The Squaw Man
Seven reels, set in London, New York, and a little place in Wyoming called Maverick.
The story is close to Madame Butterfly, even Beau Geste. An English cousin heads West with the onus of chicanery on him, “to save the family name”.
A princess of the Ute tribe saves his life, he marries her.
The Earl of Kerhill perishes, all is forgiven, the new Earl returns home with son and English wife.
The princess, wanted for murder, her father ready for war, abandoned, shoots herself.
Walsh’s The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw has a different outlook.
De Mille’s film has countless variations.
Stockbroker’s wife lives beyond their income, puts the Red Cross Relief Fund for Belgium in the stock market and loses it, sporty Oriental covers the loss for a tryst, she reneges and he brands her like a curio, she shoots him, her husband takes the blame and goes to trial.
The irony is, her money’s spent on terribly expensive dresses that are the most awful creations worn by any American woman in the next seventy years, she’s in “the Long Island smart-set”.
The genius of the film went over the audience’s head, reportedly.
Joan the Woman
A sturdy peasant woman, which gave Woollcott pause. Her psychology is continually shown in superimpositions, a sword between her and the English captain who loves her, Saint Michael Archangel in armor with that sword, English horsemen galloping over the courtiers of Charles VII, the sword across the poisoned cup of wine offered by Cauchon to the King, the Black Horseman on the road to Compiègne, the Millet Angelus at the stake.
The cruel barbarity of the English and their charge of witchcraft need no comment, it is this that must be atoned for in Flanders fields.
An English officer in his trench quarters digs out a medieval sword, the General wants a volunteer by midnight for a suicide mission, the officer receives the vision of Joan and dies with it in front of the German trench he has just destroyed.
By this curious means, France is saved twice, as viewed in the prism of De Mille’s construction.
The appalling flames are uniquely tinted to leave no question of the horror.
Four years before the canonization, a rare thought upon the mysteries.
The film’s external virtues were much praised at the time, but as De Mille repines in his autobiography, his structural labors were rarely if ever perceived.
A Romance of the Redwoods
Just to show that DeMille was thoroughly cursed with inoperative reviewers, Vachel Lindsay commended this film to Art Museums and in the same breath mentioned “crudities of plot”.
An unsurpassable Western comedy aped many times over. A Boston man (Winter Hall) out hunting for gold is besieged by Indians just as his niece (Mary Pickford) at home, newly-orphaned, is packing her voluminous wardrobe for a month-long journey to stay with him. The desperado “Black” Brown (Elliott Dexter) in advance of a posse finds the corpse and exchanges clothes. The girl meets him in Strawberry Flats, Calaveras.
The DeMille touch has him show her the letters he found in the dead man’s pocket, riffling them slowly for the camera. The bloody hole extending right through them is elongated, not round. She has accused him of killing her uncle, he shows her it was an arrow.
The Volga Boatman
The structure exhibits two punchlines, the Reds want the Whites to pull the boat, the Revolution is worthless. The real answer is prepared by the loathsomeness that characterizes the entire picture, it is simply the opposite of loathsomeness.
That is, the tragic note is averted. DeMille takes a different tack than Renoir in La Marseillaise, he is on nobody’s side at all, there is little or nothing to choose, the fate of Russia has reached this pass, little or nothing to say but what is said here.
“This photoplay is not a particularly brilliant entertainment. There are too many impossible ideas in it to appeal to any intelligent audience.” (Mordaunt Hall, New York Times).
The King of Kings
The two major structural functions are governed by the Technicolor sequences and the overall form of the work. The Magdalen’s feast must be outshone by the Resurrection and is so. The abundantly monstrous crime perpetrated on the humanity of Jesus must dwindle to nothing and does so.
The exegetical masterpieces of Nicholas Ray and George Stevens have a different outlook, DeMille prefers drama and above all in this instance the image that tells all, the face of H.B. Warner as Jesus, for example.
The scene is so constructed in every case as to elicit the maximum of content without elaboration, a boy is cured of his blindness, he’s very happy. The larger significance of all this is that the people should be raised up to God despite their Roman masters, among whom DeMille reckons the high priest as political appointee.
The impertinence of the infliction is prepared, as always, by an image. Jesus finds a lamb lost in the temple, the Romans don’t even know what they’re talking about.
Since the story is well-known, DeMille’s construction is more easily received, and Variety was able to comment on the “naturalness” and the quality of perfection in the acting.
The Sign of the Cross
Profound mysteries of the indicator. First sight of Rome, an old man in the narrow street. “I saw Jesus,” he tells the convocation in the grove.
The Christian virgin will not say the few words before a magistrate that will free her, the prefect goes with her to the sand of Nero’s games and “the grand potato”.
The most perfect of DeMille’s satires.
“Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?”
Four Frightened People
The essential structure exists to winnow out two godawful bores, the Press blowhard and the human contraceptive, leaving the rubber chemist and the schoolmarm to find each other in the jungle.
It’s only a work of genius, but the reviewers thought that no object.
Filmed in the Hawaiian Islands amid the thickest greenery. The performances are somewhat unusual, Herbert Marshall is initially an unpleasant character, for example, and Claudette Colbert as shy as can be, but the film is so unusual that when John Huston tried something like it twenty years later in Beat the Devil, everyone said it was lousy, too, that masterpiece.
It took Mankiewicz an enormous deal of effort to reveal all that is in DeMille’s sublime composition. There is much the same relationship between the two films as you find with Milestone’s and Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty, what was implied is more directly stated at length. A print of the Theda Bara film would likely prove illuminating.
Herod to Cleopatra, “Well, time has made you older, and wiser, ha-ha, and me younger and more beautiful!”
DeMille’s satire is far deeper than a sendup of martial exploits for the Prince of Peace, he entirely bases his mummery on a certain kind of ignorance easily remedied by storming the gates of Jerusalem in one way or another. Sneers and savage attacks by the critics prove DeMille’s point.
Many points are made in the course of the film, some of them acknowledged in writings since the premiere. The tremendous tour de force of the Crusaders storming Acre was admired by Andre Sennwald of the New York Times, but with a hollow laugh because, like Time’s reviewer, he thought the film worthless as anything but “entertainment”.
The industry of war shifts after the end of hostilities between North and South to equipping the Indians with hunting rifles, repeating rifles.
This gives rise to an Indian attack, Bill Cody and Bill Hickok serve as scouts with General Custer on the frontier, Calamity Jane lives up to her name.
Graham Greene thought it was very fine, finer than any in the way of Westerns since Victor Fleming’s The Virginian, perhaps surpassing it. Variety and Boxoffice praised it as good and well-made.
It has latterly been considered “standard” (Halliwell’s Film Guide) and “trivial” (Tom Milne, Time Out Film Guide).
The simplest expression of DeMille’s themes, and the one that garnered better favor with reviewers. Financial speculation hedges its bet against the railroad with pernicious vice at end-of-track to stall the laying.
Variety accurately saw a “super-Western”, in which DeMille’s attention is focused on a million nuances along the way. The historical model breeds many an accepted fact with no qualms, what gunmen looked like, the Irish in the Plains, Grant before the Presidency, and the portable town carried and built as Cheyenne, then Laramie.
The Sioux attack on No. 11 goes straight into David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.
North West Mounted Police
DeMille’s masterpiece at the start of the war continues the thought expressed in The Plainsman and is resumed in Unconquered, already the end of the war is foreseen.
Half-breeds lead savages against the Canadian government in the West, a Texas Ranger is after one of the plotters.
The Gatling gun is picked up by Aldrich in Vera Cruz, thence by Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch and so forth.
A noble film, great in all its facets and patiently worked to the last degree of perfection.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times left his mind at home, “as usual in Mr. De Mille’s pictures”.
“None of it’s very memorable, and the detail is poor” (Halliwell’s Film Guide).
Reap the Wild Wind
The basic structure can be identified with Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn, but this is only one of three separate and simultaneous films comprising the actual form of the work, each centered on one of the leading cast.
Milland has the Robert Newton role in Hitchcock, greatly expanded and varied, a dandified lawyer in high-steppin’ Charleston who takes on the murderous salvage thieves at Key West.
Wayne is a sea captain bested by the gang and, though eminently hostile to them, won over to their side by his lack of preferment.
Goddard is a Key West girl in the honest salvage trade, who loves a seafaring man and hates a fop. There are numerous indications that Fleming’s Gone with the Wind supplies tertiary material here, a structural hierarchy is meant by the initial cast order, though the three films are at the same time treated co-equally.
This level of complexity is often found in Altman’s films, De Mille is a progenitor.
The style, too, anticipates Altman in the richness of the sound treatment, very advanced like Hawks and Welles in the comic multiplicity of voices sometimes trailing off under the dialogue.
The screenplay is heavily worked up into a brilliant refinement full of jokes, observations, comparisons, insights and action of all kinds, an example of De Mille’s prodigious labors on every aspect of the film, every detail.
This is all too much, even now, for reviewers and critics even to begin comprehending, and so they call it “mindless entertainment”.
The Story of Dr. Wassell
He tends the most beat-up sailors you’d ever want to see and escorts them off Java when the Japs invade. That is a Navy Cross action and half the story, he isolates the source of plague in China but another man publishes first, this leads to Java and is told intermittently as flashbacks.
Critics were most hostile. Bosley Crowther (New York Times) opined that DeMille “has messed up a simple human story with the cheapest kind of comedy and romance,” James Agee said much worse.
Arkansas hogs and Chinese river snails are part of the structure, a typically complex and refined creation taking the mickey out of vile defeat and cruel orders and in sum the disaster that makes a hero out of a country doctor.
The extraordinary simplicity of the masculine-feminine lines in The Plainsman is the basis of the extraordinary complexity of this, set a hundred years earlier in the East (Col. Washington is a character, so are Mr. Mason and Mr. Dixon), a second variant after North West Mounted Police.
The structure now bears the added freight of indentured slaves from English courts of law, in addition to weapons sold amongst the Indians to confederate a fur-trapping domain west of the Alleghenies, the Ohio territory.
These themes are woven together to make the structure, and in the center there is the London girl and the wealthy American captain back from Paris, both very happy to find a log cabin in the wilderness.
This in its turn is a vital preparation for The Ten Commandments in its second version.
The soundtrack goes further than North West Mounted Police, expanding wild tracks of dialogue actually spoken in the scene, usually as the camera moves along a crowd or a gathering, the actors sometimes seen at it here or there, an effect like a chorus that is emulated by Boorman in Leo the Last.
Samson and Delilah
The best criticism, since criticism has always failed DeMille, came from King Vidor in Solomon and Sheba, which very accurately interprets the earlier film.
And next to this is Marcello Baldi’s I Grandi condottieri on the lives of Samson and Gideon, a brilliant film that transmutes the wit and psychological complexity of DeMille into a style of its own and even has the dwarf mockery in the temple scene.
The essence of the argument is Samson’s dalliance with the splendors of Philistia, he is secure in his strength. The main exegesis is Christological, and the whole problem is rent bodily asunder in The Ten Commandments, a tale that is told at the beginning of Samson and Delilah.
The Greatest Show on Earth
The legendary showman has nothing less on his mind than dismantling one by one every prestidigitation concerned with the business (Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey represent his own sphere of activity), until there is nothing left under the bare blue sky but the artists themselves and their apparatus.
The implications are staggering, no doubt, not only for De Mille scholarship but for the art in general. And then, it’s a model of criticism, in a way.
Or look at it this way. You walk down the midway past the sideshows and freaks, get a glimpse of clown alley, watch the greatly entertaining acts and finally, finally are initiated into the mysteries of the circus.
The Ten Commandments
This is a picture that must be seen in its original condition to be appreciated, and for all preference in one of the great movie palaces, like as not one remarkably similar to the palatial settings it represents, so that Moses may traipse off blessing the Lord and Nefertiri may appear carrying her son from one or another of those corridors and coulisses, and all beginning with a trompe-l’œil curtain as big as a city block out of which steps Cecil B. De Mille as big as life to address the audience.
The parting of the Red Sea is a work of art, and was repeated by Kubrick as the lunar excavation in 2001: A Space Odyssey (itself a tour de force of matteing). The precise painterly acting demanded of the players out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock, and cel animation is recognized as an art to be reckoned with.
As a work of pilgrimage, it staggers the imagination.