Pre-Code DeMille


If ever a director needed to be rescued from his own reputation it is Cecil B DeMille.
He is still a ‘name’, still one of the half-dozen most likely responses to the command 'name a famous film director'. It is a name synonymous with religious epics, thousands of extras and old-fashioned special effects, but he was in reality so much more: a supreme craftsman whose work ranges across eras, genres and styles with confidence and abandon, a true pioneer, a stylist who made huge advances in film form and grammar, a contemporary of cinema itself.

Legend insists that he actually invented Hollywood, by deciding to shoot The Squaw Man (1914) there because it had been raining at his original choice of location; Flagstaff, Arizona. Other firsts to which he could plausibly lay claim include the first showing – and certainly the popularising – of bathrooms, the first use of artificial lighting and lighting effects such as varying the amount of light when characters turn down a lamp or enter a dark room, the first use of the boom, the first use of sound-insulated mobile talkie cameras, the first independent film studio.
All this as well as being one of the few directors whose name alone could sell a picture, and a showman whose internal radar was tuned exactly to the public mood for five decades: this is achievement enough.

But it is a pity that his status as an impersonal assembler of epic spectacles, and as the quintessential Hollywood autocrat (with megaphone, jodhpurs and an assistant paid to follow him about carrying his chair) impedes true acknowledgement of his versatility and the range of his achievements.
He was a pioneer of westerns, he made a star of Gloria Swanson in a series of silent examinations of contemporary sexual mores, and he produced a number of silent masterpieces fully comparable to Griffith's in dramatic scope and formal innovation.
His later epic films are sort of a joke today, no longer respected, their biblical seriousness a supposed embarrassment, the fact that they commanded vast audiences a profound mystery. Samson and Delilah (1949) with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr, now remembered chiefly for Groucho Marx's retort that he never sees films where the man's tits are bigger than the woman's, was a huge hit in its day and still, surely, compulsively watchable, the work of a man besotted with the resources of his medium.
To love these last films, as I do, is a bit like loving Jayne Mansfield or Edward D Wood, Jr; they have the whiff of camp about them. The status of imperishable masterpiece that was instantly accorded The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and The Ten Commandments (1956, which saw Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea in vindication of Cinemascope - the last technical innovation DeMille lived long enough to make his own) was withdrawn long ago, but I can only hope that future audiences confronted with their sweep, story-telling panache and mastery of form will wonder why with genuine confusion.

I've not yet seen a DeMille film I haven't loved. I love the silents. I love the epics. But my absolute favourites of the man's films are those brittle, surprisingly erotic chamber pieces so characteristic of the pre-Code early sound era. Indeed one of them - Madam Satan - is probably, if I must be so drawn, the strongest contender for the title of my favourite film of all time.
I admire these films partly for their sumptuous art deco trimmings, sociological detail, stars and bewitching pre-Code content, but most of all for their sheer wildness: the way in which they cram about a dozen plots into each one, and constantly bamboozle the audience.
Every time we think we know what is going to happen next, we are proved epically wrong by some new and unforeseen twist, as often as not taking the film into an entirely different mood, rhythm, even genre.
But also it seems to me that there is real greatness here; these are the work of a true artist responding to the challenge of the talkies as creatively as Mamoulian or Lubitsch. These were also, incidentally, the last contemporary films he ever made (with the exception of Greatest Show which, though nothing like as strange, is still the only of his later films they even vaguely resemble).
For in amongst them had come The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934), both with Claudette Colbert, revealingly bathing in milk in one, fetishistically-clad - with little regard for historical accuracy but much for what would look sensational on Claudette Colbert - in the other; they made a mint and led to his rebranding as Hollywood's foremost purveyor of epic spectacle, be the subject historical, biblical or biographical. From here on the DeMille brand would guarantee size and significance, a wide canvas and the proverbial cast of thousands.

But Dynamite (1929) and Madam Satan (1930) are among the most unclassifiable films ever made. They start as society comedies and lurch into emotional drama, suspense, musical, tragedy and disaster movie.
Dynamite begins by alternating two stories. First, a society drama reminiscent of the Swanson films: Johnson (a refined and elegant actress, and the mother of James Cromwell) is a socialite in love with a married man - it's all out in the open, but his wife is being difficult and stalling over the divorce - and DeMille treats us to the usual gorgeous parties, hi-jinks and shocking modern attitudes.
At the same time, we are being kept abreast of a much gloomier sequence of events: Bickford, a rough miner and sole custodian of an infant sister, is on trial for murder, found guilty and sentenced to death. To avoid her being sent to an orphanage, he advertises his body for medical research.
Johnson hears of his plight at the same time that she learns she will come into an inheritance only if she is married at the time of her next birthday, so she offers Bickford a large sum of money to marry her on Death Row. (The scene of their marriage in the prison, with one of the inmates singing a mournful lament and the full truth of what is happening suddenly dawning on an increasingly distraught Johnson, is brilliantly handled by DeMille: a really gripping little nugget of cinema.)
Next day, Johnson is too anguished to read the papers and learn that Bickford is dead. But we have seen a gangster confess to the crime for which Bickford was sentenced, and know that he has been reprieved. Enter Bickford, a crude son of the soil, into Johnson's palatial apartment, alive, married and fully intending to set up home.
And the film is only one third through! There are dozens more twists and surprises before the extraordinary ending that finally explains the title.

Madam Satan makes a fascinating companion piece, though it is noticeably lighter in tone.
Johnson again - still refined and elegant, but just wait till you see the costume DeMille gets her into - this time as the slightly staid, long-suffering wife of rakish Reginald Denny (yes, Reginald Denny) who, with his wealthy playboy pal Roland Young (yes, Roland Young) has been making whoopee in the company of a deliciously tarty gold-digger called Trixie (Lillian Roth at her very best, delivering a great song number and looking sensational in an even more outrageous costume than Johnson's.)
After a lot of very funny farce, involving Denny's attempts to pass Trixie off as Young's new wife, the film's final act sees Johnson winning Denny back by disguising herself as French-accented Madame Satan, the sexually provocative mystery woman who turns up at Young's costume party on a zeppelin.
The girls, in a variety of fantastic art deco costumes, are introduced one at a time (in rhyming couplets) then auctioned off among the men! A bidding war soon begins for the mysterious Madam Satan, totally upstaging an enraged Trixie. (Johnson looks great in her outfit, all the same, it's Roth for me.)
Since this is DeMille, a more dramatic ending is required, so the zeppelin is struck by lightning, and the guests, in full costume, have to save themselves by parachute (courtesy of some gorgeous process shots). At the end, Denny has learned his lesson, and settles back into domestic harmony with Johnson, safe in the knowledge that there is a Madam Satan beneath the refined exterior.

Madam Satan
is an impossible film to describe to anybody who has not seen it: all I've managed to convey is something of the plot. It is perhaps the most gorgeous, sumptuous-looking product of the entire pre-Code era, with incredible decor and costumes, and delightful examples of what was then the last word in wit, sophistication and daring modern subject matter.
In tandem with Dynamite it concludes and perfects his run of marital dramas that had included most of the Gloria Swanson silents, such greats as Don't Change Your Husband, Why Change Your Wife? and The Affairs of Anatol, whilst adding the Male and Female refinement of further testing the dynamics of a given situation through the addition of physical disaster. 
The only part of the story that doesn't make sense for me is the fact that it was not a box-office hit; in fact it was one of DeMille's very few box-office disasters. Perhaps it was too much of its time - whatever, it seems amazing now.

Though considerably less exuberant and excessive, Four Frightened People (1933), a sexual satire on how the smart set conduct themselves in the wilderness, is equally perfect a snapshot of its time. It is another of DeMille’s weird anti-genre films, part survival melodrama, part sex comedy, part action film, and part parody.
It too looks back, this time explicitly to Male and Female, but with a much less didactic and more playful agenda. Instead of allowing the shipwreck to reorder the power structures within the escapees, it instead acts as a Freudian liberator, releasing sexual jealousies within the men and turning Claudette Colbert's prim, horn-rimmed schoolmistress into a vampish jungle goddess. With each successive day in the jungle, and as each layer of clothing is jettisoned and replaced with animal skins, the true natures of the characters are more and more revealed.
The film seems to take its inspiration from one throwaway scene in the earlier movie, the one where one-time mistress Swanson and one-time maid Lila Lee kitten-fight first over who has access to the pan they use as a mirror and then over who is going to serve one-time butler Thomas Meighan. The absurdity of the shifting roles, the innate humour of this kind of pettiness thriving in such desperate straits and the suggestion that in everyday society animal passions lie beneath the most fragile of surfaces are what interest DeMille here - that and the skimpy costumes, obviously.
But it, too, fell between stools for audiences, who took it to be a rugged survival drama, and were alienated by some of the broad comedy. Not even much-trumpeted authentic location photography and a nude swim for Colbert were enough to make it a hit. Its frivolity is unusual even for a DeMille film of this time, but while it lacks the sheer extravagance of Dynamite and Madam Satan it shares with them an overt exploitation of every license available to the pre-Code filmmaker.

This Day and Age (1934) is altogether different: it sticks to a single course, a single narrative and a single style. It is deadly serious, playing somewhat in the manner of politically conservative populist melodramas like Gabriel Over the White House, The Beast of the City and the early Capra films, and then some.
In it, a group of high-school students kidnap a gangster (Charles Bickford again) and force him to confess to the murder of a Jewish tailor after a jury release him for lack of evidence. There is a mesmerising sequence (usually dubbed morally 'disturbing' or even 'terrifying' by pious critics) in which the villain is suspended by ropes over a pit of rats which is plainly, if not openly, inspired by the 'kangaroo court' scene from Fritz Lang's M, made a couple of years earlier.
But Lang's film is made morally ambiguous by the fact that that the vigilante court trying Peter Lorre's child murderer is comprised of professional criminals; Lorre's objection that they are knowingly immoral whereas he is to some extent a victim of impulses he loathes but cannot control carries some weight. Here, the inquisitors are clean-cut heroes and the defendant the equivalent of Lang's jury: DeMille allows for no ambiguity of interpretation. We are expected to approve of this act of vigilante justice, and of course we do. The scene, and the whole film, is utterly thrilling: thrilling dramatically, cinematically, emotionally, and in the sheer unusualness of its stance.
Of course, modern critics affect to be shocked by the film’s political message: it is, they say, fascist. A group of kids so incensed at the murder of a defenceless Jewish tailor by a gang of untouchable thugs, and by the law’s inability to deal with the matter, that they round up the culprit and force a confession: almost exactly how Nazi Germany started. (As Michael Winner remarked when the fascist tag was applied to Death Wish: "People bandy this word around as if they knew what it meant.")

These kinds of worries still dominate writing on DeMille; there is a lot more interest in him now than in the last twenty-five years, but a disapproving condescension too often prevails as tone. Robert S. Birchard's Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood is a stunning exception, but Simon Louvish's recent biography certainly reflects this. He is vaguely supportive of the epics and makes a strong case for reclaiming several of the silents as masterpieces, but on this era he is lost entirely. The most he can find to say in favour of Dynamite is that it "remains archival in value, one of the curiosities of the nascent talkies." Madam Satan is "arguably DeMille's weirdest film" and "almost interminable". He asks: "Is Four Frightened People DeMille's weakest film..?" and adds "This Day and Age, certainly, has few partisans these days."
Hey! Simon!!!
In the same mood he reprints Joseph Mankiewicz's account of the legendary fracas among the board members of the Screen Directors Guild over the signing of the non-Communist oath, but makes no mention of the strong reasons advanced by Birchard, borne out by the recollections of Robert Parrish, for doubting its accuracy. He certainly relies on Birchard as a key source, but while he studiously notes every instance of DeMille's support for the blacklist, he opts to omit Edward G Robinson's verdict after DeMille defied the blacklist to sign him for The Ten Commandments:

I was doomed both by age and former political leanings to a slow graveyard. The top directors and producers wouldn't have me...
No more conservative or patriarchal figure existed in Hollywood (than DeMille), no one more opposed to communism... And no fairer one, no man with a greater sense of decency and justice...
Cecil B. DeMille returned me to films. Cecil B. DeMille restored my self-respect.