DeMille has been out of critical favour for decades and to most people today his name is synonymous with everything they think was wrong with Hollywood in its heyday - that his movies were too commercial, too grandiose and too old-fashioned. Happily that situation seems to be improving slightly with the DVD era allowing people to see his movies looking more or less as they should look. And while US critics tended to be dismissive of DeMille even when he was at the height of his popularity in France he has long been regarded as one of the greats, and rightly so.
DeMille was more than just a director. He was one of the founders of the American film industry. He was one of the creators of Paramount Studios and one of the true pioneers of the industry. He was directing films as early as 1914. By the mid-1910s we was one of the major film-makers in Hollywood, the creative backbone of the studio that would eventually become Paramount. And unlike many of the other pioneers of the industry, forty years later he was still one of the major players in the industry.
A movie directed by DeMille was always a Cecil B. DeMille movie. He was never a director-for-hire. He directed and produced, he either initiated or approved the original concept, he exercised ultimate control over the casting. Every set and every costume was approved by him. He had the final say on whether the screenplay was acceptable or not. if he wasn’t happy with the screenplay it got rewritten. Every movie he made had the Cecil B. DeMille stamp on it, and was instantly recognisable as one of his productions. As French critics realised back in the 50s, DeMille was a true auteur.
DeMille also had the extraordinary knack of being able to continue making movies his way right up to the very end of his career, whilst still pleasing the cinema-going public. His movies expressed his own distinctive vision but he never lost touch with his audience. His last two movies were the biggest hits of his career, and his final movie, the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments, was one of the greatest box-office successes of all time. Within a few short years it had been seen by almost a hundred million people, making it still one of the most popular movies ever made, with the only real challenger being Gone with the Wind. A success on that scale from a man in his seventies at the very end of his career is without parallel.
And he was much much more than a director of epics. His output encompasses most genres. His 1920s silent comedies starring Gloria Swanson are among the best ever made. With his 1936 hit The Plainsman he transformed the western from a minor B-movie genre into a major genre worthy of the talents of the best directors in the industry.
The coming of sound made no difference to him. He refused to change his style, always insisting that the motion picture was a visual medium and that it was the image that counted. And DeMille was always technically at the cutting edge. The introduction of sound meant that the camera had to be insulated from the action by a glass wall so that the microphones would not pick up the sound of the camera. This limited the choice of camera angles and reduced the quality of the image. This was totally unacceptable to DeMille, and he did not accept it. He insisted that a solution be found, and it was found.
Scott Eyman does a magnificent job of chronicling DeMille’s career, while also giving us a thorough understanding of a very complex man. DeMille was and still is a controversial figure for both his private life and his politics. Eyman does not gloss over DeMille’s faults but he is remarkably fair about DeMille’s politics, making it clear that DeMille was always making a sincere stand on principles in which he firmly believed.
Despite his reputation as a control freak on the set DeMille was a man capable of extraordinary generosity and great kindness. He never forgot anyone who worked for him. Many of the actors of the silent era had fallen on hard times when sound came in but DeMille would always manage to find at least small parts for them in his later movies. DeMille was widely disliked, but almost always by people who did not know him. Those who actually worked for him remembered him with both reverence and affection.
This is by no means a mere exercise in hero worship. DeMille’s achievements are substantial enough to speak for themselves.
DeMille always believed in offering his audience entertainment and it’s fitting that Eyman’s biography is equally entertaining. A fascinating account of a great career that is equally valuable portrait of Hollywood at its greatest. Highly recommended.