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.