Cast of Thousands

The simultaneous appearance of Scott Eyman’s fine new biography of Cecil B. DeMille, Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille, and Paramount Home Video’s lush new Blu-ray edition of DeMille’s 1956 “The Ten Commandments” provide an opportunity to return to this often maligned, frequently caricatured filmmaker (not least by himself), whose best work continues to provide waves of pleasure.

I personally wouldn’t place the ’56 “Ten Commandments” at the summit of DeMille’s art, but the Paramount set also contains a Blu-ray remastering of the far more entertaining 1923 “Ten Commandments,” in which the Biblical scenes serve as a 50-minute prologue to a contemporary story — a full-bodied, beautifully structured melodrama about two brothers (somber, serious Richard Dix and flighty, larcenous Rod LaRocque) in love with the same not-so-helpless waif (Leatrice Joy). It’s a film full of visual invention, including a sequence that, as Eyman points out, Hitchcock re-created almost shot-for-shot in “Psycho.”

DeMille never seemed to catch the interest of the Cahiers boys, perhaps because his career was coming to an end just as theirs were beginning, but he was a great favorite of renegades like Luc Moullet, Michel Mourlet and the MacMahonists. Here’s the great Jacques Lourcelles (in my own crude translation) writing on DeMille’s hallucinatory 1930 “Madame Satan,” a film that still must be seen to be disbelieved:

For DeMille, the ideal film is a spectacular entertainment, rich in psychological and social observations when he describes the contemporary world, capable of conveying social, political and religious ideas. For him, the cinema is a completely serious art, in terms of the sincerity of his convictions and the ardor with which he works to communicate them to the public, but there is no reflection of his seriousness of purpose in the construction of his films. By filling the spectator’s eye, mind and imagination, he naturally creates a space capable of conveying any conceivable idea, no matter how morally rigorous or austere. Such is the credo of Cecil B. DeMille, a cineaste whose delirious fantasies continue to astound the spectator of today, even if we share none of his attitudes.

Some further pensees of my own, here in the New York Times.

112 comments to Cast of Thousands

  • Gregg Rickman

    Shawn, PASSION and the other films you mention were widely shown in the US and when Pickford signed Lubitsch for ROSITA there was a blast of publicity about him; and there was another series of full page ads touting him (at least in the trades) when the Warners signed him. In both cases he was a prestige item acquired as much for the publicity value (Mary Pickford’s importance, the Warners’ ambitions) as for his perceived talents as a director. I will add however that Lubitsch films received consistently good reviews in the trades, his directorial finesse singled out again and again. For a specific example, just as readers interested in the 1970s and 80s must now read Dave Kehr’s collected criticism, so must those interested in the 1920s seek out T. O. Service’s commentaries in the Exhibitors Herald, 1925-30. When that prominent journal dropped regular reviews of new films in 1925 they offered this hard boiled veteran’s commentary in place. While he consistently put down art films he thought pretentious, he praised a lot of films still recognized as good, and he was consistently high on Lubitsch’s work. (Following what I imagine were publisher Martin Quigley’s dictates, if he didnt like a major studio release he didnt talk about it, with a few notable exceptions — he disliked Lon Chaney in makeup, for example. He boosted Harry Langdon to the skies, through THE STRONG MAN, and then doesnt seem to have mentioned him again. The only Keaton film I’ve found he’s commented on is STEAMBOAT BILL JR, which implies to me that he didnt care for the others. Hey, I said his ideas are a window on the times, not that I would agree with him!)

    Regarding directors as stars, readers should check out Janet Bergstrom’s supplement on Sternberg’s silent career on the Criterion UNDERWORLD disc. He too received the benefit of a big PR campaign when Pickford signed him to direct her, after he completed THE SALVATION HUNTERS (a film Service disliked if I recall correctly).

  • Mathieu

    Hey all,

    One more mention of Sidney Lumet’s passing here.
    I should mention that his book “Making Movies”, was the very first I ever received on film when I started getting passionate about the art. It had an inspirational and matter of fact quality to it that made you think anything was possible, despite not holding back on the extraordinary challenges and pitfalls of venturing into such a career.
    And I thought the opening anecdote of the book really set you up for such a crazy yet imaginative venture as setting up each shot to come to a collective whole to tell your story:
    “I once asked Akira Kurosawa why he’s chosen to frame a shot in Ran a particular way. His answer was that if he’d panned the camera one inch to the left, the Sony factory would be exposed, and if he’d pan one inch to the right, we would see the airport, none of which belonged in a period movie”

    I”m not sure why I’m so little acquainted with the films of the interesting and passionate man, but Dog Day Afternoon is a masterpiece that goes deep with me. Anybody else have a favorite of his they’d like to share?

  • Johan Andreasson

    Last time Lumet was discussed here more than one poster recommended PRINCE OF THE CITY, and I’m really glad I went along with that recommendation. As you can expect from a Lumet film when he is in good form, the script and acting are excellent, but it’s also built around a clear and effective visual idea where the images start out alive and bustling with lots of people in detailed settings, but with the advancing corruption the characters are shown more and more isolated with bare uninviting backgrounds. There’s a good interview with Lumet at Glenn Kenny’s site where they talk a bit about this (and many other things):
    http://www.dga.org/news/dgaq_2007-3/feat_lumet-007-3.php3

    There are many Lumet films I haven’t seen, but my personal favorite will probably remain 12 ANGRY MEN.

  • Dear Blake (April 10, 2011 at 6:11 pm), thank you for your kind comment. I agree with Tag Gallagher about The Last Outlaw! Last summer in Bologna I watched the Ford silents that I hadn’t seen or had forgotten and wrote some remarks in my blog (26 June – 3 July, 2011).

  • Tom Brueggemann

    The only Lumet film I can summon up much of a defense for is Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and then only because of the source material and the cast (for which of course Lumet deserves some credit).

    And though it’s a separate issue, that he allowed as much unbridled hateful homophobia in a film as late as The Anderson Tapes (1971) to me really exposes a side of him – whether it was his true feelings, or cowardice in preventing it – that reflects poorly upon him.

  • jbryant

    Tom: What’s your take on the Pacino and Sarandon characters in DOG DAY AFTERNOON?

  • Tom Brueggemann

    I haven’t revisited the film since I saw it on its release. My recollection was that it indeed was groundbreaking in its sympathy, although my take as I recall was that like so much of Lumet’s characters the grotesque and extremes of were overemphasized. My best recollection is that the film gave me a headache and that the visual style- something that for me was always one of Lumet’s weaknesses – was lacking.

    That’s why I gave the option that what appeared in The Anderson Tapes was just Lumet accepting what he was given and not thinking to change, maybe perhaps because its police detective genre made it to him more “normal.” I doubt he ever saw Gordon Douglas’ vastly superior The Detective, in which three years earlier Frank Sinatra’s character blasted an underling for making anti-gay remarks.

  • The homophobia in “Kremlin Letter” makes “The Anderson Tapes” look like a Rosa von Praunheim film.

  • Alex

    Huston can be good at his darkest when speaks coherently to a point as in his sharly honed cultural critique of MALTESE FALCON (Spade choosing professional pride and business reputation over love), but he is at his best when he uses the dark as backdrop for the transcendent as with the final laughter of Holt, Huston (Père) and Los Indios at the end of SIERRA MADRE, the joyous song of Peachy and Daniel Dravot in their final moment or when, as at the conclusion of THE DEAD the teller’s “soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly though the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

    As Thelonious Monk said, “it’s always night or we wouldn’t need the light.”

  • Jim Gerow

    Before this DeMille thread runs out, I should let readers know that MALE AND FEMALE will be screening this Saturday at 5 at Museum of the Moving Image, where Dave presented SAILOR’S LUCK a few weeks ago. It’s followed by an inspired “double bill on costume and excess” of Kenneth Anger’s INAUGURATION OF THE PLEASURE DOME and Sternberg’s THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN at 7.

    Dave, your quip about KREMLIN LETTER and Rosa von Praunheim made my day. It was nice to meet you at the book signing and I’m thoroughly enjoying “When Movies Mattered.” Girish Shambu has a nice piece about the book currently on his blog which includes some great excerpts.

    http://girishshambu.blogspot.com/2011/04/dave-kehrs-book.html

  • Jim, it was a pleasure to meet you, too. Thanks for the kind words and thanks for pointing out the MOMI series, which looks to be quite ambitious.

  • On the subject of Lumet and homophobia, I wonder what the consensus is on Q&A. It remains one of the few Lumet movies I like, though that in itself is based on Nolte’s horrific cop, a great performance. Is the film about homophobia or an example of the mindset?