The Body in the Blockbuster
With its announcement of "The Greatest Event in Motion Picture History!" the poster for Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments ( 1956), reproduced as figure 16, aptly summarizes the appeal of the blockbuster motion picture as it has come to epitomize Hollywood product made during the fifties. Big, long, and expensive spectaculars like The Ten Commandments were not a new development in the history of Hollywood by any means; like several of the period's other big biblicals, The Ten Commandments was itself a remake of a silent version made by DeMille in the 1920s. But a practice in which studios turned out a number of blockbusters each year was a distinct postwar phenomenon. Perceived as that rare big film which, in its wide appeal, could overcome a shrinking and increasingly fragmented audience for motion pictures, the fifties blockbuster was the Cadillac of movies, sold explicitly as a special event: "a film for people who don't go to the pictures" ( Houston and Giller69).
During this period no film epitomized the gigantism of the fifties blockbuster better than The Ten Commandments, with its all-star cast, thousands of extras (including the Egyptian army), foreign locations, budget escalations, Academy Award winning special effects, and a final running time of three hours, 39 minutes. This film's enormous popularity was unmatched even by the other big successful films of this period, to the point where its continuous exhibition during the second half of the decade gave it the aura of a major cultural event in its own right, experienced by the entire nation and transcending the circumstances of ordinary moviegoing. First released in New York and Los Angeles on a roadshow basis in November 1956, with additional exclusive runs opening afterward in staggered fashion across the country, after just five months it had already become clear to the industry that "[t]his unprecedented boxoffice achievement answers the big question of whether a picture costing $13,500,000 can pay off its cost, and makes the prediction of a $100,000,000 world gross for the DeMille epic a distinct possibility.... New fabulous statistics and new precedents are being piled up by the DeMille production as it