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Cecil B. DeMille
Posted: Thu Aug 02, 2007 5:30 am
King of Kings (1927)
Watching King of Kings you may at first be taken in by the spectacle. The beginning is shot in two strip Technicolor (as the Egypt sequences were in The Ten Commandments) and is filled with that decadent splendor present in so many DeMille films. Sin might be wrong, but isn't it tantalizing, with diamond encrusted breast plates and pet leopards? DeMille never seemed able to separate the circus promoter from the pious moralist in himself, and this film is ripe with that conflict. What strikes you next and throughout the film is that this picture was made by a believer. He was rumored to have held mass before every day's shooting, and you can't doubt it, in addition to making all his actors affirm their faith in Jesus. Perhaps the great publicity machine was rolling, but heaven's I've come to believe everything I hear about this man and his films.
DeMille had originally wanted to make a film about Noah's Ark, but found that Warner Bros. was already making a film on the subject, complete with a moder story to parallel the biblical action. Hearing that description you wonder if the project wasn't written for DeMille. So a writer suggested to DeMille not to beat around the bush but to just go ahead and tell the bible's biggest and best known story, that of Jesus Christ. In the process were grand opportunities for filming miracles, and of course the inevitable God's wrath which comprises the most spectacular sequence of the film. The subject suited him quite well and the success of this film encouraged him to return to the bible several times in the future. Luckily I would say DeMille avoids his modern day morality play by clearly making this a historical film. There are no parallels to the modern day with its reckless booze and loose women. Here it is good old fashioned religion, a traveling revival show, and DeMille was the fancy preacher coming through doing flips down the aisle and yelling for the congregation to "testify". Again I have no difficulty imagining DeMille as an Evangelist preacher and his films can sometimes come off as such.
His almost childlike enthusiasm in the project is what I believe makes the film so endearing today. Sure future biblical epics would be huge spectacles, and sure they would present a compelling case, but DeMille's film is that rare picture seems to come from a genuine believer. Sure there's nothing meek and modest about DeMille or his presentation, but H.B. Warner's Jesus appears like the Jesus of paintings and church crucifix's. This isn't the doubting Jesus of Scorsese or Pasolini, this is a Jesus who stands up straight with his jaw out and never losing a second to appear holy and noble. Perhaps some of a cartoon, and DeMille even seeks to illuminate him in white following his resurrection and into his ascension, saving his one bit of modern day folklore for a superimposition at the film's conclusion. After all DeMille couldn't resist letting you know that despite a timeless tale it is still relevant. I also had to admire that in the prologue (cut from the widespread US release) he says that these events happened some 19 centuries ago in Palestine. He isn't even remotely attempting to present a version or opinion, to DeMille this is fact and historical document and making a film on Jesus would be just the same as making one on Napoleon for historical accuracy. As a side note the famous Grauman's Chinese Theater opened its doors for the first time at the premiere of King of Kings, how very fitting.
Re: Cecil B. DeMille
Posted: Tue Aug 14, 2007 2:10 am
In 1915 two productions of Carmen were underway at the same time, and a third was finished by the end of the year. Cecil B. DeMille's production was started first, but William Fox wanted to compete with the project and brought in up and coming Raoul Walsh to direct a spare no expense adaptation. Walsh's version is believed to be lost, so people pretty much have to rely upon DeMille's as the definitive. It's a shame too because DeMille's Carmen is powerfully weak. Geraldine Farrar plays the title role and lord have mercy she's almost unwatchable. Farrar was brought to star in the film because she had played the role on the stage. So perhaps her singing chops could carry Bizet's opera, but her looks are so far from carrying this film its laughable today. Matter of fact I'd say all but one woman (the overweight factory supervisor) are more attractive than her, and almost all of them are younger. So if you want your Carmen middle aged and hideously ugly then DeMille's adaptation might be right up your alley, for the rest of us, well at least the film would be made again, and again, and again, and well it'll probably be made a few dozen more times before everyone's through with it.
The film is relatively concise and incorporates segments of the opera in its soundtrack (as apparently its original screening did). The performances aren't bad but well they aren't good either being a rather theatrical adaptation of a staged opera. The highlight of the film (for me anyways) comes between Carmen and a much more attractive woman fighting at work. DeMille the circus entertainer runs wild here with the two clawing at each other relentlessly with clothes being torn and hell it'll certainly compete with any current "professional" female wrestlers. Don Jose (Wallace Reid) has a rather well staged sword fight that might seem long, but well people need action and that's what they get. The theatrical ending is somewhat banal and handled with far too much attention drawn to it. In fact most of this film is rather dismissable. Much more impressive is Charlie Chaplin's nearly shot for shot parody of it.
Re: Cecil B. DeMille
Posted: Tue Aug 14, 2007 2:25 am
The Cheat (1915)
It may be hard to think of it today, but in the early days of American feature films Cecil B. DeMille was considered on par with D. W. Griffith. He was a groundbreaking filmmaker who had as much comprehension of narrative cohesion as Griffith, but with a little more flash. The Cheat is one of his early features that will always stand out. Considered by many to be the film that "made" DeMille it has lost little if any of its power to entertain today. It is salacious, entertaining, fast paced, and positively enthralling start to finish. I would go so far as to call it DeMille's masterpiece and a picture that earns him inclusion into the silent film hall of fame (which even detractors of his sound films should grant him). The film also impressed critics of the time, and served to be an extremely influential film for decades. DeMille used very low key lighting and incorporated telling shadows throughout the picture, something that would be appropriated far more extensively by the German's several years later.
Fannie Ward plays Edith Hardy an irresponsible socialite who finds herself somewhat neglected by her husband. The husband (Jack Dean) is involved in a big investment deal that he hopes will solve all their financial problems and provide the type of life his wife deserves. That type of life is of course being able to spend several thousand dollars on evening dresses, underwear, and hats galore. Edith finds herself attracting the attentions of an oriental ivory man named Tori (Sessue Hayakawa). She thinks of him as something of a friend, a friend with a great deal of money. When Edith foolishly gambles money she was entrusted to hold from a charitable organization she needs $10,000 and quickly. Tori agrees to give her the money but he doesn't want to be repaid with a check, he wants Mrs. Hardy. Now for those watching the film you wouldn't be surprised at this request, what is surprising is Mrs. Ward's refusal. Throughout the film she was quite leading him on and with the neglect of her husband, one wouldn't be surprised for her to jump into bed with this charming and wealthy new suitor. Of course the fact that he happens to be oriental can easily explain her revulsion, but perhaps this woman truly is clueless.
Now when she goes to return his money he doesn't accept it and demands to maker her his possession, going so far as to brand her which is surely one of the most shocking scenes of its day. DeMille spares no expense in their fight, tearing clothes, breaking through doors, shooting, branding, rape, he doesn't let us off the hook. The sensationalism pays off, and he lets another "circus act" appear later in the court room as a would be lynch mob starts charging up to the wounded Tori. When the court scene emerged I instantly recalled Judge Priest (mainly because I watched that film yesterday) but also because they both involve a woman's honor being kept secret even though it would save an innocent man from going to jail. Like that previous film though we can guess whether or not the truth will come out, but in this film the result is far more rewarding. DeMille sets us up for a huge payoff, and in the process examines shallow high society, adultery, the never ending pursuit of wealth, and of course a little bit of morality. This has got to be the finest film I've yet to see from DeMille and melodramatic or not, I highly recommend it to everyone.
Re: Cecil B. DeMille
Posted: Fri Jan 04, 2008 7:53 am
Joan the Woman (1916)
There are two things in silent film I'll probably never understand, one is Louise Dressler and the other is Geraldine Farrar. Farrar appeared in few films in her career and remains damn near the only opera star to make a name for herself in silent films. She played a horrible Carmen a year earlier, and here she is cast as an overweight and past her prime Joan. Now maybe I'm just being a big meanie considering she wasn't all that old, but she never really seems fit for the role, certainly not the way we've come to expect our Joan's to be. I suppose Falconetti ruined it for everyone. DeMille however takes her story and of course has to make a very loose modern correlation. This is the earliest film of his I know of that imposes this tactic. Being 1916, he makes the modern story that begins and ends the film about a British soldier in a trench who finds an old 15th century sword. We are led to suppose that this may have belonged to Joan, or at least one of her followers. He is told of a very dangerous mission that would mean martyrdom for himself and while thinking of it he falls asleep. There he is transported to Joan's time as DeMille would have it, a man whose in love with Joan. Only DeMille could make a love story out of Joan of Arc. That hogwash notwithstanding Griffith spared no expense and spent a whopping $300,000 on the plot (I know, but hell gas used to cost about a nickel at that time). The film is helped by some decent support, and look closely and you'll find a very young Ramon Navarro playing a starving peasant.
Re: Cecil B. DeMille
Posted: Sat Jan 05, 2008 9:10 pm
A Romance in the Redwoods (1917)
It has been somewhat forgotten in modern times, but Mary Pickford was the biggest movie star of her era. The only person even close to her was Chaplin, and their formation of United Artists was largely because the two became too expensive for other studios to afford. In 1917 Pickford was earning roughly $375,000 for each picture she made. This typically meant the rest of the film's budget would be very modest. So for those wondering why the great DeMille made a film consisting of roughly one major set and a few outdoor locales, this might help to explain it. By most accounts DeMille and Pickford didn't get along too well, which isn't too surprising considering how controlling each could be. However they apparently liked the results because they did make at least one more film together (The Little American, made the same year). What may seem curious about this film for Pickford fans is the fact that she plays someone roughly her own age. Pickford was about 25 when she made the picture and she plays a young woman who gets thrust into adulthood following the death of her mother.
She decides she's going to move out to California to be with her uncle, but before she arrives her uncle is killed by Indians. An outlaw comes across the dead uncle and assumes his clothes and identity. After a month long journey across the country, Pickford arrives to find her uncle's cabin lacks a few necessities. However after a rocky start her and the outlaw begin to bond, although her pleas to make him reform his ways go unheeded. It isn't until the police discover his identity and put a noose around his neck that he finally can reform. Little Mary winds up saving the day with a clever although hardly believable ruse. The film can be viewed as a lesser DeMille effort, churned out during his incredibly prolific early period. However Pickford makes the film worthwhile and its nice seeing her not pretend to be a 14 year old (ala Pollyanna).
*The film is available on DVD courtesy of the 5 disc public domain "Early Films of Cecil B. DeMille" set. Although the prints might not be pristine, for the price it is a treasure.
Re: Cecil B. DeMille
Posted: Sat Jan 05, 2008 9:45 pm
The Little American(1917)
Ok, did some fact checking. Pickford and DeMille made a grand total of two films together, and I watched them in the right order. The Little American is certainly a title more synonymous with Pickford, and the scale of the picture is much more to DeMille's sensibilities. The result is a film that seems grander and better suited to the dynamic duo. Unfortunately for modern audience there is an issue of context. The picture was made towards the later part of 1917, and America had ended its neutrality and entered into the war. As such this film is painfully racist towards Germans, or Prussians as they're referred to here. They rape and pillage without a second's thought, kill women and children for not being loyal enough, and invade the home of a neutral American. This extreme heavy handedness is at times hard to bear, but seen within its timeframe you can't expect much else, especially from a man like DeMille. Included in the much grander production is a recreation of the sinking of an unnamed ship (which is very obviously the Lusitania), and some very deliberate symbolism as a church is bombed leaving nothing standing but a giant crucifix. Enjoyable in its own right, and with the introduction of the German love interest for Pickford it has at least the aura of making it seem like not ALL Germans are evil.