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

Gloria Swanson in Male and Female (1919): the chaos of shipwreck.

Because of the somewhat constricted nature of the genre, DeMille and Paramount had arrived at a compromise: he would make high-society comedies, but with five minutes of ancient or medieval interludes. This is why, right in the middle of contemporary films like Don’t Change Your Husband, Male and Female, Manslaughter, Adam’s Rib, Triumph and even We Can’t Have Everything and The Dream Girl, there are strange parentheses. Paramount had something to keep the ambitious Cecil busy. Five minutes of epic film was less expensive than an hour and a half. This amazes us today, but let us not forget that we too have our commercial breaks on the television, sometimes with movie trailers very different from the film being telecast, and that there were once mid-film intervals, in Italy and sometimes in France, for changing 16mm film reels in rural theatres, to the benefit of ice-cream sales or advertising slides.

It often arrives at the worst possible moment. In the middle of Male and Female, given that the shipwrecked are dressed in makeshift outfits, we no longer even know if it’s an episode from the current story or a prehistoric flashback. Most of the time, the pretext for returning to the past remains feeble. DeMille seeks to show us that nothing has changed since the Neanderthals. The only real reason for the sequence is, of course, kitsch luxury. It’s probably the allusion to the lions of Babylon in Gerald Manley Hopkin’s poem quoted in James Barrie’s play, which Male and Female is based on, which gave DeMille the idea of going back in time.

At best, it could be said that the fragility of the link and the poverty of the trick make us laugh and sustain our interest: the worse it is, the better it is.

This economic motivation seems to have justified the structure of the first The Ten Commandments, only a third of which deals with antiquity.

The link between the present and the past is what comes out in Joan the Woman too. The story of La Pucelle is introduced by a remark by an English soldier fighting in France in 1915. And the preface to The Sign of the Cross, a ten-minute sequence added thirteen years after the shoot, presents us with reflections of American soldiers flying in 1945 over a Rome slightly destroyed by the bombardments and recalling ancient Rome. Apparently, these two scenes seem justified by the ignorance of the American public (passionate only about national, more or less modern events) about the European past. According to DeMille and Paramount, a precise link between the ancient and the modern was absolutely necessary to make these antiquities look less obsolete in the eyes of teenagers and their girlfriends. The same is true for the reintroduction of the ten commandments into the modern family of the eponymous silent film, for the final shot of an ultramodern train in Union Pacific, set in 1870, for the modern city in the last image of the life of Jesus. And not to mention the brief introductions at the beginning of the last three films, which situate them within an eternal cosmic discourse.

It is difficult to say to what extent this present-past relationship, which is the keystone of The Ten Commandments of 1923 and of The Road to Yesterday [1], corresponds to a commercial communication strategy or, on the contrary, to a personal obsession of the filmmaker. There are certainly both, but I’m tempted to favour the second hypothesis. It is too present across time periods, over more than forty years, for it to be simply opportunistic.

For it was a real problem for Americans in the 1920s: what relation can be there between the Christian morality taught in their childhood and the era of jazz, fast luxury cars and normalized breakups and divorces? 1919 and the end of the First World War gave birth to a whole new world—a rupture that is noticeable in the work of a European filmmaker like Jean-Luc Godard who has more than one thing in common with Cecil DeMille: he too is a Puritan womanizer, and he frequently contrasts the art of the past with the superficiality of the contemporary world.

With this essential difference that, in Jean-Luc’s case, the opposition seems irremediable, while Cecil tries to build bridges beyond the obvious differences. The ancient interludes tend to tell us that it’s the same thing going on in the time of the Cro-Magnons, the days of Nero and the era of airships, massive bombardments, ultramodern bathtubs and hot dogs. There is certainly an interest in making connections that justify, with more or less success, the apparent incongruity of the intrusion of the ancient into the modern. The Semadar character (Angela Lansbury) in Samson and Delilah is above all reminiscent of the busybodies of Poughkeepsie, just like those chatty women near the atrium (Cleopatra) or that family of ordinary Romans about to enjoy the spectacle of the massacre of Christians (The Sign of the Cross), evoking the weekend outing of an average American family as we see in The Greatest Show on Earth. The present-past relationship doesn’t work as much on the level of moral analysis or as a look into evolution (besides, even in Intolerance, there is hardly any evolution between the Babylonian massacres, St. Bartholomew’s Day and the modern episode, except that the innocent sentenced to death is saved at the last moment by the artifice of a chase). It works more on a formal level: the visual shock of two cultures. It is a superficial shock, but one that affects us strongly. In DeMille’s work, there is a union of all the elements that open up to the universal, the cosmic and the timeless in the same image. DeMille wants to show everything, and show everything together. We have a confirmation of this at the end of Madam Satan.

If one accepts that C.B.’s approach isn’t essentially opportunistic, it remains to be seen what is essential in his work: the description of the past or the present-past relationship.

It is very hard to pin down. In the beginning, everything derived from Cabiria, and so it was all focused on the purely descriptive aspect. It was only afterwards that the comparative aspect made its appearance, for multiple reasons, which became rarer after the commercial failure of The Road to Yesterday.

 

Footnote:

[1] And which is expressed fully with the help of superimpositions and dissolves, the basic figures of style in C.B.’s work.

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

Don’t Change Your Husband (1918)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wallace Reid in The Affairs of Anatol (1921): the mirror that turns you into a skeleton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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