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« Book Publishing | Main | Boomers and the '70s »

April 09, 2004

TV Alert

Dear Friedrich --

As you may remember from our college film-buddy days, I've got only the tiniest of appetites for the "spectacle" element of movies. Happy to acknowledge the pleasure lots get from spectacle ("LOTR," anyone?), and happy to doff my hat to the historical importance of it. But my own system, for some no doubt oddball reason, doesn't crave pageantry. Give me comedy, character, eroticism, satire, sociology, mood, and suspense any day.

Well, almost any day. I do adore the films of Cecil B. DeMille. Are you a fan? They throw me into a state few other movies do. I'm giggly, yet I'm also in a trance; they're camp pleasures, yet at the same time they reach me on some genuine plane. The absurd historical and religious superproductions DeMille's best known for (early on he also made a fair number of intimately-scaled things, believe it or not) hit me like primitive epic poetry. They're fabulous combos of earnestness, hypocrisy, exploitation, beauty, sex and moralizing ... What many people take as reasons to dismiss DeMille's films is exactly what puts a spell on me.

demille by karsh.jpg DeMille by Karsh

Hard to pull it all apart, if great fun to try. I had a wonderful time last week catching up with a couple of DeMille's films on Turner Classic Movies, and watching a new documentary about DeMille by the great film historian Kevin Brownlow. It turns out that DeMille's life was as interesting as his films -- vulgar, showy, screwy, even a little touching. In fact, his life story is in many ways a good metaphor for the story of Hollywood itself. "The Squaw Man," DeMille's very first movie, was the first feature to be made in Hollywood, and his last film, a version of "The Ten Commandments," was released in 1956. Now that was a career.

And, hurrah, I notice that TCM is running the documentary again, super-early Sunday morning.

* Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic (TCM; 4/11, 2-4 a.m.). One of DeMille's favorites from among his own films, his silent King of Kings, precedes the documentary, and will start at midnight.

God bless TCM, eh? Gentleguys (and Gentlegals), set your Tivos.



posted by Michael at April 9, 2004


Vulgar, vital and sincere. That's what comes through from DeMille's, and so much of Hollywood's movie product, in his era.
My guess is that he was a sophisticate, maybe a super-sophisticate, in his private life. But he held that in abeyance. When he made a film for the squares, he made a square film. None of the arched eyebrow, wink-wink nod-nod, don't we no better irony, that seems to be derigeur, and ruins so much of today's "cinema."
Or maybe he was just a second tier artist who
was a perfect fit in the world of "product" that Hollywood always has, and always will (Spielberg) be.

Posted by: ricpic on April 9, 2004 3:41 PM

I remember catching "The Ten Commandments" on the tube a few years ago, and being particularly struck by the 'staging' of the 10th plague, the killing of the Egyptian firstborn. It's done in long shot at night, with buildings in the foreground and the moon riding among clouds behind. Suddenly, one of the clouds starts to elongate in an 'unnatural' way...and then sends a tendril of death down towards the ground. Completely silent, no music, nothing. All very understated, and remarkably poetic. Based on his general reputation, you wouldn't think old C.B. had it in him.

Why do you think, given De Mille's chronological claim to primacy, that he's given so much less space in discussions of the birth of the cinema than, say, Griffith? Did his 'technique' lag, or has he been punished for continuing to earn a no-doubt remarkable income for another fifty years?

Speaking of making bucks, am I misremembering, or did Billy Wilder need C.B. for another few minutes of filming beyond the single day that had been arranged for De Mille's appearance in 'Sunset Boulevard.'? Didn't C.B. demand that he be paid another $50,000 for his retake...and get it? I guess if nothing else 50 years in Hollywood would give you a bullet-proof hide.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 9, 2004 7:22 PM

And did you catch Madame Satan? It's dated and creaky and not terribly good, but the costume party on the Art Deco zeppelin: man, you don't see set and costume design like that every day....

Posted by: PapayaSF on April 10, 2004 2:32 AM

Why do you think, given De Mille's chronological claim to primacy, that he's given so much less space in discussions of the birth of the cinema than, say, Griffith? Did his 'technique' lag, or has he been punished for continuing to earn a no-doubt remarkable income for another fifty years?

Most of De Mille's early full-length silents still feel a bit static and (ironically) "talky" compared to Griffith, and he never allowed his actors to perform in as naturalistic a fashion as Griffith did. De Mille was very stagebound compared to Griffith; he was certainly not the innovator that Griffith was.

I'll grant that De Mille's silents have yet to receive their due. They represent some of his best work as a director, but they're not half as ambitious or exciting as Griffith's better Biograph shorts, let alone his first several full-length films.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 14, 2004 3:32 AM

BTW, Griffith has the claim to primacy, too.

De Mille's 1914 debut "The Squaw Man" may have been the first feature made in Hollywood (or then again, it may not have been; there are, apparently, other claimants to that title). But by this time Griffith had managed to direct hundreds of films at his Biograph studios in New Jersey -- including Judith of Bethulia, an hour-long Bible epic (if your Bible is Catholic) in the grandiose, pious, sexed-up style that would eventually be associated with De Mille.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 14, 2004 3:45 AM

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