what exists, what DeMille imagined or accepted, with the help of costume designer Edith Head, and that’s the astounding virtuosity of the result.

The visual composition is sometimes extended to the sets—the pink roses of Reap the Wild Wind—and to the exteriors, which are often shot in studio, or completed using transparencies. A recurring set is that of the bath or of washed clothes near a small lake (Unconquered, Samson, The Ten Commandments in the scene with Moses and his wife), a very precious set with a mosaic of halftones complementing the dark blue of the sky… and the water. In his excellent study published in issue no. 5 of Cahiers du cinéma, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze compared this arrangement to Hubert Robert’s Roman landscapes. These discrete compositions offer a respite from the primitive aggressivity of the epics.

Here is a subtle DeMille, far removed from the colossal DeMille often described by the press.

The only real interest of The Ten Commandments (apart from the extreme precision of its framing) is the work on colour and composition, with its skilful mix of very different colours in the same shot, not just mauves, but also many shades of yellows, and vast skies that are very black or very red—compositions that are somewhat undermined by the fixity of the camera and the actors. The best shot is the one borrowed from Géricault’s painting The Raft of Medusa, situated just before the crossing of the Red Sea, where we see three suppliants in inclined and varied positions, their arms wide apart. It’s all the more accomplished as it lasts barely three seconds. For once, DeMille has been able to tap into the power of concision.

The finest sequence owes everything to colour. I’m talking about the ten plagues of Egypt, with its festival of deadly lightnings, where, against all expectations, the Nile gradually turns completely red over the course of a shot. The rapid accumulation of effects is astounding. Note the filmmaking trick: to show that the red of the blood is invading the waters of the Nile, Moses’ staff is placed obliquely in the frame to serve as a marker, a gauge that allows us to clearly see the red colour approaching the staff and then crossing it.

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

The Ten Commandments (1956): the golden calf sequence with the whole image filled with extras.

In 1949, DeMille was sixty-eight years old. He seems to have been obsessed with the idea of finishing his career on a film that would cost as much as possible, make the most money, be the longest of them all and impose the name of Cecil B. DeMille for all eternity. That is what can be felt at the beginning of Samson and Delilah (1949), The Greatest Show on Earth (1951) and The Ten Commandments (1956), completed two years before the filmmaker’s death. These three films begin with a preamble which is far above the relative banality of the story that follows: we see the Earth spinning, an emphatic commentary (sometimes read out by the filmmaker) seems to offer a moral, even a metaphysics.

And the films are increasingly long: Samson clocks 128 minutes, the next film 150 minutes and The Ten Commandments runs for 225 minutes, whereas the first version of the latter devoted only one hour to its ancient segment.

The costs (and revenues) went up too: $3,097,000 (Samson), $3,873,000 for The Greatest Show, but The Ten Commandments had the biggest budget of its time: $13,272,000.

To be objective, it must be noted that the budget of Samson, shot in only eleven weeks, was modest: the film cost less than a contemporary comedy like It’s a Wonderful Life. It was probably because Paramount was scared of History, and Antiquity in particular, and wanted to limit the damage after the crushing failure of C.B.’s last American epic, The Crusades, which delayed the production of Samson by thirteen years, and of a British Caesar and Cleopatra. The actors who were cast, Hedy Lamarr as well as Victor Mature, weren’t top-stars at the time, and the film only has one really expensive scene: the last sequence at the temple. So it wasn’t very different from the strategy of the years 1919-1922, with their ancient interludes, which I will talk about later.

Is it this relative lack of money that explains some of the anomalies detrimental to the film?

The fact remains that the choice of Angela Lansbury to play Hedy Lamarr’s elder sister is rather incongruous, since Lamarr was thirteen years older than Lansbury, and it shows. And then, you don’t feel that Samson has lost his hair, which, being brown, remains very visible. Perhaps Victor Mature refused to have his head shaved. Moreover, after the alleged haircut, his hair has contradictory lengths, to say the least [1]. This probably corresponds to a non-chronological shooting schedule.

Except at the end, the action remains quite slow, especially during the episode of Samson’s seduction by Delilah. The characters dwell on their complex and shifting motivations. The tempo here resembles that of an opera, necessarily moderato because it takes longer to sing than to speak. DeMille may have originally wanted to adapt Saint-Saëns’ opera.

But given its consistency, the viewer eventually accepts the principle.

The film tends towards abstraction, Beauty and the Brute, with DeMille embellishing and circling around these basic definitions.

Let us pass over C.B.’s casualness towards the Bible, in which Semadar in not Dalilah’s sister. In any case, these questions about plausibility and fidelity to the Bible are rather ridiculous if we consider that the Old Testament states that Moses, prefiguring Jeanne Calment, died at the age of one hundred and twenty.

The Ten Commandments doesn’t work. Sensing that the film will be his last, DeMille wanted to stuff as many things as possible into it. The result is torn between four contradictory directions:

a distant, frontal, Brechtian presentation;

an accumulation of similar effects, which becomes tiresome over almost four hours;

a rich work on colour range;

an emotional-political plot worthy of a mediocre B-movie (Moses and the Pharaoh as romantic rivals—some cheek).

The Greatest Show on Earth (1951): the circus troupe after the train accident, every man for himself.

On the other hand, The Greatest Show on Earth, which in fact received the only Oscar for Best Picture awarded to DeMille, remains a fascinating work. It revolves around a grand touring circus, Ringling Bros & Barnum, with the different acts of the show being interspersed with criminal and romantic subplots, highlighting the various participants of the circus, thanks to some skilful editing. This alternation avoids any risk of boredom. It isn’t just a question of alternation, since pure spectacle and individual subplots come together in several shots. I’m thinking particularly of the magnificent scenes following the train derailment, where we see animals, elephants, lions and others, walking across the wreck of the train, trucks, iron and woodwork, and circus props, near the injured, those attending to them and those running all over the place to salvage property and worry about the fate of their dear ones. As in The Story of Dr. Wassell, DeMille frames five to ten people in the same shot, people going in different directions, remaining in highly varied positions—lying down, standing up, leaning across, constantly talking at the risk of speaking over each other. This handling of small groups produces results that are ultimately more rewarding than those of shots with massive crowds, with which DeMille is often identified with. Their humanity is much stronger.   

Cinema here becomes a veritable creation of a world, a bit like in The Thing from Another World, made by Hawks the same year. Circus and cinema become one. The slightly pompous statements of the preamble take on an unexpected dimension thanks to simultaneous images showing the preparation of the premises and the raising of the circus tent’s main mast—a moving lyricism, based on great sobriety.

It’s a pity that DeMille didn’t make any other film around the production of a show, a subject that he obviously knew very well after sixty-eight films, and which he had probably tackled in the scenes at the film studio in We Can’t Have Everything (1918), alas lost, and broached in What’s His Name (1914).

We have there the old problem of paying a troupe full time rather than limiting its activity to more profitable one-offs, a problem that had partly justified DeMille’s breakup with Paramount in 1925—the fight against unemployment in Cecil DeMille’s work…

And of course, there is the interference between work and emotions, a bit like in Renoir’s French Cancan, the rivalries between stars…

There is a totalitarian side to the film: DeMille wants to stuff everything in without offending anyone, the Church, the police, the financiers, the frauds, even the audience, and something that really takes the cake considering our filmmaker: the vanity of money (cf. the shot, towards the end, of banknotes lost in the disaster). The only reproach that could be made is that the usual effects—chaos, visual composition, permanent ubiquity, verbal jousts—are repeated, in all their excellence, for two-and-a-half hours here. The actions may be different, but the way they are performed remains the same.

One could balk at it. DeMille’s art isn’t an art of the fugue. But this inventive accumulation amazes, stuns the viewer—a hammer-like aesthetic, with many nails to go with it. We end up accepting even the “Stars and Stripes Forever” aspect of the film.

 

Footnote:

[1] Similarly, in The Road to Yesterday, the dialogue specifies that the shadow moving on the wall is that of Schildkraut, whom we see immobile in the following shot—a continuity error.

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

Union Pacific (1939): the comedy of turning heads.

After these erratic years, divided between epics and modern films, DeMille returned to the only tried-and-tested standard, that of adventure films, and particularly Westerns.

From 1934 until his death, DeMille did not make any more contemporary films, with the exception of The Greatest Show on Earth, based on the exoticism offered by circus spectacle, and The Story of Dr. Wassell, which rests on another exoticism, that of the war in Indonesia. It was perhaps a mistake, for these two modern films are the best of this period. Never again, in the twenty years that followed, did he experience commercial failure.

Almost all these films centre on a male star, Gary Cooper (four films) or Fredric March or Joel McCrea. The hero is often provided with a double, a friend, a rival or an opponent, who goes astray or, being the only one to survive, prevails over him (The Plainsman, Union Pacific, North West Mounted Police, Reap the Wild Wind). This recalls the two brothers of The Ten Commandments, even the two DeMille brothers.

These films are less ambitious, less innovative on the artistic level. Sobriety is the rule here, in contradiction with our filmmaker’s usual impulse. Movies like The Plainsman (1936) or The Buccaneer (1937) are very professional, highly accomplished films, one based on the glorification of Western myths, the other on excess, but there is nothing, or almost nothing, in them that allows us to recognize C.B.’s handiwork. In The Plainsman, the actors are always in character: they always have something to do, and that’s what gives the film its entire power.

We recognize our auteur a little more in Union Pacific, a spirited film which recently met with a peculiar success: selected in 1939 for the first Cannes Festival, which was cancelled due to the war, it was awarded the grand prize of the festival sixty years later—a slightly excessive reward since Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings is more strikingly original and powerful. Union Pacific takes up a motif dear to DeMille, that of trains and railway disasters, which was already central to The Road to Yesterday and Saturday Night. Particularly noteworthy is the row of fifteen drunken heads in the saloon that turn around one after the other, and another effect that has been repeated many times since: the villain is about to shoot the hero, who turns around and kills him; he has seen the villain’s reflection in the mirror.

Another feature common to all these films: from 1939 onwards, DeMille only shot in colour. He was the first filmmaker in the world to abandon black and white for good. After several oscillations between monochrome and polychrome, Hawks took the plunge only in 1953. For Vidor, it was 1954; Ford and Hitchcock waited till 1962. One film towers above the rest while respecting the same principles as the other films of the decade. It’s The Story of Dr. Wassell (1943), I’ll come back to it.

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

The Sign of the Cross (1932): the evil Nero (Charles Laughton) between his two manicurists.

The prodigal son now returned to Paramount, sheepish after a series of flops, sealed by the failure of the third The Squaw Man, a mediocre abbreviation of the original, and that of a project in Russia.

With The Sign of the Cross (1932), it was really a game of double or nothing. It turned out to be double. It wasn’t a question of setting the cashbox on fire anymore. This epic cost even less than his recent modern films, the banal Western spectacle of The Squaw Man, or the student conflicts of The Godless Girl. Yet it contains one of the finest camera movements in the work of our filmmaker: the crane shot that superbly takes us from the arena to the stands with Nero, his court and the Roman people. It’s a bargain-priced epic, but brilliant at times, followed by more modern films like This Day and Age (1933), a fast-paced police story, and Four Frightened People (1933), which turns out to be a complex and highly curious case. In theory, the film was a new variation on Male and Female, so it was something reassuring for Paramount. It isn’t a shipwreck here, but an epidemic, the bubonic plague. The result smacks of studio work, even if the film was partially shot in Hawaii: it isn’t believable for one second, especially when Claudette Colbert, who is bathing in the open, has her underwear stolen by a monkey. The sound is really studio sound, a little like in Madam Satan, when the hero jumps from the airship into a lake: the sound effect is that of a body jumping into an indoor pool. And this fakery makes you laugh out loud. The whole film works on an ironic level; it recalls Beat the Devil (John Huston, 1953) or even Ed Wood. There is an escalation of falsehood and fakery here, probably unintentional, that I found highly enjoyable and hilarious (I had tears of laughter), with oscillations between reality and fantasy that keep the suspense alive. This is perhaps a perverse reaction on my part, having to do with to the basic principle: “the worse it is, the better it is.” But the audience didn’t agree: another commercial failure. The film didn’t even open in France, an extremely rare case in the work of our auteur.

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

The Road to Yesterday (1925): Jetta Goudal under the train debris.

Does this new stage owe to the general progress of America, where the rich classes became increasingly richer following the conquest of European markets after victory in 1918? Or to the wholly personal progress of C.B., now deemed a mogul with the repeated success of his films [1]? Were the films that followed born of his fertile imagination, or did they correspond to the state of reality? Is it still realism, or is it pure fantasy? I don’t have an answer. There’s probably a bit of everything.

It is difficult to precisely mark out the date of this new evolution, which took shape in multiple stages, at times riddled with contradictions.

It’s a fact that the partly realistic depiction of Saturday Night (1921) gives way to something very different in Triumph or The Golden Bed, both shot in 1924, which border on delirium.

Triumph may have a naturalist basis in its depiction of the labour of workers who make tin cans, but the way in which this setting and this work are evoked has nothing to with realism. Everything happens quickly: Ann Land moves in a matter of seconds from factory work to the Opera stage, where she is the prima donna. I’d like to note that while Cartesian critics, hostile to implausibility, hate this kind of rapid progression, it is very enjoyable for the viewer, who is stunned by this shock as he is by the complete changes of place and register in Fool’s Paradise, The Road to Yesterday or Madam Satan.

The turning point could be located in 1923, after The Ten Commandments. The film was a big commercial success, and Cecil felt his wings sprouting. He wanted to make ever more expensive, ever wilder works. But Paramount, the producer of his first forty-eight films, hated big budgets, which often gave modest returns. It rejected Cecil’s whims, planned to pay him a percentage of the profits (often the product of rigged calculations) rather than according to box office revenue, wanted to abolish permanent contacts for the filmmaker’s technical and artistic staff, and entrusted Griffith, preferred by the novelist Maria Corelli, with the adaptation of her novel The Sorrows of Satan, a project that DeMille was very keen on.

That was the last straw. DeMille left Paramount to become a producer and distributor with the help of a very rich associate, the aptly named Milbank.

The Sorrows of Satan was the story of a Faustian to-and-fro between heaven and earth (with which, in my opinion, Griffith went wrong and which was actually right up Cecil’s alley), for which DeMille had already rehearsed when, in 1924, he made Feet of Clay, a bewildering script about a champion whose career ends after he is bitten by a shark when he tries to save his fiancée’s life. The wife of the surgeon who successfully operates on him falls in love with him, provoking the jealousy of her husband, who stalks the supposed couple. The wife commits suicide. Scandal. The champion, now unemployed, and his fiancée gas themselves to death. In heaven, given the circumstances, they are granted a reprieve, and they return to earth—a variation on Molnár’s Liliom. It’s a pity that the film cannot be found. Sandwiched between two rather exceptional films, Triumph and The Golden Bed, it’s probably one of the four major lost films in the history of cinema, along with Sternberg’s The Case of Lena Smith, Griffith’s The Great Love, and Lubitsch’s The Patriot.

But The Road to Yesterday (1925) goes even further in its extravagance. The back and forth is no longer between heaven and earth, but between 1925 and 1625.

The film plays on the alternating depiction of two couples: Malena suddenly feels an inexplicable disgust for Ken, whom she has just married. Ken suffers an equally inexplicable pain in his left shoulder. They invite an emancipated girl, Beth, who is about to get engaged to a geek, Rady, to the wedding party. Beth then meets handsome Jack, both falling in love at first sight. But when she sees his evening suit, she realizes that Jack is a priest, which horrifies this modern young woman, who, out of spite, accepts Rady’s proposal to marry her the next day in San Francisco, where they travel to in the night train.

On the train are also Jack, who has become jealous, Malena, who is running away from Ken, and as a final surprise, Ken, who is on his way to get operated.

Halfway into the film, there is a train accident. All five remain stuck under the rubble. Beth then suffers a shock that makes her relive what she had experienced in England in 1625.

The beginning of the film is rather mediocre, with hackneyed jokes directed at Aunt Harriet’s corpulence (DeMille is obsessed with portly women), petty squabbles between Christians and atheists, caricatural psychology and an uncertain outline (drama or comedy?). But everything speeds up after the return to the past, and we are treated to a bewildering series of plot twists that lend the film an extraordinary dimension.

A film that starts from nothing and takes us to the Sublime—the opposite of a classical masterpiece, where every scene is accomplished. But it’s even better here, since we have an unimaginable crescendo, which is certainly playful, but also stunning. It may be that the notion of a perfect work, smooth and of constant interest, generally praised by critics, is surpassed by this kind of evolving film, which recalls King Vidor’s Ruby Gentry, and Abel Gance’s Blind Venus.

Everything is thus conceived around the internal movement that animates the film, and which redoubles the power of the movement in the actions (sword fights, chases, train crashes).

The basic idea is enriched by an ingenuity in the search for commonalities between the present and the past (the train’s prow, which resembles the barrels in Elizabethan taverns, the grand staircase common to both periods).

An unequivocal critical failure: the film was too implausible. But plausibility doesn’t go with reincarnation. A biographer of C.B., Robert S. Birchard, went so far as to write that it was one of the worst films he had ever seen. As for me, it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

A commercial failure: among the seventy films of our auteur, The Road to Yesterday is in the sixty-sixth position in terms of returns (revenue/cost). A profitless operation, or more likely a loss-making one.

The following film, The Volga Boatman (1926), again produced by DeMille and his banker Milbank, set things back on track. There’s a classic sequence in the middle of the film, which I’ll talk about later.

The Godless Girl (1928): the art of sketching.

After the commercial success of The King of Kings (1926), which I’ll discuss in the chapter on epics, came The Godless Girl (1928), a melodrama around the struggle between young Christians and young atheists. Like The Road to Yesterday, it was also a financial failure; it’s the last entry on the list in terms of returns: seventieth of seventy films.

It seems to me that its failure was due not so much to the nature of the film as to the circumstances.

It’s a silent film that hit the screens just at the time when talkies started to appear. It was a competition that was turning out to be impossible to beat. Not only were important films like Murnau’s Four Devils, Sternberg’s The Case of Lena Smith and John Ford’s Men Without Women fiascos, but they were also lost. The producers tried to salvage it by adding a couple of talking scenes at the end, and certain sound effects and music all through the film, but the audience could clearly see that it was a replastering job. Personally, I like this sound version very much, although it was made by Fritz Fehr, and not DeMille, who was busy shooting Dynamite. It is made in a spirit very close to C.B. DeMille’s, with exaggerated effects, whose status as add-ons is underlined, which doesn’t take away from the work of a filmmaker who constantly progresses through clashes and shifts in tone.

Here’s a film that, even in its silent version, brings together very disparate elements. The finest example is the character of the prison guard (Noah Beery) who keeps torturing young people in the reformatory. His sadism is odious. A filmmaker would normally dramatize these details, as Mervyn LeRoy would in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang four years later. Well, it’s not so here. He becomes, over the course of a shot, a comic character owing to his caricatural physique and his acting, a bit like Eric Campbell, the brute in Chaplin’s short films. The film takes on a new, unusual dimension.

Fans of God and those of Darwin express themselves through slogans. So we see several advertising banners, posters and drawings of a remarkable graphic design, which suddenly animate and give direction to the film, a little like in Sam Fuller’s Verboten!—the importance of drawings and placards in the work of great filmmakers from Massachusetts.

These student clashes are staged exceptionally. A brawl on the staircase is energized by a camera plunging into the void, reflecting the fall of a student who dies after the handrail breaks—a dramatic use of staircases probably inspired by Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, made the year before.

And the hard-edged violence of the film is counterbalanced by the humanity and the spontaneity of the young actors, most of them unknown, with the exception of Noah Beery and Marie Prevost, who plays the second female role. This is something new in DeMille’s work, where the performances are often very muted, or in the case of villains, a little emphatic. You’d think it’s Renoir.

These unusual and inspired combinations perhaps make The Godless Girl the best film by its maker, or at least the most accomplished among those with a classical perspective. All those who have seen it recognize its vast merits, which is not the case with The Road to Yesterday.

Then came Dynamite, his first talking picture, made for MGM in 1929. Along with Hallelujah!, it’s perhaps the film that turned cinema into an adult art, attesting to a great virtuosity in its use of sound. A man who comes to vouch, at the last minute, for a miner sentenced to death is trapped in a mine. We hear the sound of pickaxes approaching from the other side of the wall at the same time as we see the preparations for the execution.

The film is not only an example of virtuosity in the development of suspense, it’s also proof that DeMille was a master not just in the field of comedy and melodrama. He could also hold his own when it came to crime movies, as we had already noted with The Whispering Chorus, and as we shall soon see with This Day and Age.

The next film at MGM, Madam Satan (1930), sets itself apart not just with its unexpected mid-film transition from somewhat laborious vaudeville, centred very theatrically on two apartments and four characters, to musical comedy. It digresses even further into a fashion parade, right in the middle of a masked ball on a gigantic airship with a hundred guests: there is a kind of beauty contest, with seven contestants parading in a succession of eccentric outfits. Then there is the climax. One might think that DeMille wanted to stuff all genres into a single work, in order to beat all competition. And I forgot the brilliant mechanical-electrical ballet act, with Theodore Kosloff connected to electrodes, which could have figured in any of his films.

Madame Satan (1930): the show of the electric man (Theodore
Kosloff).

The first surprise is perhaps the best, since we move from the three-room setup of a theatrical universe to the splendours of a blockbuster: the successive changes thus have the considerable power of producing maximum surprise.

One could reproach the film for its obstinacy in outlining the same conflict over and over, for refitting the antagonisms inherent in a love triangle in every possible garb, with the conformist wife who puts on a mask and a provocative outfit to seduce her errant husband.  But this fixity clashes with the entertaining diversity of registers in which the film is set, and this constant clash of stagnation and all-out, over-the-top imagination produces a new shock in the viewer.

It was once again a commercial failure: number sixty-eight of the seventy films. The failure can be explained by the fact that the film was too expensive to make and by the provocative quality of the project: to see all these rich people having fun in expensive, showy dresses and suits at a time when many were jumping out of windows or starving to death following the crash of 1929, was unwelcome, shocking and disgusting. Wellman’s realist films like Beggars of Life or Wild Boys of the Road were much more in tune with the times.

So it was the end of DeMille’s extravagant period, the end of his work as an independent, with these two paradoxes: he made sixty-three of his seventy films at Paramount, but it’s among his non-Paramount films that we find the best of his work (The Road to Yesterday, The Godless Girl, Madam Satan). And, it’s the flops that constitute the finest pearls of the career of this undisputed king of the American box-office.

 

Footnote:

[1] It’s possible to think so since the party in Don’t Change Your Husband closely resembles the ones thrown by C.B. in his villa, as described by screenwriter Sidney Buchman.

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

Don’t Change Your Husband (1918)

After the nouveau riche of The Cheat, there are three comedies of remarriage, Old Wives for New, Don’t Change Your Husband and Why Change Your Wife, made between 1918 and 1919, which are a bit hard to tell apart and which were massive hits (787% profit for the last of these).

A husband gets tired of his wife (or the other way around), divorces her, remarries, but realizes that everything is exactly the same with the new mistress of the house: the same tics, the same quirks. He then reunites his first sweetheart again. This situation is quite common in America. Think of the multiple remarriages between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.

Here was a pattern that suited everyone: the public was rather fond of characters that had many love affairs, one great love seeming monotonous in the viewer’s eyes. And all was well in the eyes of the puritanical censors if the unfaithful husband returned home.

Actually, in the first film, Old Wives for New, there’s no remarriage with the wife even though they are a couple with children, and he unites with a younger woman. It’s this development glorifying frivolity that must’ve determined the direction of the subsequent comedies. The film is interesting for its sense of understatement: characters are defined by shots of feet, of boots (you’d think Buñuel), of hands busy with a wide variety of activities (opening a safe, massaging, sewing, typing, crumpling bank notes: you’d think Bresson), of convoluted and voluminous hats. At the table, each one reads their paper (fashion or news) without looking at their spouse.

The fat lady undergoes the torture of weight loss programmes: they even roll her on the ground, wrapped up in a carpet, before we see her head trapped between two arms of a device that can purportedly restore her beauty.

Her husband dies, and the widow only thinks of choosing her attire for the funeral.

In the diptych that follows, there is an amused depiction of life at the household—a household without children, which simplifies the situation and avoids the wrath of moralist groups. Mister loves his dog, which Missus hates, preferring her cat. Mister snores, leaves ashes and cigar butts everywhere. Missus buys expensive clothes, which don’t please Mister. Mister stinks of onions or alcohol, works out with dumbbells or a rowing machine. He can’t tie his tie and wears disgusting shoes. These films recall Jacques Becker’s comedies such as Edward and Caroline or Rue de l’Estrapade, even Falbalas. The strokes are certainly broader, and DeMille doesn’t round off rough edges, addressing a public that is at times a bit obtuse. But exaggeration has its own charm at times. It works very well once you buy into the principle. It isn’t exactly life as it is lived, but comedies often broaden the strokes: have you seen a miser as stingy as Harpagon? A hypochondriac as excessive as Argan?

And it takes a lot of nerve, especially at a time where great adventures and great romances were dominating the screen, to pivot a film on the difficulty of shaving in the morning when your wife has taken over the bathroom. DeMille, who would later use ten thousand extras in the frame, employs a series of insert shots here: a cigar butt, two onions, a badly made dish—a tasteful minimalism.

I think that, among C.B.’s great films, these are the easiest to like. Works from the period 1924-1930, more striking in my opinion, require considerable effort, especially in the eyes of a Cartesian audience. It’s amusing to note that these “minor” comedies that C.B made almost reluctantly are often more accomplished than the blockbusters he dreamt of.

I tend to rate the first of the three, Old Wives for New, a little lower because its second segment leaves everyday life behind to focus on the banality of the plot.

In these films, we can sense a subliminal message for Mrs. DeMille from her unfaithful husband: “Don’t worry, Constance, you know well that I will always come back to you”, which was indeed the case.

The new wife is more uncouth, less well brought up, less educated and has a very mundane job.

This may have its advantages: she listens to trendy and lively music, while her predecessor preferred something more serious. It’s something of Sheila versus Schoenberg.

There’s a bitter observation here: men and women will always be the same. Things cannot improve even if one changed partners. A bitterness accentuated by the fact that, in the end, the wife accepts and submits to her husband’s whims: the presence of the dog, popular records and smelly cigars. This sexual class struggle is in full swing in Male and Female (1919). The play by James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, is faintly inspired by Marivaux and Slave Island: Lord Brockelhurst’s entire English family goes on a holiday on his boat to the South Seas. Shipwreck. And our new Family Robinson, who have never done anything with their own hands, are at the mercy of the butler, Crichton, who knows everything: where to find food, where to sleep, how to get new clothes. So he ends up taking over. He is cared for like a pasha by both the maid and the rich heiress of the family.

An amusing depiction of his various tricks ensues, of the struggle between the two rivals, rich and poor.

The butler has installed a device that automatically lights a fire as soon as a ship, presumed to be a lifesaver, appears in the distance at sea. The anguish of the rich young woman, who knows well that her handsome butler will be demoted if they return home, and that she will not be able to marry him. Delight of the neglected maid, who will now be able to elbow her way back into Crichton’s heart. With irony and bitterness, DeMille shows how the rules of the game work in the English high society: once back in England, the wealthy boast of their island exploits, actually accomplished by Crichton, who is careful not to contradict them. Insidious cruelty, linked here to the fact that they are English. It wouldn’t happen like that in America.

Wallace Reid in The Affairs of Anatol (1921): the mirror that turns you into a skeleton.

Certainly not, but everything isn’t all that easy either. After Male and Female, Saturday Night shows the plight of a socialite who falls in love with her chauffeur, is a bit ashamed about it, but goes ahead even so. She breaks her engagement in order to marry him. Things go well for a while, but the cultural difference between the gentry and the proles soon ruins everything.

In the magnificent Saturday Night, which Hitchcock put at the top of his list of ten best films in the history of cinema, which also features Forbidden Fruit, the rich Iris Van Suydam sits at the familial table presided over by her chauffeur husband, but she is horrified by the chewing gum that a guest sticks under the table before the meal in order to pick it up after dessert, which prompts him to take out his favourite toothpick from his pocket, by the sound of a train passing ten metres away (a gag reprised later by Joseph Mankiewicz in A Letter to Three Wives) and is disappointed by the piano at the place, which is actually a fake piano designed to hide the folding bed. Of course, her husband, concerned about proletarian etiquette, forbids her to smoke at the table and sees nothing wrong when a guest slaps her on the back…

These films reveal a fundamental contradiction: in the USA, a rich person may marry their chauffeur or laundress, but divorce seems inevitable as a result of the culture shock. The struggle between social classes is ridiculous and detestable, but there is a lot to be done before equality and conviviality can be achieved. DeMille is a man of advanced ideas, but there are limits. Two steps forward, one step back is Cecil B. DeMille’s favourite strategy…

In The Golden Chance, the girl from the slums who reaches the top manages well. But that’s because, we learn at the last minute, she is in fact the illegitimate daughter of an important family. She has the right upbringing in her blood…

The subject fascinates DeMille because he had also committed a comparable transgression: oh, he didn’t come from the slums, but he belonged to a family of broke intellectuals, his father a teacher and a playwright, his mother an impresario and he himself rotting in debt after his theatrical tours as an actor and his plays with very little attendance (thirty-two performances of The Royal Mounted in 1908). And suddenly, with the enormous commercial success of The Squaw Man (1,581% profit), he had become very rich in a matter of three months and could visit the most luxurious homes.

It should also be noted that the relationship between masters and servants, a theme initiated by DeMille, remains the favourite subject of great filmmakers of the first half of the 20th century: Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game, Nana, The Diary of a Chambermaid), Luis Buñuel (The Diary again, Susana, El, Belle de Jour, The Exterminating Angel), Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (The Last Laugh), Gregory La Cava (My Man Godfrey), Leo McCarey (Ruggles of Red Gap), Stroheim (Foolish Wives, The Wedding March), Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows), not to mention more modern auteurs (Joseph Losey’s The Servant, Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, James Ivory’s Remains of the Day, Andrzej Wajda’s Lady Macbeth).

The flagrant inequality between classes in the preceding centuries, where masters and servants saw each other throughout the day, has seems shocking today, where the oppositions are revealed only during working hours, or at a distance. It is a source of comedy, a dark comedy: why is it him who has the power and the money, and not me?

These high-society comedies or dramas reveal particularities that are often little known. For example, in high society, the husband works a lot, dealing in numbers and telephone calls. And the wife has little or nothing to do. She is busy with volunteer or charitable activities: so it is in The Cheat, where she raises funds for the Red Cross (it was already there in The Squaw Man) and for those poor Belgians invaded by Germans in 1914. But what to wear for organizing the soirée? To buy the dress, she has to borrow, and so she asks the Japanese man for money, and the latter takes advantage of the situation. These are lady patrons, as in The Golden Bed (1924), where Flora Peake’s chief concern is to throw a party even more extravagant than the one given by the wife of her husband’s banker. One supposes that Cecil was referring to his wife’s private life.

Works such as Something to Think About, The Affairs of Anatol, Fool’s Paradise, Manslaughter and Adam’s Rib are in the same vein, the productions of the years 1918-1923 forming a homogenous group of high-society films: bourgeois love triangles, sumptuous sets, moneyed affairs.

The tasteful The Affairs of Anatol, adapted from Schnitzler, retains only a few of these elements: the figures of the two lead characters, the wife forced by her husband to throw the jewels offered by her ex into the river, but who doesn’t throw all of them, the husband who has his wife hypnotized so that she confesses the existence of her lover and who feels remorse for doing so. The most interesting character of the film is Satan Synne, the most depraved woman of New York, who sells herself at a high price and seems to promise the most advanced orgies. Her customers look at themselves in a mirror and see their skeletons… But we learn that all this is to pay for the medical expenses of her poor husband wounded in the war.

Manslaughter (1922): soup kitchens were already there in America.

Juxtaposing contrasting characters and sets, Saturday Night and Manslaughter form the pivot point between the naturalist films and the high-society films. In the second of these, we have an incisive portrayal of the mores of high society and then of life in prison, where the rich girl, responsible for the accidental death of a policemen, is sentenced to the same punishment as her former maid, guilty of stealing a ring from her. The humiliation of fingerprint registration, of the oppressive ceremony of incarceration, of daily life behind bars (incessant din, large-scale laundry, kitchen and garbage duties). It’s a kind of hell that our rich heroine ends up accepting, and which is complemented by an evocation of soup kitchens of the time, with their long queues, and where there are sometimes sumptuous bathrooms. It’s Zola in comic book form.

After this, DeMille exclusively moved on to more affluent milieux, which certainly corresponds to his own social progression, and later to places characterized by the wildest extravagance. Could we speak of naturalism when one leaves the slums to go film opulence and extravagance as they exist?

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

Edith Roberts in Saturday Night (1922): naturalism.

This is one of the most unsung aspects of our director.

Two years into his career, he turned towards a meticulous depiction of everyday reality and its sordid aspects. He certainly wasn’t the only one with such an inclination. There were also Raoul Walsh (Regeneration, 1915) and D.W. Griffith (The Mother and the Law, Broken Blossoms, the 1919 version, which was preceded by numerous short films such as The Drunkard’s Reformation).

At a recent screening of Kindling (1915), many viewers were surprised to find a Cecil DeMille film comparable to Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto or Zavattini-De Sica’s Umberto D. It shows the daily life of a domestic help who comes under the control of swindlers and, without intending to, gets involved in a larceny against her boss. Fortunately, the latter is understanding, ends up turning a blind eye and even helping her. An unvarnished and naturalist portrait of the everyday life of an average young American. The pacing is flawless, punctuated by minute details of daily work. There are no bravura sequences here, unlike most other DeMille films. A very solid outline, revealing the harsh conditions of the ordinary American way of life. The least expensive of C.B.’s films ($10,039, or $231,000 in 2012) is also one of the best.

The same style accounts for the appeal of The Golden Chance (1915), its remake Forbidden Fruit (1921), The Heart of Nora Flynn (1915), the beginning of The Whispering Chorus (1917), one part of Saturday Night (1921) and Manslaughter (1922): films shot in studio, set in some reconstructed home interiors, with few characters. How to afford a suitable dress, how to change shoes with holes in them, how to find something nice to eat—these are the basic problems in these films, in addition to alcoholic, brutal husbands and philandering masters. There is something of Dickens here, the author of David Copperfield remaining, like in Griffith’s work, the writer of reference, without it being a question of direct adaptation.

Manslaughter (1922): naturalism with Leatrice Joy.

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

The Cheat (1915): Tori the Japanese man (Sessue Hayakawa) in front of a Chinese shadow play.

At the beginning of his career, DeMille had to deal with the grievances of theatre owners, who complained that there were a lot of dark areas in his films’ visuals, and so asked for a price discount… He told them that he practiced chiaroscuro, and began boasting about it: he saw himself as the Rembrandt of cinema.

It’s likely that DeMille knew Rembrandt, given he came from a family of Dutch immigrants himself. DeMille incidentally means ‘mill’ in Dutch. Now, when we look at Rembrandt’s paintings, we see that chiaroscuro consists of alternating dark areas with bright ones, which, according to specialists, make for only one-eighth of the picture on an average. Faces, or parts of faces, may be in the dark. This technique creates a realistic effect: in real life, elements that seem the most important may very well be in the dark, especially at a time when there was no electricity. Not everything is handed to the viewer on a platter. Standing before the painting, he must participate, put the necessary effort to see, to discern it. This device produces the impression of relief: it helps establish a distance between what is clearly visible and what is hard to perceive. And it expresses a metaphysics: man is only a small part of the universe. The Taking of Christ, Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes, The Abduction of Ganymede, and Aristotle with a Bust of Homer are the finest examples of chiaroscuro’s accomplishment.

However, chiaroscuro is rare in DeMille’s work: two shots in Carmen, five shots in The Cheat, which bring out the secretive, mysterious quality of the Japanese man’s home, and also serve to mask a sexually aggressive behaviour, which could have been shocking. It’s more noticeable in The Little American, in the scene showing the sinking of Lusitania (fewer discernible elements make the job easier) and in the scene at the chateau where the heroine is pursued by Germans. Or else, only one profile of an actor is illuminated (The Warrens of Virginia).

It would seem then that this reference to Rembrandt is something of a publicity stunt.

On the other hand, often in DeMille’s work, only faces are visible on the foreground of the shot. Everything else in complete darkness—a good way to avoid expensive sets and extra lighting in these low-budget films, while also showcasing the technique, which has nothing to do with Rembrandt here.

It is, by the way, remarkable that when DeMille made Samson and Delilah, he didn’t resort to the chiaroscuro employed by Rembrandt in his three paintings featuring these characters.

In The Cheat, we see shadows of the characters on matted glass partitions common in the Japanese world, which helps us understand who is there and what is going on, sometimes solely with the help of extras—pure economy and narrative economy.

Another feature is the frequent presence of superimpositions. The uses are twofold: to evoke the appearance of the Virgin, angels and other representatives of the divine order, or signs of religion, such as the cross (Joan the Woman, The Whispering Chorus). In the latter, there’s the Angel of Good on the right and the Angel of Evil on the left whispering their advice to the lead character—hence the film’s title. Or the superimpositions help evoke public opinion, the supposed reactions of the crowd (nearly twenty separate rotating faces in inset—movements that brilliantly underline the hero’s disarray). Most of the time, DeMille amplifies the supernatural, artificial quality of these image implants with his choice of a blinding white, especially when it comes to the Christian Cross.

Raymond Hatton in The Whispering Chorus (1918): a superimposition of twenty heads that advocate good or evil.

Or these effects indicate that the hero is thinking of someone not present in the frame: the husband is with his girlfriend, but is thinking of his wife, with discrete superimpositions of the two faces at times.

The device tends to disappear after 1918, which meant that old-school criticism, estimating quality to be dependent on the number of superimpositions, blur effects, and slow motions, could claim, with William K. Everson and Kevin Brownlow, that DeMille ceased to be creative after The Whispering Chorus, thirty-eight years before the end of his career…

In fact, DeMille did pursue this path, rarely to be sure, as the public no longer appreciated these outdated violations of realism: in Forbidden Fruit (1921), the dollar sign appears in the eye of a penny-pincher and, in North West Mounted Police (1940), the victims of the brother’s desertion and the murderous machine gun, moving from left to right and then down, enter a small corner of the frame, next to the repenting man—an effect that probably won the film the Oscar for Best Editing.

Another outmoded effect is transition with wipes (moving vertical bars), present until 1951.

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

Joan the Woman: the Siege of Orléans, a beautiful disorder.

This title is a bit inaccurate, because there aren’t just films with Geraldine Farrar during this period, but these are his most ambitious and expensive films of the time, though not necessarily the best ones.

The collaboration with Farrar (who resembles the filmmaker Danièle Huillet a bit, but is less pretty of course) lasted five films. Curiously, he called upon her to play Carmen, obviously a silent version: the year was 1915. He chose her because she was the most famous soprano in America. It was a stupid choice: it’s as if Callas was asked to play Aida in pantomime. DeMille probably thought that a disc of Bizet could accompany the visuals in the theatres. It wasn’t to be: Bizet’s descendants were uncooperative when it came to rights, as was proven by their later opposition to Preminger’s all-Black Carmen, which was banned in France for some twenty years. The challenge for DeMille, a small-time, failed, hung-up playwright, was to bring the greatest Opera singer to Hollywood for the first time ever, just like he had got the famous stage actor Dustin Farnum to the West Coast to play The Squaw Man.

A prestigious affair…

Geraldine Farrar again played an opera singer, still a silent one, in Temptation (1915). Farrar was then thirty-four. It may have been believable on stage, with its distance, for her to play a nineteen-year-old Joan of Arc [in Joan the Woman, 1916], but not in cinema with its close-ups. Moreover, Farrar was something of a tank: you need a solid pair of lungs to sing. It was therefore the opposite of the traditional image of Joan of Arc, the frail young maiden who, with her faith and enthusiasm, defeated the powerful soldiers of the English army. So the spice, the paradox of the Joan of Arc story had vanished.

The film is worthy for the sequence showing the Siege of Orléans, the best battle scene shot by DeMille: a beautiful, chaotic and inventive wave of soldiers in action, with multiple arms under the fortifications, on the rampart walls and in the city. Carmen, in contrast, is interesting only for a brief sequence realistically showing the work of cigarette makers and was rightly sent up in [Chaplin’s] Burlesque on Carmen.

Farrar was followed by America’s sweetheart, Mary Pickford; or the triumph of the star system. Pickford’s salary came up to 71% of the final cost of A Romance of the Redwoods, a rather ordinary Western (in fact, a “Northern” since DeMille always preferred adventure films set near his native Massachusetts). In contrast, Pickford is remarkable in her spontaneity in The Little American, a contribution to the war effort (along with Joan the Woman, a film indirectly campaigning for entry into conflict, and Till I Come Back to You). DeMille hedges his bets: before the war in France, Pickford was seen trapped in the sinking Lusitania, which has a bit of Titanic about it. It’s all on the nose: Pickford, a young American girl above the fray, becomes, without wanting to, a heroine who saves the good French soldiers at the risk of her life… There are some rather melodramatic images here, with the trenches, the ruins, a Christ statue standing alone in the middle of rubble, and Pickford in a tearful pietà pose at its foot. Even so, the result is impressive. The scene may even have influenced Gance in J’accuse, made shortly after.   

Coming in the line of “great spectacles”, the last Geraldine Farrar film, The Woman God Forgot, is disappointing, offering us only a phoney Mexico from the time of the Aztecs.

Finally, this period is more interesting for its naturalist films and its low-budget melodramas.

Charlotte Walker, Raymond Hatton in Kindling (1915): a high point of naturalism.

On naturalism: going through DeMille’s work chronologically, it’s shocking to come across an almost neorealist film like Kindling, a pure gem that follows a series of uninteresting movies. What could have happened for DeMille to rise to the peak of his craft in one go? To be frank, the transition from the preceding period isn’t as clear-cut, which doesn’t make the critic’s job any easier. Later films like Maria Rosa or Chimmie Fadden Out West are just as disappointing as early attempts such as The Unafraid or Rose of the Rancho. There’s an element of chance shaping the choice of projects at any given point. I’ll come back to this naturalist period.

The melodramatic section includes very diverse films: the perfect outline of The Cheat (1915) contrasts with the complex and tormented itinerary of The Whispering Chorus (1917). The first part [of the latter film] is a realistic depiction of the life of accountant John Tremble and his family. When he is forced to flee following a forgery he has committed, the film becomes a wildly imaginative soap opera: he disguises himself, changes his physical appearance completely, assuming the identity of a dead body he finds by chance and which he passes off as his own. After a wide variety of episodes—a beautiful Chinese festival, a serious accident at work—he returns home. We learn that the police are after him for the murder of… John Tremble. Fortunately, his mother recognizes him and sets out to resolve the matter. But, alas, she dies two minutes later. He is arrested and lets himself be sentenced to death, not wanting to jeopardize the future of his wife, who is now married to a bigwig. The extraordinary nature of the story works very well, since it appears only slowly, halfway through the film, after an initial anchoring in everyday reality. We manage to understand everything of this extremely complicated story. A triumph of great melodrama, as is underlined by the film’s French title, The Supreme Redemption. The French titles of the films that follow reinforce their affiliation to the genre: Price of a Throne, Whirlwind of Souls, The Damned of the Heart.

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