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

The Road to Yesterday (1925): the splendour of the swashbuckling film: Vera Reynolds, Joseph Schildkraut, William Boyd.

This is the film made just after The Golden Bed. The six main characters, after the physical and mental shock caused by a very serious train collision in Arizona, find themselves in 1625 in the heart of England, in obviously quite different roles. Everything was relatively quiet in the first hour of runtime, but now it becomes an increasingly unbridled cloak-and-dagger story, and we are stunned by this unexpected and accelerated development.

The film is halfway between Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires and Victor Hugo’s Les Burgraves. Ken, the ruined lord, absolutely wants to marry the young and rich Lady Elizabeth, who is in love with handsome Jack. Ken kidnaps Elizabeth, and Jack comes to the castle to save her. But Ken has Jack arrested, whom he accuses of having come to the castle to steal. And he blackmails Elizabeth: either I kill Jack (who already has the noose around his neck) or you marry me. You have three minutes to choose… He starts the hourglass. Then comes Malena, the gypsy who pretends to be already married to Ken, who decides to have her burned for witchcraft. Elizabeth agrees to the marriage if Ken lets Jack live. But (like the Saran of Gaza would later with Delilah and Samson, who is blinded on order of the Saran) Ken plays on words: he doesn’t kill Jack, but has him whipped to death behind a curtain, which he soon opens to Elizabeth’s grieving eyes. She unties Jack, who, before dying, kills Ken with a stab near his left shoulder, while Malena’s body burns at the stake.

We are two hours and five minutes into the film.

Devoured by the flames, Malena screams in anger and curses Ken. She moves in vain from right to left and left to right in an attempt to loosen her bonds, and this movement in the flames merges—with the help of an admirable dissolve (the most beautiful in the history of cinema)—with the flames of the train and the movements of the four heroes trapped in the debris of the American Express of 1925.

Ken is unable to pull Malena from under debris of the coach as his left shoulder is paralysed by his earlier injury. She is about to die. He, the inveterate atheist, is reduced to praying to God. God delivers him from his infirmity right away. Malena is rescued. They then join the Jack-Beth couple (Beth is short for Elizabeth). Beth, who has always fiercely denied the existence of God, tells Jack, who is a priest: “Oh, Jack, we’ve been in love for hundreds of years, and I’ll marry you with a noose round your neck, or a Prayer Book in your hand, just so you keep on loving me!

And Ken, in the face of his miraculous cure, exclaims: “Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory, forever!” The film ends on a shot of a cross, this famous omnipresent cross (The Godless Girl, The Sign of the Cross, The Plainsman).

Obviously, this soap opera is totally unbelievable, and there is something eminently ridiculous about the filmmaker’s proselytising, just like this hollow-ringing instant miracle: a simple little bandage that Ken removes in two seconds. This religious kitsch is so mediocre that it imparts a new dynamic, staggering in every way, to the most absolute playful gratuity. The audacity of tackling the most total implausibility and the most complete ridiculousness astounds us, leaves us dumbfounded with admiration. A bit like with Abel Gance. It is true that all this happens after more than two hours, and after a long, bland initial section centred on an almost banal everyday life that has allowed us to get used to the film, its characters and the plot. I don’t think any other film has given us such a provocative, mind-boggling ending. We don’t believe it, but we still go with it. We are won over, I think, by the very fact that we can’t believe it, and that DeMille has had the nerve nonetheless… It remains to be seen whether DeMille believed it. But that is perhaps a superfluous question. Cinema rediscovers its essential nature here, that of a pure game.

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

Unconquered (1946), Gary Cooper’s supernatural entrance.

We have seen, with Feet of Clay and The Road to Yesterday, how much DeMille was fascinated by the idea of reincarnation. In her memoirs, Gloria Swanson writes that DeMille was a firm believer in it. It is indeed the only problem for very rich people who have achieved everything in life. Walt Disney even had his body preserved in optimal conditions so that he could be brought back to life the day science would allow it. The problem is certainly less distressing for a Christian like DeMille, who believed in paradise (Paradise was incidentally the name of his pleasure house). But it does exist.

Whence this taste for back-and-forth journeys to the heaven (cf. the unfinished project The Sorrows of Satan and Feet of Clay).

But this motif can be found more discreetly in many of Cecil DeMille’s works, beginning with a play he co-wrote in 1913 called The Return of Peter Grimm. The list is long: the accountant in The Whispering Chorus who was thought dead and who reappears suddenly, just like the “KIA” husband of For Better, for Worse, or the hero of The Plainsman, who miraculously survives all the Indian arrows. In The Story of Dr. Wassell, Gary Cooper believes that his dear Madeline has disappeared forever from his life, that she is even dead, but in the end, we learn that it’s not so. And the same Cooper (Unconquered), decidedly in charge of immortality, plunges with his frail skiff into the furious waters of a frightening Niagara, but miraculously comes out by grasping on to a providential branch (an unbelievable moment, but it is a playful film). He emerges, like a ghost, from a smoke cloud behind an Indian encampment. Victory is then achieved because the English place the bodies of all their dead soldiers in wagons, seated and not lying down, to make the attackers believe that they are outnumbered. A theoretical resurrection which makes them winners.

DeMille wasn’t an exception. Reincarnation—or resurrection—was a frequent motif among great American filmmakers (cf. all of Frank Borzage’s work, Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait, Alexander Hall’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Alan Rudolph’s Made in Heaven, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Frank Capra’s Lost Horizons and It’s a Wonderful Life, James Cameron’s The Abyss, even Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Otto Preminger’s Laura).

“Reincarnation” means “victory over death”, with which one man can help: the doctor.

More than the priest, who is somewhat forgotten in the work of this great Christian, the doctor is very present in For Better, for Worse, throughout Feet of Clay, a little in The Road to Yesterday, and much more in Wassell and The Greatest Show on Earth.

The doctor doesn’t intervene without reason. That’s why there are many cripples, disabled children (For Better, for Worse), blind people (The Ten Commandments, Wassell, Samson, Fool’s Paradise, Something to Think About) with a subjective shot of the person who loses or regains sight, mute persons (The Sign of the Cross, The Ten Commandments of 1956), people who can no longer use their arms or hands (The Road to Yesterday, Wassell, The Greatest Show on Earth), and disfigured heroes (The Whispering Chorus, For Better, for Worse, Fool’s Paradise). Handicaps typical of melodramas.

[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]

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.