The Stupid 365 Project, Day 73: Ready When You Are, C.B.

December 14th, 2010

Cecil B. DeMille thought big.

This set, for the silent (1923) version of “The Ten Commandments,” was 109 feet high and made out of huge pre-carved blocks of concrete.

While his partners back in New York, Jesse Lasky and the icy Adolph Zukor, raged about budget overruns, DeMille built a tent city in the desert, complete with a hospital and a round-the-clock kitchen, and brought up his crew of 60, his cast of almost 600, all his equipment, and this set. When he went back to Hollywood, he had one of the greatest films of all time.

Six people surrounded DeMille as he shot.  One had the script, one carried his megaphone (essential for directing a film on this scale), one had a bottle of water, two were runners who went to get anyone DeMille needed, and one carried DeMille’s chair.  Any time DeMille stopped moving, the chair was placed behind him and, when he wanted to sit, he sat without looking.  Despite the almost irresistible slapstick potential of this setup, apparently it never happened, not once in a 50-year career.

I’m reading Scott Eyman’s hypnotically interesting Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille.  Eyman is THE GUY for vintage-Hollywood biography; his Lion of Hollywood, about Louis B. Mayer, and Print the Legend, about John Ford, are models of the genre.  He captures everything — the fly-by-night nature of the nickelodeon era, the single-minded energy of the first moguls, the flock of butterflies and carrion birds who became stars and either soared higher or fell low, and the amazing invention, out in the sunshine and in between the orange groves, of not only an industry, but also a full-blown art form.

The pioneers had to invent everything.  Cameramen being pushed on roller skates to allow the camera to move. Huge sheets of muslin hung over the set so people didn’t cast shadows when they were supposed to be indoors. Story telling techniques.  Closeups.  Montage.

A daily challenge was coming up with instant solutions to specific problems for which nothing could have prepared them. The opera singer Geraldine Ferrar became a silent star under DeMille’s direction.  She was an accomplished actress with an outsize personality that made her perfect for silents, but her pale gray eyes almost ended her career before it started.  When DeMille watched rushes of her first day’s work, her irises were virtually invisible.  She had blank eyes.  By eight AM the next day, when Ferrar arrived on the set, DeMille had tacked a big piece of black velvet to a wooden frame. This was placed in Ferrar’s sight-line as they shot, and she was instructed to look at it as long as she could.  Her pupils expanded, and her career was saved.

I mean, come on.

By the way, Ferrar was probably responsible for the practice of having musicians on the sets of silent films play music to enhance the actors’ performances (and to drown out the sound of the next set being hammered together).  As an opera singer, she was used to working to music.  DeMille brought in a pianist, and eventually most big-budget silents had a small orchestra on the set at all times.

And in the age long before computers made CGI possible, DeMille needed to part the Red Sea to get the Israelites out of Egypt.  He sent all 600 cast members plus the crew to the ocean to gather kelp.  The kelp was strewn on the desert sand between wood-and-wire fences that marked the edge of the passageway, because if even one Israelite crossed the line, the shot would be ruined.

Unfortunately, the fences cast shadows.  So the only time the shot could be done was noon straight up.  DeMille marshaled his armies, positioned the cameras, watched the shadows, used his megaphone, and 600 Israelites moved fearfully between the fences, over a bed of rapidly drying kelp.

Back in Hollywood, the Red Sea was constructed on a giant table out of dyed gelatin with waves carved into it.  The passage of the Israelites was scooped out and the gelatin was filmed.  The two negatives were lined up to make certain that they matched, and then, with cameras rolling again, gas burners were turned on beneath the gelatin, which began to melt.  Eventually, the “sea” wiped out the path of the Israelites’ deliverance.

For the film itself, the melting was sped up and played backward when Moses parted the sea and then forward again when Pharoah’s army fails in its pursuit.   Is that cool, or what?

Oh, and the 109-foot set?  No point in taking it back to Hollywood, and money was tight.  On the other hand, if DeMille left it there, some other producer would come in and use it and, possibly, beat DeMille’s film to theaters.  So they dug huge holes in the sand, tipped the sets forward, and buried them.

For all I know, they’re still there.

And, HEY, this is the 73rd post — we’re one-fifth of the way through this ill-considered year, and thanks to all who have come along for the ride!!!!!!!

18 Responses to “The Stupid 365 Project, Day 73: Ready When You Are, C.B.”

  1. EverettK Says:

    I find it interesting that you worked in film/TV PR for what? 20 years? and you read these Hollywood biographies, and yet don’t watch TV or very many movies. Yes, I’m sure: one’s knowledge, the other’s a waste of rapidly diminishing time. 🙂

    And I’m glad to see that you’ve finally learned how to divide. All hope is NOT lost! (Or did one of your faithful followers send you a table of which post-numbers would cross which milestones?)

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I know. The last movie I saw in a theater was UP. How many years ago was that?

    What interests me about early Hollywood is the nature of the collaboration and the way in which creative solutions were demanded — and supplied — daily. Virtually everybody, from screenwriter to director to star to the lowliest grip, rose to the occasion. And, as Eyman says in the book, almost all of them, looking back on their lives, remember those first years in Los Angeles as enchanted, their greatest and happiest experience.

    Gary told me the anniversary was coming up, and it’s shameful that I didn’t credit him. But I’m not going to.

  3. fairyhedgehog Says:

    Fascinating reading. As so often happens my sole knowledge of the subject is through a Pratchett book. Oops.

  4. Gary Says:

    We’ll just see who credits whom. Wait till I get my copy of LITTLE ELVISES. It’ll be sent off to Amazon under the title LITTLE ELVAZE, with someone else’s name as the author.

    I remember my Mom telling me the story about the gelatin in “The Ten Commandments” when I was a kid. I kept looking for all that gelatin behind Charlton Heston as the Red Sea parted, but I couldn’t see it.

  5. Gary Says:

    Ooops – I forgot to turn off the bold.

  6. Gary Says:

    That was a great deMille story, and there must be a million of them. My favorite goes back so far that I’ve forgotten the name of the actress involved.

    Whoever she was (Tim will know), she said to a companion during a particularly long take, “When’s the old blankety-blank gonna call ‘Lunch’?” And then she suddenly realized that deMille had overheard her.

    DeMille stood glaring at her for a moment, and then opened his mouth and said, “Lunch!”

  7. Laren Bright Says:

    If it was the Red Sea, why didn’t they use red Jello?

    Never mind.

  8. Glenn W. Says:

    Great post Tim.
    My father came to Hollywood in the late 30s from a small town in Illinois to seek fame and fortune in the movie industry. Spent 32 years with Columbia Studios working in the very same kinds of environments you so well relate. He began carrying cameras, loading film, and probably pushing those on roller skates holding the camera,and rose to become a First Cameraman just prior to his untimely death.
    I well remember his stories. EVERYONE took part in problem solving and at the end of the day (especially during locations)they shared the successes and failures of each. No such thing as going off to one’s own trailer in isolation.
    I believe dad would be troubled were he here to witness many of the not-so-pleasant changes that have occurred over the past fifty years.
    Thanks for the jolting the memory.

  9. Maria Yolanda Aguayo Says:

    So much fun to learn new things about one of my favorite films.

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I’m glad this interested people. I’ll probably eventually write something set in Hollywood in the 20s. I’ve had an image in my head for years of a big Victorian house, lights burning and a band playing inside, being towed down Wilshire Boulevard in the middle of the night, to its new location at the beach, with a Hollywood party going on inside. A sort of locked-room mystery with someone very much like Busby Berkely, whom I have to blog about some day, as host.

    Anyway . . . A kind of delayed response to Everett’s comment — I actually think I like older movies (generally) better than newer ones. Old movies seem to be about people, while newer ones often seem to be about movies – what they can do now, how they can stretch the medium, etc., etc. And a lot of blowing things up. I know there are lots of exceptions, but in the old days they had to point the cameras at people because there wasn’t much else to photograph; I mean, how often are you going to put Jello in a movie?

    FHH, no shame about reading Terry Pratchett. I’ve read him myself, and I’ll bet a million bucks that Laren has.

    Gary, I’m so happy to see you screwing up with the bold. HhhhhaaaaaHAAAAAAAhaaaaaa. So there.

    And I don’t know who the actress was, but maybe she comes later in the book. He could be pretty fierce on a set.

    Laren, since the movie was in black & white, how do you know they didn’t? Although probably not, since red photographs black in b&w and they wouldn’t want people to think it was the Black Sea.

    Glenn, I wish I’d heard some of your father’s stories. That was an enchanted time, one when everything was about invention. There were egos, crooks, exploiters, and thieves of the imagination, but what an era. There were small crews (actors included) that were on the road eight to ten months a year, looking for a great location. When they found one, they’d write a movie to suit the place, shoot it, and then send it off to the studio. Victor Fleming, who directed both “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind” got his start doing that. Yikes.

    Thanks, Maria. It’s one of mine, too. It’s amazing to be able to have these things on DVD.

  11. Jim Newport Says:

    Kudos, Tim. You set yourself a stupid goal and you’re sticking to it. I admire that.
    This blog on C.B. & the early craft of filmmaking is fascinating. Having spent close to 40 years in the trenches of Hollywood, I am still fascinated with the inventiveness and imagination that the craft fosters. As I said in my Hollywood novel “Tinsel Town” – I believe we had the most fun because we got to see the magic transpire in front of the camera. Huge sets, giant special effects – not the same as watching actors with spotting chips on their leotards running around on a green stage.
    I don’t understand though, how you can keep this up – and continue to turn out your novels. Something’s got to give.

  12. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I have to cop to being quite starstruck, and always wonder “how do they do that?’ But Jello!?! My daughter worked for the Star Trek production company in the nineties, and she took me on a tour, and I wandered around open mouthed. They still had the old chintzy black velvet curtain with the stars on it, and she showed me how they made things work, using visual effects-her area. What I loved most was the “industry” of it. All the people rushing here and there, literally building a world. And it took them all to make it happen. You seem to come up with something every day that is of interest in this huge undertaking. Yay!

  13. Sharai Says:

    Another sucker for the magic of Hollywood signing in! All my childhood allowances were squandered at Hollywood Blvd. matinees. Have there ever been any psychological studies connecting mood disorders to obsessive adolescent cinema attendance? One minute your sitting in the dark swooning over how profoundly intense and glamorous everything is, then suddenly your back out on the gritty Blvd. where the sun is blinding, chewing gum and spittle are stuck to the sidewalk stars, and on the walk home your accosted by a flasher asking for directions?

    Oops, maybe I’ve revealed a little too much?! Hollywood is a place meant to be loved from afar. Please do write your ’20’s Hollywood novel. I think you could really do it right,’Chinatown’ Hallinan style!

    Margaret Coel did a nice thing in ‘Silent Spirit’. She weaves the true story of the silent film, ‘Covered Wagon’, which was the first to use “real indians” into her Arapaho who dunnit novel. There were live performances during the premier at the Egyptian! If only I’d been born 30 years earlier!

  14. Suzanna Says:

    Great stuff, Tim.

    Found this on imdb,(the story Gary was talking about):

    “In another famous story, DeMille was on a movie set one day, about to film an important scene. He was giving a set of complicated instructions to a huge crowd of extras, when he suddenly noticed one female extra talking to another. Enraged, DeMille shouted at the extra, “Will you kindly tell everyone here what you are talking about that is so important?!” The extra replied, “I was just saying to my friend, ‘I wonder when that bald-headed son of a bitch is going to call lunch.'” DeMille glared at the extra for a moment, then yelled, “Lunch!”

  15. Sylvia Says:

    I hadn’t recognised that this was clearly the inspiration for Pratchett’s Holy Wood. I will go reread it now!

    I used to love visiting the studios when I was a girl, especially Universal Studios. I heard it is much more amusement park than studio these days, which is a shame.

  16. Cliff Stanford Says:

    One incidental point you didn’t mention is that, in order to have a sequence run backwards, they would simply invert the camera.

  17. Larissa Says:

    Huh. I’ll never look at the parting of the Red Sea the same away again…’cause wow. Perhaps it’s a sign of how much I grew up in the age of expecting cool special effects, but it never really occurred to me how they made that work back then. I mean, there are movies that definitely get me thinking about the way things had to have been done but that particular scene is so epic and well done that it never crossed my mind.


    Neat stuff. Thanks for the post.

  18. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hey, Jim — Glad to hear about the new book, and thanks again for giving me the credit due for sticking with something stupid. It pinches the writing time a little, but I’m writing faster and with more certainty (probably illusory) so it all evens out. Thank God I enjoy all this, because it’s pretty much all I do.

    Hi, Lil — Magic is what the films are, but I’m growing to believe I liked the old magic best — just as I’m coming to think that cinematography and lighting reached a pinnacle in the days of black and white film. And it’s not nostalgia, because I certainly didn’t grow up in the era of black and white — but some of the lighting in films by Lubitsch and Dreyer and the astonishing “Midsummer Night’s Dream” directed by Max Reinhardt in 1935 is just untouchable.

    Hi, Sharai — Probably not. Gaming, sure. Internet use, sure. People didn’t have as much time to worry about nonsense like that back in the days when kids were captivated by movies. They were more likely to ask questions like, “Can they read?” I know all about the magic of film. When I was about four I saw “The King and I” because my parents’ sitter didn’t show, and it changed my life forever.

    Zanna, I finally came on that story, and it’s been much embroidered. It was an extra (male) who’d worked on many of DeMille’s films, and all he said was, “I was asking when you were going to call lunch.” DeMille’s response is accurate, though. He looked at the guy for a moment that I’m sure felt very long to the extra and then shouted, “Lunch.”

    Sylvia — MOVIES are amusement parks now, not just movie studios. Half the time you sit there ans know that someone, somewhere, is designing the ride.

    Cliff – I didn’t mention it because I didn’t think of it. Sure — the sprocket holes are symmetrical — turn it right side up and project, and it would be backwards. And the end of the reel would be out, too.

    Riss, the whole thing, for me, was that they had to make magic out of nothing. Jello. When you look at some of what Buster Keaton did, it’s paralyzing to realize that it’s all real: he was on the verge of breaking his neck several times in every film, and he actually did in one, but fortunately there was no nerve damage to the spinal cord. No blue screens, no CGI — just an amazingly courageous and agile actor who cared about the movie more than anything.

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