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

Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah (1949): the delicacy of colours in a new bath scene.

A curious film, which seems to have been made only for its ending. A bit like Vidor and Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1946), whose title evokes only the final scene, and which is also one of the few American films of the time to be marked by the final death of the couple, who were also played by stars. A death that both protagonists, here, desire or consent to.

The scene is the only one in the film that exhibits great richness. A temple with an overloaded architecture, like Cabiria or Salammbô, with a sort of embankment at the centre, more reminiscent of the Roman arena and its circus games. There are hundreds of spectators.

The American public were 1949 was quite familiar with the Bible and the story of Samson, and knew that Samson dies as a result of the temple’s collapse, which he triggers with the strength of his arms and … his hair. If, by extraordinary chance, they did not know the Old Testament, they were informed of the ending by word of mouth and by the massive publicity around the film’s release.

The Bible does not mention the presence of Delilah at the temple (in DeMille’s film, she takes the place of the young boy mentioned in the Bible). An earlier scene establishes Samson and Delilah’s connivance, and we understand that they will meet the same fate. Shortly before the collapse, Delilah refuses when Samson asks her to run away: she thus atones for her fault, her treachery.

So here we have a spectacle whose outcome everyone knows, but which is filmed like a suspenseful episode, with preparations and a very elaborate staging. In fact, there is really no suspense. The viewer is therefore one step ahead of the other viewers, those sitting in the temple. He feels superior to them. The suspense, here, has to do only with the “how” of the action. How will Delilah manage to put Samson in such a position that he can destroy the temple? In front of two hundred people who have no desire to be crushed under the rubble, this is far from obvious. There are a series of miraculous coincidences that make the outcome possible and, paradoxically, the film viewer fears that the soldiers’ intervention on behalf of the Saran of Gaza will not allow for the final disaster.

We get the impression of a fatal, irremediable chain of events, and that is what fascinates us.

There is a very great cinematic moment, based essentially on sound, which may seem surprising in such a visual finale: we realize that Samson will succeed when we hear the faint sound of the stone starting to crumble. This noise is followed by complete silence, the silence of the dazed and worried audience (a bit implausible, since they are too far away to hear what we and Samson can hear) and an artificial silence produced by an intelligent sound mix, underlining the gravity of the action. It is all the more impressive because the beginning of the sequence was extremely noisy, with reactions of the crowd and music. The power of the scene lies in the fact that it is based on everything (big spectacle, gigantic set, numerous extras), but it is the nothing (faint noise and silence) that produces the greatest emotion.

This idea was taken up by Howard Hawks with the sealing of the corridor of the pyramid of Cheops in Land of the Pharaohs, produced by Warner. And the film will have a lot of imitators: another famous couple, David and Bathsheba, concocted by Fox, a new Quo Vadis? financed by MGM, a Salome produced by Columbia. Everyone was doing it.

The scene has been reproached for its theatrical quality, although that is quite logical since this temple is a theatrical place, and the theatrical rigidity accentuates the inexorable quality of the action. The cardboard cut-out quality of the collapsing stone blocks has also been criticised: they bounce with a slenderness impossible for such heavy material. That is the DeMille system, which neglects realism in favour of convention.

Only the idea of the collapse matters. In any case, Samson’s story was probably exaggerated by rumour before the biblical text was written.

To describe these bravura sequences, I preferred the chronological order.

That made it possible to establish precise relationships between films from the same period. For example, the four films from the period of eccentricities (1924-1930).

But I could have chosen other scenes, the murder of the Eurasian mistress (the silent version of The Ten Commandments), the shaving scene in Why Change Your Wife, the sequence with Satan Synne (The Affairs of Anatol), the staircase scene in The Godless Girl, the suspenseful finale in the mine in Dynamite, the couple stuck at the top of the broken-down roller coaster (Saturday Night), the scene with the Indians and the compass (Unconquered), and I know how arbitrary this selection can be. I am also aware that a scene from a masterpiece like Kindling could not have served our purpose as everything in it is very smooth and homogenous.

In my classification are a few very different choices, which has perhaps allowed a more logical classification: either the sequence appears within a mediocre (Cleopatra) or a modest (The Volga Boatman) movie, or it remains the most striking scene of a high-calibre work, surfacing in the middle (The Golden Bed) or the end (Wassell), or it is the conclusion of an ever-changing film (The Road to Yesterday, Madam Satan, Samson and Delilah) whose beginning is disappointing but which, little by little, expands in scope until the final apotheosis.

The principle of the brilliant final scene that floors the viewer, who will remember it for eternity, eclipsing the mediocrity of the beginning, is an excellent principle which can be found in many good films (Alexander Nevsky, Griffith’s Way Down East, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, Mankiewicz’s Suddenly Last Summer, Ismael Ferroukhi’s The Great Journey). It is certainly more exemplary than the principle of the opening sequence towering over the rest of the film (Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage, Almodóvar’s Volver, Ruy Guerra’s The Unscrupulous Ones, Welles’ Othello, Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel), but it is now outmoded by the evolution of cinema, which now depends on television broadcast to a great extent. Now, if the viewer doesn’t find the beginning of a film exciting, he is going to change channels. Television channels know this and make their choice partly on this criterion.

It should be noted that, often, a film’s big scene is not the one expected. The crossing of Red Sea, the tussle with the octopus (Reap the Wild Wind) and the sugar garden of The Golden Bed are less striking than other scenes in these films.

A rare case: a filmmaker who is better known for his not-so-good, but more expensive films, but whose best work, as with Jean-Pierre Melville, is to be often found in projects that are nevertheless more modest in appearance. Adjusting for inflation, Kindling cost 489 times less than The Ten Commandments, but is much more accomplished.

This book is dedicated to Vidéosphère.

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

The Story of Dr. Wassel (1943): a young mother (Edith Barrett) succumbs to gunfire from the boat before her child’s eyes.

A work of a consistent quality, inspired by real events, describing the life of a physician who became a military doctor in Java during the war against Japan. He manages to safely lead a dozen crippled soldiers through the jungle to a ship to America.

It starts with a highly stylised introduction, with snow falling behind a small statuette, and it continues in a comedic tone: Dr. Wassell is paid by his poor clients of Arkansas… with pigs, which run away from the pigsty. Without any resources, he becomes a doctor abroad.

The first highlight of the film is its depiction of the daily life of a group of wounded soldiers lying on their stretchers, in rather wide shots without the hero. And the doctor has a hard time putting on his cufflinks, disturbed as he is by his servant, who tries to tie his tie at the same time. But we quickly move on to the dramatic, or even the lyrical, part. Guessing that the army is not going to repatriate the invalids, a disabled soldier stands up on his legs before collapsing. Driven to depression in the heart of the jungle, Hoppy takes the bandages off his hands so he can shoot the approaching Japs. He is massacred…

But the peak of the film is the end, where multiple effects add up as various characters behave, like before, in very different ways within the frame. The Japs bomb the ship that Wassell and his disabled crew are on. On the same ship, fat cats play chess unperturbed. A lady protests, “Will you stop pushing me?”—the same kind of unusual reactions there were towards the end of Madam Satan. A machine gun kills the mother of a four-year-old child, who doesn’t understand the situation and asks her mother to get up. A soldier, who is busy shooting, asks him: “How about joining the navy, big boy? Try this bonnet on.” And the kid is delighted to collaborate with soldiers, “I’m going to show mummy my new hat.” A blind man, with a very sensitive ear like any blind person, is the only one who can identify the noise of the American Flying Fortresses coming from afar to protect them.

Among the wounded, Wassell suddenly finds the doctor who had stolen the woman of his life, Madeline, from him. The colleague informs him that his wife is going to join him. Wonderful surprise, it’s not Madeline! Mad with joy, Wassell kisses the doctor’s wife, whom he has never seen before.

He learns that Madeline is on another boat, the Pecos. A few seconds later, he is told that the Pecos has been sunk. But it soon is known that there is a boat of survivors, which includes Madeline, whom he will join in the last shots of the film.

Wassell expects to be court-martialled since he has violated an order from his higher-ups. But he finds himself decorated by the president (played by an actor, which is exceptional in cinema, especially as Roosevelt was alive when the film was shot).

After the credits, we are told that Hoppy, the soldier with the bandages, is safe and sound. We then have the impression that all this is true. For, if this ending had been invented, DeMille could have included it in the continuity of the narrative. But it is probably a ruse on C.B.’s part to better validate the progression of his film.

We see that everything works on a constant succession of unusual contradictions, reversals of situations, like this kid who is all joyful just after his mother’s death.

So the viewer is suffocated, as it were, by this rush of strange, miracle-like facts. This is what makes for the power of this masterpiece.

This richness was not appreciated by French critics, turned off as they were by the nationalist side of C.B., who often opens his films with a shot of a coat of arms, or a military or institutional emblem. This preaching is also evident at the end of The Greatest Show on Earth, Kindling and Male and Female. But this naive and almost tacked-on hymn to America works well since it comes at the end of a high-quality work. We are then ready to accept anything. And it is presented so directly, so implausibly, that it becomes a form of private joke.

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

Cleopatra (1934): the bewildering ballet of the nymphs.

It is a rather mediocre movie, undermined by the pompous, conventional and declamatory quality of the dialogue, which provokes unintentional laughter. The last scene—Cleopatra and the asp—which should have been the highlight of the show, turns out to be of no interest.

But there are three unforgettable sequences: the ballet of the nymphs, which I already mentioned, the tracking shot depicting the intrigue; the montage sequence narrating the battle.

The latter (the principle of which is taken up again, albeit less well, in The Crusades) is astonishing: it comes just after a series of rather soporific scenes.

In four minutes and four seconds, there are about two hundred shots (I couldn’t count exactly, it was too fast, especially because there are shots with two superimpositions). This means one shot for every 1.22 seconds on an average, including many shots shorter than this.

The subjects depicted are: the preparation of arms and armies for the battle, the charge of the cavalry on the beach; ground warfare; naval warfare.

Note the total contradiction with history: the battle of Actium between the Romans and the Egyptians, who were in league with Mark Antony, took place only on the sea and lasted two hours.

Here, it also extends over land, with the siege of a fortress, and takes place over two days and a night. Anyway, that’s not the most important thing.

The film accumulates tight shots of soldiers in action, of weapons being manufactured, shots with canted framing, effects featuring a marked horizon line, often at the top of the frame, and very pointed, academic interplay of blacks and whites bordering on pompousness, but fortunately very brief.

Everything is intermingled: with short and sometimes very tight shots, the viewer does not have time to ask questions. In the middle of this battle set in 31 BC, he accepts shots stolen from The Ten Commandments (1230 BC)—the chariots on the beach—and from the Siege of Orléans of Joan the Woman (set in 1429) without batting an eyelid. He is overwhelmed by the accumulation of some violent images. It’s a massive patchwork (there is even an underwater shot), unified by continuous martial music.

Why this directorial choice? One could suppose that the filmed naval battle was deemed a failure by DeMille, or that he had no money left to shoot the rest of the scene, or that there had been a total strike, or that C.B. was jealous of S.M. (Eisenstein), whose latest film he had just seen while shooting Cleopatra. It appears that he entrusted the responsibility for the sequence to a great specialist (I think I can sense the handiwork of William Cameron Menzies), who evidently acted on the instructions of our filmmaker.

The problem is that after this virtuoso sequence, the film plummets from a great height back to the monotonous routine which is that of almost the whole film.

A sequence which today registers as an exercise in style, a good film school assignment, the crown jewel of an outdated academicism, but which still makes an impression, especially since it comes after the mediocrity of the earlier sequences.

Alongside this bit of rapid montage, there is a scene conceived around a sequence shot, the one in which we successively learn about the state of affairs between Caesar and Cleopatra, the hardships of Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, and the existence of a plot to assassinate Caesar and its motivations. Another filmmaker may have lazily settled for a discussion scene between two or three characters in static shots. Well, DeMille goes around the difficulty brilliantly.

There are two consecutive shots, with a total duration of two minutes and twenty-one seconds, the second one continuing the first, which is moreover tighter: these are tracking shots from left to right. The transition between them goes almost unnoticed within the continuous movement. DeMille frames six small groups in discussion successively, first a slightly caricatural set of five characters involved in gossip, then duos, and finally the meeting of the conspirators. All the pieces of information the viewer needs are here, but it is supplied by very different people with spaces between them. It doesn’t feel like a didactic exposition at all. First of all, because the tracking shot seems to be the only fundamental basis of the shot, because the different groups are at different distances from the camera, and because the camera is going through obstacles—especially columns—which seem to indicate that all this is filmed on the spot, like a television report on ancient Rome, all the more so because, at the very beginning, the first group is masked by a character walking across the frame. The best part is that at the end, behind Brutus and his friends, we suddenly see the bust of Caesar, whose laurel wreath is removed and tossed away by a conspirator: everything is conveyed in almost no time.

It’s a very modern, veritable lesson in cinema, which seems to me to be of a much higher level than the thundering montage sequence. These are some of the longest shots in C.B. DeMille’s cinema.

Rapid montage, sequence shot: here is a filmmaker who tries to express himself in the most contrasting ways, just as he jumps from the awesome compositions of Joan the Woman to the small objects of his intimate films (Don’t Change Your Husband or Old Wives for New) with great verve.

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

Madam Satan (1930): one of the showgirls has problems with the headwind.

At the beginning, it’s domestic vaudeville, which turns into a musical, and then a fashion show on a zeppelin during a party with a hundred guests. But that’s not all. Suddenly, twenty minutes before the end of the film, a storm damages the airship, which careens dangerously. So does the camera. It is decided to evacuate passengers by parachute. The orchestra continues to play, as it did during the Titanic disaster, but it’s the most complete mess. One can constantly hear the irritating creaking of the aircraft’s structures that are beginning to crack, the thunder that rumbles, the lightning, the music that doesn’t stop and the frightened screams of the costumed party guests. Debris and iron bars fall in the foreground. A woman complains that she isn’t able to put her parachute on. Another says she doesn’t want to take it because she wants to see the rest of the evening. A very fat gentleman asks for two parachutes. The bimbo-like mistress asks the wife for one, who is willing to give it to her on condition that she doesn’t see her husband again. In a studio sky that doesn’t hide its artificial nature, showgirls jump one by one, following strange trajectories, sometimes horizontal when pushed by the wind, which strips their bodies bare. They move their legs in every direction, with a burlesque frenzy. They seem to be pedalling. One of them goes back and forth in the air in contradictory syncopated rhythms (these are some of the most extraordinary shots in American cinema). A man dressed as Henry VIII, thus representing the past, jumps with a parachute (symbol of the future in 1930) and falls on Blacks playing dice on the pavement (the present): a synthesis of the multi-temporal approach dear to DeMille. The master of ceremonies lands in the lion’s den of a zoo just before feeding time. In contrast to the danger posed by this escape in parachutes, people remain very polite. “I beg your pardon”, says the wife when she lands in the back of a convertible in which two lovers are making out. Her husband falls, without a parachute, into an artificial lake. The bimbo lands straight on a high-altitude weather vane and asks for help from a parachuter. He replies that he is just passing by and continues to descend. She finally crashes through the glass roof of a club where masculine, misogynist gymnasts are exercising in their underwear. And so on…

We are in the middle of the sky, and of a fever dream. It calls to mind the work of Busby Berkeley, and a famous sequence from Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (Eddie Cline and W.C. Fields, 1941). A hilarious, surreal universe. But the surrealists hated DeMille because of his Christian label.

This bravura sequence, in contrast to the films mentioned earlier, plays very little on dialogue. These are above all ideas of movements, gestures and situations. A skilful mix of heterogeneous elements. An atmosphere that is in every way contrary to the conventional and limited quality of the first part of the film. A classic scene. The swan song of our auteur’s extravagant period.

After this scene comes the epilogue, the return home, which is a little longish—three minutes—and disappointing, breaking the spell of this aerial festival.

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

The Volga Boatman (1926).

Our sequence is located towards the middle of this film, which was made just after The Road to Yesterday. Bolsheviks have taken over the large house of an aristocratic family. Following a small incident caused by the young Princess Vera, a revolutionary is killed by a gunshot fired by one of the squires, who flees. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, the Red Army demands the death of one of the aristocrats. So Vera decides to sacrifice herself. A rope is put around her neck, but one of the leaders of the revolutionaries, the boatman Feodor, contests the principle of this public execution, which risks looking like a lynching. A firing squad of six soldiers is formed to carry out the sentence in an isolated room. Vera taunts them, “Does it take a whole army to shoot one woman? A man could do it alone.” Mariusha the gypsy, who is in love with Feodor, moreover points out that, this way, they won’t need to use six cartridges. It’s that cartridges are expensive. And so Feodor is assigned for the job. He goes with Vera into the adjacent room. Suspicious and jealous, Mariusha warns him: “We’ll give you five minutes, if you don’t shoot her by then, we’ll come in and do it for you.”

A small clock allows us to observe the countdown. Vera advances the hands of the clock: “I am not used to waiting.” Feodor sets the hands back: “We’ve waited five hundred years for liberty, you can wait five minutes for death.” Next door, the revolutionaries make merry, while Vera plays the ballad Song of the Volga Boatmen on piano, singing it. Feodor stops her, “You are singing to give yourself courage.” [1] The hands of the clock advance mercilessly. Vera pours rosewater into the room to die in a pleasant environment. He serves her a glass of wine to “steady her nerves”. She drinks to the health of Old Russia, and invites Feodor to finish the glass. He drops it on the floor. Mariusha, still in the big room next door, threatens to come. Vera takes out a jewel box. “You can’t bribe me”, he takes offence. She takes a beautiful decoration out of the box and hangs on Feodor’s chest, “I’m going to reward you for shooting a defenceless woman.” He tears off the decoration. She draws a cross on her breast to make the job easier for him. The five minutes are up. In fact, it lasts eight minutes in the film (even more, as I saw the film at a higher speed) to keep the suspense going…

Moved by her courage, Feodor begins to kiss Vera passionately. He pours lots of wine on our heroine’s chest, fires a shot in the air and returns to the large hall carrying Vera’s body.

“Let’s throw her in the Volga”, suggests Mariusha. “I’ll throw her in the Volga”, replies Feodor. As he steps forward, Mariusha steals Vera’s ring. But it smells like wine. She puts the ring on, her fingers are full of red. She licks her fingers and realizes the trick. But Feodor has already left, with Vera in his arms, and locks the door behind him. They run away.

This is the big scene of Act IV, an impression confirmed by the theatrical atmosphere of the sole set. We are not far from romantic drama, from the Hugo of Angelo or Ruy Blas, or even Elizabethan theatre. You can feel that it is a game, not some kind of reality, but you go along. DeMille has put all the ingredients, all possible twists and turns in this sequence.

And there are even some elements from The Road to Yesterday: the gypsy woman, the clock, replacing the hourglass.

This is the bravura sequence of the film, which remains on a good level in the other scenes, but is more banal, more conventional, infinitely less flamboyant. A sort of oasis in the sticks.

Footnote:

[1] Translator’s note: the line is, in fact, by Vera: “You sang it to give you courage, why shouldn’t I? Are we not both Russians?”

[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.