DeMille: Ready for His Close-Up

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 3, 2004 | Go to article overview

DeMille: Ready for His Close-Up


Anticipating "Larger Than Life," a month-long showcase of famous movie epics, Turner Classic Movies devotes a retrospective this Monday and Wednesday to the fabulously checkered career of director Cecil B. DeMille.

The timing could hardly be better. Mr. DeMille was indelibly associated with the biblical spectacle, which has returned to prominence in recent weeks with the release of Mel Gibson's controversial blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ."

British film historian and documentarian Kevin Brownlow introduces the DeMille retrospective with a new biopic. Modestly titled "Cecil B. DeMille: An American Epic," it will be shown in separate one-hour installments, with Mr. DeMille's transition from silent movies to talkies providing a chronological intermission point, more or less.

Among the revealing video material compiled by Mr. Brownlow are clips from a TV special in which Mr. DeMille, very much the reflective elder statesman, shares a fond recollection of his father reading Bible passages to the family every evening, one selection from the Old Testament and one from the New. (Mr. DeMille survived a massive heart attack while on location in Egypt in 1954 and died in 1959, at age 77.)

This beloved patriarch, Henry de Mille, was an English professor at Columbia University, an Episcopalian lay preacher and a part-time playwright, associated with David Belasco, the foremost producer of theatrical spectacles for the New York stage. When Henry de Mille died in 1893, Cecil's mother, Mathilda, promptly turned their home into a school for girls to support Cecil and his brother William, three years older. Subsequently, she formed a theatrical agency and wrote and produced plays for another 20 years.

William (who retained the lower case "de Mille" spelling) became a successful playwright years before Cecil found his niche; the younger brother had acquired experience but no decisive vocation as an actor, writer and theater manager. Taking a chance on the emerging movie industry, Cecil linked his ambition and energy to the money-raising skills of three friends: a vaudeville producer named Jesse Lasky, a salesman named Samuel Goldfish (destined to become a Hollywood immortal as Samuel L. Goldwyn) and an attorney named Arthur Friend.

Mr. DeMille completed 20 features within his first year as "director-general" of the Lasky company. Before long, the neophyte filmmakers could boast $4 million in assets. Their operation was desirable enough to become part of the merger that resulted in Paramount, one of the enduring major studios.

At the outset, the partners improvised studio space by renovating a barn near Sunset Boulevard. They relied on the surrounding countryside to give a fresh scenic gusto to Western-themed silents derived from the stage, such as "The Virginian," "The Girl of the Golden West" and "The Warrens of Virginia" (one of William de Mille's plays for the Belasco organization).

A convert to the new medium, William de Mille also enjoyed a reputable career during the silent period. Hollywood brother acts didn't begin with the Coens. William was always considered the subtler one, but much of his work seems to have perished. His daughter, the late Agnes de Mille, became famous in her own right as a choreographer.

Miss de Mille and the late Gloria Swanson, the definitive leading lady of DeMille boudoir extravaganzas about the idle rich at the outset of the Roaring '20s, add humorous piquancy to "An American Epic." The former recalls the sense of discovery that animated her uncle during his first productions and the sense of command he acquired with success.

She also provides a useful summary of the formula that began to prevail in Mr. DeMille's pictures in the aftermath of World War I: "extreme religiosity and extreme sexuality." As she observes, it defies improvement as a combination lure, and much of the DeMille approach to melodrama is predicated on bedrock hypocrisies of human nature: a tug of war between animal impulses and spiritual longings depicted in movie parables of sin and salvation. …

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