[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.


[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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Change Your Husband (1918)

Seventy films. Today, nine are missing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The King of Kings (1927): images of decadence before the coming of Christ.

It would seem that DeMille was rather unaware of the value of his films and those of others. As proof, here is his list, made in 1952, of the ten best films:

  1. Cabiria (Pastrone)
  2. The Birth of a Nation (Griffith)
  3. Ben Hur (Niblo)
  4. The Ten Commandments (DeMille)
  5. The King of Kings (DeMille)
  6. The Big Parade (Vidor)
  7. The Sign of the Cross (DeMille)
  8. Gone with the Wind (Fleming-Selznick)
  9. Going My Way (McCarey)
  10. Samson and Delilah (DeMille)

What this reveals (outside of his megalomania) is that DeMille paid heed above all to box-office success, the Oscars, the length of films, and big subjects or ancient/historical spectacles. The list thus excludes the best of his work and favours more questionable movies.

DeMille had reached the top of the industry very quickly, so he could hardly find anyone to contradict him. This explains the presence of implausible elements, shifts in tone and blatant digressions in his films (sometimes to the credit of the film, but not always).

The Crusades is often treated with irony: Lubitsch, Paramount’s production manager, was amazed at C.B.’s meticulous attention to detail, which made sure that every button on a uniform was closed properly, every trouser crease straight. However, Graham Green noticed that, in one scene, the mass was said according to the Anglican rite (established in 1533) while the crusade is set in 1180.

Missing the forest for the trees…

It is highly likely that DeMille took the story of each of his films at face value, reading Four Frightened People or The Road to Yesterday literally, whereas if you really like his films, it is by approaching them ironically.

And only then do they take on their full value.

Should we despise this body of work because it contains many original effects, but probably unintentionally?

I don’t think so. Many great moments in many films are due to chance: Eisenstein’s highly syncopated editing can be explained by the fact that there were often only short pieces of film strips in the USSR. At the end of The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941), when we don’t see the ailing Herbert Marshall come down the stairs before dying, the camera remains on an immobile Bette Davis, who doesn’t give him his medicine. And this ellipse, which endows the scene with great power, was due to the fact that Marshall had a wooden leg in real life…

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

The Godless Girl (1928)

DeMille’s obsession with money is characteristic of him.

He is the only filmmaker who has taken the trouble of drawing up a financial inventory (cost and revenue) for each of his films. Chabrol and I tried, but gave up mid-career.

The numbers supplied by C.B. are incidentally fudged, even if they are accounted down to the last cent, since they are apparently based on box office receipts, from which the exhibitor’s share and, if possible, the cost of prints and publicity should obviously be deducted. As The Godless Girl didn’t work at all, ashamed of such a low score, he even added export earnings, which are absent from the numbers of other films.

There was a ten-dollar note with his image on it, and some of his films, such as Why Change Your Wife, feature a coin in the credits with his profile engraved on it.

It’s a very understandable obsession since DeMille was born into a Protestant family. And unlike Catholics, Protestants, especially the New England Protestants, considered that making money, and a lot of money, went hand in hand with religious fervour. Some congregations even got part of their funds from the management of brothels, which did not pose any moral problems for them.

Moreover, the DeMille family lived hand to mouth. In 1913, at the age of thirty-two, Cecil, who, like many actors, was struggling to find work, had a lot of debts. They were more than repaid with the exceptional revenues from The Squaw Man. There is a vengeful side to him, a lingering jealousy towards great fortunes, a ferocious desire to never be in a tight spot again. He was hence determined to acquire as many possessions as possible, to have the most massive budgets (insofar as it isn’t him who finances them). It was an obsession which diminished a little towards the end of his life, since he seems to have given up on the profits of The Ten Commandments to the benefit of a humanitarian institution.

In any case, C.B. was the only one to have remained the king of the box-office from the beginning to the end, from 1914 to 1956.

The presence of money is pronounced in his visuals, not just in the choice of luxurious sets, but also in the plots themselves: there are messages showing changes at the stock market in The Cheat, Adam’s Rib, The Golden Bed, Why Change Your Wife, and even in Chimmie Fadden Out West. At one point in Forbidden Fruit, the dollar sign appears superimposed on the iris of a businessman in love. Curiously, everything about the stock market changes in record time. One becomes very rich or is ruined in one second, with the appearance of schematic and contradictory bits of paper, or cursory, somewhat inappropriate wire messages. This didactic and unrealistic depiction of numbers in writing was, to be sure, the rule in the American cinema of the time, where the majority of the public, unaccustomed to the use of accounts or the pen, easily accepted these conventions. You just have to see the very, very crude forgery that the accountant of The Whispering Chorus commits.

In the same vein, we could mention the small, very showy insert from The Godless Girl that convinces no one—an almost comical addition, even, which states that, in contradiction to what we see in the film, things generally go well in correctional facilities.

This religion of money, of the number of viewers, was to play a dirty trick on our filmmaker, who was led to extol only his most spectacular and successful films to the detriment of less conspicuous works, since it obscured older works that were much more likely to stand the test of time. Godard was thus led to badmouth Cecil DeMille, because he identified him with The Ten Commandments, which, in my opinion, isn’t among his thirty best films.