Ready for His Close-Up

Article excerpt

Byline: Malcolm Jones

In 1926, while filming The King of Kings, director Cecil B. DeMille moved his cast and crew to Catalina Island, off the coast of California. There, while -shooting the Galilee and loaves-and-fishes sequences, he housed everyone in tents to promote a sense of community on the project.

Not everyone was happy with the tents, including H. B. Warner, the actor playing Christ. One day, in the middle of a scene, a yacht sailed into camera range. When an enraged DeMille learned that the yacht belonged to his leading man, he said, "If I thought Mr. Warner needed a yacht, I'd have brought my own. Just who does he think he is?"

"Jesus Christ, sir," replied a crew member.

DeMille digested this and then said, "That puts me at something of a disadvantage, doesn't it?"

Mark it down as one of the very few times anyone ever got the better of Cecil B. DeMille.

The superb film historian Scott Eyman includes this anecdote in his admiring and exhaustive new DeMille biography, Empire of Dreams, a life of the man who, as much as anyone, forged our idea of Hollywood. Here and elsewhere, Eyman labors to unlock the contradictions in DeMille's puzzling personality, or at least to put some flesh on the legend. Good as Eyman is, it's uphill all the way. DeMille was a master showman onscreen and off. No one ever worked harder to mold a public mask or keep it in place. He ruled with a despot's hand and a hambone's instincts. From his knee-high boots right up to the megaphone through which he communicated to his casts of thousands, he cultivated an image of dashing, unquestionable authority. …