[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.