No filmmaker of classic American cinema comes with a more sullied reputation than Cecil B. DeMille. These days, he is mostly remembered for an infamous red-baiting episode at a meeting of Hollywood directors at the height of the Cold War and the annual Easter-Passover network television presentation of the gloriously campy The Ten Commandments. To paraphrase Andrew Sarris, is it any wonder the mention of his name elicits shudders and cynical laughter among cineastes and intellectuals?
But there is another Cecil B. DeMille synonymous with sophisticated adult entertainment during the dawning of the Studio Era. His wildly successful morality tales introduced the sex, sin, and enlightenment of the Jazz Age to a wider demographic than the disillusioned writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald or the jungle rhapsodies of Duke Ellington.
The economic hardships of the Great Depression nearly shut down several Hollywood studios and forced DeMille to re-think his approach to filmmaking. He responded with a series of lush and lively costume epics that often played footloose with historical truth, but never cheated audiences out of their hard-earned cash. After the war DeMille abandoned any semblance of a personal cinema by making wildly popular spectacles which, for better or worse, made him a household name and object of derision.
Like so many self-made Americans born in the 19th century, DeMille was largely a creation of his own enormous ego and an unbending will to succeed. A prosperous New England family of early Dutch-American stock, the DeMilles had fallen on hard times after the Civil War. Cecil’s Columbia College educated and deeply religious father Henry would prove to be the towering influence of his life. To support his family Henry taught school and acted in many of his own plays, including several in collaboration with the future Broadway impresario David Belasco.
Henry died of typhoid fever when Cecil was twelve and the boy’s fiercely doting mother, Beatrice, was left to bring up three children. Cecil breezed through boarding school and like his father took a fancy to the theatre, starring in several student productions. Young DeMille and his brother William, a fellow aspiring playwright, collaborated on a project but after being gypped by the now prosperous Belasco they soured on Broadway, forever.
Cecil struck up a friendship with the successful vaudeville producer Jesse Lasky who shared DeMille’s passion for Americana and the great unknown. After some brainstorming they decided Cecil would head west to film “the biggest picture ever made”. Lasky and Samuel Goldfish (Goldwyn) stayed in New York to raise money while DeMille scoured for locales in Arizona and finally Los Angeles where he began shooting the rough and tumble western saga The Squaw Man.
DeMille loved wide-open spaces and his early films were mostly shot on locale around the then-rustic locales around Hollywood. The Squaw Man is the story of Captain James Wynnegate (Dustin Farnum), a British aristocrat forced to leave the country when it is suspected he has stolen money from his friends. Wynnegate relocates to the American Wild West and marries the Indian Woman Nat-U-Rich (Red Wing) who saved his life. Under the pseudonym of Jim Carston, Wynnegate and wife settle into the ranching life and have a son.
When Wynnegate’s British friends arrive in town to clear his name, the rancher’s old girlfriend convinces him to let his son return with them to England and the education that befits the Earl of Kerhill. Generally acclaimed as the first “Hollywood” film, The Squaw Man is an entertaining and accomplished piece of work that has a surprisingly sophisticated take on race and a finale that anticipates, of all things, Citizen Kane.
Once settled in California DeMille began to direct more features for Lasky and Goldfish under the banner of Famous-Players Lasky, the precursor of Paramount Studios. These early films were mostly westerns and adventure fare noted for their fast pace, zesty humor, and splendid cinematography by Alvin Wyckoff.
Based on the Owen Wister novel and play, The Virginian stars DeMille regular Dustin Farnum in the title role as an unlikely lawman forced to hang a friend responsible for a series of hold-ups. Winifred Kingston, as a New England schoolteacher braving the uncouth behavior of the local cowboys and townsfolk, shines as the first in a series of spunky DeMille women who get their way in the end. DeMille also benefited greatly from the invaluable input of scenarist Jeanie Macpherson, who would become his greatest collaborator.
DeMille’s most interesting early film The Cheat is the sordid but extremely compelling story of irresponsible socialite Edith Hardy (Fannie Ward) who foolishly loses $10,000 of charity money on a chancy stock market tip. Afraid of coming clean to her husband, Edith borrows the money from a Burmese business tycoon (Sessue Hayakawa) who is under the impression her sexual favors will be part of the bargain.
Edith finally gets the money from her husband but when she tries to repay the loan the angry tycoon brands her! She wounds her assailant in a shooting and at the ensuing trial Edith’s histrionics sets an angry courthouse mob upon the conniving Asian.
Lasky and DeMille pulled a major coup when they convinced the great opera diva Geraldine Farrar to take a stab at acting in the movies and she would go on to star in six of the director’s films.
For Carmen, the 30something Farrar (who had plenty experience in the role) does a surprisingly earthy spin on the cigarette girl who sets hearts ablaze. In the first of many notable productions based on the life of Joan of Arc, Farrar is truly a woman warrior—quite unlike the gracefully suffering ethereal beauties (Maria Falconetti, Ingrid Bergman, Jean Seberg, Florence DeLay) who played the heroic icon in films by Dreyer, Victor Fleming, Rossellini, Preminger and Robert Bresson. While lacking in spiritual intensity, the sprawling Joan the Woman still makes for a cracking good spectacle.
The prolific DeMille spent the next several years producing his share of hits and misses and collaborating with such luminaries like the tempestuous “sweetheart” Mary Pickford. His two films with Pickford, a California Western A Romance of the Redwoods and the WWI drama The Little American seem more like projects that catered to its star’s homespun persona than a blood and thunder DeMille production.
Still, DeMille directs the sappy material with a straight face and once again Virgin Mary sacrifices all while showing the big, nasty men in her life a thing or two. The sympathy he displays for the fairer sex would reach full flower in his upcoming collaboration with another petite firebrand, Gloria Swanson.
Old Wives for New plants many seeds for the groundbreaking Swanson films. An unhappy husband Charles Murdock (Elliott Dexter) longs to leave slovenly wife Sophy (Sylvia Ashton) he no longer loves for a pretty young fashioner designer (Florence Vidor). Unfortunately for the lovers, Sophy isn’t interested in giving Charles a divorce until an unlikely chain of events changes her mind.
DeMille’s critics would likely be surprised to find his early takes on relationships could be snappy and unsentimental, especially in the person of dowdy old Sophy who recognizes the need to move on from a hopeless situation and begin anew. Such cavalier attitudes towards marriage began to take hold in many Hollywood films until the Production Code of 1933 effectively neutered vice in America’s commercial cinema.
Already a veteran of five years in the film industry, Gloria Swanson seemed tailor-made for the jazz age. Her quirky looks and can-do attitude flew was a stark contrast to early Hollywood’s idea of femininity, especially in the persons of Pickford and the ethereal Gish sisters. The major Swanson/DeMille films (Don’t Change Your Husband, Male and Female and Why Change Your Wife) are lighter and more conservative fare than Old Wives for New. Still, they remain among DeMille’s most aesthetically pleasing films.
In Don’t Change Your Husband Swanson plays Leila Porter, the delicately-tuned wife of the rich but lazy James (Elliott Dexter). Tired of her husband’s inconsiderate behavior she divorces him to marry dashing Schyler Van Sutphen (Lew Cody), unaware of the dandy’s philandering nature.
Seeing the error of his ways, James begins a rigorous reformation impressing the social circuit and the lonely Leila, who realizes her great mistake all too late. Flawlessly paced, DeMille inter- splices real sentiment with some very funny examples of man’s barbaric behavior, all seen from Leila’s judgmental point of view.
Why Change Your Wife? presents a flipside to the marriage dilemma and here it is the prim wife (Swanson) who gets shown the door. Tired of being henpecked at home, Robert Gordon (Thomas Meighan) has what he believes to be an innocent date with model Sally Clark (Bebe Daniels). Sally’s zest for living seduces Robert and when his wife Beth (Swanson) finds her scent upon Robert’s clothes the Gordon marriage is doomed.
Robert marries Sally and their seemingly happy relationship convinces Beth she is in need of a style makeover. Meanwhile, Robert has grown bored with Sally’s clinging ways and when he sees Beth wowing the men at a local resort he vows to win her back.
Husband and Wife were trailblazing films in their depictions of crumbling marriages, but the sensational topics also gave DeMille the first real opportunity to do a little moral grandstanding. Getting a divorce wasn’t the answer, after all. Marriage, for better or worse, is a rocky road and both spouses must compromise and sacrifice to find true happiness.
Based on a J.M. Barrie play and set in class-conscious England, Male and Female finds Swanson playing Lady Mary Lasenby, a spoiled aristocrat who runs roughshod over her house staff while playing loose with her stuffy fiancé Lord Brockelhurst (Robert Cain). When the family is shipwrecked on a deserted island it is up to the Lasenby’s wise and resourceful butler Crichton (Thomas Meighan) to find food and shelter.
The call of the wild renders the aristocratic family useless and Lady Mary finds herself more and more dependent on their new leader Crichton, who is also perceived as a dashing King of Babylon. An unexpected rescue delivers them back to England where they resume old identities until the older and wiser Mary just can’t stand it anymore and declares herself in love with Crichton.
The dawning of the 1920s continued to see DeMille move away from the great outdoors to the salons and boudoirs of the petit bourgeoisie. Based on an Arthur Schnitzler play, The Affairs of Anatol is a gentle and funny satire following the foibles of Anatol de Witt Spencer, a chivalrous young married man (Wallace Reid) with a tender spot for damsels in distress much to the chagrin of his baffled wife (Gloria Swanson).
The naïve Anatol thinks nothing of parading his “projects”, a hard-living jazz baby and a beguiling and greedy country girl, in front of his suffering wife causing an inevitable split. It takes a surprisingly revealing encounter with the most notorious woman in New York, Satan Synne (Bebe Daniels), for Anatol to finally come to his senses and return to the woman who truly loves him.
The take no prisoners Manslaughter follows the downward spiral of Lydia (Leatrice Joy) a pleasure seeking young woman who through her reckless driving kills a motorcycle cop. Her fiancée ruthlessly succeeds in prosecuting Lydia in court drawing a bizarre and moral analogy of her generation’s plight to the fall of ancient Rome.
DeMille’s biblical sensibility, his artistic ambition, and the need to support his growing family led him to take on filming the massive project The Ten Commandments. Quite unlike the linear 1956 remake, DeMille split the original into two parts, combining the traditional story of Moses leading his children from Egypt to the Promised Land with a morality tale of two Cain and Abel-like brothers trying to win the love of an ethereal “step-sister” Mary in modern San Francisco.
DeMille took a page from Griffith’s masterpiece Intolerance by threading-in the modern story, but it bogs his epic down. The preachy San Francisco sequence pales like a frigid virgin next to the wild, no-holds-barred bacchanal from the ancient world. Upon closer examination, it’s easy to make the case DeMille was something of a fetishist, but rather than succumb to earthiness he chose to play God in his films, smiting sin and casting out evil so the righteous may prosper.
DeMille broke with Lasky in 1925 due to constant internal squabbling with his old friend’s money man, and future Paramount president, Adolph Zukor. Looking for greater independence DeMille bought the old Thomas Ince Studios and set up house as his own mogul.
Hoping to recapture the huge audience he claimed for The Ten Commandments DeMille chose to make a lavish film of the Russian Revolution, The Volga Boatman. The Boatman (William Boyd) is a peasant revolutionary who risks his neck by running off with the proud Princess Vera (Elinor Fair) to the consternation of the scrappy Red Army and Vera’s intolerant fiancé (Victor Varconi).
Taking into consideration DeMille’s later role in rooting out communists in the film industry it is surprising to find this leisurely-paced and entertaining romance is chalk full of socialistic rhetoric and notable for its sympathy for the little man. Boatman did lackluster business and in an effort to snap his own personal box office slump DeMille returned to the Bible this time to tell the story of Jesus in The King of Kings.
Relying heavily on the Gospels for structure, King plods along in a sincere but mostly dull manner until the painterly crucifixion scene (designed by future director Mitchell Leisen) and the subsequent earthquake in which pagans and doubters are swallowed whole and seemingly sucked into hell.
While the film ultimately made back its enormous cost in the States and Europe DeMille found he had stretched himself too thin as a studio mogul and facing financial doom he was forced to accept a job as a contract director at MGM.
At his new home DeMille was faced with a new bugaboo, the advent of sound. To his credit, rather than take a tentative approach to the new technology DeMille went whole hog in making his first talkie a cinematic event.
In Dynamite socialite Cynthia Crothers (Kay Johnson) marries Hagon Derk (Charles Bickford), a wrongly convicted miner on Death Row, in order to inherit a wad of cash. But, her plans go awry when the real murderer confesses and Derk is released from prison. The macho miner shows up unannounced at Cynthia’s luxurious Art Deco flat and proceeds to throw all her wastrel friends out. Derk also manages to affront Cynthia’s “fiance”, the very-married Roger Towne (Conrad Nagel), who learns she has been paying-off his wife to expedite a divorce.
Ostracized from her snobby social circle, Cynthia goes to live with Derk in his miner’s community. A misunderstanding leads to their break-up and when Cynthia returns with Roger to ask Derk to ask for her freedom the unlikely trio gets trapped in a damaged mine with little air and even less hope.
A weird jambalaya of jazz age follies and hoary melodrama, Dynamite is well worth a gander, if only for the state of the art set design by Cedric Gibbons and Mitchell Leisen, and the jaw-dropping debauchery of Cynthia’s friends.
Kay Johnson returned in DeMille’s next film as Madam Satan, a refreshingly tasteless “musical” about a milquetoast wife who takes on a sexy persona to put spark back into her marriage. The film suffers from early-talkie awkwardness but, as was typically the case, DeMille took special care to make sin look incredibly attractive especially in the person of sexy Lillian Roth who, as the good-time girl Trixie, has little trouble in conquering all the male horn dogs in her social sect.
The film’s bizarre centerpiece is the glitzy zeppelin ride during which dreary Angela Brooks (Johnson) transforms herself into the exotic Madame and woos her straying hubby back into her arms just before the wounded dirigible crashes into the sea.
Aware his MGM contract would not be renewed DeMille churned out an update of The Squaw Man which never really takes flight the presence of some quality performers (Warner Baxter, Charles Bickford, Eleanor Boardman and Lupe Velez!).
Without a studio to call home for the first time since he came to Hollywood, DeMille took time out to tour Europe and the Soviet Union. Once home, DeMille humbled himself by returning to Paramount to beg Lasky and Zukor for a chance to direct a project close to his heart, a bloody and unwieldy epic of the Roman Empire.
DeMille wasn’t exactly given a returning hero’s welcome on his old stomping grounds. Staked to a miniscule budget to make Sign of the Cross, DeMille started out on the right foot by casting Charles Laughton to portray the narcissistic Nero and foxy Claudette Colbert to play the emperor’s spoiled wife, Poppaea. He then assigned longtime assistant Mitchell Leisen to design a marvelous miniature of ancient Rome.
After burning the Eternal City, seemingly out of boredom, Nero decides to blame the upstart Christians for the destruction. He instructs his army to arrest all local members of this sect, but his most loyal soldier Marcus Superbus (Frederic March) succumbs to the charms of the virtuous Mercia (Elissa Landi) who leads her pagan lover up the stairway to self-sacrifice and glory.
DeMille, once again, took delight in sensationalism. With the possible exception of Josef Von Sternberg, DeMille had no Hollywood peers in making sin seductive—witness Poppaea’s glorious milk baths—and he seems to take perverse glee in feeding damsels to hungry crocodiles, chopping off pygmy heads, and letting a gorilla have its way with a Christian girl in the Roman Colosseum.
The rip-roaring The Sign of the Cross was an unexpected hit but DeMille inexplicably chose to make two nondescript modern films before reluctantly returning to the ancient past with Cleopatra.
Once again, DeMille cast Paramount’s most exotic and aristocratic actress Claudette Colbert as his queenly seductress who captures the hearts of Julius Caesar (Warren William) and Mark Anthony (Henry Wilcoxson) while setting the Roman Empire on its ear. While the filmmakers took the usual liberties with history Colbert gives a marvelous performance as the saucy Egyptian and Cleopatra turned out to be a triumph of filmmaking on a grand scale.
In a rare bow to the tastes of female audiences, DeMille orchestrated a breathtaking seduction upon Cleopatra’s ornate ship where the queen beds weary Marc Anthony while her discreet handmaids and minions make merry on their way back to Alexandria.
Skipping ahead to the next millennium, DeMille’s production of The Crusades proved to be another zesty entertainment, even if it did play footloose with the truth. The film chronicles the first Crusade in which the nations of Europe gathered to march upon Jerusalem where Islamic rule had wiped-out Christianity in and around the holy city. Heading a cast of familiar faces and wonderful performers recent discovery Wilcoxson is surprisingly effective as the swaggering Richard the Lionhearted and Loretta Young is simply ravishing as Richard’s wife Berengaria the Princess of Navarre.
Rather than vilify the occupiers, the narrative focuses on the bickering between Richard and the European Kings who turn against the English King when he rejects a French princess for Berengaria. In the midst of one of DeMille’s most impressive battle sequences Sultan Saladin (Ian Keith) kidnaps Richard’s wife and succeeds in negotiating an uneasy truce between the warring armies.
As DeMille lacked the common touch he was particularly ill-fitted to tell stories about little men and women, a popular theme during the early years of the Great Depression. Still, his two attempts to shoot contemporary stories are not completely without merit.
This Day and Age is a surprisingly dark tale about a group of high school students who band together to bring down a ruthless mobster who has their town in his grip. Suspecting local shakedown artist Louis Garrett (Charles Bickford) has ordered a hit on a beloved local businessmen, Steve Smith (Richard Cromwell) and his teen social circle devise a plan to bring the gangster long overdue justice. In a truly harrowing scene the teens fight fire with fire by capturing then torturing Garrett over an open pit until he admits his compliance in the murder.
Four Frightened People is a bit of escapist hooey in which four passengers flee from a plague-riddled ship to an island inhabited only by primitive tribes. While crossing a snake-infested jungle to civilization their he-man leader (William Gargan) crumbles into a tub of jelly and plain Jane spinster (Claudette Colbert) blossoms into an object of desire, prompting the resident cynic survivor (Herbert Marshall) to consider ditching his shrewish wife for true happiness with the young schoolteacher.
For a filmmaker who so recently had his finger on the pulse of the times, the despondency and seriousness of the 1930s seemed to elude DeMille. To his credit, he ceased making attempts to chronicle the bare-knuckle exploits of the hoi-polloi and began to choose larger than life subjects more in line with his grandiose talent.
Weary of his status as the director of Ancient Historical Epics DeMille returned to his roots in a lively series of films celebrating the manifest destiny of 19th century America. Here, DeMille wreaks havoc with history and uses broad strokes to reveal right from wrong and keep his stories moving at a steady clip. There is no room for the perverse digressions that gave so many of DeMille’s jazz age tales and Biblical epics their zesty flavor. The heroes and rogues in these adventures are surprisingly well-scrubbed but their placid virtues don’t detract from entertainment value.
The Plainsman is a colorful and rowdy yarn which treks the highly fictional Wild West exploits of Wild Bill Hickok (Gary Cooper) and Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur) in the days after the Civil War. With his reputation as a deadly gunman intact, Bill relocates to a Kansas boomtown where his old friend Buffalo Bill (James Ellison) hopes to settle down and get a respectable job. Bill and his erstwhile admirer Jane are looked down upon by the upper-crust members of the community but she soon makes friends with Buffalo Bill’s young wife who decks her out in fancy wardrobe meant to catch her reluctant man’s eye.
That same day Jane is captured by a band of Cheyenne suspected of buying a huge arsenal from greedy white gunrunners. While out scouting the Cheyenne Bill runs to Jane’s rescue only to be captured then and roasted over a spit. In order to save her man, Jane gives up the location of Buffalo Bill’s unit which is quickly descended upon by the enormous Cheyenne tribe. With the help of Wild Bill, the small band of soldiers hold out under the onslaught until the Cavalry arrives to save the day. Under suspicion of tattling to the Cheyenne, Bill escapes to Deadwood where he ascends to the old saloon in the sky after getting shot in the back by one of the gunrunners.
DeMille’s take on the western genre was more Populist than traditional and plot almost always took a backseat to vivid characterizations and gripping action sequences. While DeMille was generally respectful to the culture of Native Americans, Indians tend to get short shrift in these big yarns. Still, with some notable exceptions, DeMille’s native performers were not typically white men with red body paint but actual people of the tribe.
For the rousing swashbuckler The Buccaneer, DeMille embraced yet another anti-hero of American history, the legendary pirate of the Caribbean Jean Lafitte. Not surprisingly, DeMille eliminated all mention of Lafitte’s brother in crime, Pierre, to spin a more romantic fable about the dashing Jean (Frederic March). Not satisfied in merely supplying the citizens of New Orleans with stolen goods and contraband, a band of LaFitte’s crew scuttle and burn an American ship. Jean hangs the instigator and convinces the mutineers to toe the line and, in time, they will be recognized as American citizens.
Jean is unaware the local politicians plan to get rid of LaFitte’s motley crew and have instructed the navy to fire upon their compound. With most of his cohorts facing a date with the gallows, Jean negotiates for their release with General Andrew Jackson in return for guns and support in the upcoming Battle of New Orleans. In triumph’s aftermath, the treachery of LaFitte’s pirates is discovered and they are given pardon but must leave New Orleans forever.
March had little of charm of the era’s top sea brigand, Errol Flynn, but he is serviceable as a straight man to hilarious first mate Akim Tamiroff and the endearing Franciska Gaal, an Austria-Hungarian cabaret singer who retired from film shortly thereafter. In one of his earliest film roles Anthony Quinn is very recognizable as LaFitte’s pirates and, as fate would have it, he went on to direct the lackluster, DeMille-produced 1958 remake of the film starring Yul Brynner.
For Union Pacific DeMille was given the most amount of creative and financial freedom he had on a set since the days when he owned his own studio. Here, DeMille created a bustling frontier epic chalk-full of rascals, rowdies, and the hard-working everymen instrumental in building the great railroad.
In an effort to win control of the lucrative Union Pacific banker Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) hires raconteurs Sid Campeau (Brian Donleavy) and Dick Allen (Robert Preston) to distract company tracklayers with a floating road show of cards, booze and prostitutes. Company troubleshooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) risks his life to put a halt to the hijinks but his patience is tested by old friend Allen who is the major rival for the woman he loves, the feisty Mollie Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck).
When Allen steals the company payroll Jeff tracks him to Mollie’s cabin who keeps the bandit out of harm’s way. Although she is smitten with Jeff Mollie marries Allen who redeems himself in a shoot-out with the Indians. Rather than turn his old friend in to the authorities, Jeff lets him go free to wreak havoc with the rival railroad company.
Reaping the talents of his charismatic leading lady and a colorful supporting cast highlighted by Akin Tamiroff’s scene-chewing performance as the whip-wielding Fiesta, DeMille had little trouble in turning out another ripe slice of entertaining Americana.
Shot in vivid Technicolor North West Mounted Police cast Gary Cooper as Dusty Rivers, a Texas Ranger sent to Alberta to track down a gunrunner who has illegal dealings with the local Indians around the time of the Riel Rebellion of 1885. In Canada, he falls under the command of Mounted Police Sergeant Jim Brett (Preston Foster) who rightly suspects the visiting American has eyes for his pretty fiancee April (Madeleine Carroll).
When April’s brother Mountie Ronnie Logan (Robert Preston) goes missing with the gunrunner’s half-breed daughter (Paulette Goddard) during an Indian raid, he is suspected of deserting his post and it falls to Dusty to clear the soon to be dead man’s name. Rather than run away with April, noble Dusty adheres to duty by absconding with the gunrunner (George Bancroft) for the long trek back home.
Forsaking the breakneck theatrics of Union Pacific for a more orderly pace, as befit its regal outdoor locales, North West Mounted Police is the most Ford-ian of DeMille’s films and, arguably, anticipated the western master’s stately Cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon & Rio Grande).
Having narrowly lost the role of Scarlett O’Hara to Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind, Paulette Goddard had to settle for playing another feisty southern belle in Reap the Wild Wind.
Continuing her father’s practice of rescuing ships scuttled on Key West reefs, Loxi Claiborne (Goddard) meets and falls in love with Jack Stuart (John Wayne), a ship Captain sabotaged by the minions of the crooked local businessman King Cutler (Raymond Massey). She follows Jack to Charleston where his dreams of piloting the company’s premier brig are rebuffed by the owner’s son Stephen Tolliver (Ray Milland). Suspecting the high society lawyer is smitten with her, Loxi leads Stephen on to further Jack’s case but she only succeeds in muddling her relationship with the captain.
Convinced Stephen is blocking his promotion, Jack accepts Cutler’s proposition to scuttle the prize Tolliver ship unaware Loxi’s sister (Susan Hayward) has snuck aboard the ship. After the ship is sunk Jack is brought to trial where his treachery is revealed. The court reconvenes to the site of the wreck where both Jack and Stephen dive to look for the girl’s remains, unaware of a lurking, ink-spewing squid.
While the stars are given plenty of room to shine, the real centerpiece of Reap the Wild Wind is its spooky underwater finale during which the two rivals pick through the bowels of a doomed ship, ready to reveal the horrors that lie within.
The cynicism of post-war America put the great populist directors of the 1930s (Capra, McCarey, Stevens, Wyler) at a quandary on how to reach a hardened public. Capra and McCarey continued to produce stories about the little man which bombed at the box office. Both directors faded fast and by the end of the 1940s were sad shadows of their former selves. Stevens and Wyler—fine purveyors of intimate, behavioral cinema—would make more expensive, less personal pictures…and become enormously popular.
DeMille’s lack of artistic ambivalence actually helped him survive this transitional period which cumulated in a pair of his biggest box office triumphs. Shucking the past to contribute to the war effort DeMille made his first contemporary film in over a decade, The Story of Dr. Wassell.
An Arkansas-born doctor and missionary, Corydon Wassell (Gary Cooper) offers comfort and aid to a band of wounded U.S. Navy sailors whose wrecked ship docks at an Allied port at Java. While the southern and small town sailors take to their doctor’s folksy ways, the city-bred boys write him off as a backwoods quack. Wassell’s assistant Ping (Philip Ahn) begins to recite the doctor’s backstory where we learn he is a medical researcher of renown and gave up his practice because of a broken heart.
With a Japanese takeover of the island looming, the military denies safe passage for twelve of Wassell’s stretcher bound patients. Stranded in Java, Wassell uses his wiles to get a British convoy to lead them out of harm’s way to the other side of the island where an overcrowded vessel may or may not evacuate them from the island.
Instead of cranking out another piece of wartime propaganda, DeMille made a refreshing choice to go small and make the rare character-driven WWII film where interesting and captivating women (Larraine Day, Signe Hasso, Carol Thurston) share the dangerous stage with the boys at the front.
DeMille’s first post-war film, Unconquered, continued the director’s colorful spin on American history. Set in the Allegheny frontier at the end of the French-Indian War., the story follows the plight of Abby Hale (Paulette Goddard), a condemned British subject sent to the American Colonies to serve as a slave.
Upon the ship to her new country, Abby is bought by a benevolent Virginian, Captain Chris Holden who is returning home to marry his fiancee. Upon arrival Holden releases Abby who is quickly captured and sold back into slavery by the treacherous Martin Garth (Howard De Silva). Abby is transported to Fort Pitt where she toils for the thuggish Bone (Mike Mazurki).
To her surprise Holden shows up at Pitt, doing military service for the Queen in order to mend a broken heart. Looking to claim much of the valuable Northwest Passage for himself, Garth arranges an Indian summit and plots with Seneca chief Guyasuta (Boris Karloff) to make a unilateral attack on the British forts in an effort to push the white man back east.
In a spectacular canoe chase Chris and Abby narrowly escape death at the hands of the Senecas, but when they try to return to Fort Pitt he is captured, court-martialed and sentenced to death for desertion. Abby arranges Chris’ escape and with the help of a band of dead soldiers the British manage to frighten away the seemingly outnumbered Seneca.
Lacking the good humor of DeMille’s more recent American epics, Unconquered was more of a bleak bookend to King Vidor’s Northwest Passage and remains the director’s most pessimistic film. Taking time out from playing a patented noir sleaze ball, Howard De Silva makes for an unconscionable villain who befriends the vengeful, and stupid, tribe of Senecas led by Chief Karloff. Similar lapses in taste would also plague DeMille’s later films.
With Samson & Delilah DeMille almost single-handedly initiated a new Biblical epic phase which spread over two continents and would last well into the 1960s. For DeMille this sort of stuff was old hat, but his late entry into the critically-despised genre holds up well.
Having seen his expert scene designer Mitchell Leisen move on to become one of Paramount’s finest directors, DeMille gave most of his attention to the tumultuous love/hate affair between the burly Canaanite and the seductive Philistine. DeMille got surprisingly good performances out of dopey Victor Mature as the shorn strongman and especially Hedy LaMarr as the vindictive Delilah. Hedy ultimately proved to be a scientific inventor of some renown but as an actress she was typically a chilly performer cast in glamorous roles that highlighted her exceptional beauty.
Rather than tax the talents of his limited leads, DeMille went for the baser emotions of lust and camouflaged their carnality with a lush Victor Young score. Stung by Samson’s clear preference for her virtuous, blonde sister Semadar (Angela Lansbury), wily Delilah sets out to orchestrate the seduction and fall of her beloved with the help of The Saran of Gaza (George Sanders).
The prolonged scenes of the rejected vixen casting her evil web over the smitten strongman are evidence the aging filmmaker could still bring erotic fire to the screen. As films depicting comic book heroes had been relegated to Poverty Row Z-picture status in Hollywood, it could be argued DeMille’s upright, yet tragically-flawed, Samson is the screen’s first true superhero.
DeMille was little affected by the demise of the studio system. He still delivered box office hits and remained the King of Paramount. As evidenced by all the A-List talent lining up at studio doors hoping to work in a DeMille production, his infamous attempt to rid the Director’s Guild of Communist sympathizers plays out worse today than it did at the time.
DeMille had no one to top but himself which is why it is no great surprise he would make The Greatest Show on Earth, a season on the road with The Ringling Brothers Circus.
Carny boss Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) is in charge of a difficult band of egocentric acrobats, alluring elephant tamers, enigmatic clowns, two-bit hustlers and freaks of nature on a tour of big and small American towns. The plot’s romantic triangle (involving Heston, Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde) takes a backseat to the spectacle of putting on a show and, if one can get beyond DeMille’s penchant for corn, it is indeed impressive.
The mind-boggling finale, exacerbated by a pair of former employees who steal the company bankroll and set into motion the mother of all film train wrecks, is a welcome return to the mad, Cecil B. Demented cinema of the early 1930s. With half of Braden’s ensemble buried under rubble, his lions and tigers set loose on the unsuspecting public and while receiving a life-saving blood transfusion from his romantic rival, the seemingly deluded boss insists the show must go on and with a little help from his game troupers they pull off the inconceivable.
DeMille closed out his remarkable career with his second version of The Ten Commandments, a rollicking fire and brimstone take on the life of Moses. Taking a cue from Samson and Delilah he cast a group of scene-chewing Hollywood personalities (Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson & Vincent Price) to bring his vision of the Old Testament to life. The resulting three hour and forty minute film can’t really be counted among DeMille’s best but it qualifies as the pinnacle of his evolution as Hollywood’s greatest showman.
Quite remarkably, the over the top epic has carved a mighty niche for itself by being the last film from Hollywood’s golden era to have a regular gig on American network television. Camp plays a big role in the film’s charm, but that alone can’t explain its enduring popularity sixty years on.
Unfortunately, DeMille’s incessant pandering to his narrow concept of public taste along with his participation in the Hollywood witch-hunt has detracted from his recognition as a Hollywood pioneer and important filmmaker. Whatever what one may think of the personal and professional choices he made, DeMille’s solid body of work deserves a second look.
Books on DeMille:
Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille – Scott Eyman ***** Eyman’s fair-minded and authoritative take on the controversial Hollywood icon is one of the very best reads in all film literature. The sheer immensity of DeMille’s personality leaps from every page of this family-authorized biography which, to Eyman’s credit, doesn’t shy away from Cecil’s misadventures in McCarthyism during the cold war years.
The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille – Cecil B. DeMille **** Nobody ever accused C.B. of thinking small and his sweeping life story is told with rigor and is as entertaining as any DeMille film. A tad sanctimonious to be sure but ultimately just as invaluable as Chaplin’s My Autobiography or Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By… in chronicling the early days of filmmaking.
Cecil B. DeMille: A Biography Of The Most Successful Film Maker Of Them All – Charles Higham **** Higham carved a notorious reputation for himself authoring the several scandalous and disreputable bios of Hollywood stars in the 1970s and ‘80s, but his early take on DeMille is affectionate, well-documented, and a gripping read. Out of print.
Films by DeMille:
1914 The Squaw Man ***1/2 (w/Oscar C. Apfel)
1914 The Virginian ***1/2
1915 Carmen ***1/2
1915 The Cheat ***1/2
1916 Joan the Woman ***1/2
1917 The Romance of the Redwoods ***1/2
1917 The Little American ***1/2
1918 Old Wives for New ***1/2
1918 The Whispering Chorus ***1/2
1918 Don’t Change Your Husband ***1/2
1919 Male and Female ****
1920 Why Change Your Wife? ***1/2
1921 The Affairs of Anatol ***1/2
1922 Manslaughter ***1/2
1923 The Ten Commandments ***1/2
1925 The Road to Yesterday ***1/2
1926 The Volga Boatman ***1/2
1926 The King of Kings ***1/2
1929 Dynamite ***
1930 Madame Satan ***
1931 The Squaw Man ***
1932 The Sign of the Cross ****
1933 This Day and Age ***
1934 Four Frightened People ***
1934 Cleopatra ***1/2
1935 The Crusades ***1/2
1936 The Plainsman ***1/2
1938 The Buccaneer ***1/2
1939 Union Pacific ***1/2
1940 North West Mounted Police ***1/2
1942 Reap the Wild Wind ***1/2
1944 The Story of Dr. Wassell ***
1947 The Unconquered ***
1949 Samson and Delilah ***
1952 The Greatest Show on Earth ***
1956 The Ten Commandments ***1/2