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Cecil B. DeMille: Size Matters

Published: 1/21/2011
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Legacy.com contributor Chris Cooling looks back on what made Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille so great. Originally published January 2009. (Wikimedia Commons / Witzel)

Sitting in an IMAX theater waiting for the lights to go down, I was happy to feel connected to a Hollywood era I'm too young to have personally witnessed. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to see the full width of CinemaScope for the first time in 1953's The Robe. Titles like Lawrence of Arabia and The Guns of Navarone came to mind, recalling a time when the biggest, most expensive, most profitable films of the year were also often considered to be amongst the best. With this year's Academy Award nominations soon to be announced, it's worth reflecting on our love of massive spectacular entertainments – and if any one man could ever be said to have personified this concept, it's Cecil B. DeMille.

Alfred Hitchcock will always be the Master of Suspense, John Ford the Poet Laureate of the American West. DeMille, who died Jan. 21, 1959, is remembered for something much simpler: putting bloody great things (ornate sets, crowds of extras, natural disasters, special effects, Charlton Heston's chest, Claudette Colbert's chest) in front of the camera and letting the audience know they're getting their money's worth.

You probably don't need me to remind you about his 1956 version of The Ten Commandments, and you probably won't be surprised if I point out that, despite it's ubiquity around Easter, it's not an especially spiritual film. If DeMille's classic can truly be said to be about anything, it is about spectacle itself: what is the film's central conflict if not a challenge between Yul Brynner's Rameses and Heston's Moses to determine who can produce the most spectacular stuff? For the first two hours, we marvel at Egyptian engineering: the raising of an obelisk, the palaces, the Pyramids. Then, right before intermission, Moses meets a burning bush and comes back after our bathroom break with plagues, hail, and the parting of the Red Sea. Who could compete with that?

Tastemakers, critics and intellectuals, that's who. Watching The Ten Commandments today, it's easy to forget that the film was old-fashioned even in 1956, made by a man in his mid-seventies who'd been directing since the silent era. It was his last film, one that nearly killed him to make (he suffered a heart attack while orchestrating a crowd scene), and it shows. While Hitchcock and Ford modernized with Psycho and The Searchers, DeMille stuck to the hesitant editing and camera movement that marked much early cinema. Many noticed a DeMille narrative formula and mocked it. As early as the 1920s, his own brother William saw through Cecil's realization that a wrath-of-God climax was a great way to keep censors from cutting out all of the sinning that preceded it: "Having attended to the underclothes, bathrooms and matrimonial irregularities of his fellow citizens, he now began to consider their salvation."

Praising DeMille, then, is a tricky task: on the one hand, he's too important to completely dismiss as "camp" or "cheese," while on the other, it's difficult to sincerely make the case for him as an underappreciated artist. The only moment in DeMille's career that comes close to subtlety or introspection is his performance as himself in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. DeMille is the one decent person in an otherwise scathing indictment of Hollywood's indifference to talent once their stars have faded. He has a lovely soliloquy about the former glory of Gloria Swanson's "Norma Desmond" (Swanson is, in effect, playing herself). The moment is poignant because it gives us a rare chance to see the man reflect on an industry he helped build: "You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit."

Eulogizing DeMille in 1959, the New York Times called him the "Phineas T. Barnum of the movies – a showman extraordinary". An apt comparison, especially since DeMille finally won an Oscar for producing 1952's best picture, a circus extravaganza modestly titled The Greatest Show on Earth. To some this may appear a backhanded compliment, a suggestion that DeMille put his ego before his craft and accomplished little more than the swindling of his audiences. Such an attitude does a disservice to both men, and it misremembers an American cultural history predicated on marveling at the country's inherent bigness.

For DeMille, size is both style AND content. And so, to fully capture America on screen, perhaps one shouldn't aim for nuance, but instead celebrate it as a wondrous attraction, its truths inseparable from its fictions, much like Barnum's exhibits. Only DeMille could open a film like The Plainsman by saying "The story that follows compresses many years, many lives and widely separated events into one narrative – in an attempt to justice to the courage of the plainsman of our west," and then follow that statement with a prologue in which Abraham Lincoln single-handedly invents the concept of western expansion moments before his wife takes him out for an evening at Ford's theater.

Did Lincoln really end slavery AND invent cowboys? Of course not – but there is a truth in our desire to believe that he could have, that his greatness was even greater than we previously knew. Cecil B. DeMille and the Hollywood he helped build are nothing if not grand testaments to that ongoing love of greatness and the faith in potential free from all possible limits.

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Chris Cooling teaches film at the College of Lake County. His writing has appeared in American Cinematographer and the Canadian Journal of Film Studies.

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