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

The Ten Commandments (1956): the golden calf sequence with the whole image filled with extras.

In 1949, DeMille was sixty-eight years old. He seems to have been obsessed with the idea of finishing his career on a film that would cost as much as possible, make the most money, be the longest of them all and impose the name of Cecil B. DeMille for all eternity. That is what can be felt at the beginning of Samson and Delilah (1949), The Greatest Show on Earth (1951) and The Ten Commandments (1956), completed two years before the filmmaker’s death. These three films begin with a preamble which is far above the relative banality of the story that follows: we see the Earth spinning, an emphatic commentary (sometimes read out by the filmmaker) seems to offer a moral, even a metaphysics.

And the films are increasingly long: Samson clocks 128 minutes, the next film 150 minutes and The Ten Commandments runs for 225 minutes, whereas the first version of the latter devoted only one hour to its ancient segment.

The costs (and revenues) went up too: $3,097,000 (Samson), $3,873,000 for The Greatest Show, but The Ten Commandments had the biggest budget of its time: $13,272,000.

To be objective, it must be noted that the budget of Samson, shot in only eleven weeks, was modest: the film cost less than a contemporary comedy like It’s a Wonderful Life. It was probably because Paramount was scared of History, and Antiquity in particular, and wanted to limit the damage after the crushing failure of C.B.’s last American epic, The Crusades, which delayed the production of Samson by thirteen years, and of a British Caesar and Cleopatra. The actors who were cast, Hedy Lamarr as well as Victor Mature, weren’t top-stars at the time, and the film only has one really expensive scene: the last sequence at the temple. So it wasn’t very different from the strategy of the years 1919-1922, with their ancient interludes, which I will talk about later.

Is it this relative lack of money that explains some of the anomalies detrimental to the film?

The fact remains that the choice of Angela Lansbury to play Hedy Lamarr’s elder sister is rather incongruous, since Lamarr was thirteen years older than Lansbury, and it shows. And then, you don’t feel that Samson has lost his hair, which, being brown, remains very visible. Perhaps Victor Mature refused to have his head shaved. Moreover, after the alleged haircut, his hair has contradictory lengths, to say the least [1]. This probably corresponds to a non-chronological shooting schedule.

Except at the end, the action remains quite slow, especially during the episode of Samson’s seduction by Delilah. The characters dwell on their complex and shifting motivations. The tempo here resembles that of an opera, necessarily moderato because it takes longer to sing than to speak. DeMille may have originally wanted to adapt Saint-Saëns’ opera.

But given its consistency, the viewer eventually accepts the principle.

The film tends towards abstraction, Beauty and the Brute, with DeMille embellishing and circling around these basic definitions.

Let us pass over C.B.’s casualness towards the Bible, in which Semadar in not Dalilah’s sister. In any case, these questions about plausibility and fidelity to the Bible are rather ridiculous if we consider that the Old Testament states that Moses, prefiguring Jeanne Calment, died at the age of one hundred and twenty.

The Ten Commandments doesn’t work. Sensing that the film will be his last, DeMille wanted to stuff as many things as possible into it. The result is torn between four contradictory directions:

a distant, frontal, Brechtian presentation;

an accumulation of similar effects, which becomes tiresome over almost four hours;

a rich work on colour range;

an emotional-political plot worthy of a mediocre B-movie (Moses and the Pharaoh as romantic rivals—some cheek).

The Greatest Show on Earth (1951): the circus troupe after the train accident, every man for himself.

On the other hand, The Greatest Show on Earth, which in fact received the only Oscar for Best Picture awarded to DeMille, remains a fascinating work. It revolves around a grand touring circus, Ringling Bros & Barnum, with the different acts of the show being interspersed with criminal and romantic subplots, highlighting the various participants of the circus, thanks to some skilful editing. This alternation avoids any risk of boredom. It isn’t just a question of alternation, since pure spectacle and individual subplots come together in several shots. I’m thinking particularly of the magnificent scenes following the train derailment, where we see animals, elephants, lions and others, walking across the wreck of the train, trucks, iron and woodwork, and circus props, near the injured, those attending to them and those running all over the place to salvage property and worry about the fate of their dear ones. As in The Story of Dr. Wassell, DeMille frames five to ten people in the same shot, people going in different directions, remaining in highly varied positions—lying down, standing up, leaning across, constantly talking at the risk of speaking over each other. This handling of small groups produces results that are ultimately more rewarding than those of shots with massive crowds, with which DeMille is often identified with. Their humanity is much stronger.   

Cinema here becomes a veritable creation of a world, a bit like in The Thing from Another World, made by Hawks the same year. Circus and cinema become one. The slightly pompous statements of the preamble take on an unexpected dimension thanks to simultaneous images showing the preparation of the premises and the raising of the circus tent’s main mast—a moving lyricism, based on great sobriety.

It’s a pity that DeMille didn’t make any other film around the production of a show, a subject that he obviously knew very well after sixty-eight films, and which he had probably tackled in the scenes at the film studio in We Can’t Have Everything (1918), alas lost, and broached in What’s His Name (1914).

We have there the old problem of paying a troupe full time rather than limiting its activity to more profitable one-offs, a problem that had partly justified DeMille’s breakup with Paramount in 1925—the fight against unemployment in Cecil DeMille’s work…

And of course, there is the interference between work and emotions, a bit like in Renoir’s French Cancan, the rivalries between stars…

There is a totalitarian side to the film: DeMille wants to stuff everything in without offending anyone, the Church, the police, the financiers, the frauds, even the audience, and something that really takes the cake considering our filmmaker: the vanity of money (cf. the shot, towards the end, of banknotes lost in the disaster). The only reproach that could be made is that the usual effects—chaos, visual composition, permanent ubiquity, verbal jousts—are repeated, in all their excellence, for two-and-a-half hours here. The actions may be different, but the way they are performed remains the same.

One could balk at it. DeMille’s art isn’t an art of the fugue. But this inventive accumulation amazes, stuns the viewer—a hammer-like aesthetic, with many nails to go with it. We end up accepting even the “Stars and Stripes Forever” aspect of the film.

 

Footnote:

[1] Similarly, in The Road to Yesterday, the dialogue specifies that the shadow moving on the wall is that of Schildkraut, whom we see immobile in the following shot—a continuity error.

[From Luc Moullet’s Politique des acteurs (1993, Cahiers du cinéma). See Table of Contents]

Four hands: another contagion effect (No Highway in the Sky, 1950)

James Stewart appeared on the firmament of the film world in 1938 with Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. This celebrity comes about awkwardly: first of all, Stewart has only the fourth role in the film, after Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold and Jean Arthur. More importantly, even though he is the prototype of the indolent dreamer, his character belongs to the world of the rich, while his fiancée lives in a family of outcasts, among whom he feels totally at ease. The interest is thus centred on the conflict between the heads of the two families, Stewart putting them in contact with each other. His role could’ve been stronger had his character reproduced the mentality of the rich, whereas it’s the opposite here.

This shakiness is aggravated by the fact that Stewart hasn’t yet found his line as an actor. With his co-star Jean Arthur, he copies Cary Grant (and she, Katharine Hepburn) as he moves across the restaurant, stuck behind her to hide the ridiculous inscription she has on her back, some months after the similar—and more successful—scene from Bringing Up Baby. The second film he makes with Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, contains some shots—notably during the turbulent meeting with the press after the publication of an article ridiculing him—that relate him to his great friend Henry Fonda: his hair falls over his forehead and comes close to his cheeks, making his face look very thin. We perceive in him the hunted, rebellious man of You Only Live Once. At one point in You Can’t Take It with You, he has, on one part of the forehead, the famous little lock of hair of Gary Cooper, the protagonist of the first Shopworn Angel that Stewart just remade. Moreover, Mr. Smith, with Capra’s help, is a close cousin to Mr. Deeds.

This proximity can be linked to the fact that Cooper, Fonda and Stewart are all Tauruses. I had the greatest contempt for astrology until the day I realized that most great actors (Fonda, Welles, Gabin, Fernandel, James Mason) were born under this sign. It’s too good to be a coincidence, especially considering that Capra was born on the 19th of May, a day before Stewart, and that Borzage (who gave JS the leading role in Mortal Storm) belonged to the same vintage: it’s really a great family…

From You Can’t Take onwards, Stewart’s individuality starts to manifest itself: his novel play of hands often has a precise signification. So the dance of his fingers on the table constitutes a direct allusion to the guests who are enjoying themselves at the house of his future father-in-law. The work on repurposed gestures is very successful: he raises his hand toward the boy employed by his father, as though to slap him. He abandons his primitive impulse, and regains his gesture in a way, so as to not look like an idiot: in the continuity of the movement, he goes on… to brush his jacket.

This work on hands is quite good in one scene of a film made slightly later, Made for Each Other (1939): he informs his mother that he is married to the girl next to him by pointing his thumb alternatively towards the girl and himself. In the same film, we find an identical principle, but with the head this time: he lets the viewer know that he has understood his wife’s allusive speech suggesting that she is pregnant, simply by lowering his head four times in a twitchy manner. Before this, we weren’t sure of the real meaning of this speech. This sharp movement, mixed with emotion, helps us understand everything. Great art consists of doing away with speech, of saying everything through gesture, especially when it involves important events: a marriage, a birth.

In You Can’t Take, his stubborn way of keeping his mouth open without speaking is particularly audacious. This trait allows us to better place the character: it’s the Capraesque Naïf, dazed and out of sync with reality. This perfectly suits Stewart, who displays the temperament of a dreamer in real life and whose physique, with his wide cheeks somewhat depressed towards a visible chin, midway between Jerry Lewis and Eddy Merckx, and his lanky figure, give the impression of ingenuousness.

(more…)