[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.

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

Why Change Your Wife? (1919)

DeMille’s intertitles contain comments on the action shown and, of course, the words uttered by the characters.

These comments are often characterized by their length and pompousness.

Look at the final title card of Why Change Your Wife: “And now you know what every husband knows: that a man would rather have his wife for his sweetheart than any other woman; but Ladies: if you would be your husband’s sweetheart, you simply MUST learn when to forget that you’re his wife.” Or the introduction to The Road to Yesterday: “Everyone in this audience has felt an unaccountable Fear, either of the Dark or the Unseen, of great Height or great Depth. Everyone has felt an instantaneous Dislike for some individual: an instantaneous Love for another; a great Trust of some, a great Fear of others. How do you account for this? Is the cause hidden in the Present, the Future or the Past?” Another gem: “Just as the tempest sweeps everything before it, the madness of a moment conquers everything, even Love” And another: “When morning finally arrives, ruthless virtues prove stronger than Love, and ruin a home.” This pompous quality can sometimes be found in the visuals: at the beginning of Male and Female, a high-society comedy set indoors, there is a shot of the clouds, a shot of the sea, another of the Grand Canyon, whereas everything is taking place is London. This grandiloquence often has to do with the involvement of Cecil’s brother, William, and screenwriter MacPherson. But Cecil obvious accepted it, even if clashes with the simplicity of the dialogues.

The grandiloquence is all the more questionable since an intertitle doesn’t last forever and since we don’t always have the time to understand such convoluted formulations.

We must bear in mind that DeMille was a Bostonian, a proud product of an ambitious theatre scene, and he wanted this ambition to be seen in his films. Like many of the silent cinema greats, Griffith and Gance in particular, DeMille was a failed playwright. In his work, one can sense a contradiction between an elite, highbrow, tasteful side (C.B. DeMille’s finest exegete, Sumiko Higashi, uses the word genteel) and a desire for a popular cinema. The two are hard to reconcile, but our filmmaker manages it quite well.

Besides, it should be noted that there are often pretentious intertitles in Griffith’s or Stroheim’s films: some title cards of Greed make you laugh.

But the intertitles are sometimes brilliant. Listen to this magic phrase found in the play The Road to Yesterday in 1906, and reused in the film of the same name twenty years later, although it was already used rather gratuitously in Male and Female in 1919: “Through lives and lives, through hells and hells, till the will that made has unmade, thou shalt pay, and pay, and pay.” This phrase has then obsessed DeMille for years.

The intertitles can sometimes have a great comic value or reveal a clever subtility. A kid tosses a banana peel on which the hero of Why Change Your Wife slips and soon becomes bedridden. And just before that, there is this marvellous title card: “If this were fiction, the train would be wrecked or they would have a terrible automobile accident on leaving the station. But in real life, if it isn’t a woman, it’s generally a brick or a banana peel that changes a man’s destiny.”

A great fan of shipwrecks and car accidents, DeMille, while making fun of himself, manages to make us believe for a moment that what he shows is life, and not fiction…

The dialogue sometimes contains interesting refrains. The hero of the Western Union Pacific doesn’t have the reactions of a cowboy at all. He always says “maybe”. The same film contains some fine lyrical lines. A passenger in a train on fire remarks, “If we’re gonna burn after we’re dead, let’s get some practice.”

And the writing doesn’t leave out private jokes. The alcohol that Bebe Daniels offers to Thomas Meighan (Why Change Your Wife) comes out of a fine bottle called “Forbidden Fruit”, the title of the film C.B. will make six months later. The broken record in the silent version of The Ten Commandments carries the label CB 465. The ship-owner of Reap the Wild Wind is called Devereaux, as was the special effects supervisor employed by Cecil Blount DeMille. One of the troopers in The Crusades answers to the name ‘Blount’. The hero of The Godless Girl is named Hathaway, like C.B.’s assistant. Wassell’s competitor is called Wayne, like the actor of the previous film. The train in Union Pacific has a name: Old MacPherson, the name of the screenwriter who was no longer working with him, but whom he salutes in passing. The fake vitriol attack (with eyewash) in Why Change Your Wife is based on an incident between two of C.B.’s mistresses, Julia Faye and Jeanie… MacPherson. There are surely many other wordplays that I haven’t been able to spot. There are perhaps more private jokes in DeMille’s films than in Godard’s.

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

Akim Tamiroff in North West Mounted Police (1940): Technicolor Western comedy.

C.B.’s conservatism is not limited to politics.

DeMille is a man who doesn’t travel much; either the studio, or outdoor locations in California, or somewhere not too far. In his Canadian film, North West Mounted Police, it is clear that the distant exteriors in the background, photographed with transparencies, were shot by Arthur Rosson’s second unit. It wasn’t until the two last projects that C.B. deigned to actually travel, following the circus troupe around Florida (The Greatest Show on Earth) or going to Egypt (The Ten Commandments).

He often filmed the same thing. He may be the only one to have shot two remakes of one of his films, The Squaw Man in this case.

Forbidden Fruit is a new version of The Golden Chance, made five years earlier. Four Frightened People looks a lot like Male and Female. Don’t Change Your Husband and Why Change Your Wife are almost twin films. The Girl of the Golden West and A Romance of the Redwoods have very similar screenplays. Not to mention the two versions of the Ten Commandments.

He was to shoot a remake of The Buccaneer in 1957, but finally, overcome by age, he made way for his son-in-law, Anthony Quinn.

His special effects didn’t change. The painted canvases and schematic transparencies worked well in 1916. Why not do the same thing forty years later, even if the audience had become more demanding?

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

Why Change Your Wife (1919) : on the left, the ridiculous, snobbish musician Radinoff (Theodore Kosloff) looking for pleasure; on the right, Sylvia Ashton.

C.B.’s detractors did not fail to accuse him of opportunism.

His similarly-themed film The Warrens of Virginia released seven days after The Birth of a Nation to take advantage of the hype surrounding Griffith’s film.

The Little American went into shoot four days after war was declared in Germany: that way, DeMille knew exactly what meaning he could give the film, set in France during the war.

Japanese protested, shocked by the brutal character played by Sessue Hayakawa in The Cheat. No problem: the intertitles turned the character into a Burmese, even though Hayakawa didn’t have Burmese features at all. Since there are six times fewer Burmese than Japanese, Paramount limited the risk of losing viewers…

If there are other countries or races that could be offended by C.B.’s xenophobia, he would take two steps forward and one step back: The Little American thus offers a good German very different from the evil Jerries. The Redskins of Unconquered are cruel and stupid, but there is a good Indian, the alibi Indian, who sacrifices her life to save Gary Cooper. Same thing with the good Yellow Hand (The Plainsman) or Big Bear (North West Mounted Police), sometimes overrun by their rough groups. Let us also mention the chivalrous Saladin (The Crusades) among the Muslims fighting the good Christians. But, despite these efforts, the negative impression prevails.

Reading various books on American filmmakers, one notices that DeMille is not considered for the quality of his films, but as a public figure. The same thing happened, in a slightly different way, with Elia Kazan and Claude Autant-Lara.

Every biography of the American filmmaker foregrounds his attitude during the Screen Directors Guild meeting of 22 October 1950 and the days before: he had enthusiastically sided with those who were in favour of the “witch hunt”, and many film writers had declared from this that his cinema was detestable.

It must be said that the supporters of McCarthyism, if their MO was stupid and politically incorrect, weren’t entirely wrong on the facts, since they were close to Solzhenitsyn’s position brought to light twenty years later in The Gulag Archipelago. But McCarthy had two flaws: he was mad and he was dumb. He ultimately did great harm to the struggle against Stalinism by constantly extolling a questionable American Way of Life, and embodying an attitude of struggle that excluded the expression of basic freedoms, although the menace was limited to the USA, and contributed to making martyrs out of leftist activists whom everyone was to feel sympathetic for.

In the 1920s, DeMille was not hostile to the communist experiment. And he even went to Moscow in 1931 to study the possibility of a coproduction with the USSR. It was only afterwards that he became disillusioned. He found that, in the Stalinist system, two hundred million Soviet people slaved away in very difficult conditions, exploited by two million apparatchiks who did nothing, and that disgusted him. He was also probably influenced by his Russian émigré friends, actor Theodore Kosloff and novelist Ayn Rand.

Contrary to what has been written, The Volga Boatman (1926) isn’t an anti-communist movie at all. With cunning and opportunism, it places White Russians and Reds on the same scale, showing the flaws and the qualities of each of them. It’s the smart attitude of an exporter: C.B. wanted to please everyone so as to not lose a market. This Day and Age (1932) can be read both as a glorification of fascists who take the law into their own hands and as an apologia for a new youth that supports the New Deal by directly getting involved in the fight against gangsters. The film was even sued for plagiarizing from Fritz Lang’s M, which is the exact opposite of a fascist plea.

The Godless Girl was released in the USSR like some of his other films. Had he been an outspoken opponent, Stalin would not have allowed him to come to Moscow. And a film like Kindling is a study of the life of the poor classes in America. C.B. cast Edward G. Robinson, Howard Da Silva and Lloyd Bridges at a time when they were blacklisted by the McCarthyists. He hired a leftist, Sidney Buchman, as his screenwriter (The Sign of the Cross). Talent comes before politics. There has never been a single example of opposition to communism in C.B.’s films. C.B. has in fact denounced witch hunts in The Road to Yesterday, while McCarey, Wellman, Sternberg, Kazan, Fuller, Ford, Curtiz, Hitchcock, Vidor, Lubitsch, Mamoulian, Hawks, Huston, Ray as well as Bergman and Dovjenko sometimes dipped their feet into the Cold War with one or more of their films.

It is true that the negative character of the pharaoh played by Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments evokes Mao, but it is a subliminal meaning that I am one of the very few to have detected.

Born and raised in New England, DeMille was certainly a conservative and a right-winger, as were almost all American filmmakers born before 1904. Newer generations, who were fifteen years or younger at the end of the Great War, which changed everything, especially for the United States, had a more open and critical attitude. It is not an absolute law: Milius the reactionary was born in 1944, and Strand the leftist in 1896. But it is a good rule of thumb.

He certainly played a strike-breaker at Paramount. But let’s not make a big deal of it. As the critic Jean Domarchi said, Balzac was more Marxist than Ostrovski. Every good film has a Marxist sense. And the class struggle between masters and servants is extremely present in C.B.’s work.

Towards the end of Union Pacific, Indians massacre the railroad people with great savagery and destroy everything in their way. It is true that a white man sitting in the train, played by Anthony Quinn, had killed one of their own without any real motive. And our heroes take down every Indian who appears at the window of the crashed train, following a repetitive ritual which borders on comedy. These scenes undeniably derive from a racist attitude that can also be found in North West Mounted Police or The Plainsman, with the Indians manipulated by shady whites and driven to revolt, and Unconquered, which the critic Bosley Crowther deemed “as viciously anti-Redskin as The Birth of a Nation was anti-Negro”. Indians are shown here as very cruel, preparing to scalp poor Paulette Goddard, and particularly stupid, since they take a compass or a watch with a musical saw for a magical instrument. It should nevertheless be noted that this kind of scene, which lends the film a certain panache, figures in many Westerns from 1935-1945. But The Squaw Man shows Indian people in a favourable light. The squaw in the film saves the hero from death and goes so far as to kill his most dangerous rival, before committing suicide in a gesture of great nobility. Their half-breed child is happily accepted by the new wife.

More problematic is C.B.’s attitude towards the rich Japanese man who brands the heroine with hot iron in The Cheat. There is obviously a close link between his sadism and the fact that he is Japanese. C.B.’s competitor Griffith did not fail to reverse the trend with the good Chinese of Broken Blossoms. Strange and manipulative Orientals are also found in The Whispering Chorus and The Ten Commandments of 1923 (the shady Sally Lung), not to mention the very backward population of Siam (Fool’s Paradise). The principle is to characterize the villains as coming from a distant country (the good guys are Americans, a well-known refrain).

Or coming from a not-so-distant country: the English were the first enemies of the New England settlers during the War of Independence, until 1776. And DeMille takes pleasure in showing the regressive side of English mores and their aristocracy (Male and Female, The Road to Yesterday). The tribunal of Old Bailey, which sentences the frail Paulette Goddard to death, is rather cruel (Unconquered). The tacked-on endings of Kindling and Male and Female prove that the solution to all the hardships of the poor classes or servants lies in immigration to the paradisiacal Midwest. The cruel Saran of Gaza, who persecutes Samson with all his force, is portrayed by the very British George Sanders. Ray Milland plays a rather detestable and dubious dandy in Reap the Wild Wind, a film that turns the tables at the end, to our great surprise, since it is he who marries Paulette Goddard, triumphing over John Wayne, the eternal but flawed cowboy. Other Englishmen, Herbert Marshall (Four Frightened People) or Roland Young (Madam Satan), play rather ridiculous characters.

Judas is played by an Austrian, Joseph Schildkraut. And the evil Pharaoh has the features of Yul Brynner, with an Asian appearance. The French come across a little better: in The Greatest Show on Earth, Sebastian is a caricatural, professional seducer, but the accident he suffers makes him more likeable. The weak point of the French is obviously sex (Rosa in Fool’s Paradise). And let’s not forget that the crooked Sally of The Ten Commandments of 1923 has a French mother. That explains everything.

A deeper form of racism concerns intellectuals. The targeted character is Rady, short for Adrian, who is played by the Russian Theodore Kosloff in Why Change Your Wife as an arty, snobbish and parasitic musician whose music is a drag, and by Casson Ferguson in The Road to Yesterday as a scrawny, atheistic and scornful little socialite who comes across as an odious snitch in the film’s Elizabethan episode: an original and astonishing characterization. It looks like a forebearer to Tennessee Williams. Other targets: Nazzer Singh the hypnotist, a disciple of Mesmer’s (Theodore Kosloff again, the perfect villain of The Affairs of Anatol), the moustached dandy and crook called… Schuyler Van Sutphen (Don’t Change Your Husband). The villain in The Greatest Show on Earth is named Kurt. But he dies while saving his sweetheart: redemption once again…

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

The Cheat (1915): Tori, the evil Japanese (Sessue Hayakawa) tries to seduce the heroine (Fanny Ward).

It has often been said that DeMille couldn’t use his actors well.

But there is no way to say for sure.

In his films, the actor is often very sober, but it isn’t to the detriment of the film at all.

If The Cheat marked viewers’ minds in 1916, it was because the character played by Sessue Hayakawa was absolutely impassive. This was a new attitude in silent cinema, where actors overplayed to compensate for the lack of speech. This discretion was often generalized in C.B.’s films. A paradox that is finally quite positive: the actors are a bit self-effacing while the film manifests a constant delirium. A happy balance: what would it have been had they overplayed?!

To be sure, in the silent period, there are still a few excesses: the eyerolling of Schildkraut in The Road to Yesterday, of Rod La Rocque, the evil hero of The Ten Commandments, or of Jack Dean, the husband in The Cheat. But it was difficult then to escape these practices, which can even be found in a masterpiece like Murnau’s Sunrise, where George O’Brien overdoes it. There are some rather forced expressions by secondary characters playing comic reliefs, but it’s a principle that has always existed in cinema and which we find in the roles played by Akim Tamiroff (North West Mounted Police, The Buccaneer, Union Pacific), Roland Young (Madam Satan) or Trixie Friganza (the aunt in The Road to Yesterday).

And then, there are some very nice performances: Raymond Hatton, the accountant of The Whispering Chorus, is tremendous in an original role, with multiple changes in appearance. Charles Laughton chews the scenery in The Sign of the Cross, but that’s normal since he plays an uncommon character, Nero, here fat and spineless to an extreme. He was so astonishing that Sternberg called upon him to essay the role of Nero’s adoptive father, Emperor Claudius. And he would be called upon again to perform in Salomé and Spartacus.

For scenes with a large number of extras, DeMille had found an effective system: “I have assistants in the crowd who direct half or a third of the extras. Behind the assistants, there are a few handpicked actors, each responsible for the performance of a subdivision, and finally, behind each of these actors, there is a group of extras who follow their instructions.” It’s a method of subdivision of direction and responsibilities that imparts great variety to the extras’ performance, and makes it possible to avoid the overly classical crowd that acts mechanically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wallace Reid in The Affairs of Anatol (1921).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But no other filmmaker persevered so much on these lines.

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

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

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

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

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

Reap the Wild Wind (1941).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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