The Stupid 365 Project, Day 75: Going Through DeMille

December 16th, 2010

Stayed up half the night finishing Empire of Dreams, Scott Eyman’s brilliant bio of Cecil B. DeMille.

It takes Eyman more than 500 tightly packed pages to tell the story, and he probably could have used 500 more.

DeMille was one of a kind.  The only one of the early film pioneers who continued to make films — successful films — for more than fifty years, he moved forward with the times (often, in fact, moving them forward) while keeping one calf-high boot back in the theatrical spectacles of the 19th century.  His father, Henry, wrote plays for and with David Belasco, the greatest American turn-of-the-century stage impresario, and DeMille’s story aesthetics remained firmly rooted in Belasco territory.  His approach to story was being called “old-fashioned” in the 1930s.

But people loved his films.  And he made unique films, films no other directors could make.  Ask his sometimes-antagonist, the brilliant Joseph Mankiewicz, who never completely recovered from trying to “do a DeMille” with “Cleopatra” and came back with a sodden mess of overcooked corn.  DeMille could somehow see his films on an absolutely architectural scale while remaining aware of the smallest details.  Charlton Heston remembers being costumed and cranked up to part the Red Sea in Egypt for the second “Ten Commandments” with 8.000 extras in the shot, while DeMille moved them around one at a time, telling a woman to drape her cloak over her left shoulder rather than the right, and Heston was thinking, “Oh, my God, is he going to deal with all 8,000 of them?”

While shooting on broiling, difficult locations  in Egypt, DeMille suffered a massive heart attack.  He was an old man at the time, making the most expensive film in history, and he knew Paramount would shut the movie down.  So he delegated everything he could and moved as little as possible, all the while getting injections of God only knows what from Dr. Max Jacobson, the “Doctor Feelgood” who went on to treat half of Hollywood and John F. Kennedy before his license was yanked.

And somehow, DeMille wrapped the Egyptian shoot early and under budget, without Paramount hearing a word.

He was murder on writers, especially those who preferred a story rooted in character and logic.  Here’s what he actually said to the writers working on “Reap the Wild Wind”:

“What, in ‘Reap the Wild Wind,’ would galvanize headhunters in the Amazon River jungle?  What would fascinate Eskimos in their igloos, harness harassed housewives, rivet restless children . . . Because until we’ve got that, gentlemen, we haven’t got a moving picture.”

What they gave him was (a) a swordfight under water; (b) interrupted by the attack of a giant squid; (c) while a tsunami strike the ships up above.  As DeMille kept saying to himself as he thought about it, “And in Technicolor!”

But I don’t mean in any way to make fun of him.  DeMille was an enormously complex man, a great pioneer, and a legitimate film artist.  He managed to go out on a high note; the second version of “The Ten Commandments” was his last film.  And as much of a tyrant as he could be, he had a deep sweetness to him.  He brought his wife, Constance, lost in the fog of Alzheimers to the first screening of “The Ten Commandments,” handling her as though any tiny impact would shatter her.  On the night of his final heart attack, he was hurried to bed and the doctors called.  The next morning, when people went into his room, the bed was empty, and they found him in Constance’ room, holding her hand.  They got him back to bed, and he died that day.

And I want to say that Scott Eyman is the genius of the serious motion picture biography.  What a writer.

5 Responses to “The Stupid 365 Project, Day 75: Going Through DeMille”

  1. Laren Bright Says:

    Thaks for running us through de Mille.

  2. Suzanna Says:

    Thanks for the book review for EMPIRE OF DREAMS. Sounds like something my hubby would enjoy.

    I knew very very little about early film history, and near nothing about Cecil B. DeMille so it’s really great to learn about his mad ingenuity, and determination, and begin to understand how influential he’s been.

    One of my favorite classic epic masterpieces: David Lean’s LAURENCE OF ARABIA. It’s almost fifty years old and it holds up beautifully.

  3. Gary Says:

    DeMille’s exit would have to be the most moving thing I’ve read in a long, long time.

    Thanks, Tim.

  4. Gary Says:

    FINALLY found all that gelatin in “The Ten Commandments.”

    But now I’ve lost Charlton Heston. And all the color’s faded. And I can’t hear a damn thing on the sound track.

    Just not my day, I guess.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Sorry to be late again. Life is just too interesting.

    Laren, you’re welcome to join me down by deMille on de Floss if you’re feeling classical.

    Soozy, Eyman is just the best in the field. The bio of Louis Mayer, THE LION OF HOLLYWOOD and this one are models of the genre. What a marvelous writer.

    Gary, it made me pretty weepy, I can tell you. And this was the guy who was a holy terror on the set, the guy who started the whole cliche of the director in puttees and riding boots.

    Gary, the way the universe is structured is a zero-sum game. You get either Heston or the Jello, but not both. And I’ve been telling you for years you need to get your ears checked.

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