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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Footnote:

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