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

Florence Vidor and Elliott Dexter in Old Wives for New (1918): in DeMille, women are fished out.

Even as he nauseatingly made fun of markedly overweight women (Sophy Murdock of Old Wives for New, aunt Harriet in The Road to Yesterday), DeMille cast Gloria Swanson, a pretty but still plump woman, as his star in six films from 1918 to 1921. It was hard to close her bra (Why Change Your Wife). This corresponds well to the predominant feminine aesthetic of the time (we are reminded of the heroine of the recent Titanic, Kate Winslet), but not at all to the canons of our times. Gloria Swanson shot Don’t Change Your Husband at twenty-one, but she looks rather like twenty-eight. We could see this as one possible reason for the disaffection towards C.B.’s high-society films, to which our contemporaries prefer the frail Lillian Gish magnified by Griffith.

All this changed from 1919 onwards. In America, a new category of young girls, the flappers, began to appear. Flapper refers to young girls, but the term was extended, in a mocking way, to many girls between the ages of sixteen and thirty. The flapper is svelte, lean, naughty, does as she pleases, mocks conventions, often goes around without a hat, which was frowned upon at that time, goes neither to the temple nor to the church, and has a very liberated love life. A bit like Katharine Hepburn’s character in Bringing Up Baby. The flapper first appears in DeMille’s work (and I think in American cinema) in the form of Leatrice Joy (whose character kills a policeman while speeding in a car) in Manslaughter. She will appear again, played by Leatrice Joy or Vera Reynolds or Pauline Garon in Adam’s Rib, Feet of Clay, The Golden Bed, The Road to Yesterday and, in an oblique or offbeat form, The Godless Girl and Madam Satan, a film where she is nevertheless a bit silly and threatened by her curves (which ended the career of actress Lilian Roth, who was then sinking into alcoholism, according to her moving autobiography I’ll Cry Tomorrow, which was filmed by Daniel Mann in 1955).

The flapper then disappears, for the good reason that DeMille practically made no modern films anymore. We find an anachronistic echo of the character in the characters played by Paulette Goddard.

In DeMille’s work, eroticism often remains a little outdated and primitive. He shows nudity (Madam Satan, The Sign of the Cross, Cleopatra, Samson, Four Frightened People). That is far removed from suggestiveness, the master weapon of seduction in Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Gene Tierney or Jennifer Jones.

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

Wallace Reid in The Affairs of Anatol (1921).

If we look at DeMille’s whole body of work, we can see that the films often restart completely after two-fifths of their runtime. Oh, it isn’t necessarily at 40% of the film, it can be at 35% or at 45%, even at 30% or 50% (but it’s not as good then). It reminds me of the comment by Truffaut, who wanted his films to take a new direction around the seventh reel, that is, after an hour, a little later than in DeMille’s films.

In the first film, The Squaw Man (1914), there is a change of course when the hero goes from England to the USA. Then there is a new spell when he goes from the East to the West, from New York to the Rocky Mountains. There is also the escape of the protagonist of The Whispering Chorus (1918), who abandons his home and the office where he works as an accountant and, after committing a forgery, takes refuge on a deserted island in the Hudson river. In Male and Female (1919), this journey is unintentional: it is prompted by a shipwreck that forces a family of English nobles to land on a wild island in the Pacific, turning them into a new Family Robinson. And right in the middle of Why Change Your Wife, made a few weeks later, the spouses change partners, even homes, a situation that comes up again in 1921 in Saturday Night. The Affairs of Anatol (1921) branches off abruptly from the city to the countryside, with new protagonists, Abner, the miserly, puritanical peasant in conflict with his wife, Annie. We then leave them, without any real transition, to focus on the city temptress Satan Synne.

There is a complete change, in three seconds, in Fool’s Paradise (1921), where we leave modern Texas behind to go to a still archaic Siam. In its first third, The Ten Commandments of 1923 abandons the pharaohs to follow a rather ordinary American family of our time, in its simple dwelling. Anna Land, the central figure of Triumph (1924), abruptly leaves the can-making factory, where she is a simple worker, to become, overnight, a prima donna at famous operas, before losing her voice and returning to her old job.

The evolution is even more pronounced in The Road to Yesterday, and its passage from 1925 to 1625, from Arizona to England, with the alibi of the train accident that disrupts Beth’s consciousness.

In The Godless Girl (1928), it’s the transfer of the two protagonists from high school to the correctional facility.

Madam Satan (1930) unexpectedly jumps from vaudeville, unfolding in three rooms, to the hero’s arrival in the zeppelin where a massive party is taking place.

This construction scheme was later forgotten, with the exception of The Ten Commandments of 1956, with its departure of the Israeli people from Egypt for their homeland.

DeMille is certainly not the only one to practice this system: let us recall The Wages of Fear (Clouzot, 1953), which is confined for an hour to the small brick-and-mortar city from which the trucks leave, before they begin their spectacular high-risk journey.

At the fifth reel of The Smugglers, I tried to give a new impetus to the film myself, with a long pan shot of the mountains, accompanied by Western-movie music.

But no other filmmaker persevered so much on these lines.

Other filmmakers generally introduce the median break softly. DeMille, in contrast, does it brutally. He tries to surprise the viewer, to shock him. You could almost think that it was another film, that the projectionist has loaded the wrong reel. It’s a shock that is usually an opening up: from the inside of a simple house or apartment, we open up to the vastness of the landscape or a luxurious set. DeMille never wrote about this practice. But it is so systematic that he was necessarily aware it.

Here is a practice dear to American cinema: when the interest of a film proved to be a little feeble, especially during public previews, it was boosted with a big storm scene (Griffith’s That Royle Girl) or the sinking of the Titanic at the end of Borzage’s minor comedy History Is Made at Night, or even the flights to get the miracle cure at the end of John Cromwell’s syrupy comedy Made for Each Other. Except that, in these cases, they were additions made after the shoot, while in DeMille, the doubling was done at the scriptwriting stage.

In my understanding, there were only two cases of late additions in C.B’s work: the montage sequence in Cleopatra and the introduction to The Sign of the Cross, imagined thirteen years after the shooting.

Critics didn’t like these irrational volte-faces. But it is precisely the force of the shock between the film’s different parts that produces the emotion. It’s a very modern force.

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

Reap the Wild Wind (1941).

A film by Cecil DeMille is first of all a well-rounded story. We don’t necessarily notice it today because it has more or less become commonplace. But in the years 1915-1925, it wasn’t all that common. It could even be said that DeMille is a kind of forerunner in this respect.

Some of his films, especially those with an unusual runtime—from two to three hours—contain very complex, nested plots, such as those in The Whispering Chorus (1918), The Golden Bed (1924), The Road to Yesterday (1925) and Wassell (1943). And in the end, we manage to understand everything. The Road to Yesterday was perhaps a bit harder for viewers at the time, but today, with a little attention, we are easily able to. At the end of the film, we are proud of ourselves for having managed to get everything.  

The complexity often has to do with the multiplicity of characters, whose comings-and-goings are made less difficult by the casting of well-known actors or those with remarkable faces or costumes.

And also by their well-spaced entries in the plot. In Reap the Wild Wind (1941), Paulette Goddard appears at the fifth minute, John Wayne after eleven minutes and Ray Milland at the twenty-third minute. Information should always be spread out. Two divers get into a fight, and their harnesses make it difficult to identify who is who, but John Wayne has a big nose that is very different from Ray Milland’s, and that’s enough.

Another variation: different members of a family are individualized one by one (Male and Female), with a brief pause between each new approach, because we follow a wholly secondary character, an imp seemingly from Lubitsch’s films, who places shoes at the door of every bedroom: shots of each pair of obviously different shoes, and of each character with an emblematic attitude and costume.

A device that is typical of such complex construction is the use of a second flashback within a first flashback. It’s a very rare effect in cinema (I can think of Passage to Marseille, a Curtiz film from 1944, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, made by Buñuel in 1972, but that was a double dream). That is the case in The Road to Yesterday, when we return to 1625 to Malena the gypsy woman, who recounts an even more distant past.

The differences in place and time are made more evident with the help of different colour tints: red, green, yellowish, blueish. The problem is that one film reel runs for about thirteen minutes, which may not necessarily be the length of the sequence to be tinted. And we are also helped by intertitles introducing characters and actors, which takes advantage of the occasion to hypocritically move the plot forward.

It’s only in the silent version of The Ten Commandments that it derails a little. The allusion to the pretty girl who suddenly comes out of a jute bag is too (in)explicit, probably owing to the deletion of a sequence during editing.

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

Old Wives for New, with Sylvia Ashton: bodybuilding in the America of 1918.

We don’t think of DeMille as a maker of comic films. Yet, he often provokes laughter, as much as a Blake Edwards or a Preston Sturges.

Above all in comedies, of course: at one point in The Affairs of Anatol, a furious Elliott Dexter breaks everything in the apartment of his fiancée, Wanda Hawley, when he realizes that she hasn’t given up the easy life set up for her by Theodore Roberts, the rich man who has kept her. It’s a fine destruction scene—within the setting of a modern apartment—comparable to those in regular epic films. At one point, Theodore Roberts makes his job easier by handing him a piece of furniture to destroy, when he should be shocked by this fury directed at the girl he loves. The weight loss cure that Sylvia Ashton (Old Wives for New) undergoes remains an irresistible comic monument, as does the folding bed concealed by a fake piano (Saturday Night). There would be no end in sight if we wanted to draw up an inventory.

But the dramas arouse laughter too: in The Road to Yesterday, the character of Rady, a nerdy runt, is comical from start to finish. I’ll always remember his disgusted reaction, at a corner of the frame, when he sees the two leads kissing, although he is the one who is supposed to marry the pretty heroine.

Another very funny scene: Roland Young parachutes into a den of lions, just before their feeding time (Madam Satan).

North West Mounted Police is supposed to be a serious Western. But the best part of the film is the little game between two privates, the Scotsman McDuff and the Canadian Duroc, who belong to rival armies and play at shooting at each other all through the film, without ever touching each other of course, by aiming at the top of the hat [1] or knicker buttons (hence the shot of Akim Tamiroff… in underwear). And when another soldier notices McDuff’s latest miss and kills Duroc for good, there is a general consternation among the two fake enemies, who first believe that the other has betrayed the secret pact uniting them, before realizing, happy in the face of a death suffered or caused, that it was not so. It’s the duo Akim Tamiroff-Lynne Overman once again, already present in the previous film, Union Pacific. One takes the same and starts over.



[1] An idea inaugurated in The Road to Yesterday: the kid who shoots arrows.

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

Union Pacific (1939) with Barbara Stanwyck: reading out the love letter to the dying man.

Conflicts in DeMille’s work sometimes evoke Cornellian dilemmas and conjure all their power.

For instance, John Tremble, the hero of The Whispering Chorus must make a choice: either manage to prove that he didn’t commit the murder he is accused of—which now seems possible—and return to his wife, or accept going to the electric chair to avoid ruining the life of his wife, now remarried to the governor, on the eve of her delivery.

Jim Brett (Northwest Mounted Police) loves young April, but he must arrest her brother, guilty of desertion and threatened with a firing squad. And he knows well that if he arrests him, April will never forgive him…

There are several conflicts of this kind in The Greatest Show on Earth: Brad (Charlton Heston), the injured circus director, can only be saved if he agrees to receive the blood of Sebastian the acrobat, his rival in love who has almost compromised the survival of the circus with his misdemeanours. He begins by refusing this gift, but he has no choice. His friends tease him: if Brad marries the woman he loves, their children will have Sebastian’s blood.

The film’s credits mention that James Stewart plays the role of Buttons, the sad clown with his face permanently covered by a mask. The film’s viewers recognize James Stewart by his characteristic way of speaking. Stewart’s work is magnificent, playing solely on his voice and movements.

But Buttons was once a doctor who euthanized his wife. Pursued by the police, he found refuge in the circus with the help of this mask.

The policeman who tracks him down shows Brad a photo of the man he is looking for. And we see a photo of James Stewart. It’s the only time in the film that we see his face. The audience is thus one step ahead of the film’s protagonists, which it appreciates.

Brad needs a doctor for his blood transfusion. And his sweetheart is chasing Buttons, who smells trouble and prepares to leave the place. She convinces him to stay and perform the operation, under the supervision of the policeman, who even assists him and who realizes that Buttons is the doctor he is looking for. He arrests him after shaking his hand, congratulating him for his conduct and sacrifice. I could have just as well mentioned these sequences in the chapter on mistakes.

We are quite close to Corneille territory in Union Pacific: a dying, wounded man wants his fiancée’s letter, which he has just received, read out to him. Barbara Stanwyck has no time to look for the letter and takes out a piece of paper from a neighbour’s pocket. It’s an ordinary advertisement, and she begins to read it out as if it were a love letter, improvising with verve and lyricism. There are some variations of this principle in Wassell, with the love letter dictated to the nurse, but in fact inspired by her, while it is theoretically addressed to the fiancée, and with the blind man showing the photo of his younger sister. But we see that it is, in reality, that of his old grandfather.

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

The Affairs of Anatol (1921): the peephole that serves every use.

It is generally defined by three characteristics: implausibility, decorative overload and bad taste.

These are indeed the characteristics that can be found in the work of DeMille, the renowned king of film kitsch. They can be seen as negative. And yet, DeMille intrigues us, fascinates us and arouses our admiration.

Let’s first say that plausibility isn’t indispensable to a film’s success. The question isn’t even asked when it comes to animation films. Why should implausibility be necessarily included in the list of charges just because there are actors who are filmed?

Decorative overload is of two kinds:

Either we see edifices to the glory of a god built by the Babylonians, the Aztecs, the Pharaohs, the Philistines, the Romans of the Empire, cruel people who are against the Christians we are supposed to be, against the Buddhists of today. They are all inspired by a taste for extravagance. It’s a universe that is often shown as detestable, but which is striking in its unusual quality.

Or we see the modern world of the 1920s. With post-war wealth comes numerous eccentricities, probably corresponding to reality, but which are exaggerated through the talents of set designers such as Wilfred Buckland, Paul Iribe, and above all Mitchell Leisen (1898-1972), a mannerist who later directed remarkable comedies like Easy Living and Midnight.

And it’s a veritable festival of baroque or rococo ornaments, as noticeable in the costumes and the choice of props as in the sets. Let us randomly mention the safe that looks like a cigar box and which hides a telephone (Old Wives for New), the boots with curved tips in the shape of Viking ships or snakes ready to bite, or the pool that you enter in tailcoats (Don’t Change Your Husband), the skin of an entire beast, complete with the head, on the stairs, likely to make you slip (Saturday Night), the giant peephole in the middle of the door in The Affairs of Anatol, which defeats its own purpose because you can put your hand or head into it, the garden entirely made of sugar in The Golden Bed, the electric machine of the mechanical ballet in Madam Satan, which follows a fashion show with seven models in increasingly bewildering outfits, with feathers in the shape of tentacles, endless trains and furry hairstyles, the huge mansions of Arizona that look like expressionist sets (The Road to Yesterday), and I could go on for a long time… Americans have an adjective to describe this clutter: lavish. You can sense C.B.’s mocking humour in this extravagant display, but he is also making fun of himself since he offered these very things as a source of attraction for his guests during weekend parties at his luxurious second home. Of course, there might be a direct relationship between ancient architecture (allegedly faithful to reality) and the eccentricities of the 1920s (which one supposes are more imaginary), but it is not a given: in Male and Female, the ancient episode comes just after a scene set in the barren backdrop of a deserted island. It’s only C.B.’s unmotivated desire for a flashback that occasions this parenthesis.

Some of the humour is lost today, because we can no longer tell eccentric outfits from normal ones, which have also become very laughable.

Bad taste is obviously part of the game. The worse it is, the better it is. How does one draw the line? By going beyond. A little kitsch would be banal and mediocre. It’s the excess of kitsch that makes for the film’s strength, arouses laughter, mixed with an admiration for the set and costume designers’ inventiveness. After Madam Satan (1930), kitsch has a smaller part to play. From the period of colour films, the interest of costume work is no longer based on extravagance, but solely on the beauty of the outfits and their arrangement in the shot.

Kitsch certainly makes its appearance later too, in Moses’s entrance or in the schematized relationship between Samson and Dalilah, or Paulette Goddard’s lipstick after an aquatic and desert marathon (Unconquered), but it is less present. I miss it a little.

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

The Greatest Show on Earth (1951): a festival of colours.

DeMille takes a real, rather sadistic pleasure in showing disasters. It could be a sinking ship (The Little American, Male and Female, Cleopatra, Reap the Wild Wind), a zeppelin deflating in mid-air (Madam Satan), a train derailment or two trains colliding (The Road to Yesterday, The Greatest Show on Earth, Saturday Night and Union Pacific), a collapsing temple (Samson and Delilah, The Woman God Forgot), the Red Sea drowning the Pharaoh’s army (The Ten Commandments), and I’m certainly forgetting some others. This kind of scene is repeated over thirty-nine years of his career.

It’s like this: a destructive machine (train or any other) moves towards the viewer, breaking through obstacles (scrap metal and wood work, stone walls). It’s direct, unabashed penetration (which doesn’t surprise us in C.B. DeMille’s highly sexual cinema), often in the direction of the viewer, sometimes seen from a distance in a frontal and artificial manner.  The camera sways and the framing goes askew, as masses, beans and iron bars fall in the foreground, momentarily hiding the actors behind. Everything moves, changes places. A fundamental principle with DeMille is to always show falling masses or passing extras in the foreground. In Madam Satan, the effect is further accentuated by the sinking airship’s exasperating squeaking and creaking. Dust rises. Water invades the living room, its furniture and its books (Male and Female). A beautiful disorder is an artistic effect. In a colour film like The Greatest Show on Earth or Reap the Wild Wind, this chaos of iron and steel is enhanced by the intrusion of beautiful clothes or pretty spots of bright colours.

This technique is different from traditional cinematic disaster based on the bluff of numerous brief insert shots (which is obviously less expensive). DeMille works with frontal wide shots, while his colleagues express dramatic shock through aggressive syncopated editing.

Disorder is underlined by very different positions of extras within the shot. It’s almost a catalogue of all possible attitudes, conveyed with the most divergent broken lines of weapons or destructive objects.

The same disorder is found in scenes without disasters, such as the Roman orgy of Manslaughter or the magnificent golden calf sequence of The Ten Commandments of 1956, where extras occupy the entire image, following the tradition of academic painting. On closer inspection, these scenes make reference to famous pictorial models.

These scenes of chaos often conjure one of the four elements, namely fire, which is quite visible in The Woman God Forgot, Joan the Woman (with a very impressive single shot in colour), The Road to Yesterday, Triumph, The Godless Girl, The Greatest Show on Earth, and The Ten Commandments. The fire at the Parisian hotel in Triumph derives directly from an experience C.B. had at the Ritz on the Place Vendôme.

Along with fire, there is also electricity, natural (the lightning of The Ten Commandments) or more artificial (Madam Satan, The Godless Girl).

There’s also water: we have seen the frequency of shipwrecks and there is even a flood during the Siege of Orléans in Joan the Woman.

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

Why Change Your Wife? (1919), with Thomas Meighan and Gloria Swanson: domestic struggle for the use of the bathroom, which inspired Lubitsch (The Marriage Circle)

A certain number of directors, when they film indoors, have their favourite setting: for Wyler, it was the staircase; for Resnais, it was the corridor; for Masamura, it’s the bedroom; for Hitchcock, it’s rather the cellar. For DeMille, it’s bathrooms. An innovative choice since it is a room that is not noble at all, a place to ease oneself, which was hitherto concealed by novels and films.

It begins with Old Wives for New (1918): the husband is angry with his wife, who has left the sink dirty, and he has to scrub it now. He reproaches her of never washing her hair.

And it continues in Why Change Your Wife? (1919): the couple fights over the place, since he is shaving when she wants to take toiletries from the little cupboard in front of him. Disturbed by her arrival, he risks cutting himself. It’s the beginning of the film, and it’s a classic scene since most other films begin with a less trivial sequence. Daily life can be a source of interest, of fun.

The largest element of this room, the bathtub, appears in Male and Female (1919). This one is of a refined luxury: a thermometer to measure the temperature, stylized ornaments on the levers and buttons. It’s a decoration that one expects to find at a king’s place rather than in the bathroom of an individual house.

Of course, eroticism comes into play. We never see Gloria Swanson naked in her bathtub. The foamy water hides her body. But the viewer knows well that she is naked, like anyone who takes a bath. This theoretical presence of nudity excites him. This is a typical reaction of the 1920s that is hard to understand in the 21st century.

Saturday Night (1921) goes even further: there is a shower in the shape of a giant, bright geyser, which will be echoed by the primitive, icy shower of The Godless Girl, which turns into torture. And there is Poppaea’s bath in The Sign of the Cross (1932), filled with donkey milk, whose entire circuit we see, from the milking of the animal to the pipes to the palace, and it’s only then that we understand what the milk is for: sovereign humour, no pun intended.

There is then the shower in the jungle in Four Frightened People (1934), Paulette Goddard’s very dirty tub in Unconquered, Hedy Lamarr’s bath in the small lake in Samson and Delilah (1949) and that of… doctor Wassell, which could be taken as a bit of humour.

It is difficult to imagine a Cecil DeMille film without baths or bathtubs. The viewer looks forward to a bathtub scene because it’s a film by him, just as he looks forward to an ancient interlude (and like he would later look for the shot Alfred Hitchcock appears in). He drools. He is reassured when the scene comes. I have the impression that he might ask for a refund if there was neither a bath nor an ancient interlude in the film.

This presence of baths is evidently linked to Puritanism, which always looks for purification (with its somewhat sectarian deviation: immersion, emphatic baptism). A civilization of bathtubs, which doesn’t exist among Catholics, especially in France: France has always been rather dirty.

DeMille thus accentuated the glorification of bathrooms, which helped the economic expansion of the cleanliness industry in the USA and, as a corollary, in France, during the Americanization of our country after each of the two world wars. DeMille is partly responsible for the contemporary obligation in France to shower, which is nevertheless excessive in character: we had managed very well without it for fifteen centuries. I only shower on Sundays myself.

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

Joan the Woman (1916)

With mistakes come trials. And C.B.’s work accumulates trial scenes, either reconstructions of trials that actually took place (The King of Kings, Joan the Woman) or invented from scratch (The Cheat, The Whispering Chorus, Manslaughter, Reap the Wild Wind, Unconquered).

The treatment is realistic most of the time—like the depiction of the place where suspects and convicts remain before or after judgment, I mean prison. Screenwriter Jeanie MacPherson had even spent several days in jail to perfect her documentation for Manslaughter.

DeMille has done a lot of work in the casting of jurors, who should, in principle, for contemporary films, belong to different strata of the society. It’s incidentally in the choice of extras that American cinema has always excelled: a bit typical, but not too much either. And in The Whispering Chorus, we also find those little sketches that journalists make during a trial, since cameras were not allowed in the courtroom.

DeMille doesn’t neglect any of the various stages of the trial and tries to push the suspense to its peak: acquittal or conviction, with multiple variants since he films not only contemporary trials but also those from all places and times, beginning with that of Christ.

When it had the means, American cinema never failed to take advantage from this dramatic setting inaugurated by DeMille. It is an extremely good setting because of its official, almost frozen quality, with the basic elements remaining the same from film to film: defence attorneys, prosecutors, judges, jurors, crowds, defendants, all easily identifiable by the viewer. One actor, Gary Cooper, was even a regular of courtroom dramas, almost always as a defendant. Capra, Preminger and Stanley Kramer would become regulars of courtroom dramas.

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

Robert Preston in North West Mounted Police (1940).

Many of C.B.’s films turn around the notion of fault: someone, usually quite nice, commits a fault. He redeems himself, either in a more or less heroic death or by confessing his mistake, or by benefitting from the indulgence of a superior.

It begins with The Squaw Man. The squaw kills a man, but it is to protect the one she loves. She confesses her fault and kills herself.

Maggie, the maid of Kindling, becomes an unwitting accomplice to a burglary. Her mistress eventually pardons her.

Edith, a woman of high-society, misappropriates money from a charity, whose treasurer she is, to buy a chic dress she likes, which sets the drama in motion (The Cheat).

The English soldier Eric Trent betrays Joan of Arc, his benefactor, who will be burnt alive because of him. And in 1916, his namesake, also played by Wallace Reid, sacrifices himself deliberately by destroying the German trench posing a danger for French soldiers. Joan, who then appears in a superimposition, is happy. The soldier of 1916 has rehabilitated, in some way, his supposed ancestor.

Marcia, the heroine of The Devil Stone (1917), accidentally kills her husband, who has seized, by dubious manoeuvres, an emerald that brings bad luck. This death and Marcia’s confession ensure that the ill fate no longer works. And the detective chooses to close the case.

The accountant of The Whispering Chorus (1918) commits a forgery. He is tracked down, arrested for a murder he hasn’t committed. But his return home would compromise the future of his wife, who has remarried. And he prefers to atone for his mistake on the electric chair—the “supreme redemption”, according to the film’s French title.

The odious Elizabethan count of The Road to Yesterday is absolved of his crimes when, on his way back to the America of today, he converts to Christianity and rescues his wife from a burning train.

The two protagonists of The Godless Girl inadvertently cause the death of a student, but redeem themselves at the end by saving many lives in a fire accident at the prison.

Ronnie Logan, Madeleine Carroll’s bad brother, deserts his combat outpost, resulting in the death of several other soldiers (North West Mounted Police); he too redeems himself in his death—just like the husband in Union Pacific, responsible for the death of a man during a holdup, and played by the same actor, Robert Preston.

John Wayne (Reap the Wild Wind) is responsible for the sinking of a ship. But in fighting the octopus which threatens the life of his rival, he redeems himself while losing his life.

A jealous Delilah delivers Samson to the Philistines. To make amends, she helps Samson destroy the temple and the power of the Philistines. She dies during this destruction.

The evil animal trainer of The Greatest Show on Earth organizes the holdup of a train, but he tries to prevent the convoy with his sweetheart from crashing, at the cost of his life.

Here we see Christian ideology come to the surface: crime and purifying repentance, or sacrifice. But this is more of a dramatic contrivance than a real ideological message.

The persistence of this motif across films becomes a bit tiresome.

Does it attest to a certain lack of imagination, or a desire to exploit a formula that works very well with the viewer? Filmmakers from the thirties were not afraid to steal from themselves, as films only had an ephemeral life then, exacerbated by technical progress (advent of talkies, of colour).

Other hobbyhorses: the distant sound of bagpipes or music announcing the arrival of rescue troops (The Plainsman, North West Mounted Police, Wassell, Unconquered), wedding through a go-between object (the sword of The Crusades, the necklace of The Road to Yesterday), the glove, a theatrical prop par excellence (The Crusades, The Godless Girl, Fool’s Paradise).

Also note the omnipresence of animals, dogs and cats in the comedies, monkey (Four Frightened People, The Godless Girl), donkey (The Road to Yesterday), wild animals (Male and Female, The Sign of the Cross, Samson), asp (Cleopatra), sharks (Feet of Clay), octopus (Reap the Wild Wind), zebras (The King of Kings), not to forget Noah’s Ark in the circus film. In contrast, children are almost completely absent. They are mischievous characters, confined to secondary roles (The Road to Yesterday, Male and Female, Why Change Your Wife).

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