Mention the name of Cecil B. DeMille and more than few film scholars will snicker. DeMille, to many cineastes, is little more than the old-school showman who entertained less-than-sophisticated audiences with corny, stodgy Biblical epics like “Samson and Delilah” and “The Ten Commandments.”
What many film scholars will not acknowledge, and what many regular movie lovers do not realize, was that DeMille was the single most successful director in the history of Hollywood. In fact, DeMille literally invented Hollywood when he brought the production of his 1914 Western “The Squaw Man” to what had been a sleepy Los Angeles suburb. Throughout the course of his 45-year career, DeMille commanded greater audience recognition than any other director working in films. And while he may be remembered primarily for his late-career epics, DeMille’s versatility as a filmmaker allowed him to make sophisticated comedies, sweeping Westerns and groundbreaking social dramas with surprisingly mature political viewpoints.
Film historian Robert S. Birchard has offered a much-needed re-evaluation of DeMille’s career in his new book Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood. In studying the course of DeMille’s remarkable impact on the growth of the film industry and viewing his many silent movies (most of which are not easily available any more), Birchard discovered the longstanding derision towards DeMille has been grossly unfair.
Film Threat caught up with Birchard to talk about who Cecil B. DeMille really was and why he is one of the most important men in the development of motion pictures.
Many film scholars (both genuine and self-styled) openly sneer at the notion of Cecil B. DeMille as being a great filmmaker. Do you feel that his reputation has been devalued over time — or, as the argument goes, he was more of a showman than a film artist?
I place myself in the group that openly sneered at DeMille’s screen work–that is before I had an opportunity to look at all the surviving films. My own awareness of Cecil B. DeMille and his work goes back to my earliest days as a film fan in the early 1960s, but my appreciation for his skill as a filmmaker was a long time coming. I first saw “The King of Kings” (1927) and “Union Pacific” (1939) when I was twelve or so and was impressed with the historical sweep of these epics. When I was in college I saw “The Road to Yesterday” and thought it was one of the worst films I’d ever seen. Later, working in a theater where a reissue of DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956) was playing, I couldn’t help feeling that the film was a work of incredible banality–and yet I’d see looks of religious rapture on the faces of patrons leaving the screenings. These people were either crazy, or there was something this 1956 relic that I was missing . . . since I was about twenty at the time, I was pretty certain that they were crazy.
Cecil B. DeMille has often been criticized for pandering to the lowest common denominator, and damned with faint praise in phrases like “Master of Spectacle” or “Great Showman” or “the director who brought the bath tub to the screen,” and anyone with an interest in Hollywood lore has heard tales of DeMille’s colorful exploits as a filmmaker. The punch lines alone conjure up humorous anecdotes of an autocratic figure who demanded far more than the mere mortals who worked for him could offer. “Ready when you are, C. B.,” shouts the cameraman who just missed a once-in-a-lifetime action shot. “When is the old bald-headed bastard going to call lunch?” whines an embarrassed extra to the assembled cast and crew when forced by DeMille to share what she was whispering during the great director’s instructions for a scene. And, without missing a beat, DeMille calls, “Lunch!” But such anecdotes obscure DeMille’s real accomplishments as a filmmaker, even as they seek to illuminate his personality.
In Hollywood, where the dollar is almighty, it is easy to see why Cecil B. DeMille was considered the greatest filmmaker of them all. Charlie Chaplin? Chaplin had big box-office grosses, but he made relatively few pictures. Ernst Lubitsch? Despite his prestige, virtually all the Lubitsch films lost money. Josef von Sternberg? “Blonde Venus” (1932) was a modest hit, “The Scarlet Empress” (1934) kept people out of theaters in droves.
It is important to remember that DeMille came from a 19th century theatrical tradition. He embraced the concept of the “well-made play”– combining elements from previously popular plays and tailoring the new effort to the strengths of his stars. He also espoused the idea that stories should be instructive and uplifting as they entertained.
Looking at DeMille’s early films like “Kindling” (1915), “The Golden Chance” (1916), “The Cheat” (1915) or “The Heart of Nora Flynn” (1916) it is perfectly clear that he was quite capable of producing realistic “chamber dramas,” but as his career progressed he chose to work in what New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall called the “queer flamboyant style” that became his trademark.
Despite the trappings of melodrama and spectacle that mark many of his films, there is an underlying subtlety that is often missed in DeMille’s work. For example, you will almost never find a “black-hearted” villain in his pictures. The typical DeMille plot will feature two brothers (or best friends)–one not completely good, the other not entirely bad–both in love with the same woman. This gives the characters a dimensionality that other melodramas often lack.
DeMille’s films are also filled with deft visual touches that are so subtle they don’t call attention away from the story but are there if you are able to see. One of the best examples of this is in “Cleopatra” (1934). Marc Antony sits beside Cleopatra, who reclines on a chaise. The camera pans past a harpist to show the scene through the strings of the harp–and the harpist’s strumming hand gives the appearance of caressing Cleopatra’s body.
I guess what I would say is that DeMille was a very skilled and self-aware director. He was also familiar with what other filmmakers were doing–he screened films almost every evening at his home. It wasn’t lack of talent or appreciation of what was going on in the industry that made DeMille’s films look and feel the way they did. The films, I think, work on several levels and this is what made them so widely popular.
Get the rest of the interview in part two of ROBERT S. BIRCHARD: READY WITH MR. DEMILLE’S CLOSE-UP>>>