[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.

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

Old Wives for New, with Sylvia Ashton: bodybuilding in the America of 1918.

We don’t think of DeMille as a maker of comic films. Yet, he often provokes laughter, as much as a Blake Edwards or a Preston Sturges.

Above all in comedies, of course: at one point in The Affairs of Anatol, a furious Elliott Dexter breaks everything in the apartment of his fiancée, Wanda Hawley, when he realizes that she hasn’t given up the easy life set up for her by Theodore Roberts, the rich man who has kept her. It’s a fine destruction scene—within the setting of a modern apartment—comparable to those in regular epic films. At one point, Theodore Roberts makes his job easier by handing him a piece of furniture to destroy, when he should be shocked by this fury directed at the girl he loves. The weight loss cure that Sylvia Ashton (Old Wives for New) undergoes remains an irresistible comic monument, as does the folding bed concealed by a fake piano (Saturday Night). There would be no end in sight if we wanted to draw up an inventory.

But the dramas arouse laughter too: in The Road to Yesterday, the character of Rady, a nerdy runt, is comical from start to finish. I’ll always remember his disgusted reaction, at a corner of the frame, when he sees the two leads kissing, although he is the one who is supposed to marry the pretty heroine.

Another very funny scene: Roland Young parachutes into a den of lions, just before their feeding time (Madam Satan).

North West Mounted Police is supposed to be a serious Western. But the best part of the film is the little game between two privates, the Scotsman McDuff and the Canadian Duroc, who belong to rival armies and play at shooting at each other all through the film, without ever touching each other of course, by aiming at the top of the hat [1] or knicker buttons (hence the shot of Akim Tamiroff… in underwear). And when another soldier notices McDuff’s latest miss and kills Duroc for good, there is a general consternation among the two fake enemies, who first believe that the other has betrayed the secret pact uniting them, before realizing, happy in the face of a death suffered or caused, that it was not so. It’s the duo Akim Tamiroff-Lynne Overman once again, already present in the previous film, Union Pacific. One takes the same and starts over.

 

Footnote:

[1] An idea inaugurated in The Road to Yesterday: the kid who shoots arrows.

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

Union Pacific (1939) with Barbara Stanwyck: reading out the love letter to the dying man.

Conflicts in DeMille’s work sometimes evoke Cornellian dilemmas and conjure all their power.

For instance, John Tremble, the hero of The Whispering Chorus must make a choice: either manage to prove that he didn’t commit the murder he is accused of—which now seems possible—and return to his wife, or accept going to the electric chair to avoid ruining the life of his wife, now remarried to the governor, on the eve of her delivery.

Jim Brett (Northwest Mounted Police) loves young April, but he must arrest her brother, guilty of desertion and threatened with a firing squad. And he knows well that if he arrests him, April will never forgive him…

There are several conflicts of this kind in The Greatest Show on Earth: Brad (Charlton Heston), the injured circus director, can only be saved if he agrees to receive the blood of Sebastian the acrobat, his rival in love who has almost compromised the survival of the circus with his misdemeanours. He begins by refusing this gift, but he has no choice. His friends tease him: if Brad marries the woman he loves, their children will have Sebastian’s blood.

The film’s credits mention that James Stewart plays the role of Buttons, the sad clown with his face permanently covered by a mask. The film’s viewers recognize James Stewart by his characteristic way of speaking. Stewart’s work is magnificent, playing solely on his voice and movements.

But Buttons was once a doctor who euthanized his wife. Pursued by the police, he found refuge in the circus with the help of this mask.

The policeman who tracks him down shows Brad a photo of the man he is looking for. And we see a photo of James Stewart. It’s the only time in the film that we see his face. The audience is thus one step ahead of the film’s protagonists, which it appreciates.

Brad needs a doctor for his blood transfusion. And his sweetheart is chasing Buttons, who smells trouble and prepares to leave the place. She convinces him to stay and perform the operation, under the supervision of the policeman, who even assists him and who realizes that Buttons is the doctor he is looking for. He arrests him after shaking his hand, congratulating him for his conduct and sacrifice. I could have just as well mentioned these sequences in the chapter on mistakes.

We are quite close to Corneille territory in Union Pacific: a dying, wounded man wants his fiancée’s letter, which he has just received, read out to him. Barbara Stanwyck has no time to look for the letter and takes out a piece of paper from a neighbour’s pocket. It’s an ordinary advertisement, and she begins to read it out as if it were a love letter, improvising with verve and lyricism. There are some variations of this principle in Wassell, with the love letter dictated to the nurse, but in fact inspired by her, while it is theoretically addressed to the fiancée, and with the blind man showing the photo of his younger sister. But we see that it is, in reality, that of his old grandfather.

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

The Affairs of Anatol (1921): the peephole that serves every use.

It is generally defined by three characteristics: implausibility, decorative overload and bad taste.

These are indeed the characteristics that can be found in the work of DeMille, the renowned king of film kitsch. They can be seen as negative. And yet, DeMille intrigues us, fascinates us and arouses our admiration.

Let’s first say that plausibility isn’t indispensable to a film’s success. The question isn’t even asked when it comes to animation films. Why should implausibility be necessarily included in the list of charges just because there are actors who are filmed?

Decorative overload is of two kinds:

Either we see edifices to the glory of a god built by the Babylonians, the Aztecs, the Pharaohs, the Philistines, the Romans of the Empire, cruel people who are against the Christians we are supposed to be, against the Buddhists of today. They are all inspired by a taste for extravagance. It’s a universe that is often shown as detestable, but which is striking in its unusual quality.

Or we see the modern world of the 1920s. With post-war wealth comes numerous eccentricities, probably corresponding to reality, but which are exaggerated through the talents of set designers such as Wilfred Buckland, Paul Iribe, and above all Mitchell Leisen (1898-1972), a mannerist who later directed remarkable comedies like Easy Living and Midnight.

And it’s a veritable festival of baroque or rococo ornaments, as noticeable in the costumes and the choice of props as in the sets. Let us randomly mention the safe that looks like a cigar box and which hides a telephone (Old Wives for New), the boots with curved tips in the shape of Viking ships or snakes ready to bite, or the pool that you enter in tailcoats (Don’t Change Your Husband), the skin of an entire beast, complete with the head, on the stairs, likely to make you slip (Saturday Night), the giant peephole in the middle of the door in The Affairs of Anatol, which defeats its own purpose because you can put your hand or head into it, the garden entirely made of sugar in The Golden Bed, the electric machine of the mechanical ballet in Madam Satan, which follows a fashion show with seven models in increasingly bewildering outfits, with feathers in the shape of tentacles, endless trains and furry hairstyles, the huge mansions of Arizona that look like expressionist sets (The Road to Yesterday), and I could go on for a long time… Americans have an adjective to describe this clutter: lavish. You can sense C.B.’s mocking humour in this extravagant display, but he is also making fun of himself since he offered these very things as a source of attraction for his guests during weekend parties at his luxurious second home. Of course, there might be a direct relationship between ancient architecture (allegedly faithful to reality) and the eccentricities of the 1920s (which one supposes are more imaginary), but it is not a given: in Male and Female, the ancient episode comes just after a scene set in the barren backdrop of a deserted island. It’s only C.B.’s unmotivated desire for a flashback that occasions this parenthesis.

Some of the humour is lost today, because we can no longer tell eccentric outfits from normal ones, which have also become very laughable.

Bad taste is obviously part of the game. The worse it is, the better it is. How does one draw the line? By going beyond. A little kitsch would be banal and mediocre. It’s the excess of kitsch that makes for the film’s strength, arouses laughter, mixed with an admiration for the set and costume designers’ inventiveness. After Madam Satan (1930), kitsch has a smaller part to play. From the period of colour films, the interest of costume work is no longer based on extravagance, but solely on the beauty of the outfits and their arrangement in the shot.

Kitsch certainly makes its appearance later too, in Moses’s entrance or in the schematized relationship between Samson and Dalilah, or Paulette Goddard’s lipstick after an aquatic and desert marathon (Unconquered), but it is less present. I miss it a little.

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

The Greatest Show on Earth (1951): a festival of colours.

DeMille takes a real, rather sadistic pleasure in showing disasters. It could be a sinking ship (The Little American, Male and Female, Cleopatra, Reap the Wild Wind), a zeppelin deflating in mid-air (Madam Satan), a train derailment or two trains colliding (The Road to Yesterday, The Greatest Show on Earth, Saturday Night and Union Pacific), a collapsing temple (Samson and Delilah, The Woman God Forgot), the Red Sea drowning the Pharaoh’s army (The Ten Commandments), and I’m certainly forgetting some others. This kind of scene is repeated over thirty-nine years of his career.

It’s like this: a destructive machine (train or any other) moves towards the viewer, breaking through obstacles (scrap metal and wood work, stone walls). It’s direct, unabashed penetration (which doesn’t surprise us in C.B. DeMille’s highly sexual cinema), often in the direction of the viewer, sometimes seen from a distance in a frontal and artificial manner.  The camera sways and the framing goes askew, as masses, beans and iron bars fall in the foreground, momentarily hiding the actors behind. Everything moves, changes places. A fundamental principle with DeMille is to always show falling masses or passing extras in the foreground. In Madam Satan, the effect is further accentuated by the sinking airship’s exasperating squeaking and creaking. Dust rises. Water invades the living room, its furniture and its books (Male and Female). A beautiful disorder is an artistic effect. In a colour film like The Greatest Show on Earth or Reap the Wild Wind, this chaos of iron and steel is enhanced by the intrusion of beautiful clothes or pretty spots of bright colours.

This technique is different from traditional cinematic disaster based on the bluff of numerous brief insert shots (which is obviously less expensive). DeMille works with frontal wide shots, while his colleagues express dramatic shock through aggressive syncopated editing.

Disorder is underlined by very different positions of extras within the shot. It’s almost a catalogue of all possible attitudes, conveyed with the most divergent broken lines of weapons or destructive objects.

The same disorder is found in scenes without disasters, such as the Roman orgy of Manslaughter or the magnificent golden calf sequence of The Ten Commandments of 1956, where extras occupy the entire image, following the tradition of academic painting. On closer inspection, these scenes make reference to famous pictorial models.

These scenes of chaos often conjure one of the four elements, namely fire, which is quite visible in The Woman God Forgot, Joan the Woman (with a very impressive single shot in colour), The Road to Yesterday, Triumph, The Godless Girl, The Greatest Show on Earth, and The Ten Commandments. The fire at the Parisian hotel in Triumph derives directly from an experience C.B. had at the Ritz on the Place Vendôme.

Along with fire, there is also electricity, natural (the lightning of The Ten Commandments) or more artificial (Madam Satan, The Godless Girl).

There’s also water: we have seen the frequency of shipwrecks and there is even a flood during the Siege of Orléans in Joan the Woman.

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

Why Change Your Wife? (1919), with Thomas Meighan and Gloria Swanson: domestic struggle for the use of the bathroom, which inspired Lubitsch (The Marriage Circle)

A certain number of directors, when they film indoors, have their favourite setting: for Wyler, it was the staircase; for Resnais, it was the corridor; for Masamura, it’s the bedroom; for Hitchcock, it’s rather the cellar. For DeMille, it’s bathrooms. An innovative choice since it is a room that is not noble at all, a place to ease oneself, which was hitherto concealed by novels and films.

It begins with Old Wives for New (1918): the husband is angry with his wife, who has left the sink dirty, and he has to scrub it now. He reproaches her of never washing her hair.

And it continues in Why Change Your Wife? (1919): the couple fights over the place, since he is shaving when she wants to take toiletries from the little cupboard in front of him. Disturbed by her arrival, he risks cutting himself. It’s the beginning of the film, and it’s a classic scene since most other films begin with a less trivial sequence. Daily life can be a source of interest, of fun.

The largest element of this room, the bathtub, appears in Male and Female (1919). This one is of a refined luxury: a thermometer to measure the temperature, stylized ornaments on the levers and buttons. It’s a decoration that one expects to find at a king’s place rather than in the bathroom of an individual house.

Of course, eroticism comes into play. We never see Gloria Swanson naked in her bathtub. The foamy water hides her body. But the viewer knows well that she is naked, like anyone who takes a bath. This theoretical presence of nudity excites him. This is a typical reaction of the 1920s that is hard to understand in the 21st century.

Saturday Night (1921) goes even further: there is a shower in the shape of a giant, bright geyser, which will be echoed by the primitive, icy shower of The Godless Girl, which turns into torture. And there is Poppaea’s bath in The Sign of the Cross (1932), filled with donkey milk, whose entire circuit we see, from the milking of the animal to the pipes to the palace, and it’s only then that we understand what the milk is for: sovereign humour, no pun intended.

There is then the shower in the jungle in Four Frightened People (1934), Paulette Goddard’s very dirty tub in Unconquered, Hedy Lamarr’s bath in the small lake in Samson and Delilah (1949) and that of… doctor Wassell, which could be taken as a bit of humour.

It is difficult to imagine a Cecil DeMille film without baths or bathtubs. The viewer looks forward to a bathtub scene because it’s a film by him, just as he looks forward to an ancient interlude (and like he would later look for the shot Alfred Hitchcock appears in). He drools. He is reassured when the scene comes. I have the impression that he might ask for a refund if there was neither a bath nor an ancient interlude in the film.

This presence of baths is evidently linked to Puritanism, which always looks for purification (with its somewhat sectarian deviation: immersion, emphatic baptism). A civilization of bathtubs, which doesn’t exist among Catholics, especially in France: France has always been rather dirty.

DeMille thus accentuated the glorification of bathrooms, which helped the economic expansion of the cleanliness industry in the USA and, as a corollary, in France, during the Americanization of our country after each of the two world wars. DeMille is partly responsible for the contemporary obligation in France to shower, which is nevertheless excessive in character: we had managed very well without it for fifteen centuries. I only shower on Sundays myself.