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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Footnote:

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

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

Don’t Change Your Husband (1918)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gloria Swanson in Male and Female (1919)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edith Roberts in Saturday Night (1922): naturalism.

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

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

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

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

Manslaughter (1922): naturalism with Leatrice Joy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prestigious affair…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cecil DeMille at work.

The first film was both an artistic success and a commercial triumph, achieved at the age of thirty-two (DeMille was born in 1881), which suddenly made Hollywood the capital of cinema. The Squaw Man (1914) is often misunderstood: it is not “the man who was a squaw”, but “the husband of the Indian woman”, which is the film’s French title. The strength of this production is its rapid pace centred on a story with twists and turns, since it is about an Englishman wrongly accused of fraud, who is forced to leave the country of his birth, before emigrating to New York and then to the Rocky Mountains, where he has an affair with an Indian woman, who is soon driven to suicide. He is exonerated and returns to England with his half-breed son to find the woman he loved. It’s actually much more complicated than that. There is here not only the interest generated by complete changes of place and milieu (the London gentry and the Wild West), but also the complexity of the various plots. In short, it was to become a model for more than fifty years of film history. No time to get bored.

It’s surprising to note that none of the twelve films that follow is at the level of this striking debut. There’s at times a certain observational humour in the life of the husband of a stage star, a real prince consort (What’s His Name?), and in the vaguely Henry James-like quality of a cosmopolitan affair (The Man from Home). And I love the gag from The Captive conceived by DeMille’s favourite screenwriter, Jeanie MacPherson: a prisoner of war is placed in a farm to work the fields, with a harness on his back. But once the war ends, it is he who places the harness on the shoulders of his boss, whom he has married. There’s an almost identical gag in Male and Female four years later. It’s not much. There are minor comedies in this period featuring a mediocre but successful comic, Victor Moore, midway between Fernand Raynaud and Jean Lefebvre (the two Chimmie Fadden films, Wild Goose Chase), and Westerns or adventure films (The Girl of the Golden West, The Virginian), but DeMille will learn to use the Western to his advantage only twenty years later.

Seen today one after the other, these movies disappoint in their casualness: whether they are set in Turkey, the Rocky Mountains, Andalusia, Montenegro, near Naples or Mexico, they have all been shot in the same Californian landscapes, with their small arid hills. There are the same houses and the same actors, who reflect very little of the physical characteristics of the local people.

This decline could be explained by the fact that The Squaw Man was co-directed by Oscar Apfel, who was more experienced than Cecil, who was going to be left to his own devices on the following films and was going to learn his lessons, which were honestly a bit laborious.

And then DeMille didn’t expect such a success. He may have been caught unawares, without a project close to his heart. It’s because everyone, attracted by such a triumph, asked him for more films…

1915: thirteen films in the year. A record! Some have said that this profusion was somewhat imposed on him by Lasky, his producer. He served as an example for other directors under contract. He showed them that he wasn’t one to laze around. He ensured excellent returns. But at this rate—more than one film a month—it’s hard to make anything good.

It should be noted that these films, shot on location for the most part, were, however, mostly adapted from plays, a cultural sphere that DeMille knew well since he was a playwright and an actor. It seems that he wanted to restore a certain prestige to cinema, then considered minor entertainment by the people of Boston, by bringing to it what he thought was the best in theatre, including plays by Booth Tarkington (future Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of The Magnificent Ambersons) and David Belasco, the numero uno of the stage around 1915, with whom Cecil and his father had already collaborated. This was enough to overcome the reticence of his older brother, William DeMille, who vigorously criticized him for getting mixed up in a kind of show business that was totally unworthy of their family.

[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s book on Cecil B. DeMille, L’Empereur du mauve (“The Emperor of Mauve” 2012, Capricci)]

I. Career

 

Apprenticeship (1914-15)

The Farrar Years (1915-17)

Rembrandt or not Rembrandt?

A Pioneer of Naturalism

High-society Films (1918-1923)

A Time for Extravagance (1923-1930)

Hiccups (1931-1935)

The Safety of Adventure (1936-1946)

More and More (1949-1956)

The Emperor of Mauve (1949-1956)

 

II. Recurring Elements

 

Epics and Religion

Everything is Theatre

S&M

Present/Past

Reincarnation and Resurrection

Faults and Other Hobbyhorses

Trials

Mr. Bathtub

The Conception of Chaos

Kitsch

An Heir to Corneille

Comedy

A Master of Storytelling

The Law of Two-Fifths

The Conception of Women

Actors

Opportunism, Politics, Witch Hunts, Racism, Xenophobia

Conservatism

Intertitles and Dialogues

Cecil Banknote DeMille

An Unwitting Genius?

Missing Films

Misfires

Influences

DeMille and the Critics

 

III. Seven Wonders

 

The Golden Bed (1924)

The Road to Yesterday (1925)

The Volga Boatman (1926)

Madam Satan (1930)

Cleopatra (1934)

The Story of Dr. Wassell (1943)

Samson and Delilah (1949)

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Cecil B. DeMille’s This Day and Age (1933) tells the tale of a group of youngsters taking on the corrupt system that has a stranglehold on their town. Steve (Richard Cromwell) witnesses the murder of his friend, the Jewish tailor Herman (Harry Green), by the local mafia boss Garrett (Charles Bickford). But his testimony is repudiated in court and Garrett walks scot free. Steve and his friends decide to carry out their own investigation and bring Garrett to justice. The film was made at a time when detective novels, especially involving teenage sleuths like the Hardy boys, enjoyed great fandom. While not a detective story in itself, DeMille’s film draws from the popularity of the genre, circumscribing the fact-finding efforts of its young leads within a larger political framework.

As its title indicates, This Day and Age purports to recount the story of its time. It begins appropriately with images of modern technology—aircrafts, zeppelins, motorboats and skyscrapers. But the film views modernity primarily in the possibilities of the younger generation and its power to wash away old structures and bring new moral life to society. As part of a “boys’ day programme”, Steve and two of his friends are appointed as the town attorney, judge and police commissioner for a brief time. They witness first-hand how the “system” fails to protect the innocent: judges trot out rules from books to defend Garrett’s acquittal, the defence lawyer grills Steve until he gives into doubt, and all proof of the murder is discredited. The boys realize they simply can’t win within this system, designed only to sustain itself, and must construct their own, based on their sense of truth and justice: they kidnap Garrett and convict him in a kangaroo court.

DeMille’s paean to youth has touches of what Nicholas Ray would undertake in the next couple of decades. The film’s first real shot is that of students walking into their high school union meeting. We will see their marching feet in closeup thrice in the film. The night they kidnap Garrett, they take over the town’s streets, and DeMille portrays this as the way forward for the nation. The film’s glorification of youngsters as a power in politics has an unnerving parallel with the rise of the Hitler Youth organization in Germany. The National Socialists had come to power a few months ago, and the Hitler Youth saw a twentyfold increase in its membership the year the film was made. This Day and Age capitalizes on this hopefulness about the younger generation pervading the air.

On the other hand, unlike in Nicholas Ray’s pictures, the film smoothens out all the rough edges around intergenerational relations. For one, the parents in DeMille’s film aren’t failed figures imprisoned by social norms. They are sympathetic and supportive of their children’s undertaking. Steve tells his parents that he’s going to get Garrett, and his father simply wishes him luck. DeMille’s paternalistic view of the teenagers finds them stuck between two ages, between the fragility of childhood and the moral urgency of adult life. When one of the boys is shot, he crawls into a foetal position and says, “I want my mother”, before collapsing. This sorry image is dissolved over a shot of Garrett’s cabaret girls dancing to a jazzed-up version of “Rock-a-bye Baby”. This desire for generational rapprochement reaches a peak in the film’s final scene, where the boys’ demands for justice are harmonized and blessed by the old boys of the system.

This Day and Age is an excellent case study to demonstrate that Hollywood films aren’t as much expressions of a coherent set of political beliefs as fruits of numerous contradictions created by conflicting production demands. On one hand, the film evidently draws inspiration from the socialist spirit of the times. The damage wrought by the Great Depression had brought popularity to social movements and trade unions around the country. The socialist writer Upton Sinclair would contest in the Californian gubernatorial elections as the Democratic Party candidate the following year. It’s telling that DeMille and Paramount Pictures, who aren’t generally known for films about everyday people, came together on a project defending the little man. The film, in fact, begins with a student union meeting to discuss unemployment.

On the other hand, a rather strong conservative streak is to be traced in the film’s conception of good and evil. The good, represented by youth, free enterprise and the common businessman who refuses to submit to the tyranny of unions, is brought into a provisional opposition with evil, symbolized by the mafia, politicians (who may be immigrants) and the government. The teenagers’ fight against Garrett is repeatedly cast as a truly American act, the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” serving as a recurring motif. The mafioso Garrett, in contrast, is someone who threatens small businesses and perverts the young, his cabaret corrupting innocent children’s rhymes for lurid entertainment.

Some of the ideological contradictions of the film originate from the figure of DeMille himself, a notorious conservative. The filmmaker was partly Jewish, but also one of the most virulent anti-communists in Hollywood. He reconciles his Jewish identity with his Americanism in the character of the tailor Herman. A fierce independent wary of unions, Herman is glad to cook different foods for his friends, and that includes ham for an Irish boy. “The stomach is the last thing to get patriotic about”, he remarks. DeMille had visited the USSR in 1931, an experience he described in positive terms. The strategic superimpositions and dissolves he employs in the film—the boy detectives crawling at Herman’s house searching for clues dissolved with Garrett’s cabaret girls crawling to the tune of “Three Blind Mice”, shot of a rat dissolved with Garrett’s face—themselves show an influence of Soviet montage techniques.

The film’s ideological confusions acquire tremendous power once Garrett is abducted by the boys. At the end of a robust kidnapping scene involving boot polish and adhesive tapes, Garrett finds himself hunched over like a primate, his hands stuck to his knees. He is carried to a mock courtroom in an amphitheatre populated by the youngsters of the town, armed with ropes, guns and torches. He is strung up and the planks under his feet are removed one by one, and he soon hangs free over a pit of rats. The boys press for a confession, lowering him progressively until only the rope his seen and his screams heard. It’s a scene drenched in sadism—intercut with another disturbing scene of sexual menace—but also righteous anger of the teenagers.

DeMille, a master of Biblical spectacles, amps up the uneasiness in the subsequent scene. Having confessed to Herman’s murder, Garrett is now propped up on a stick like a pagan offering and taken on a procession to the court—a sequence that has an echo in the garish “golden calf” episode of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). The boys march in militaristic unison, waving banners and belting out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. A shot of Garrett on the stake, haggard and resigned, introduces a rather queasy note in this celebratory theatre of revolution. The mob action is supported by the police and receives official sanction in the courthouse, where Garrett’s confession, though obtained under duress, is used to incriminate him. Couching a crusade for justice within a fascist form, This Day and Age is a work alive with the tensions of the era as well as the dynamics of Hollywood film production.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]