Saturday, October 09, 2010

Recent Trends in DeMille Scholarship

In a recent paper tracing the critical and public response to Cecil B. DeMille's 1915 film, THE CHEAT, I attempted to establish a connection between the promotion and publicity of that film by the Lasky Feature Play Co., and the emergence of DeMille as a cinema showman and "name" director. By examining period reviews, publicity items and promotional art, it became clear that DeMille's "Modern Drama" was a turning point in the director's career, one which would take him to unprecedented levels of recognition for a director.

It's always interesting to trace the reception of DeMille's work and of DeMille's image as a major Hollywood filmmaker, arguably its first "superstar" director. With the amount of film scholarship written on DeMille in recent years, it's worth revisiting some of the recent trends in this writing as to how DeMille and his status in the Hollywood film industry is represented. I will be presenting responses to a number of critical evaluations of DeMille's work, including Bob Birchard's Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood and Scott Eyman's Empire of Dreams.

I wrote the following piece on April 21, 2008, in response to a book review by Richard Schickel that appeared in the previous day's edition of the LA Times. Schickel was ostensibly reviewing Simon Louvish's Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art, but in the process, revealed far more about his own prejudices toward DeMille's complex, often contradictory body of work:

The problem that any critic faces in attempting an objective evaluation of DeMille's work is that it's nearly impossible to sort out the political and popular baggage that his carries, just as it is almost impossible to attempt objective criticism of Steven Spielberg, or even Hitchcock and Kubrick. Their names alone evoke many pre-conceived ideas that make it difficult to step back and look at the films on an individual basis.

My response is not so much to the Louvish book (which I have not yet read), 
but rather to Schickel's condescending review of the book, in which he trots 
out a parade of tired cliches and criticisms about DeMille that are hard to 
support when one actually takes the time to watch his films. Louvish is not one of my favorite writers, but he does write with enthusiasm about his 
subjects, and I applaud him for tackling the vast career of Cecil B. 
DeMille, one of the most spectacular figures to ever work in the medium. I would disagree that DeMille "lost whatever claim to artistry he might have 
made" when he turned to the spectacle film. Although he didn't become 
associated with spectacle until at least "The Ten Commandments" and "The 
King of Kings", and more fully with his sound-era historical epics, 
DeMille's work was rooted in Victorian theatre where he had his first stage experience. As for the image that DeMille perpetuated on and off the set, it 
was merely a continuation of the showmanship that was an essential part of 
Victorian spectacle (and, specifically, the work of DeMille's mentor, 
producer David Belasco). Far from being a joke in the industry, DeMille was 
one of its supreme masters, dating back to even his very first works. 
Perhaps even before Griffith, DeMille was recognized for his groundbreaking 
skill (granted, some of this may have been due to this theatrical 
background). "The Squaw Man", "The Cheat", "Joan the Woman" and a number of 
his other films from this period stand out among the works being done by 
other directors.

When Schickel talks about DeMille being "laughed at" behind his back, he is, 
of course, projecting his own superior attitudes toward DeMille's 
undoubtedly old-fashioned but immensely successful popular spectacle. This 
kind of thinking is what is precisely tired and worn-out. The DeMille model 
is still alive and well in today's spectacle, only it isn't being done as 
well anymore precisely because today's filmmakers are afraid to go to the 
lengths that DeMille was willing to in order to create the largest scale 
possible. Today's CGI-models and non-entity performers cannot compete with 
the scale sets and larger-than-life performances that DeMille offered, no 
matter how hard they try. It's easy for Schickel to take this dismissive 
tone toward DeMille's work, but ultimately, I think, too easy. DeMille's 1956 version of "The Ten Commandments" stills draws 'em in every year 
when it is shown on TV. I popped in my DVD of "Unconquered" several months ago, just to check 
out the image quality, and instead of just watching a few minutes, I 
immediately put aside my plansfor the evening and watched the entire 2 1/2 
hour film, as I could quite literally not tear myself away from the spectacle and 
adventure of it all. My favorite period of DeMille's work is his American history cycle from 1937-1952, in which he tackles the American West, the 
building of the railroad, World War II, and even the American Circus in "The 
Greatest Show on Earth", possibly the most clear continuation of Victorian 
spectacle that directly paralleled DeMille's work in cinema. Rather than describe DeMille's films as "elephantine works crumbling in the 
desert", Schickel should instead see that DeMille is more relevant than 
ever. He bridged the artistry of filmmaking combined with popular appeal to 
create grand spectacle of the highest order.

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