DeMille and the Ten Commandments (1923): A Match Made in Heaven

By Birchard, Robert S | American Cinematographer, September 1992 | Go to article overview

DeMille and the Ten Commandments (1923): A Match Made in Heaven


Birchard, Robert S, American Cinematographer


(This article, part one of two, is adapted from Mr. Birchard's forthcoming book "Cecil B. De Mille - In Pursuit Of The Grand Award," to be published by Vestal Press.)

A three-page ad for Paramount Pictures in the December 8, 1923 issue of Motion Picture News proclaimed:

"RICHES, RICHES, RICHES-Never before in the history of Famous Players-Lasky Corporation has Paramount offered to exhibitors a greater line-up of pictures than the ten that are now coming:

"To The Ladies - The Call Of The Canyon - Big Brother - West Of The Water Tower - Don't Call It Love - flaming Barriers - The Humming Bird - Pied Piper Malone - Shadows Of Paris - The Next Corner

"Nearly all of these pictures have been completed, and all of them have been screened sufficiently to allow us to promise, in the name of Paramount, that each one of them contains every element for tremendous box-office success."

What makes the three-page spread remarkable is what it doesn't say. Cecil B. DeMille's production of The Ten Commandments premiered at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles on December 4,1923 and was scheduled to open at the George M. Cohan Theatre in New York on December 21 in its first road show engagements. With a final negative cost of nearly 1.5 million dollars, The Ten Commandments was the most expensive picture ever produced by Famous Players-Lasky - it may even have been the most expensive picture produced by anyone up to that time. Cecil B. DeMiIIe was the studio's number-one box-office director; his nearly unbroken string of hits made Paramount Pictures the envy of the industry. Yet there was no mention of The Ten Commandments in the Paramount trade ad.

DeMille's picture was featured in an ad on the inside back cover of the December 22 issue of Motion Picture News, but it was left to the Precision Machine Company to announce:

The Ten Commandments

a Paramount Production

opens at the

COHAN THEATRE

New York City

with

SIMPLEX

Projectors

If the makers of Simplex projectors thought The Ten Commandments was worth a cross-plug, why didn't Paramount find their million and a half dollar picture worthy of a mention? The Ten Commandments received no attention in Paramount trade ads during the entire month of December, 1923. "Motion Picture News" didn't even review the film!

Why did the company virtually ignore the 1923 DeMille special? To put it simply, Cecil B. was in the doghouse.

Although DeMille had been promised the opportunity to make another large-scale screen epic ever since the box-office failure of his 1917 superproduction ]oan The Woman, the company was reluctant to indulge the director's desire to "paint on a large canvas." Proposed film versions of The Wanderer, Morgan The Pirate, and a life of Richard the Lion Heart were rejected by studio heads Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky in favor of sumptuous but controllable modern-day domestic comedies like Why Change Your Wife?, Don't Change Your Husband, and The Affairs Of Anatol.

At other studios, however, big pictures were meeting with box-office success. Douglas Fairbanks brought The Three Musketeers (1921) and Robin Hood (1922) to the screen. At Metro, Rex Ingram made The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) and was scheduled to produce Scammouche (1923) on a grand scale. Fox released expensive versions of The Queen of Sheba (1921) and Monte Cristo (1922). Even economy-minded Universal announced The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923) as a big-budget Super Jewel, and (if publicity was to be believed) allowed Erich von Stroheim a virtually unlimited budget on his "million dollar picture" Foolish Wives (1922). All of these movies were influenced greatly by DeMille's pioneering efforts, but at Famous Players-Lasky DeMille himself felt constrained by studio limitations on subject matter and budget.

Paramount was slow to join the big parade, but Jesse Lasky found an opportunity in Emerson Hough's "Saturday Evening Post" serial, The Covered Wagon. …

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