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Cecil B. DeMille

Picture People (2)

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

WILLIAM WYLER: The Authorized Biography. By Axel Madsen. Thomas Y. Crowell Company. 456 pages. $9.95.
CECIL B. DeMILLE. By Charles Higham. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 280 pages. $10.
LIGHT YOUR TORCHES AND PULL UP YOUR TIGHTS. By Tay Garnett, with Fredda Dudley Balling. Foreword by Frank Capra. Arlington House. 347 pages. $9.95.
A SHORT TIME FOR INSANITY: An Autobiography. By William A. Wellman. Foreword by Richard Schickel. Hawthorn Books, Inc. 276 pages. $10.

Books on directors’ oeuvres are nothing new, and neither are interviews with film directors, booklength and otherwise. But it’s only recently that directors’ lives have struck publishers as likely material. Undoubtedly the popularity of Frank Capra’s The Name above the Title has been the most persuasive argument. Recently I’ve read four new additions to the genre, two biographies—one living subject, one deceased—one as-told-to autobiography, and one of the real McCoy, a personal document that in its idiosyncratic way is as valuable an addition to film literature as Capra’s. The order is that of the above titles, and I’ll talk about them in the same sequence.

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The virtues of Axel Madsen’s William Wyler tend to become more evident after one has read Charles Higham’s Cecil B. DeMille. Both seem to be job books. Madsen gets off to a limp start condensing the erratic history of Mulhouse, the Alsace town where Willy Wyler was born in 1902, and dreaming up trite images like Leopold the father “sitting on the veranda and watching his blue cigar smoke disappear into the night” shortly before World War I became a neighborhood reality. As soon as his subject is of an age to store up his own memories for recounting five decades later, the narrative improves. Mulhouse (then Mülhausen) changing hands—and switching from German to French time—four times during August 1914; Willy following his elder brother Robert (later his producer, and a director in France) to school in Lausanne, and Robert following him to Paris; experiences with haberdashery and whores; and finally, an offer of employment from cousin Carl Lämmle—in America, Laemmle—head of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. His film career began in New York, toting interoffice memos and cans of film, but he and fellow expatriate Paul Kohner soon established Universal’s foreign-language publicity service translating into German and French publicity stories written in the Hollywood offices and, when necessary, making up their own.

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Videophiled Classic: Kurosawa’s ‘Fortress’ and DeMille’s ‘Samson’ Debut on Blu

HiddenFortressIn The Hidden Fortress (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD), Akira Kurosawa melds western fairy tale adventure with Japanese history for a pre-Samurai era classic of a young princess and a determined General (the gruff ruthless, and often comically exasperated Toshiro Mifune) trying to escape from behind enemy lines with a fortune in royal gold. Long recognized as one of George Lucas’ primary inspiration for Star Wars (among other things, the bickering peasants who wander into the odyssey inspired R2D2 and C-3PO), it’s Kurosawa’s his first go at the widescreen format and he proves to be a master at it, dynamically spreading his compositions out to an epic scope and boldly setting his cascade of sharp action scenes against a magnificent landscape. It’s a grand adventure of flashing swords, thundering horses, giant battles and intimate duels, Kurosawa’s most purely entertaining film and one of his biggest hits.

Mastered from a 2K digital restoration with mono soundtrack and an alternate 3.0 surround soundtrack preserving the original 1958 “Perspecta Stereophonic” soundtrack and presented in DTS-HD on Blu-ray. New to this release is commentary by film historian and Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince and the documentary about the making of the film created for the 2003 series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. Carried over from the earlier DVD release is a brief interview with George Lucas, who talks of his love of the film and the work of Kurosawa. The accompanying booklet features an essay by film scholar Catherine Russell.

SamsonDelilahBDSamson and Delilah (Paramount, Blu-ray) was something of a warm-up by Cecil B. DeMille, classic Hollywood’s defining big screen showman, for his ultimate Biblical epic The Ten Commandments. This bible story was on a decidedly smaller scale but it had all the elements that DeMille had perfected back in thirties: treat the patrons to a spectacle of sin and flesh, then punish the bad behavior with a smiting of (dare I say it?) Biblical proportions. The script is dopey and the stars unconvincing, but DeMille puts on quite a pageant.

Victor Mature plays the brawny strongman Samson, who kills a lion with his bare hands in the first act. Half of the shots reveal that he’s tussling with a moth-eaten ruin but it’s still manly enough to rouse the passion of Hedy Lamarr’s Delilah. Samson heaves enormous building stones at enemy soldiers, all but takes apart a royal house in a wild brawl and for finale pulls down a temple around him with nothing but the strength of his massive arms. Never mind that DeMille’s special effects often lack the weight of conviction, it’s all in the showmanship and De Mille is as gaudy as they come. This has all lavish sets, slinky outfits, wicked Philistines, sexy maidens, and holy retribution in glorious Technicolor. Mature walks a plodding balance between grinning arrogance and righteous vengeance as God’s strong arm on Earth while Lamarr purrs through her turn as the Bible’s bad girl, a temptress with a wicked sense of vengeance. George Sanders contributes his brand of silky villainy as the Saran of Gaza and DeMille brings out the ham in him.

It’s been remastered in HD but the Blu-ray features no supplements except for the trailer.

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DVD: ‘The Buccaneer’

Cecil B. DeMille’s The Buccaneer is a pirate movie by way of a grand historical adventure a la DeMille. Based loosely on the true story of the French-born “privateer” Jean Lafitte (he preferred the term to pirate), who fought side-by-side with General Andrew Jackson against the British in the War of 1812, it stars Fredric March as the flamboyant Captain who targets foreign ships passing through the Caribbean and sells his pillaged booty to New Orleans society on the black market. His brazen ways earn him a bounty on his head, which he embraces with just a modicum pride (the $500 bounty is a little too low for his ego) and a lot of humor (he puts a bounty out on the Governor in return). This wanted man claims no nationality (“I am a privateer, under the flag of Barataria,” he proclaims) but he has a fondness for the still fledgling nation that made him Louisiana’s Most Wanted.

The American melting pot of 1814

DeMille plays fast and loose with his history, as usual, but is surprisingly accurate to the big picture of the historical record and to defining details that make Lafitte such a larger than life character. He makes his home in the self-proclaimed colony of Barataria, built on a cove deep in the Louisiana swamps, where his fleet hides from American law and conducted its smuggling and pillaging. He has standing orders to leave the crews and passengers of his victimized ships unharmed. And while he’s wanted by the State of Louisiana for his black market operations and high seas piracy, he’s quite popular among the citizens for breaking the shipping embargo on European goods.

More importantly, DeMille has more fun with the story than in many of his big historical spectacles. The Buccaneer opens in 1814 with the British invasion of Washington D.C. and the flight from the capitol. Spring Byington provides a classic DeMille take on Dolly Madison: cultured hostess with a streak of practical frontier spirit. As the presidential residence is evacuated in the midst of a reception, Dolly slips back in (without her guards) to retrieve a last-minute treasure before the British burns everything to the ground. What could be so important? Only the Declaration of Independence, she explains with a tossed-off aside and a matter-of-fact manner. That’s DeMille’s idea of American leadership — sophistication, aplomb, and simple can-do spirit — and this ideal defines General Andrew Jackson (Hugh Sothern), whose rustic dignity and colorful manner offers a hearty, earthy American contrast to the oily arrogance of British aristocracy and pompous stateside traitors.

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DVD: Classic DeMille, Psychedelic Sexploitation, and the French Disconnection

The Buccaneer (1938) (Olive)

This first version of the historical adventure / pirate movie (it was remade in 1958 by Anthony Quinn) stars Fredric March as Jean Lafitt, the flamboyant French-born privateer (he preferred the term over pirate) who fought side-by-side with General Andrew Jackson against the British in the War of 1812.

The American melting pot of 1814

Cecil B. DeMille plays fast and loose with his history, as usual, but he also has more fun with the story than in many of his big historical spectacles, making Lafitte both a sly scoundrel with a brazen defiance of authority and a patriot who sides with the Americans against the British even though they have put a price on his head. March’s Lafitte may have one of the worst French accents ever heard on screen, but he is a commanding and charismatic leader who rouses his men to the American cause even after they have been double-crossed by the Louisiana Governor. The obligatory romantic subplot has Lafitte courting a high society belle while a cute Dutch girl (Franciska Gaal) moons over Lafitte after he rescues her from a rogue pirate who defies orders and attacks an American ship, a breach that Lafitte ultimately must take responsibility for.

The rest is a paean to the multicultural collection of characters who make up the American melting pot, including Akim Tamiroff’s lovable, loyal rogue of a second-in-command to Lafitte and Walter Brennan as Jackson’s buckskin-clad aide-de-camp. DeMille’s films had a tendency to get bloated and starchy as his budgets and scope grew but this has a lively energy to it, thanks to a plot full of betrayals and battles, a cast of larger-than-life characters (including Hugh Sothern as a hearty, earthy Jackson), and a snappy script full of playful dialogue. It even, dramatic license and romantic fictions aside, keeps to the broad strokes of history. All of which makes for one of DeMille’s more rousing productions. The print shows some wear, mostly light vertical scratches, but no serious damage, and the sound is fine.

Marianne Faithfull is naked under leather

Girl on a Motorcycle (Kino/Redemption)

A very sixties portrayal of one woman’s sexual liberation. Girl on a Motorcycle could be the mod Euro answer to Easy Rider with a sexy young Marianne Faithfull in the saddle. The film was released in the U.S. under the title Naked Under Leather, which is not particularly poetic but is accurate: she climbs naked from the marriage bed and dons the skin-tight leather bodysuit in the opening scene. As she rides her Harley Davidson Electra Glide from her home in France, where she lives with her devoted but dull and unadventurous schoolteacher husband (Roger Mutton), across the border to visit her lover (Alain Delon), a seductive professor of literature who gave her the bike as a wedding gift, her story plays out in a succession of flashbacks, sexual fantasies, and kitschy psychedelic imagery. Those acid-drenched neon video shades of purple and orange and green take over whenever she makes love with Delon, which has the unintended effect of turning sex into a bad psychedelic trip. Stream-of-consciousness narration fills in the rest of her sexual vision quest across the border of conformity. Faithfull is not much of an actress but she is a marvelous presence, not classically pretty yet quite beautiful, slipping between coquettish girl and experienced woman in a matter of seconds.

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Silents Please! The Ten Commandments 1923

Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 The Ten Commandments is quite the landmark for the director. While not technically his first historical epic (that was the 1916 Joan the Woman), it was his first Biblical pageant and his first financially successful epic.

DeMille's original biblical epic

But it is also DeMille in the midst of his transition from the lively, witty director of sex farces and sexy romantic comedies with jazz-age sensibilities to the humorless director of white elephant epics, where he’s simultaneously become both more lurid and more pious, reveling in the sins of his characters and then punishing their excess to provide a lesson for us all.

DeMille spends a mere 45 minutes (of the film’s 135-minute running time) in ancient Egypt with Moses the Law Giver, who has already unleashed nine plagues as the film opens and exits after destroying the tablets in face of the blasphemy of his followers. For the rest, we dissolve to the present (circa early 1920s) to find a white-haired old mother reads from the good book to her two sons, one lost in the glory of the lesson (the all-American Richard Dix as John, a humble carpenter, of course), the other a restless, modern and cynical jazz-age kid (Rod La Rocque as Dan), bored with all “that bunk” of the Bible lessons. “No one believes in these commandment things anymore,” he sneers to his shocked old mother, and he marries another modern girl (Leatrice Joy as Mary, naturally) with a pledge to “live our life in our own heathen way.”

There’s plenty of decadence in both sides of this split identity production, from the orgiastic sin spectacle of hysterical partying and blaspheming with a false idol of the ancient section to Dan systematically breaking all ten commandments in his rapid rise to wealth (and, naturally, his precipitous fall) as a corrupt contractor whose reckoning comes when he builds a church with rotten concrete.

But DeMille’s trademark sensibility (revel in sin for the spectacle, then punish the transgressors for a moral lesson) aside, they two sections illustrate what the director gave up in his transformation into epic moviemaker. The section with Moses in the Holy Land is, dramatically speaking, little more than an epic version of a biblical pageant. Stodgy and stiff and as old fashioned as an early D.W. Griffith spectacle, it’s a series of tableaux with old man Moses (Theodore Roberts), in flowing white hair and madman beard, doing a lot of posing and pointing as he threatens the Pharaoh, leads his people into the desert and brings the wrath of God upon the Egyptian slavers and soldiers. But DeMille is a showman and he makes a show of this otherwise moving illustrations of bible stories with stunning special effects: the parting of the Red Sea (using the very same techniques as he did thirty years later in his 1956 edition), the wall of fire, the great balls of fire pyrotechnics for the will of God as he delivers the commandments to Moses.

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Silent Nights: Keaton and DeMille – DVDs of the Week

Chicago (1927) (Flicker Alley)

This is the first screen incarnation of the story of jazz baby murderess Roxie Hart, first created in a play by former crime reporter Maurine Watkins that hit Broadway in 1926. Ginger Rogers played her in the William Wellman-directed Roxie Hart, which took the sex and cynicism right out of it, and of course it was turned into the Broadway musical that was brought to the screen in the 2002 Oscar winner. This version, produced (and in part directed) by Cecil B. DeMille, had been all but forgotten in the meantime, at least until a print was found in Cecil B. DeMille’s private collection, but even after select festival showings it’s still largely unknown. Hopefully this Flicker Alley DVD release will help take care of that.

Phyllis Haver: Nobody jilts Roxie Hart
Phyllis Haver: Nobody jilts Roxie Hart

Former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty Phyllis Haver is Roxie, the bleached blond jazz baby of an unfaithful wife who plugs her wealthy lover (Eugene Palette) and tells her blindly adoring hubby Amos (Victor Varconi, an all-American type in the Joel McCrea mode) that it was burglar. Unlike future incarnations, this Amos is no sap, merely deluded by love, but his illusions are quickly shattered when he recognizes the dead man and finds one of her garters in his pocket. And as the press turns it into a front page scandal turned salacious soap opera, with Roxie as the willing star, the femme fatale playing the victimized innocent with all the subtlety of a second rate stage diva playing Victorian melodrama, Amos is the hero of the piece if only for his loyalty and sacrifice. Everyone else—from Roxie to the press to the assistant D.A.—simply uses the murder for their own notoriety with mercenary focus.

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Pre-Code Paramount and Fleischer’s Superman – DVDs for the Week

Pre-Code Hollywood Collection / Cleopatra: 75th Anniversary Edition

Six sexy pre-code films from Paramount Pictures
Six sexy pre-code films from Paramount Pictures

Universal Home Video plunges into the sex, sin and bathtub gin of pre-code Hollywood films with their answer to the “Forbidden Hollywood” series from Warner. The Pre-Code Hollywood Collection is branded as part of the “Universal Backlot Series” but it actually collects six films Paramount Pictures (Universal owns the rights to the early Paramount catalogue), a studio with a sensibility as different as can be from the snappy, punchy, street-smart Warner attitude. Paramount boasted a more elegant style and opulent touch, more glamour and soft-focus gloss than the working class Warner films and a roster of directors that included Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, Cecil B. DeMille and Mitchell Leisen, a director who began as a costume designer and art director on Douglas Fairbanks adventures and Cecil B. DeMille spectacles.

I bring up Leisen in particular because his 1934 Murder at the Vanities is a highlight of the set, a combination backstage musical, showbiz comedy and murder mystery, all with the sex and smart-alecky attitude and snappy pace of the best pre-code studio pictures. Leisen mentored under DeMille as the director transformed himself from silky sex comedy director to self-promoting epic filmmaker and king of the spectacle. Leisen’s earlier film, the classy drama Death Takes a Holiday, is a somewhat lugubrious production but by Murder at the Vanities, Leisen starts to come into his own as a deft director of light romantic comedy and cool, clever Hollywood entertainment. It’s based on a play by Earl Carroll, creator of the “Vanities” stage spectacles, and while he doesn’t appear in the film as such, Carroll’s presence hovers over the entire film through cagey name dropping. Carl Brisson and Kitty Carlisle (as the singing stars and romantic sweethearts) headline the show onstage but the offstage antics by fast-talking manager Jack Oakie (playing a former newspaperman and all-around wise guy trying to prove himself to boss Carroll) steal the film. He outmaneuvers thickheaded Irish cop Victor McLaglen (in his usual hammy lug of a performance) in a race to solve a murder before the curtain drops and handily wins the battle of wits with snappy repartee and smartly delivered quips.

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