The Ten Commandments (1923): DeMille Completes Personal Exodus

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

The Ten Commandments (1923): DeMille Completes Personal Exodus


Birchard, Robert S, American Cinematographer


(Part I of this story appeared in AC September 1992.)

For The Ten Commandments Cecil B. DeMiIIe selected George Melford's cinematographer, Bert Glennon, later ASC, to head the photographic crew. Glennon's work on Melford's Burning Sands (Famous Players-Lasky, 1922) suggested that he was ideal to shoot the Egyptian desert scenes.

Glennon was joined by a small army of cameramen, including J. Peverell Marley, later ASC, who quickly became one of DeMille's favorite cinematographers, and Archie Stout, ASC, who was noted for his outdoor work. J. F. Westerberg also turned a crank on The Ten Commandments. Studio portrait photographer Donald Biddle Keyes brought his sense of lighting to the picture, and DeMiIIe even utilized the talents of famed ethnographer Edward S. Curtis to shoot documentary-like details of the action. Curtis was known for his work in recording the lives of American Indian tribes. His 1914 feature length film, In the Land of the Headhunters (Seattle Film Co.-World, 1914) documented vanishing tribal Hfe in the Pacific Northwest.

Ray Rennahan, later ASC, of the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation went on location to shoot color footage of the Exodus. Although Technicolor produced several pictures on its own to show off its two-color system, including the highly successful feature The Toll of the Sea (Technicolor-Metro, 1922), the major Hollywood studios showed little interest in the fledgling company. Early Technicolor was costly and unreliable. A special camera exposed two black & white frames simultaneously through red and green filters; separate prints were struck from each color record and toned in complimentary red and green dyes. Finally, the toned prints were cemented together to achieve a color image. The process doubled the amount of film exposed. Also, the double-thick prints were difficult to hold in focus on screen and often buckled in the projector.

Laboratory services for Technicolor were headed by Carl A. "Doc" Willat, older brother of Irvin Willat. With an entree to the studio, Technicolor offered to shoot for free. If DeMiIIe liked the footage, he could use it in the finished film. If he didn't, Technicolor agreed to destroy the color material. The proposal appealed to DeMiIIe. He had a long-standing interest in color on the screen and his films were noted for their use of elaborate tinting and toning. He also employed the Handschiegl stencil-color process on all of his silent films after 1917.

Rennahan's Technicolor footage met with the director's approval and was used in the picture. However, the color coverage of the Exodus did not duplicate every set-up of the black & white cameras, so DeMiIIe was forced to integrate the color scenes with tinted and toned monochrome footage. He also employed the Handschiegl process to augment the natural color footage.

The version of The Ten Commandments currently released by Paramount Home Video does not preserve the original tints and tones of the rest of film, but it does offer an opportunity to view the color footage. As odd as this may seem, the warm red and green tones of the Technicolor footage blended almost imperceptibly with the sepia-tinted scenes. An example of the Handschiegl process can also be seen in the video release in the bright orange wall of fire that halts the Pharaoh's charioteers.

Shooting in late spring, DeMiIIe encountered typical California coastal weather: night and morning low clouds and fog, with clearing by midday. A reporter visiting the location in early June wrote, "There is much fog and little sunshine... Though the scenes were supposed to take place in intense heat, the wind was so bitter that the cast and extras had to huddle in blankets to keep warm before a scene began."

As weather and the sheer complexity of the production took their toll, costs spiraled exponentially. Even before DeMiIIe started shooting the modern story, Paramount wanted out of the picture. …

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