The Greatest Show on Video:
David Shepard on Restoring DeMille
May 25, 1997
By Dan Lybarger
When most people think of the legendary director Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959), they think of his gargantuan 1956 version of The Ten Commandments which plays every Easter on network television. DeMille’s legacy is actually much broader. He directed over eighty films (including the very first Hollywood feature film The Squaw Man from 1913), helped create the studio system, and influenced how today’s movies are made and marketed.
Looking at DeMille’s silent movies reveals why he is a significant figure. Kino on Video is releasing six of his best next month in the Cecil B. DeMille: The Visionary Years 1915-1927 series. Speaking from his facilities in northern California, David Shepard, who produced the new restorations, says, "They’re extraordinary films, and DeMille, from his early silent period, is unknown and quite a different director from the kind of person that people imagine when people think of his later Biblical spectacles. This is a body of work that really deserves public accessibility."
While The King of Kings (1927), a retelling of biblical incidents, resembles the more familiar sound movies that DeMille made, the series also includes the Russian Revolution adventure The Volga Boatman (1926), the innovative psychological drama The Whispering Chorus (1918), Male and Female (1919) which made a star out of Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard), and two films which starred Geraldine Farrar, Carmen (1915) and Joan the Woman (1916), which was also the director’s first historical epic. "I chose these films to represent a cross-section of what he had done in the silent era, films which had not been widely available and some of which hadn’t been seen since they were new. The King of Kings was an exception. The film has been in constant distribution since it was new, but it was the film DeMille was proudest of, so it’s the centerpiece of the whole series. In the early silent days, DeMille was a real screen artist, as good as anyone making movies."
For example, the Farrar films are worth viewing because they helped give the growing film industry a new respectability, even though she was not known as a film actress. Shepard explains, "(Farrar) was absolutely the top opera star of her day and was a popular culture heroine at a level that would be reserved today only for important rock stars. To get Geraldine Farrar into a movie at a time when movies were still struggling to legitimate themselves as worthy of even a middle class audience was a tremendous coup. Although you might think it a silly idea to sign the foremost opera star to appear in silent pictures, she was a terrific movie actress, she loved doing it, and everybody loved her."
While Farrar’s presence gave DeMille’s movies prestige, DeMille became a force to be reckoned with because he knew how to court a mass audience better than anyone else did. Shepard says, "He was interested in offering the things that audiences were interested in seeing: spectacle, seduction, sin. He was very good at offering that for eight reels and bringing it all together for a moral finale in the ninth. That’s more characteristic of his later work: Carmen, The Whispering Chorus and Joan the Woman represent fresh, original, non-formulaic approaches. He looked around for a long time for the most effective formula for him (to reach a mass audience). Once he finally did lock on it, he made the same movie over and over again, which he did to a large extent in later years."
An example of this formula can be seen in The King of Kings where the opening scene is actually a big party. In addition, the images of Jesus and his times mix historical record and historical license. "It was based on the expectations of people which were derived from nineteenth-century art. Jesus was probably short, squat and Semitic, but he’s not in The King of Kings."
In addition to the usual thrills and spectacle, Shepard states there are other rewards to watching DeMille’s movies. "He’s so much of his time. You can, in these films, trace the rise of consumer society and all kinds of things about gender relationships that change as the decades pass in his films," he says.
DeMille was able to stay prominent as times changed in part because he knew more than filmmaking and popular tastes. Shepard says, "He was always very shrewd at promoting himself so that ‘Cecil B. DeMille’ as a name was a viable commodity, as important as any actor he could get." In fact, some of those promotional skills have helped current directors. "If it’s a (Steven) Spielberg movie, no one cares who’s in it. The same was true with DeMille, although he did use important actors. He learned that lesson from the box office."
While the images from these films are breathtaking and their historical and entertainment values are evident, it is remarkable that most of DeMille’s films exist at all. Shepard says, "The general survival rate of (silent) films is 18 percent. If you went looking for Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, a very important actor in his day, quite a small representation exists."
Not only have most of DeMille’s films survived, but Shepard says he also benefited from DeMille’s organizational skills. "He kept everything. His personal archive is enormous. His papers at Brigham Young University amount to something like 15 million documents." One piece of documentation was especially useful for Carmen. "The Library of Congress had the conductor’s score and orchestra parts, and we were able to record that score. The music helped us determine how fast various scenes in the movie should run. Here’s a film that was essentially unseeable, now come back to life. It’s the most satisfying part of my work."
This page was last updated on 07/10/98.