Books


[From Luc Moullet’s monograph King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (2009, Yellow Now). See Table of Contents]

Standing: Robert Douglas, Kent Smith, Patricia Neal, Gary Cooper, Raymond Massey. Seated: Henry Blanke, Ayn Rand, King Vidor.

The Plot

 First part. The lean years (25 minutes).

New York, in the thirties. In his early days, Howard Roark (Gary Cooper), an iconoclastic architect, finds it difficult to break into a milieu very much under the grip of conformism, especially because he systematically refuses all the compromises and traditional embellishments that his clients demand. He is in dire straits. He resolves to become a worker.

Second part. The quarry (12 minutes).

Roark works as a labourer in a quarry run by Guy Francon, whose daughter Dominique (Patricia Neal), attracted to Roark, provokes him. A short and violent erotic relationship between the two ensues.

Third part. The Enright House (19 minutes).

Roark is finally offered a major project, the Enright building. But the originality of this building earns him the hostility of the press, particularly the tabloid newspaper The Banner, headed by Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), who doesn’t know what to sink his teeth into and is heavily influenced by his old-fashioned architecture critic Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas). Roark survives by building individual homes and petrol stations.

Part Four. The Wynand Residence (12 minutes).

Wynand eventually asks Roark to build a house in the country for him and his wife, who is none other than Dominique, perhaps to please her, because he knows that she admires the work of Roark, whom he now supports.

Part Five. Cortlandt Homes (46 minutes).

Peter Keating (Kent Smith), a friend of Roark’s and a drudge of an architect, asks Roark to be his ‘ghost-writer’ and to design a large-scale housing project, Cortlandt Homes. Keating does not have enough imagination to design it, and Roark is blacklisted by clients. Roark accepts the deal, without any pay, on the condition that the project, signed by Keating, be executed without any modifications. But the clients impose major changes on Keating that shock Roark. With the help of Dominique, Roark dynamites Cortlandt, which has just been completed. He is arrested. Wynand’s newspaper supports Roark’s cause, but is disavowed by the rest of the press, by Toohey, the critic that Wynand kicks out, and by the vast majority: nobody buys The Banner anymore. So Wynand backtracks, and begins a crusade against Roark, just before Roark wins his lawsuit in the name of an architect’s moral right. A rival builder buys the site and the ruins of Cortlandt, and allows Roark to rebuild Cortlandt in his own way. Wynand, who has lost face for good, kills himself just after he orders Roark to build the gigantic Wynand Building, on top of which Dominique will join her new husband, Howard Roark. 

 

The Novel and Its Author

The Fountainhead is an adaptation of the seven-hundred-page novel of the same name, whose French title is La Source vive, written by Ayn Rand (1905-1982) and printed in three million copies.

Ayn Rand’s personality is not well known in France. Born in Russia, she fled communism in 1926 to settle down in the United States. She worked for a while in Hollywood. She then wrote the autobiographical novel We the Living (1936), adapted by Fascist Italy and the filmmaker Goffredo Alessandrini in 1942 under the titles Noi vivi and Addio Kira. In it, she denounced the oppression of Stalinist collectivism and recounted the odyssey of her own flight to the New World.

The Fountainhead was written between 1936 and 1943, and published by Bobbs-Merril after being turned down by a dozen publishers. When I saw the film, in which the title is never uttered, I thought that fountainhead was the hidden source of the Cortlandt project, Howard Roark’s anonymous model. But Ayn Rand is, in fact, referring to the Ego, the unique source of human progress. So it’s not a good title: it’s too ambiguous, too obscure. Ayn Rand magnified Howard Roark’s individualism in his fight against a cowardly and unimaginative community that sought, among other things, to build standardized buildings for the masses. She thus denounced all kinds of collectivist attempts, those of capitalist tycoons paradoxically aligned with those of Marxism-Leninism. She continued her literary work, always animated by the will to deliver a message and proceeding in the same direction.

Why Vidor?

The prodigious success of The Fountainhead led the film industry to buy the rights to the book, which could not be put on the screen until five years later because—according to Ayn Rand—restrictions were imposed during the war. I’m tempted to believe that this was a polite excuse by the producers to stall the author.

Why did Warner Bros. then contact King Vidor (1896-1982), who was making his forty-fifth feature film and had never shot for the company?

It’s that Vidor had just gone through several painful episodes…

Metro Goldwyn Mayer, in 1939, did not let him complete the second part of his Northwest Passage.

He then spent three years working on An American Romance (1944), a very ambitious tale about the development of America, the importance of industry and especially of steel. But the producer, MGM again, reckoning that the public found the film too long, cut it down it by thirty minutes without informing the filmmaker. Vidor says that he could perhaps have accepted the principle behind this reduction, but that the cuts were made contrary to common sense, based on technical imperatives—avoiding gaps in the musical score—instead of paying for a new sound mix. Vidor, under contract for twenty-two years with MGM, which he had helped launch with the resounding success of The Big Parade (1925)—over $6,000,000 in revenue for a cost of $382,000—was disgusted with the process and left the firm immediately.

He then directed the Western Duel in the Sun (1945), which he abandoned on the penultimate day of shooting, its producer Selznick constantly disrupting his work, imposing modifications and reshoots at his whim.

In 1947, he took part in the anthology film A Miracle Can Happen, for which he shot the opening, an unenjoyable piece of work, as well as a segment that was particularly close to his heart, with Charles Laughton as a pastor, but which was eliminated from the final cut. Preview screenings had shown that the Laughton episode was of less interest to the public, who preferred segments of pure comedy.

This fourfold negative experience was weighing on Vidor’s heart, and he was able to exact great revenge with this story of an architect who is bullied by cowardly, stupid clients, but who manages to beat them hands down.

Genesis

It is probable that Ayn Rand saw the arrival of Vidor on The Fountainhead favourably. Vidor had portrayed the Russia of the Soviets in a critical and ironic manner in Comrade X (1940) and depicted the Empire of the Tsars in shimmering colours in His Hour (1924), according to the critics of the time. He had presented America as a resourceful and ever-expanding Promised Land for a Hungarian émigré in An American Romance, all things that could only please this woman who had fled Stalin.

By the time Vidor signed his contract, Gary Cooper had already been chosen by Warner. Vidor was very fond of Cooper, whom he had already filmed in 1934 in The Wedding Night, a remarkable film set among Polish emigrants. Vidor later expressed reservations about the choice of Cooper: “It wasn’t a role for Cooper. I wanted Bogart. The author, Mrs. Rand, is a very dynamic woman. And her hero was very aggressive, combative, sarcastic, brusque, arrogant. Based on my reading, that was a very good fit for Bogart or Cagney, not Cooper.” The choice of Cagney made sense, because in the book, Roark is redheaded, like his model, Rand’s husband Frank O’Connor, an Irishman, just like Cagney. However, Vidor adds, about Cooper: “But this calm determination is probably better than the model’s aggressiveness[1].”

Vidor read an initial treatment, written by two scriptwriters, which he didn’t like. So he thought it best—”I will work with her. I will guide her[2]“—to resort to Ayn Rand, who agreed—she says—to work on a voluntary basis on the condition that nothing in the final dialogue would be cut off. She thought of herself as a kind of new Howard Roark. She had already written a first draft of the screenplay in 1944, following Warner’s acquisition of the rights to the novel in October 1943 for fifty thousand dollars (another, more dubious source gives four hundred and fifty thousand dollars as the total cost of the screenplay, including the adaptation that Vidor was unhappy about).

Rand wanted Greta Garbo to play Dominique. The latter hadn’t done anything for seven years. It would be a sensational coup for Warner Bros. to have the great star of the rival company, MGM, unexpectedly return to the screen under the guidance of the former star-director of MGM. Vidor dissuaded Garbo from accepting. Perhaps Garbo’s age, 43, was unsuitable for the role of Dominique. And then, Garbo’s coldness coupled with Cooper’s impassivity might have been a bit too much for two leading roles in the same film. The choice of two forty-year-olds would probably have slowed down The Fountainhead’s dynamic.

Barbara Stanwyck, who got on well with Rand and had already made two films with Cooper (Capra’s Meet John Doe and Hawks’ Ball of Fire), was very keen on the role. In 1946, she had pestered Warner Bros. to make the film, and was very disappointed when she was replaced by another actress, to the point of breaking her contract with the company. She would have made for a more biting character than Garbo, but the pair would have been a little too reminiscent of Meet John Doe, especially because the film would have, as we shall see, a very Capra-like quality.

Finally, Vidor chose an actress twenty years younger, Patricia Neal. She came from the theatre. She had achieved great personal success for her role in Another Part of the Forest by Lillian Hellman, a leftist far removed from a reactionary like Rand, and had only made one film, Butler’s John Loves Mary. Vidor asked her to learn to ride a horse and reduce her weight to fifty kilos. As a beginner, she only earned twenty-five thousand dollars, eleven times less than Gary Cooper. Compare this to the sixty-five thousand dollars received by the third actor in the credits, Raymond Massey, and the one hundred and fifty thousand dollars reserved for Vidor.

Ayn Rand therefore worked closely with Vidor.

How do you compress this massive tome, which takes about eighteen hours to read, into a film of less than two hours?

The first step was to remove a number of secondary characters: Peter Keating’s family, his mother, his fiancée, the niece of the critic Toohey, Dominique’s father who is barely seen in the film, and Frank Mallory, an architect in the vein of Roark.

The second step was the reduction in importance of two characters, Peter Keating and Ellsworth Toohey. The novel consists of four parts, two of which are named after them. It became a male-female duo, as was very common in Hollywood.

Another major change was to cut everything not related to the Cortlandt building as much as possible. This part represents less than twenty percent of the book. In the Vidor, it is forty percent of the film. The Stoddard case, in particular, was eliminated: one trial was enough!

Several scenes are reduced to two lines of very suggestive, often contradictory, abruptly opposed dialogue. Thus, at the beginning, the meeting with the dean of the school of architecture, a verbal joust of seven pages, is limited to twenty-five seconds of film.

It is understandable that the strength of Vidor’s film, which lies first and foremost in the abruptness of the situations and dialogue, their shocking simplification and speed, was partly necessitated by the need to considerably reduce a book that was too dense, too talkative. Moreover, the verbosity of the novel, which is more reminiscent of a sophisticated play, and in which Rand harnesses all the facets of her paradoxical situations, rendering the whole thing very heavy, bloated, repetitive, redundant, complacent, makes it look too much like a realistic psychological drama, whereas the content of the actions and verbal exchanges, carried to excess, makes the whole affair very unrealistic to begin with.

Ayn Rand is basically showing off, enjoying herself. Moreover, she was often frowned upon by critics: there is not even half a line about her in the seven hundred pages of Le Pétillon[3], now a must-read. It is astonishing to see that an ambitious novel, but of mediocre quality, and adapted by its author, can turn into a brilliant film.

Note that in the book, Peter Keating marries Dominique, who accepts the union because she wouldn’t be able to find a worse husband (we shall come back to this later). After a tortuous journey, he then gives in to the tycoon Wynand when the latter offers him a deal: he will get the commission for the big building if he accepts that Dominique goes to Reno to divorce him before marrying Wynand immediately.

This kind of barter would have displeased the Hays Code censorship—an attack on the sanctity of marriage—and the following solution was preferred: at a dinner to which Peter and his fiancée Dominique are invited, Wynand offers Keating the commission for the coveted project on condition that he breaks off his engagement. Keating agrees immediately. It doesn’t go as far as a divorce, and allows for a concise, abrupt, shocking and unusual scene.

Towards the end of the book, Dominique sleeps with Roark to join him in dishonour—you charged as an arsonist, I as an adulteress—and calls the police on a lame pretext. She complains of a supposed theft of a ring supposedly offered by Roark. As a result, all of New York becomes aware of their affair. Wynand gets a divorce. Adultery, then. One more scene the censors would not have liked. In the film, it’s much less complicated: Wynand kills himself, making room for the new couple. Another excellent shortcut.

An addition to the book, with a bit of comedy: the mistress of the house firing her cook because she is reading the newspaper that defends Roark. An idea of Vidor’s?

Frank Lloyd Wright, Edgar J. Kaufmann House, Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania, 1934-1937.

Echoes in the film (1)

Echoes in the film (2)

Wright or not Wright?

One always hears about Rand’s book and Vidor’s film being a biography of the most famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). Let’s look at the facts.

Howard Roark begins his career by vegetating for several years. He is refused a potential contract because he does not accept modifications that would bring the building more in line with the canons of Greek, Tudor or Victorian architecture. What they needed was fairly square buildings, with doors, windows and other fancy items clearly visible from the outside, and a very simple single roof. We see him starving, becoming a labourer.

Frank L. Wright was certainly confronted such problems of artistic design. But he was very active in his early years: between the ages of twenty-two and forty-two, he built a large number of individual homes, earning a good living. It wasn’t until he was in his forties that he experienced real difficulties, not attributable to his architectural choices: it was then that he left his home in Chicago, his wife and children, and settled in the countryside 400 kilometres away, with the wife of one of his clients (an episode that we find a little bit of in The Fountainhead), after sojourns in Japan and Italy. His new personal situation led to some puritanical reactions which reduced the number of his clients. His distance made people forget him a little. And he had somehow lost his bearings. If he had a few financially difficult years, it was also because he had to maintain two homes, one of which had six kids.

This is a far cry from Howard Roark, his early years of hardship, and his ascetic existence.

In the early years, Wright only built individual homes: low houses, one or two storeys high, with surprising overhangs and a superimposition of roofs that narrowed the higher one went up. The buildings could almost be built without scaffolding. Thieves could have reached the top of the house without much effort. But there weren’t many thieves in these rural areas in the 1910s. There were no classic high roofs. The tall buildings came later, little by little.

But Roark is presented here primarily as a builder of high-rises, although given the chance, between two aborted projects, he doesn’t turn down an order for a petrol station or an individual house. There is thus a clear contrast in the career descriptions.

It is easy to understand these disparities: firstly, Ayn Rand did not want Wright to sue her. Secondly, the evocation of a hero who starts from nothing, who starved in his youth and became famous after twenty years, was more appealing to the average American who was to make the book a bestseller.

There are indeed similarities in the statements of Wright and Roark: “I fully intend to be not just the greatest architect who has yet lived, but the greatest architect who will ever live”, said Wright in 1930, with a nice mixture of self-satisfaction and self-irony.

Roark doesn’t go that far, but he is almost at the same level when he says at the trial, in his defence: “The creator lives for his work. He doesn’t need other men [which is not very nice, nor very well-founded: what about the manpower an architect needs?]. His first goal is within himself. The man who tries to live for others is in a state of dependency. He is a parasite.”

In the film, we mostly see Roark as a builder of high-rises. Visually speaking, this is infinitely more spectacular than Wright’s horizontal low houses.

In his remarkable study of architecture in The Fountainhead, Donald Albrecht notes, however, that the house by the sea designed by Roark resembles the Auster Heller house designed by Wright, and that the small Californian house Gary Cooper sketches is reminiscent of Wright’s Palsen House (1940). But it’s fifteen seconds of film…

Finally, Roark’s character contains elements reminiscent of Wright, but also borrowings from the life of a star-crossed architect who was one of Wright’s early masters, Louis Sullivan (1856-1924). Of course, Sullivan is portrayed in the film as old Henry Cameron, the forgotten architect who lives in misery and will soon die. Sullivan’s difficult years are thus reconstructed not only through Cameron’s journey, but also through Roark’s early years in which he lives miserably, like a Spartan.

Frank Lloyd Wright, S.C. Johnson and Son Company, Research Tower, Racine, Wisconsin, 1944-1950, under construction.

Echoes in the film (1)

Echoes in the film (2)

Footnotes:

[1] Cahiers du cinéma, No. 136, October 1962, pp. 13-16.

[2] Hector Arce, Gary Cooper, William Morrow & Company, New York, 1979, p. 224.

[3] Pierre-Yves Pétillon, Histoire de la littérature américaine. Notre demi-siècle. 1939-1989, Fayard, 1992.

“Without Franco, I wouldn’t be here, nor this book. Thank you, Francisco. It’s the only good thing you did in your life.” The author behind this characteristic note of thanks is none other than French filmmaker and critic Luc Moullet, whose endearing and very funny autobiography, Mémoires d’une savonnette indocile (“memoirs of an unruly piece of soap”) has just been published by Capricci. In 42 chapters, the “prince of shoestring cinema” walks us through his young years as a critic at Cahiers du cinéma, his filmmaking life, and his stints in various professional and educational bodies. The book was announced in 2012, with the intention for it to be published posthumously. Reading it nine years later, with the author still in the pink of health, one senses that the cause for Moullet’s original reticence may have had to do less with his comments on his peers and collaborators than with the encouragement the book might give to the French tax department to come after him.

“My whole life has just been a series of exclusive passions I was ashamed of,” notes Moullet in the first chapter. Frowned upon at home, cinema became clandestine education for this Paris-born recluse, who talked to practically no one and had few friends at school. Haunting the film club of the Latin Quarter, he gradually found a “standing place” at Cahiers at the age of 18, thanks to the detailed filmographies he could assemble with the help of English dailies. A first text on Edgar G. Ulmer was rejected by Truffaut, who “was afraid of being ridiculed by the caricature of himself that I was.” Once into the ranks, Moullet was on the hunt for “unknown and forgotten filmmakers,” this kind of provocative rehabilitation being a sure-fire way to critical limelight. Very soon in his career, he says, he decided to stick to two principles: to write in a way that was “easy to understand,” unlike some of his colleagues at the magazine, and “to educate through laughter”—principles that have evidently remained intact throughout his life.

We also get personal assessments of the other leading lights of the magazine, and hence much of the Nouvelle Vague, whose criticism, declares Moullet, was ratified retroactively by the success of their first films: François Truffaut (“one of the rare filmmakers to not have been flattened by the roller of traditional culture”), Jacques Rivette (“the driving engine of the new criticism”), Jean-Luc Godard (“he put everything into his work, nothing into his life”), Claude Chabrol (“a filmmaker who looks at others… our little Balzac”), Éric Rohmer (“his strength was not getting out of a narrow subject, imagining all its facets with an unusual, fascinating and passionate tenacity”), Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (“made all the girls fall for him without wanting to”). Interestingly, Moullet’s views of André Bazin register as more conflicted; the latter’s “art of analysis,” it would appear, was put in service of terrible films (“How could F.T. like this guy who often spent his time defending turkeys and destroying masterpieces?… Was Bazin a great stylist rather than a great critic?”). “In real life,” he adds however, “each of his gestures towards others seemed to be to be a model.”

The transition to filmmaking, Moullet tells us, was much easier, and happened without him even trying, at the age of 23 years. Everything he knew about shooting films at that time was taught to him by Rivette “over a lunch on Washington street between 1 PM and 1:40 PM.” Even so, after initial hiccups, Moullet the filmmaker overtook Moullet the critic, who nevertheless continued to produce texts, even major ones. The bulk of Mémoires is devoted to the discussion of each of his films: the reasons for their making, circumstances of their production, incidents from the shoot, their critical and commercial reception. Hilarious anecdotes abound, but sprinkled throughout are also tips for young directors both tongue-in-cheek (how to behave at cocktail parties, how to fudge your way to state subsidy, how to avoid paying lunch money to your crew) and serious (“never do your storyboarding when you aren’t absolutely sure of the participation of each actor”).

In terms of the information it offers, Mémoires has some overlap with Notre Alpin Quotidien (2009, also Capricci), the book of extended interviews that he wrote with Emmanuel Burdeau and Jean Narboni. All the now-familiar themes of Moullet’s work make regular appearances: geography (“I learnt to read maps before I learnt to read”), cycling (“Truffaut was an autodidact. I was a cyclodidact”), mountaineering (“I’ve seen every film, and I’ve climbed every mountain pass; well, 229 of them”), and naturally, women (“The drama of my life is that I’ve always been a toy for women… I was in love with four Françoises at the same time”). All this intersects with cinema in amusing ways, as when Moullet is scandalized at his own attraction for the Positif critic Michèle Firk: “How could I desire such a contemptible girl, a Biberman fan and a Fuller hater?” The episode would be the inspiration for Les Sièges d’Alcazar (1989) two decades later.

But it is, of course, the theme of money that gives the book its tuning note. What makes Mémoires such an unusual, and perhaps even radical, autobiography is its lack of any sense of shame in talking about creative work in terms of finances. It isn’t just that Moullet often translates budget numbers of his films into what it could buy (a small car, two lofts in Paris) or that he discloses all the fraud that goes on around state subsidies. One of the permanent fixtures of this book is the author’s discussion about his personal relationship to money. So he talks about making do with very little, picking “soap from Lelouch’s home, paper reams from Societé des auteurs, newspapers from trash cans… toilet paper from Centre du cinéma.” It’s easy to believe that Moullet completed the script of Brigitte and Brigitte (1965) in small writing in an old school notebook in order to avoid buying a new one, but less so when he declares that he used to remain in the buff at home to avoid large laundry bills.

Some of these no-holds-barred revelations around money are positively discomfiting. It is one thing to create shell companies to avoid tax or to charge Tunisian distributors of his films for old prints already paid for by the British. But it’s something else to be on the dole while producing profitable films or hiking in the Himalayas, and to buy studio apartments in Paris with this welfare money. Moullet’s financial wiles were, moreover, supplemented by inexplicable windfalls, like the time he was credited 80,000 Francs by Crédit Lyonnais owing to a computer error. He describes this incident in some detail in Mémoires and his elaborate efforts to make sure that the money wasn’t retrieved from him. “I have no regrets about it,” he states, “Bravo Luluc (but I had regrets about watching Vidor’s The Fountainhead only in 1958. To each his own morals).” Indeed, the filmmaker seems to have been more sensitive to the feelings of individuals than the rights of institutions in his dealings with money, as is attested by his desire not to ruin Françoise Vatel following the fiasco of A Girl Is A Gun (1971) or his periodic cheques to Jeanne Moreau for Nathalie Granger (1972), which he produced.

Borrowing a journalist’s qualification, Moullet describes his public self as “an unruly piece of soap,” whence the book’s title, as someone who has always eluded grasp, an individual who signs up for one thing and does another. Admittedly, there is a groupie side to him that has wanted to belong to “families” like the ones at the Cahiers or the SRF (Société des réalisateurs de films, where he was once treasurer). Also, as an outsider, an “apraxic autistic Alpinist,” the prospect of sticking to dominant standards, such as making genre films or shooting on digital video, has been an attractive one. But this is counterbalanced by a flight from commitment. The filmmaker explains his refusal to define himself politically as an “instinctive reflex” against his father, who was constantly switching allegiances, being at one point a pro-Nazi militant.

There are other areas in which this perpetual slippage manifests. Moullet admits that, whenever planning a new project, he tried to make it run counter to the grain of the previous one. So the “navel-gazing” of Ma première brasse (1981) was a repartee to the social film that was Origins of a Meal (1978), itself made against the inwardness of Anatomy of a Relationship (1975), a follow-up to the Western A Girl Is A Gun. In his docu-fiction hybrids, such as La cabale des oursins (1991) or Le ventre de l’Amérique (1996), one isn’t always sure whether to take what is seen and heard at face value. Moullet makes reference to pataphysics once or twice in the book, but even without that framework, it’s plain that his films often use trappings of scientific research (enumeration, measurement systems, statistics, reportage, expert commentary) to absurd ends.

In the same vein, at a number of places in the book, it isn’t always clear if it’s the memoirist or the farceur in Moullet who is holding forth; for instance, when he rails against the evils of automobiles or when he performs a ridiculous psychoanalysis of women’s fear of cockroaches. This détournement, this formal displacement as it were, seems to be at the heart of his work.

The tendency for evasion may also be a survival mechanism. The overall impression one gets from Moullet’s book is of a rather easy life, one without much drama, controversy or struggle. Except for a brief lean period following the failure of A Girl Is A Gun, there appear to have hardly been any money troubles for him; friends on festival committees and boards of institutions have lent more than a helping hand in getting his films funded and showcased; the filmmaker has enjoyed a stable marriage of over fifty years and the advantages of a relatively good health—facets that a romantic (and masochistic, Moullet might add) conception would deem unconducive to good art. Shooting only for nine days a year, he seems to have led a life consecrated instead to the pleasures of farniente.

Cinema, in such an order of things, becomes a simple activity, pure game, made for and with pleasure, without any high stakes riding on it. When shooting a scene, writes Moullet, he looks for the easiest way to film it, unlike Delmer Daves, Bertrand Tavernier or Rivette who “willingly complicate life.” How to open a bottle of Coke, what are the challenges in booking a room in a mountain refuge, why do the French deify dogs: these are the burning questions his movies tackle. Moullet’s greatest legacy as a filmmaker, and the prime pleasure of reading his memoirs, may well be to have whittled down the universe to a human size, to have offered a working model of a creative life responsive to the world around it, but not caught up in the social and political upheavals of its time. For an artist, as he wrote back in 1959, “it’s enough to be a maker of objects.”

 

[Originally published at Mubi]

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

Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah (1949): the delicacy of colours in a new bath scene.

A curious film, which seems to have been made only for its ending. A bit like Vidor and Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1946), whose title evokes only the final scene, and which is also one of the few American films of the time to be marked by the final death of the couple, who were also played by stars. A death that both protagonists, here, desire or consent to.

The scene is the only one in the film that exhibits great richness. A temple with an overloaded architecture, like Cabiria or Salammbô, with a sort of embankment at the centre, more reminiscent of the Roman arena and its circus games. There are hundreds of spectators.

The American public were 1949 was quite familiar with the Bible and the story of Samson, and knew that Samson dies as a result of the temple’s collapse, which he triggers with the strength of his arms and … his hair. If, by extraordinary chance, they did not know the Old Testament, they were informed of the ending by word of mouth and by the massive publicity around the film’s release.

The Bible does not mention the presence of Delilah at the temple (in DeMille’s film, she takes the place of the young boy mentioned in the Bible). An earlier scene establishes Samson and Delilah’s connivance, and we understand that they will meet the same fate. Shortly before the collapse, Delilah refuses when Samson asks her to run away: she thus atones for her fault, her treachery.

So here we have a spectacle whose outcome everyone knows, but which is filmed like a suspenseful episode, with preparations and a very elaborate staging. In fact, there is really no suspense. The viewer is therefore one step ahead of the other viewers, those sitting in the temple. He feels superior to them. The suspense, here, has to do only with the “how” of the action. How will Delilah manage to put Samson in such a position that he can destroy the temple? In front of two hundred people who have no desire to be crushed under the rubble, this is far from obvious. There are a series of miraculous coincidences that make the outcome possible and, paradoxically, the film viewer fears that the soldiers’ intervention on behalf of the Saran of Gaza will not allow for the final disaster.

We get the impression of a fatal, irremediable chain of events, and that is what fascinates us.

There is a very great cinematic moment, based essentially on sound, which may seem surprising in such a visual finale: we realize that Samson will succeed when we hear the faint sound of the stone starting to crumble. This noise is followed by complete silence, the silence of the dazed and worried audience (a bit implausible, since they are too far away to hear what we and Samson can hear) and an artificial silence produced by an intelligent sound mix, underlining the gravity of the action. It is all the more impressive because the beginning of the sequence was extremely noisy, with reactions of the crowd and music. The power of the scene lies in the fact that it is based on everything (big spectacle, gigantic set, numerous extras), but it is the nothing (faint noise and silence) that produces the greatest emotion.

This idea was taken up by Howard Hawks with the sealing of the corridor of the pyramid of Cheops in Land of the Pharaohs, produced by Warner. And the film will have a lot of imitators: another famous couple, David and Bathsheba, concocted by Fox, a new Quo Vadis? financed by MGM, a Salome produced by Columbia. Everyone was doing it.

The scene has been reproached for its theatrical quality, although that is quite logical since this temple is a theatrical place, and the theatrical rigidity accentuates the inexorable quality of the action. The cardboard cut-out quality of the collapsing stone blocks has also been criticised: they bounce with a slenderness impossible for such heavy material. That is the DeMille system, which neglects realism in favour of convention.

Only the idea of the collapse matters. In any case, Samson’s story was probably exaggerated by rumour before the biblical text was written.

To describe these bravura sequences, I preferred the chronological order.

That made it possible to establish precise relationships between films from the same period. For example, the four films from the period of eccentricities (1924-1930).

But I could have chosen other scenes, the murder of the Eurasian mistress (the silent version of The Ten Commandments), the shaving scene in Why Change Your Wife, the sequence with Satan Synne (The Affairs of Anatol), the staircase scene in The Godless Girl, the suspenseful finale in the mine in Dynamite, the couple stuck at the top of the broken-down roller coaster (Saturday Night), the scene with the Indians and the compass (Unconquered), and I know how arbitrary this selection can be. I am also aware that a scene from a masterpiece like Kindling could not have served our purpose as everything in it is very smooth and homogenous.

In my classification are a few very different choices, which has perhaps allowed a more logical classification: either the sequence appears within a mediocre (Cleopatra) or a modest (The Volga Boatman) movie, or it remains the most striking scene of a high-calibre work, surfacing in the middle (The Golden Bed) or the end (Wassell), or it is the conclusion of an ever-changing film (The Road to Yesterday, Madam Satan, Samson and Delilah) whose beginning is disappointing but which, little by little, expands in scope until the final apotheosis.

The principle of the brilliant final scene that floors the viewer, who will remember it for eternity, eclipsing the mediocrity of the beginning, is an excellent principle which can be found in many good films (Alexander Nevsky, Griffith’s Way Down East, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, Mankiewicz’s Suddenly Last Summer, Ismael Ferroukhi’s The Great Journey). It is certainly more exemplary than the principle of the opening sequence towering over the rest of the film (Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage, Almodóvar’s Volver, Ruy Guerra’s The Unscrupulous Ones, Welles’ Othello, Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel), but it is now outmoded by the evolution of cinema, which now depends on television broadcast to a great extent. Now, if the viewer doesn’t find the beginning of a film exciting, he is going to change channels. Television channels know this and make their choice partly on this criterion.

It should be noted that, often, a film’s big scene is not the one expected. The crossing of Red Sea, the tussle with the octopus (Reap the Wild Wind) and the sugar garden of The Golden Bed are less striking than other scenes in these films.

A rare case: a filmmaker who is better known for his not-so-good, but more expensive films, but whose best work, as with Jean-Pierre Melville, is to be often found in projects that are nevertheless more modest in appearance. Adjusting for inflation, Kindling cost 489 times less than The Ten Commandments, but is much more accomplished.

This book is dedicated to Vidéosphère.

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

The Story of Dr. Wassel (1943): a young mother (Edith Barrett) succumbs to gunfire from the boat before her child’s eyes.

A work of a consistent quality, inspired by real events, describing the life of a physician who became a military doctor in Java during the war against Japan. He manages to safely lead a dozen crippled soldiers through the jungle to a ship to America.

It starts with a highly stylised introduction, with snow falling behind a small statuette, and it continues in a comedic tone: Dr. Wassell is paid by his poor clients of Arkansas… with pigs, which run away from the pigsty. Without any resources, he becomes a doctor abroad.

The first highlight of the film is its depiction of the daily life of a group of wounded soldiers lying on their stretchers, in rather wide shots without the hero. And the doctor has a hard time putting on his cufflinks, disturbed as he is by his servant, who tries to tie his tie at the same time. But we quickly move on to the dramatic, or even the lyrical, part. Guessing that the army is not going to repatriate the invalids, a disabled soldier stands up on his legs before collapsing. Driven to depression in the heart of the jungle, Hoppy takes the bandages off his hands so he can shoot the approaching Japs. He is massacred…

But the peak of the film is the end, where multiple effects add up as various characters behave, like before, in very different ways within the frame. The Japs bomb the ship that Wassell and his disabled crew are on. On the same ship, fat cats play chess unperturbed. A lady protests, “Will you stop pushing me?”—the same kind of unusual reactions there were towards the end of Madam Satan. A machine gun kills the mother of a four-year-old child, who doesn’t understand the situation and asks her mother to get up. A soldier, who is busy shooting, asks him: “How about joining the navy, big boy? Try this bonnet on.” And the kid is delighted to collaborate with soldiers, “I’m going to show mummy my new hat.” A blind man, with a very sensitive ear like any blind person, is the only one who can identify the noise of the American Flying Fortresses coming from afar to protect them.

Among the wounded, Wassell suddenly finds the doctor who had stolen the woman of his life, Madeline, from him. The colleague informs him that his wife is going to join him. Wonderful surprise, it’s not Madeline! Mad with joy, Wassell kisses the doctor’s wife, whom he has never seen before.

He learns that Madeline is on another boat, the Pecos. A few seconds later, he is told that the Pecos has been sunk. But it soon is known that there is a boat of survivors, which includes Madeline, whom he will join in the last shots of the film.

Wassell expects to be court-martialled since he has violated an order from his higher-ups. But he finds himself decorated by the president (played by an actor, which is exceptional in cinema, especially as Roosevelt was alive when the film was shot).

After the credits, we are told that Hoppy, the soldier with the bandages, is safe and sound. We then have the impression that all this is true. For, if this ending had been invented, DeMille could have included it in the continuity of the narrative. But it is probably a ruse on C.B.’s part to better validate the progression of his film.

We see that everything works on a constant succession of unusual contradictions, reversals of situations, like this kid who is all joyful just after his mother’s death.

So the viewer is suffocated, as it were, by this rush of strange, miracle-like facts. This is what makes for the power of this masterpiece.

This richness was not appreciated by French critics, turned off as they were by the nationalist side of C.B., who often opens his films with a shot of a coat of arms, or a military or institutional emblem. This preaching is also evident at the end of The Greatest Show on Earth, Kindling and Male and Female. But this naive and almost tacked-on hymn to America works well since it comes at the end of a high-quality work. We are then ready to accept anything. And it is presented so directly, so implausibly, that it becomes a form of private joke.

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

Cleopatra (1934): the bewildering ballet of the nymphs.

It is a rather mediocre movie, undermined by the pompous, conventional and declamatory quality of the dialogue, which provokes unintentional laughter. The last scene—Cleopatra and the asp—which should have been the highlight of the show, turns out to be of no interest.

But there are three unforgettable sequences: the ballet of the nymphs, which I already mentioned, the tracking shot depicting the intrigue; the montage sequence narrating the battle.

The latter (the principle of which is taken up again, albeit less well, in The Crusades) is astonishing: it comes just after a series of rather soporific scenes.

In four minutes and four seconds, there are about two hundred shots (I couldn’t count exactly, it was too fast, especially because there are shots with two superimpositions). This means one shot for every 1.22 seconds on an average, including many shots shorter than this.

The subjects depicted are: the preparation of arms and armies for the battle, the charge of the cavalry on the beach; ground warfare; naval warfare.

Note the total contradiction with history: the battle of Actium between the Romans and the Egyptians, who were in league with Mark Antony, took place only on the sea and lasted two hours.

Here, it also extends over land, with the siege of a fortress, and takes place over two days and a night. Anyway, that’s not the most important thing.

The film accumulates tight shots of soldiers in action, of weapons being manufactured, shots with canted framing, effects featuring a marked horizon line, often at the top of the frame, and very pointed, academic interplay of blacks and whites bordering on pompousness, but fortunately very brief.

Everything is intermingled: with short and sometimes very tight shots, the viewer does not have time to ask questions. In the middle of this battle set in 31 BC, he accepts shots stolen from The Ten Commandments (1230 BC)—the chariots on the beach—and from the Siege of Orléans of Joan the Woman (set in 1429) without batting an eyelid. He is overwhelmed by the accumulation of some violent images. It’s a massive patchwork (there is even an underwater shot), unified by continuous martial music.

Why this directorial choice? One could suppose that the filmed naval battle was deemed a failure by DeMille, or that he had no money left to shoot the rest of the scene, or that there had been a total strike, or that C.B. was jealous of S.M. (Eisenstein), whose latest film he had just seen while shooting Cleopatra. It appears that he entrusted the responsibility for the sequence to a great specialist (I think I can sense the handiwork of William Cameron Menzies), who evidently acted on the instructions of our filmmaker.

The problem is that after this virtuoso sequence, the film plummets from a great height back to the monotonous routine which is that of almost the whole film.

A sequence which today registers as an exercise in style, a good film school assignment, the crown jewel of an outdated academicism, but which still makes an impression, especially since it comes after the mediocrity of the earlier sequences.

Alongside this bit of rapid montage, there is a scene conceived around a sequence shot, the one in which we successively learn about the state of affairs between Caesar and Cleopatra, the hardships of Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, and the existence of a plot to assassinate Caesar and its motivations. Another filmmaker may have lazily settled for a discussion scene between two or three characters in static shots. Well, DeMille goes around the difficulty brilliantly.

There are two consecutive shots, with a total duration of two minutes and twenty-one seconds, the second one continuing the first, which is moreover tighter: these are tracking shots from left to right. The transition between them goes almost unnoticed within the continuous movement. DeMille frames six small groups in discussion successively, first a slightly caricatural set of five characters involved in gossip, then duos, and finally the meeting of the conspirators. All the pieces of information the viewer needs are here, but it is supplied by very different people with spaces between them. It doesn’t feel like a didactic exposition at all. First of all, because the tracking shot seems to be the only fundamental basis of the shot, because the different groups are at different distances from the camera, and because the camera is going through obstacles—especially columns—which seem to indicate that all this is filmed on the spot, like a television report on ancient Rome, all the more so because, at the very beginning, the first group is masked by a character walking across the frame. The best part is that at the end, behind Brutus and his friends, we suddenly see the bust of Caesar, whose laurel wreath is removed and tossed away by a conspirator: everything is conveyed in almost no time.

It’s a very modern, veritable lesson in cinema, which seems to me to be of a much higher level than the thundering montage sequence. These are some of the longest shots in C.B. DeMille’s cinema.

Rapid montage, sequence shot: here is a filmmaker who tries to express himself in the most contrasting ways, just as he jumps from the awesome compositions of Joan the Woman to the small objects of his intimate films (Don’t Change Your Husband or Old Wives for New) with great verve.

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

Madam Satan (1930): one of the showgirls has problems with the headwind.

At the beginning, it’s domestic vaudeville, which turns into a musical, and then a fashion show on a zeppelin during a party with a hundred guests. But that’s not all. Suddenly, twenty minutes before the end of the film, a storm damages the airship, which careens dangerously. So does the camera. It is decided to evacuate passengers by parachute. The orchestra continues to play, as it did during the Titanic disaster, but it’s the most complete mess. One can constantly hear the irritating creaking of the aircraft’s structures that are beginning to crack, the thunder that rumbles, the lightning, the music that doesn’t stop and the frightened screams of the costumed party guests. Debris and iron bars fall in the foreground. A woman complains that she isn’t able to put her parachute on. Another says she doesn’t want to take it because she wants to see the rest of the evening. A very fat gentleman asks for two parachutes. The bimbo-like mistress asks the wife for one, who is willing to give it to her on condition that she doesn’t see her husband again. In a studio sky that doesn’t hide its artificial nature, showgirls jump one by one, following strange trajectories, sometimes horizontal when pushed by the wind, which strips their bodies bare. They move their legs in every direction, with a burlesque frenzy. They seem to be pedalling. One of them goes back and forth in the air in contradictory syncopated rhythms (these are some of the most extraordinary shots in American cinema). A man dressed as Henry VIII, thus representing the past, jumps with a parachute (symbol of the future in 1930) and falls on Blacks playing dice on the pavement (the present): a synthesis of the multi-temporal approach dear to DeMille. The master of ceremonies lands in the lion’s den of a zoo just before feeding time. In contrast to the danger posed by this escape in parachutes, people remain very polite. “I beg your pardon”, says the wife when she lands in the back of a convertible in which two lovers are making out. Her husband falls, without a parachute, into an artificial lake. The bimbo lands straight on a high-altitude weather vane and asks for help from a parachuter. He replies that he is just passing by and continues to descend. She finally crashes through the glass roof of a club where masculine, misogynist gymnasts are exercising in their underwear. And so on…

We are in the middle of the sky, and of a fever dream. It calls to mind the work of Busby Berkeley, and a famous sequence from Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (Eddie Cline and W.C. Fields, 1941). A hilarious, surreal universe. But the surrealists hated DeMille because of his Christian label.

This bravura sequence, in contrast to the films mentioned earlier, plays very little on dialogue. These are above all ideas of movements, gestures and situations. A skilful mix of heterogeneous elements. An atmosphere that is in every way contrary to the conventional and limited quality of the first part of the film. A classic scene. The swan song of our auteur’s extravagant period.

After this scene comes the epilogue, the return home, which is a little longish—three minutes—and disappointing, breaking the spell of this aerial festival.

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

The Volga Boatman (1926).

Our sequence is located towards the middle of this film, which was made just after The Road to Yesterday. Bolsheviks have taken over the large house of an aristocratic family. Following a small incident caused by the young Princess Vera, a revolutionary is killed by a gunshot fired by one of the squires, who flees. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, the Red Army demands the death of one of the aristocrats. So Vera decides to sacrifice herself. A rope is put around her neck, but one of the leaders of the revolutionaries, the boatman Feodor, contests the principle of this public execution, which risks looking like a lynching. A firing squad of six soldiers is formed to carry out the sentence in an isolated room. Vera taunts them, “Does it take a whole army to shoot one woman? A man could do it alone.” Mariusha the gypsy, who is in love with Feodor, moreover points out that, this way, they won’t need to use six cartridges. It’s that cartridges are expensive. And so Feodor is assigned for the job. He goes with Vera into the adjacent room. Suspicious and jealous, Mariusha warns him: “We’ll give you five minutes, if you don’t shoot her by then, we’ll come in and do it for you.”

A small clock allows us to observe the countdown. Vera advances the hands of the clock: “I am not used to waiting.” Feodor sets the hands back: “We’ve waited five hundred years for liberty, you can wait five minutes for death.” Next door, the revolutionaries make merry, while Vera plays the ballad Song of the Volga Boatmen on piano, singing it. Feodor stops her, “You are singing to give yourself courage.” [1] The hands of the clock advance mercilessly. Vera pours rosewater into the room to die in a pleasant environment. He serves her a glass of wine to “steady her nerves”. She drinks to the health of Old Russia, and invites Feodor to finish the glass. He drops it on the floor. Mariusha, still in the big room next door, threatens to come. Vera takes out a jewel box. “You can’t bribe me”, he takes offence. She takes a beautiful decoration out of the box and hangs on Feodor’s chest, “I’m going to reward you for shooting a defenceless woman.” He tears off the decoration. She draws a cross on her breast to make the job easier for him. The five minutes are up. In fact, it lasts eight minutes in the film (even more, as I saw the film at a higher speed) to keep the suspense going…

Moved by her courage, Feodor begins to kiss Vera passionately. He pours lots of wine on our heroine’s chest, fires a shot in the air and returns to the large hall carrying Vera’s body.

“Let’s throw her in the Volga”, suggests Mariusha. “I’ll throw her in the Volga”, replies Feodor. As he steps forward, Mariusha steals Vera’s ring. But it smells like wine. She puts the ring on, her fingers are full of red. She licks her fingers and realizes the trick. But Feodor has already left, with Vera in his arms, and locks the door behind him. They run away.

This is the big scene of Act IV, an impression confirmed by the theatrical atmosphere of the sole set. We are not far from romantic drama, from the Hugo of Angelo or Ruy Blas, or even Elizabethan theatre. You can feel that it is a game, not some kind of reality, but you go along. DeMille has put all the ingredients, all possible twists and turns in this sequence.

And there are even some elements from The Road to Yesterday: the gypsy woman, the clock, replacing the hourglass.

This is the bravura sequence of the film, which remains on a good level in the other scenes, but is more banal, more conventional, infinitely less flamboyant. A sort of oasis in the sticks.

Footnote:

[1] Translator’s note: the line is, in fact, by Vera: “You sang it to give you courage, why shouldn’t I? Are we not both Russians?”

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

The Road to Yesterday (1925): the splendour of the swashbuckling film: Vera Reynolds, Joseph Schildkraut, William Boyd.

This is the film made just after The Golden Bed. The six main characters, after the physical and mental shock caused by a very serious train collision in Arizona, find themselves in 1625 in the heart of England, in obviously quite different roles. Everything was relatively quiet in the first hour of runtime, but now it becomes an increasingly unbridled cloak-and-dagger story, and we are stunned by this unexpected and accelerated development.

The film is halfway between Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires and Victor Hugo’s Les Burgraves. Ken, the ruined lord, absolutely wants to marry the young and rich Lady Elizabeth, who is in love with handsome Jack. Ken kidnaps Elizabeth, and Jack comes to the castle to save her. But Ken has Jack arrested, whom he accuses of having come to the castle to steal. And he blackmails Elizabeth: either I kill Jack (who already has the noose around his neck) or you marry me. You have three minutes to choose… He starts the hourglass. Then comes Malena, the gypsy who pretends to be already married to Ken, who decides to have her burned for witchcraft. Elizabeth agrees to the marriage if Ken lets Jack live. But (like the Saran of Gaza would later with Delilah and Samson, who is blinded on order of the Saran) Ken plays on words: he doesn’t kill Jack, but has him whipped to death behind a curtain, which he soon opens to Elizabeth’s grieving eyes. She unties Jack, who, before dying, kills Ken with a stab near his left shoulder, while Malena’s body burns at the stake.

We are two hours and five minutes into the film.

Devoured by the flames, Malena screams in anger and curses Ken. She moves in vain from right to left and left to right in an attempt to loosen her bonds, and this movement in the flames merges—with the help of an admirable dissolve (the most beautiful in the history of cinema)—with the flames of the train and the movements of the four heroes trapped in the debris of the American Express of 1925.

Ken is unable to pull Malena from under debris of the coach as his left shoulder is paralysed by his earlier injury. She is about to die. He, the inveterate atheist, is reduced to praying to God. God delivers him from his infirmity right away. Malena is rescued. They then join the Jack-Beth couple (Beth is short for Elizabeth). Beth, who has always fiercely denied the existence of God, tells Jack, who is a priest: “Oh, Jack, we’ve been in love for hundreds of years, and I’ll marry you with a noose round your neck, or a Prayer Book in your hand, just so you keep on loving me!

And Ken, in the face of his miraculous cure, exclaims: “Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory, forever!” The film ends on a shot of a cross, this famous omnipresent cross (The Godless Girl, The Sign of the Cross, The Plainsman).

Obviously, this soap opera is totally unbelievable, and there is something eminently ridiculous about the filmmaker’s proselytising, just like this hollow-ringing instant miracle: a simple little bandage that Ken removes in two seconds. This religious kitsch is so mediocre that it imparts a new dynamic, staggering in every way, to the most absolute playful gratuity. The audacity of tackling the most total implausibility and the most complete ridiculousness astounds us, leaves us dumbfounded with admiration. A bit like with Abel Gance. It is true that all this happens after more than two hours, and after a long, bland initial section centred on an almost banal everyday life that has allowed us to get used to the film, its characters and the plot. I don’t think any other film has given us such a provocative, mind-boggling ending. We don’t believe it, but we still go with it. We are won over, I think, by the very fact that we can’t believe it, and that DeMille has had the nerve nonetheless… It remains to be seen whether DeMille believed it. But that is perhaps a superfluous question. Cinema rediscovers its essential nature here, that of a pure game.

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

Lillian Rich on The Golden Bed (1924).

Before coming to the most striking sequence, I need to describe the context.

The Peake family, despite the golden bed that adorns one of its rooms, is on the verge of ruin. One of the daughters, Margaret, is reduced to working for the poor neighbour, young Holtz, a candy seller with whom she falls in love.

Her sister Flora returns home penniless. As the sweets sell very well, she seduces Holtz and marries him. But her frivolous spending risks bankrupting the Holtz Company. And so, the wife of Holtz’s banker is chosen over Flora to organise the Hunters Association party. She is furious and convinces her husband to throw another party on the same day in a décor entirely made of sugar. To finance this madness, where guests will lick the “furniture”, the trees and the necklaces on beautiful girls, Holtz has to buy sugar substitute and misuses his company’s assets. Flora even invites the banker and his wife, who have almost no one at their party.

Holtz asks for a loan from the banker, who will agree if Flora gives his wife her beautiful jewellery. Flora refuses, and leaves with a new lover.

Holtz does five years of prison for his fraud. When he is released, he stumbles into the Peake home, where Flora, dumped by her boyfriend and ruined, has just died in the golden bed. Holtz unites with the faithful Margaret, who, in his absence, has successfully opened a new Holtz candy shop.

Another film about a company, just like The Ten Commandments (building construction), Triumph (can factory), Reap the Wild Wind (shipowners’ company). A saga with a sinuous, loose, unpredictable course, full of charisma and excitement. It always returns to the house and the central bed—at times it looks like a brothel in disguise. A fairly harmonious outline, so it may not be a very good example that I chose. One could moreover argue that this is our filmmaker’s masterpiece.

There is a wonderful sequence. I haven’t seen the film for a quarter-century, but I remember it very well; that tells you something. Oh, it is not, as you might think, the party scene where everything is made of sugar. That is certainly amazing, but it goes on for a bit too long, remains very repetitive (as often with DeMille) and ends up being very predictable.

The real bravura sequence is the Swiss episode (shot, of course, on a Californian glacier) in the middle of the film. We arrive there from America, without any transition whatsoever: Flora, whom we haven’t practically seen so far, has just married a Spanish marquis. While he is out climbing a mountain, Flora cheats on him with a lover. But suddenly she hears his heavy footsteps on the stairs. He has come back early… Heavens! What to do? The husband enters the bedroom. We expect the worst. But we see our two lovebirds talking like respectable middle-class folks with no ulterior motive: they have had the time to put everything back in place… The next day, the husband, who has eventually realized, provokes his rival on the edge of a crevasse as they are competing to pluck a beautiful flower that Flora was asking for. And they fall one after the other into the abyss. A scene reminiscent of the mountaineering interlude of the first Squaw Man. We learn that the Marquis was without a penny, and Flora returns home ruined, in a few seconds of film. So the emotion arises from the bewildering accumulation of dramatic twists—no less than six—in a very short time.

There is an echo of this scene in Richard Fleischer’s The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.

[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.

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