Cecil Blount DeMille was among the pioneers of early Hollywood, working in the silent era, becoming one of the major filmmakers of his time, responsible in many ways for the growth of Paramount Pictures into an industry super power. Demille believed in entertainment, feeling the people who paid to see his films should leaving having seen something they had not seen before, and in a few instances through his long career, he accomplished that. He made his first film in 1912, his last forty-five years later, actually suffering a massive heart attack while shooting on location.
At his best, DeMille made big films, filled the screen with excitement, action, colour and vast sequences often of breathtaking beauty, but let’s be clear, none of his films would be considered great art. In fact it is safe to say he is best remembered for his final film, The Ten Commandments (1956) which itself was a remake of his silent film of the same name. He was less an artist than he was an entertainer, a director of spectacle, making movies often with dreadful screenplays. But through the sheer size of his films, the force of the movement in his films, the strength of the acting and the often moving sequences he had great success.
When the great communist scare of the late forties and fifties came about, DeMille divided the Directors Guild of America, demanding foreign directors who had come to work in Hollywood making America their home, sign a loyalty agreement. Believing his status in the business would bring the loyalty clause to pass, he viciously called out the names of those he questioned, exaggerating the pronunciation of their name, William Wyler became Villiam Vyler. Director John Ford finally stood up and defied Demille, telling him he admired his films but did not like him, nor what he was trying to do to these Americans. Within minutes Ford had called for the removal of Demille as President of the Guild, and an entire new board was elected. Demille, broken and humiliated was never the same bombastic ego driven maniac again.
As a director he was less an artist than a showman, the James Cameron his day, but he could sure fill the screen with majesty and wonder. He would spend four years preparing, researching, making, Editing and touring with The Ten Commandments (1956) his masterpiece.
When he made films drawn from the books of the bible, he demanded the utmost research, but also was aware sex and violence worked wonders to sell his film. It was said he believed what they could not find or prove, his writers had directions to fill in the gaps using sex and conflict. With that said, here’s the list of top movies of Cecil B. DeMille.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
One of my guilty pleasures because it was the first film to show me the astounding power of the cinema and its ability to sweep one away into the world in front of us one that massive silver screen. Yes the dialogue is sometimes mighty creaky, downright silly sometimes, but the actors, especially Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner make it work. After receiving a fan letter asking him to do a remake of his 1923 silent film of the same name, DeMille decided to devote a four-hour plus epic to the story of Moses. From the bull rushes to Sinai, the life of the man who delivered the Hebrews out of bondage is a massive often breathtaking spectacle, with huge sequences, the likes of which are not even attempted anymore, they use computer generated images.
At the heart of the film is a young Charlton Heston as Moses, raised as Egyptian, discovering his Hebrew heritage, banished from Egypt by his one time brother, his lifetime nemesis Ramses (Yul Brynner), tapped by God to bring his people to the promised land. There are scenes that strike awe, the stunning raising of the obelisk in the great city, the burning bush, the Exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea and the carving of the tablets high on Mount Sinai, all scenes that left audiences wide-eyed. Heston is striking as Moses, pulling off the clunky dialogue, striking sparks with a superb Yul Brynner, a muscled Son of Egypt who sees himself a God. Yes there are some sequences that leave us exhausted, some acting that fails miserably, John Derek in every see he is in, but for the most Part the nearly eighty year old DeMille created his masterpiece. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, Heston and Demille both snubbed, it won a single award, for special effects. Still a monumental work.
The King of Kings (1927)
The first real film about Jesus Christ, this one also set up the template by which all others would be measured until 1988. DeMille studied famous paintings that captured the life of Christ and brought them to the screen. Character actor H. B. Warner was fifty, but looked Thirty was cast as Christ, and gives a gently, powerful performance as the son of a God. Dressed in white robes, his look other worldly, his gaze often to the heavens, the actor is very good as Jesus in what was the best work of his career. The story begins with Jesus already grown and leads to his death, all beautifully shot. Sadly Sound came to film in 1927, otherwise this would have been a major success. A very literate telling of the Christ story, made with great care and obvious faith.
Samson and Delilah (1949)
This is the best and worst of DeMille, taking a small story from the Bible fleshing it out into a full length film, playing loose with the facts and history. Victor Mature looks like a Samson, a mighty warrior cautious in guarding the secret of his strength, his stunning mane of hair. But when he falls in love with treacherous Delilah, of course in bed, he reveals his secret to her and she betrays him. Blinded, mocked, a person now of comedy, the Philistines torment him, forgetting it seems that his hair is growing. In the films best known scene Delilah, now realizing her error, leads him to the columns and in a mighty heave he pushes them, drawing braying laughter from the packed stadium, until they hear the stone move and hear a crack. The temple comes crashing down, killing all, including he and Delilah. It is a true epic film, massive sequences dominating the picture, but then a moment will come that brings howls of laughter. Mature fighting an obviously toothless and sedated lion being the most infamous. Though watchable, it really is a goofy film, created with care and a fine eye for detail.
The Ten Commandments (1923)
A few years ago this old film was in the news as the Egyptian city and avenue of sphinxes DeMille had built for the film had been discovered in the sand dunes near Santa Barbra. Buried in the sand after the shoot, a documentary crew shot the unearthing of Hollywood history bringing attention to this long forgotten film that sits discarded in the shadow of the massive remake. Actually two stories, the first being that of Moses setting free the Hebrews from Egypt, the second being a modern-day, circa 1923 of ordinary people living by the code of the commandments. Theodore Roberts was Moses, looking more like a caveman than a prophet, his hair wild, his eyes blazing. The exodus and parting of the sea is impressive for the time, though the sea is obviously the Pacific Ocean. No love story, no long prologue about Moses life before the burning bush, we are plunked down into the midst of the story. Sadly no one seems to recall the modern tale.
The first time audiences became aware of the Directors preoccupation with sex was with this film which ran afoul of the censors, which was little more than church groups paying attention to decency in film. This was the same group that bitterly complained when Jane in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) frolicked in the water nude. Claudette Colbert is surprisingly good as Cleopatra, though forced to wear costumes which barely concealed her shapely body. More than once she directed her male co-stars and her director to look her in the eyes please when speaking to her. Is the history accurate? For what they knew at the time, as accurate as possible. Colbert carries the film, never looking ridiculous, always regal, always strong. Art? No, not at all, but entertaining, vastly more so than the colossal Elizabeth Taylor film, which cost ten times as much, took three years to make, and was a dude.
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