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

The Story of Dr. Wassel (1943): Gary Cooper prays to Buddha for help… and Buddha obliges.

It’s this aspect that C.B. DeMille is often limited to by dictionaries and common mortals.

Yet, if we look at things in more detail, we notice that he has made, counting generously, no more than eight epics out of the seventy films that comprise his work. In chronological order of the beginning of the story, they are:

1260 BC: The Ten Commandments (1956 version)

1230 BC: the first third of the Ten Commandments (1923 version)

1200 BC: Samson and Delilah

49 AD: Cleopatra (a film with no connection to Christianity)

33 AD: The King of Kings

65 AD: The Sign of the Cross

1189: The Crusades

1429: Joan the Woman

The remaining sixty-two films unfold in a more modern setting, almost all of them between 1815 and 1950. Sixty-two against eight.

There is hence a clear predominance of modern times. What is then the reason for this misleading brand image?

Above all, the much higher cost of ancient films, and as a corollary, the much larger number of their viewers (even if The Crusades was a flop) and the existence of classic scenes (re-enactment of the crossing of the Red Sea).

Then there is the fact that most of these epics are talkies (and not silent) and more recent.

This brand image places DeMille at a disadvantage today, because it is clear that his best work isn’t set in ancient times.

Besides, the idea of DeMille as a Biblical or religious filmmaker is questionable: none of the first forty-four films by our auteur, with the exception of Joan the Woman and, at a push, Something to Think About, deals with a theme of that kind.

It would seem that the reference to Christianity isn’t the decisive element of these films.

As early as 1914, DeMille was a fan of the Italian film Cabiria, a blockbuster about the war between Rome and Carthage, from 218 BC to 202 BC, which was built around the movement of crowds and the grandiose character of Carthaginian architecture, born partly of religious fervour, but a fervour that had nothing to do with Christianity. Similarly, one could consider The Woman God Forgot (1917) as an evocation of Aztec civilization and religion, and appreciate a certain form of respect towards Buddhism in The Story of Dr. Wassell (1943). It’s Gary Cooper’s prayer which, in the course of a magnificent scene, seems to trigger the arrival of British rescue troops. Cleopatra and the unfinished Helen of Troy project have nothing to with the Christian God. Religion certainly interests DeMille, but it’s a general, almost ecumenical idea of religion whose chief merit is having given birth to grandiose and spectacular architectures.

So there was a displacement that took place: for DeMille, who always considered Cabiria to be the greatest film of all time (a rather surprising reaction for an American given all his colleagues praise films from their own country first and foremost), the great pagan spectacle constitutes the chief interest of these “Christian” films (Samson and Delilah, The Sign of the Cross, The Ten Commandments). DeMille bases his art on the fascinating architecture imagined by these Barbarians, these rebels opposed to the true God, all the while extolling the exploits of the true believers who fought them and tried to destroy the monuments erected by the “heretics”. There are few references in DeMille’s work to Christian art, which is less spectacular and original than the art of the so-called barbarians.

There are some in Joan the Woman and The Road to Yesterday, but very few. An ambiguous position: DeMille made all this money thanks to the art of the enemies of these Christians whose tireless missionary he was. The same is true of Antonioni, Fuller and Buñuel. They vilified the world of concrete, war and Christianity, which nonetheless made their best effects possible.

It is true, however, that DeMille sometimes makes fun of this barbaric art by revealing all its extravagances, especially in Samson and Delilah. Be that as it may, if they are ridiculous—it’s the reign of kitsch—this ridiculousness is terribly impressive.

To better understand this late intrusion of Christianity in DeMille’s work, in the forty-fifth film (discounting the very negative image of the gluttonous, chain-smoking reverend in Don’t Change Your Husband), two facts must be taken into account:

The first is that DeMille, born in the most Protestant, Puritan state in America, i.e., Massachusetts, was brought up in an environment deeply marked by religion, thanks in particular to the influence of his father who had studied for a while to become a priest. A traditional religious fervour, which was innate and self-evident, without any particular anxieties or crises, and which remains anchored in the childhood years that produced it.

We will see later that this belief remains very childlike, even childish, which makes for its charm.

The second is that, just before The Ten Commandments of 1923, Hollywood was experiencing a period of turmoil: the drug-induced death of one of C.B.’s favourite actors, Wallace Reid, the murder of director William Desmond Taylor, who was something of a libertine, the suspicious death of a guest on the yacht of comic actor Fatty, the scandal surrounding Chaplin and his first wife, Mildred Harris.

And DeMille was likely to be the next on the blacklist, since he threw very lavish parties every weekend, in the absence of his wife, in his sumptuous country villa, named Paradise, with masked balls and a bordello-like atmosphere. So it was only natural that he should make the first move in imagining an inexistent public referendum, which voted overwhelmingly in favour of a future film on religion. With The Ten Commandments, he became Hollywood’s Mr. Religion, so he became almost untouchable. He was later even named Knight of the Holy Sepulchre.

The reverend (Theodore Roberts) in Don’t Change Your Husband (1918): you’d think Buñuel…

The religious meaning of The Ten Commandments of 1923 doesn’t lie as much in the Egyptian prologue evoking the Exodus as in the modern segment, which takes up two-thirds of the film. Here we have a sanctimonious old mother, slightly mocked for her excessive rigidity (in the first cut, she was even more ridiculous, but it is said that DeMille cut out a lot to smoothen the rough edges), and her two sons, one who does everything by the book and the other who behaves like an aggressive capitalist parvenu: a real-estate developer stealing from his client, he uses poor quality cement for his new building which collapses, killing his mother in the process and violating three commandments—”thou shalt not kill”, “thou shalt not steal” and “honour thy father and thy mother”—and cheats on his wife with a schemer (“thou shalt not commit adultery”) etc. Like the army of Ramses II, he ends up in the waters of the Red Sea, but at the wheel of his posh and powerful speedboat.

A schematic, caricatural and second-hand message that makes the film rather ridiculous, with an excess that is nevertheless (unintentionally) amusing in an ironic way.

Perhaps the best part is this family scene where the good brother, with his girlfriend and the little dog, goes to eat… hot dogs at a corner shop. It’s a pleasant surprise to find such a scene in a film called The Ten Commandments.

And then, there is this other magnificent, very kitschy scene where the evil hero, who is blackmailed by his wily Chinese mistress, finds no other solution than to kill her.

The Ten Commandments of 1956 stretches what was narrated in one hour in the original silent version over three hours and forty minutes. Nine months of shooting, a revenue of $90 million (against a cost of $13 million), thanks to the excessive hype particularly around the famous special effect: the waves that part in the Red Sea to let the people of Israel pass and fall back again to drown the Pharaoh’s army. It’s a special effect done with the help of gelatine masses that swell and spill out under the pressure of gases sent through fine tubes and with the help of the film strip running in reverse. An effect that is in theory better than the one in the silent version: the corridor in the sea is now rectilinear, and not curved, which makes it look much deeper. But the abstraction of black-and-white in the first film was more effective than the essential realism of colour, which here only brings out the artifice even more. This long-awaited and disappointing episode is followed by a sequence which crudely lingers on the arrival of ten consecutive fireballs that engrave the ten commandments on a stone thanks to rather futurist, comic-book-styled effects repeated ten times over. All this ridiculous ceremonial for sometimes highly obsolete messages such as “thou shalt have no other gods before me”—while ecumenism is de rigueur today among Christians, with a kind of inter-union of religions—or somewhat outdated or futile ones such as “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”[1] or “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”.

This effect, too, gives the impression of artifice. That is the paradox of Cecil DeMille’s religious films: all the special effects, which express miracles born of divine will, are very proper, very clean, a bit Ikea-like, hypermodern and futurist even when they are all set in a distant past. The same was true with the angels appearing in The Whispering Chorus and Joan the Woman, which were made forty years earlier and are more striking.

The worst thing is the declamatory quality of the dialogue. I understood everything without ever looking at the subtitles. I was flattered, because I got the impression of understanding English perfectly. But I later realized that this was one of the characteristics of turkeys, and that in great films, like those by John Cassavetes or Woody Allen, it is very hard to understand everything, because there is real work done there, a search for natural speech. I think it was Christopher Fry, the writer-scriptwriter, who noted the particularity of epics: everyone speaks very slowly. Epics marshal very famous, high-profile characters: Moses, Ramses, and it would seem impossible not to bestow them with an authority, dignity and self-assurance worthy of their rank. This is even more noticeable in Cleopatra, where Julius Caesar and Mark Antony also appear. Conclusion: we understand everything, but the diction is monotonous, Oxfordian, and unintentionally comic. These illustrious characters lose all humanity and naturalness. They become reciters, robots without depth. And it’s hard to tolerate this for close to four hours.

Talking pictures didn’t always serve DeMille well, whose art was located at a level of abstraction to which the realism of speech couldn’t adapt. A talking version of The Road to Yesterday would have been ridiculous. Samson and Delilah is above all an adventure film, set incidentally in a Biblical backdrop, where everything is done, like in The Ten Commandments, to introduce Hollywood’s boy-meets-girl and vaudeville’s triangle formulas. DeMille hit back at his detractors: “If you don’t like my films, you don’t like the Bible”. The Bible was very laconic about these episodes from the past. DeMille may not have betrayed it, but he added a whole lot of things he liked and which were likely to appeal to the American public.

The King of Kings, the story of the Passion of Christ, is disappointing in the sense that it remains a stilted, nervous film. DeMille is visibly afraid of making mistakes. It’s religious kitsch par excellence, which benefits from a magnificent work by cameraman Peverell Marley and set designers Mitchell Leisen and Wilfred Buckland. It’s a very sober work, quite opposite to DeMille’s customary style, based on extravagance. There are highly calculated gradations of whites and especially blacks here. The visual ambience of the Passion brings out the gloomy content of this key episode of spiritual life. It is interesting to note that most films or film projects on the Passion, like those of Duvivier, Stevens and Dreyer (which was unfinished), take the sober direction inaugurated by DeMille and by paintings of the previous centuries: the ideal thing, for a subject like this, is to shoot black-and-white in colour.

Understatement reigns supreme: the flagellation of Christ is only shown in silhouette. During the ascent to Calvary, the camera frames the Cross, not Christ.

All this deserves respect, but this humility isn’t exactly C.B. DeMille’s strength, and the viewer is terribly bored over a runtime of close to three hours. The only really interesting moments are the brief stretches where we see the sinner Mary Magdalene in her luxurious chariot drawn by five zebras, recalling the eccentricities of The Golden Bed or Madam Satan.

The King of Kings (1927): the sinner Mary Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan) on her chariot drawn by five zebras.

The Sign of the Cross ends with this implausible episode where Marcus, the head of Nero’s guard, who had hitherto been totally insensitive to the Christian faith, is determined to share the fate of his beloved in the lion’s den. It takes all the talent of our filmmaker to get the public to accept this. Here is a challenge often found in DeMille’s work: it’s completely unbelievable, but we are won over by the filmmaker’s ardour in trying to impose such absurdity on us. I don’t know if we believe it, but we admire Cecil DeMille’s obstinacy, his determination in defying all Cartesianism. He subjugates us, he begs us to take part in his project, and we become, with tears in the eyes, his fans, his dutiful slaves: he has dared to, and we respond favourably to his astounding audacity, all the more so because this kind of scene appears at the very end of the film, after a long preparation. We experience the same thing in The Road to Yesterday, The Volga Boatman, The Plainsman and Unconquered.

The final seconds of The Sign of the Cross moreover contain what could be considered the peak of kitsch art: we stay back inside the prison near the arena, after the Christians have left to be devoured by lions. The jail door begins to close. We then see, in the middle of this door, a bright horizontal slot which seems to be the reflection of a window located behind it. But soon after, we also see an identical, vertical white line that combines with this apparently realistic reflection to form a perfect cross. It seems totally natural, stripped of all artifice: at the beginning of the scene, we accepted this horizontal reflection as a reproduction of reality. And this vertical addition seems to be of the same order… DeMille thus succeeds in his trick of making us accept what is obviously the height of artifice as realism.

Let’s pass over The Crusades, both a flop and an artistic failure, where the intrusion of musical form into a pious film is unproductive and where Henry Wilcoxon’s mediocre and declamatory performance destroys all effects.

The choice of making Joan the Woman warrants some explanation. The film evidently takes a direction opposite to those of the aforementioned films, which fashion themselves as champions of Christianity and those who represent it. But let’s not forget that it was the clergymen of England who burnt Joan at the stake and, like many of his countrymen, DeMille felt certain reservations towards this country, which had totally enslaved the American territory. This is very noticeable in many of his films. Moreover, Joan of Arc came before Henry VIII, so she was the victim of English Catholicism. Puritans and Protestants had nothing to do with it. And the Englishmen who burnt Joan redeem themselves, as we shall see, by helping the French in their fight against the Germans in 1917.

Religion reappears in a more precise manner in films that aren’t Biblical epics, but are set in a contemporary milieu, with pullovers and business suits: The Road to Yesterday (1925) and The Godless Girl (1928).

This unexpected intrusion of religion into the modern world is to be related to the fact that the financier of these films, Jeremiah Milbank, was devout. Both films show the conflict between atheists and Christians, a conflict that, for us French, seems somewhat bizarre in the 21st century, especially as it takes on extravagant dimensions here: in the first of these films, Beth, a 100% atheist, falls madly in love with handsome Jack. A wedding is in sight. But—the horror—Jack comes to the following dinner in his pastor attire. No question of marriage whatsoever anymore…

In The Godless Girl, Judy, the head of a group of atheist students at a high-school opposes George, the leader of the Christian students movement. Brawls. One dead.

In all these films, religion seems to be just a pretext. DeMille is closer to Lewis Carroll than to Daniel-Rops. The protagonists are on one side or the other. They don’t express their motivations, their doubts, the deepest reasons for their eventual changeover, if they exist at all. It’s completely the opposite of films by Bergman, Dreyer or Bresson. Everything remains very superficial.

This means that, except in the case of these last two films, which elevate the sudden change of ideals to the level of a surrealist artwork, the choice of making a religious film doesn’t work out in favour of our filmmaker all that much. It even goes against him. Those who follow public opinion and see DeMille above all as the filmmaker of The Ten Commandments and Biblical epics are likely to not appreciate him at all, whereas watching apparently more modest works like Kindling or Saturday Night has the potential to turn them into enthusiastic supporters. The Biblical films work on their form, their style alone, while C.B.’s modern films combine the filmmaker’s art with the power and humour of a sociological study.

 

Footnote:

[1] Note that this second commandment implicitly prohibits cinema.

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

The Sign of the Cross (1932): the evil Nero (Charles Laughton) between his two manicurists.

The prodigal son now returned to Paramount, sheepish after a series of flops, sealed by the failure of the third The Squaw Man, a mediocre abbreviation of the original, and that of a project in Russia.

With The Sign of the Cross (1932), it was really a game of double or nothing. It turned out to be double. It wasn’t a question of setting the cashbox on fire anymore. This epic cost even less than his recent modern films, the banal Western spectacle of The Squaw Man, or the student conflicts of The Godless Girl. Yet it contains one of the finest camera movements in the work of our filmmaker: the crane shot that superbly takes us from the arena to the stands with Nero, his court and the Roman people. It’s a bargain-priced epic, but brilliant at times, followed by more modern films like This Day and Age (1933), a fast-paced police story, and Four Frightened People (1933), which turns out to be a complex and highly curious case. In theory, the film was a new variation on Male and Female, so it was something reassuring for Paramount. It isn’t a shipwreck here, but an epidemic, the bubonic plague. The result smacks of studio work, even if the film was partially shot in Hawaii: it isn’t believable for one second, especially when Claudette Colbert, who is bathing in the open, has her underwear stolen by a monkey. The sound is really studio sound, a little like in Madam Satan, when the hero jumps from the airship into a lake: the sound effect is that of a body jumping into an indoor pool. And this fakery makes you laugh out loud. The whole film works on an ironic level; it recalls Beat the Devil (John Huston, 1953) or even Ed Wood. There is an escalation of falsehood and fakery here, probably unintentional, that I found highly enjoyable and hilarious (I had tears of laughter), with oscillations between reality and fantasy that keep the suspense alive. This is perhaps a perverse reaction on my part, having to do with to the basic principle: “the worse it is, the better it is.” But the audience didn’t agree: another commercial failure. The film didn’t even open in France, an extremely rare case in the work of our auteur.