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Cecil B. DeMille's 'Empire of Dreams'

Scott Eyman reviews life of iconic filmmaker

Mar. 2, 2011
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Cecil B. DeMille gave us the Ten Commandments by grace of Charlton Heston's descent from Sinai. He parted the Red Sea for us, as graphically pictured on the dust jacket of Scott Eyman's carefully detailed new biography, Empire of Dreams (Simon & Schuster), and he spoke the words of God to introduce his greatest achievement, the 1956 film The TenCommandments. "To see The Ten Commandmentsas a child is to be marked for life—images like the Angel of Death descending on Egypt like splayed fingers of green—brilliant metaphors given physical life," he writes.

Yet auteur purists would ridicule DeMille for the grandiose scope of his indelible images. From the beginning his films developed a hypnotic visceral quality, and, while later accused of combining religion with sex, the full measure of the DeMille chemistry—combining exotic eroticism, palpable glamour and spiritual grandeur—remains difficult to analyze today. Great stretches of sophisticated dialogue were never his forte (he was a notoriously poor speller), but his characters spoke as creatures of legend yearning to make our dreams seem real. Eyman aptly describes the DeMille mystique as "the great popular artist's gift of compelling audiences to wonder what was going to happen next to people in whose existence they did not really believe."

DeMille came from an erudite acting family. His father, a part-time preacher and full-time playwright and actor, played the Belasco theatrical circuit. A 1903 photo shows a dapper young Cecil and his pretty wife, Constance, rehearsing one of their bread-earning circuit plays. Testing the waters for filmmaking in 1913, DeMille soon realized that movies were meant to move and developed his lifelong habit of never tempering his films with subtle indirectness. His ability to isolate individual touches within the most complex crowd scenes has never been equaled.

He was fortunate to get backing from partner Jesse Lasky, whose makeshift barn would develop into Paramount studios. His early silent films were not spectacles. DeMille made The Squaw Man about a settler marrying an American-Indian woman and, more famously, a series of sophisticated contemporary comedies with glamorous superstar Gloria Swanson. The beautifully played reunion of Swanson (as Norma) and DeMille in Sunset Boulevard seemed too real to be true.

Of the signature religious spectacles that would define the DeMille legacy, the silent King of Kings (1927) glows with a spiritual luminescence that holds up to this day, discreetly downplaying its opulent settings. Along with The TenCommandments (1956) and Sign of the Cross (1932), DeMille considered these his finest achievements. His personal life was a blend of his conservativevalues, a commanding presence and a flexible moral code. Heconsidered his marriage to Constance an inviolable constant, but he admired women.

Although his later sound filmshave often been criticized for lackinghis original garish spontaneity, North West Mounted Police and The Plainsman benefited from superior casting and an energizedWestern flavor that would have made John Ford proud.He would win his only Academy Award for a circus movie, The Greatest Show onEarth (1952), but here DeMille eschewedobvious showmanship for an inside view of the daily grind behind the great tents combined with his inimitable ability tobring a touch of warmth and humor to the mostcomplex crowd scenes.By the time of Ten Commandments he had developed heart problems, but that did not prevent him from supervising difficult shots from the precarious top of his huge sets in extreme desert heat. Some of the special effects remain unequaled.

The author had access to many hitherto unavailable family documents, but while he gives DeMille his due as a great director, what remains elusive is the cinematic grandeur in his films. Eyman can only partially explain the majestic sense of wonder that DeMille's name evokes to this day.


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