Translations


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

The Excess That Transcends

 

Vidor’s craft here is based on excess, an excess that is to be found in the nature of the actions as well as in the characters, which are extremely complex or extremely linear. All this is redoubled by the excesses of an ultra-fast pacing and of techniques used to the fullest extent on every front. Vidor doesn’t deal in half-measures. It’s a series of contradictory phrases that crash into each other, of pointed tips, jagged edges and uninterrupted electric shocks. Here is a clever, knowledgeable, hyper-professional film, but also one that is abrupt, brutal, coarse, chopped, condensed, convulsive, crazy, delirious, discreet, electrifying, fascinating, frenetic, hysterical, icy, rough, scathing, shredded, surreal, torrid, hectic. A barbaric object, a meteorite. The emotion it generates gives you goosebumps. A runaway horse. Pomposity looms large in the end, but is transcended by its very excess.

Vidor employs EVERY classical device—the perfect film for film schools. It’s Duvivier, Delannoy, plus genius. And finally, it’s this shameless accumulation of old effects (there are even superimpositions, blur effects and an abundance of transparencies) that makes it extremely modern. Vidor doesn’t linger on effects like so many others. They are quick, very obvious, and they blow us away. A comparison may be possible with the Fuller of Verboten!, Forty Guns, and Shock Corridor, with a lot more money, or even with Aldrich.

What is strange is that the film combines the Baroque and the flamboyant Gothic, while it’s meant to praise the architect Roark, whose art is quite the opposite, with its search for simplicity and purity, associated with the modernity of America. Roark—and Frank Lloyd Wright even more so—rejects fuss, European influences, Greek art, the Victorian or Tudor style, whereas here we find German expressionism, with the complicity of an Austrian musician and a Russian screenwriter.

We can sense Vidor’s frustration with his previous clients who had deceived him, taken advantage of him. And here he is pulling out all the stops, as they say.

But at the same time, The Fountainhead cuts across a whole tradition of classic American cinema.

It’s highly reminiscent of Frank Capra’s films, with the struggle of an asocial, marginal or lone man against the whole system and its prejudices, as seen in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. These last two films, moreover, starred Gary Cooper.

The commercial failure of The Fountainhead in the USA can be explained to some extent by the fact that this formula, which had worked well until 1940, seemed outdated after the war. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) resulted in a small loss. And Gary Cooper as the Good Samaritan in Good Sam (McCarey, 1948) wasn’t a success at all.

As with Capra, it seems like a lost cause for the lone man, but the almost miraculous ending allows him to amend the situation. A critique of the society doesn’t keep the great American principles from standing up for the cause of the good in the end. The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) denounces the unscrupulous opportunism of bankers too, but rest assured, everything turns out well.

We find here one of the figures of style dear to Capra, the montage sequence where, after a string of quick shots of newspaper cuttings, we witness the violent reactions of the crowd in the street.

Another direct link with American films of the great tradition is the choice of the biopic, the life story of an important man, real or imagined, which we find in Citizen Kane (1940), Sergeant York (Hawks, 1941), Wood’s The Pride of the Yankees (1942) and The Stratton Story (1949), the two Al Jolson biopics etc. Gary Cooper was, besides, the specialist of the genre.

There is also the principle of rise and fall, greatness and decadence, which mark the itinerary of Gail Wynand, Henry Cameron, and also Howard Roark, who comes close to being jailed, although he finally triumphs. All of them having started from nothing, of course. The pervasive myth of the self-made man, very common in American cinema.

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

In The Fountainhead in particular, Vidor expresses himself on all creative fronts, unlike a Hawks, a Chaplin or a Capra who neglect photography a little, a Nicholas Ray who is not good at editing, a Cassavetes who doesn’t care about music or the sets. This versatility obviously tries to make us forget the literary origin of the work, to absorb it.

Vidor is a complete filmmaker who plays on all sides. He cares very much about the visuals (he started painting in 1938), the music (he owned five guitars), the sound (Hallelujah was the first film to really use the capacities of sound), the rhythm and editing (The Big Parade was shot with a metronome) and the sets.

How does that translate here?

Sound

It is the element that one notices right away and which produces the first striking effects of the film. After the first scenes in which Roark successively confronts the dean of the school, Peter Keating and the old architect, scathing in their speed and the haunting verbosity of these secondary characters, we receive the first shock: the architect Henry Cameron breaks the bay window of Roark’s office with a T-square, with a totally unexpected violence, with no obvious reason—it’s a friend’s office—but as if to symbolically break up the buildings in front of him. There are thus multiple sonic assaults that punctuate the film right up to the last scene: another window broken with a stone, at the door of the hated newspaper (an effect that will be repeated in Ruby Gentry, when the whole town rises up against the heroine suspected of murder), the many sirens, that of the ambulance rushing towards the hospital, that of the boat, that of the police car at the exit of Wynand’s wedding (what is it doing there? It seems an unlikely presence to me), the model of the building that Wynand hurls down suddenly, the one knocked down with a cane by the architect who corrects the Cortlandt building, the statuette that falls to the ground, thrown from the tenth floor, the newspapers torn angrily, the boat violently splitting the waves, the work of the drilling machine in the quarry, the marble under the chimney that Dominique breaks frantically, the off-screen blast when we arrive at Dominique’s country house, announcing the final blast. There is an erotic vertigo around breakage and explosion, seemingly translating Dominique rush of desire, like an inner cry from her body. Love = Breakage = Destruction, which is reminiscent of the Eros/Thanatos of Duel in the Sun, and which clearly shows the necessity of the final explosion. Do these sounds recall the sounds of orgasm? Perhaps.

These noises sound all the more aggressive as they are unexpected. Two seconds before their appearance, we can’t imagine them entering the soundtrack. They make you feel uncomfortable. One of them—the statuette falling to the ground—is anticipated by an astonishing echo, occurring earlier, that owes to Steiner’s music.

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

The Individual, the Collective

Vidor’s standpoint, if it seemed clear during the course of the film—in favour of individual creation, and against all collectivist diktats—was in fact rather ambiguous throughout his life: here he collaborated with a novelist who was very much on the right (she testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee with great pleasure, even going beyond the McCarthyist doctrine). This seems to tally quite well with the way this filmmaker, who voted for Eisenhower, makes fun of Reds in Comrade X, revels in the massacre of the Indians of the Northwest Passage. On the other hand, there was also the Vidor who filmed the everyday life—sometimes so difficult—of the average American in The Crowd (1928)—a first in Hollywood cinema—and Street Scene (1931), or the beautiful collective struggle of peasants to irrigate their land in Our Daily Bread (1934), a very Rooseveltian film which won an award at… the Moscow Film Festival. Not to mention Vidor’s great film-to-be, Ruby Gentry[1], shot in 1952 and written by Sylvia Richards, a well-known feminist and left-wing activist, which took a swipe at the narrow-minded and upstart bourgeoisie of the South.

We’re thus dealing with a highly complex character, which is also true of John Ford, the director of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) based on Steinbeck, but also of colonialist movies like The Black Watch (1929) or militarists films such as The Long Gray Line (1954) or Korea (1959), and of William Wellman, who could be considered one of the harbingers of socialism in light of Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), but who also made anti-Red products such as The Iron Curtain (1949) or Blood Alley (1955).

To be sure, we can see this as an effort to adapt to the dominant ideology, from the New Deal to the witch hunts, but also as the ambition of a Hollywood director to work in all fields, to show that what counts is his way of doing things, more than the underlying ideology. If it comes to that, the ideal for a filmmaker would be to make a masterpiece out of both the Jud Süß and Salt of the Earth.

And when I try to make an assessment of the situation, everything is rather fuzzy. Because, on one hand, collectivism is as much the motto of soulless capitalism, based on stock exchanges and standards, as of the Soviets. And on the other hand, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot and even Lenin perhaps represent the triumph of an individual, under the guise of collectivism, more than that of communism.

To complicate things, we notice that the left-wing press in France, in the years when The Fountainhead was filmed, began by celebrating the great individuality of auteurs fighting administrations and capitalism (Stroheim, Griffith, Welles etc.). And then, after May ‘68, there was a very clear reaction on the left against the all-powerful auteur. Godard, Duras and Resnais wanted to make collective films (or sometimes pretended to make them, by rigging the credits). The auteur was therefore classified as a right-wing figure. To this case file, let us add the brilliant creator Roark, who dynamites a social housing project…

I must add that Ayn Rand, by making Roark an architect who lives solely for his work and the satisfaction it brings him, puts him in a much more limited position than Wright, whose houses were made with the obvious desire to allow his clients to find pleasure in living in them and who was flexible enough to satisfy his client. Thus, in 1895, he built the Moore House in a rather old-fashioned Tudor style. Vidor always had the desire to please the viewer by all means possible. His film is proof of this, and we will come back to it later. Moreover, I believe that, of all the filmmakers, he is probably the one who has given the audience the greatest number of emotions.

Having turned his nose up at The Fountainhead, Vidor asserted solipsism, the doctrine that everything exists through the ego.

It could be concluded that, throughout his life, Vidor never ceased to oscillate between the two extremes, individualism and a sense of the collective, pure auteur cinema (Truth and Illusion, Our Daily Bread) and studio production: he made fifty films within the System. His tactic was to alternate: an easy film, and then a more committed film. Let’s say that, rather than taking a radical stance, he was passionate about the individual/collective relationship, which is what differentiates him from other filmmakers like Lubitsch, Leone or Hitchcock, who didn’t give a damn about it.

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[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. 

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[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s book Le Rebelle de King Vidor (“King Vidor’s The Fountainhead”, 2009, Yellow Now)]

From Novel to Film

The Plot — The Novel and Its Author — Why Vidor? — Genesis — Wright or not Wright?

The Creator and His Ego

The Individual, the Collective — The Film Bible — Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) — Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal) — Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas) — Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey) — Peter Keating (Kent Smith) and Others

Aesthetics

Sound — Music — Sets — Image — Horizontals, Verticals, Diagonals — Editing — Principles of Mise en scène

The Result, the Meaning

The Excess That Transcends — Flaws — The Ambulance — The Statuette — The Quarry — The Boat — The Tree — The Trial — The Revolver Alone in the Frame — The Service Lift

Critical and Public Reception

In the United States — In Europe

[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?”

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