Review of "Empire of Dreams," Scott Eyman's biography of Cecil B. DeMille

Sunday, October 24, 2010; B06


The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille

By Scott Eyman

Simon & Schuster. 579 pp. $35

Cecil B. DeMille was a struggling writer, actor and director -- a self-described "refugee from bankruptcy" -- when he half-jokingly suggested to a producer friend in 1912 that they give up on Broadway and join the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. "No," said his friend, Jesse Lasky, "if you want excitement, let's go into pictures." Within two years, they had established themselves as a force in the nascent industry with "The Squaw Man," generally considered the first full-length Hollywood feature.

DeMille (1881-1959) poured his considerable gusto into learning the art of motion pictures, and how to make them bigger and better than anyone else at the time. He displayed immediate command of the cinematic language, especially in vigorous pacing and flamboyant scope. He helped expand the possibilities of the medium and push the boundaries of what the moviegoing experience could be, and he was Hollywood's master of spectacle and bombast for four decades. "Empire of Dreams," Scott Eyman's biography of DeMille and the first written with complete access to the filmmaker's archives, provides a compelling window into the rise of Hollywood as a movie capital.

Through revealing anecdotes and fresh research, Eyman adroitly navigates DeMille's contradictions. He was an early innovator who later chose showmanship over artistry, a conservative reactionary during the McCarthy era who also held absolute convictions about creative freedom (at least for himself), a man generous with old colleagues but parsimonious with members of his family, and a masterful judge of talent whose films were weighed down with kitsch. Consider Anne Baxter as Nefretiri crying out to Charlton Heston in the 1956 remake of DeMille's own "The Ten Commandments": "Oh Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!"

As Eyman rightfully observes of DeMille's aesthetics, he willfully remained "a nineteenth century man of the theater -- his greatest strength, as well as his greatest limitation." In addition to those two versions of "The Ten Commandments," he churned out grand-scale movies centered on Jesus ("The King of Kings") and King Richard of England ("The Crusades"). He made rousing, if undistinguished, movies celebrating Manifest Destiny ("Union Pacific," "The Plainsman") and the venerable circus melodrama "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952), for which he received his only Oscar for directing.

He crossbred visual panache and hedonistic flair, notably in "Sign of the Cross" (1932), with a lesbian dance sequence, a lithe Claudette Colbert bathing in milk and Charles Laughton playing an extravagantly gay Nero. Years earlier, DeMille had made exuberant marital comedies starring Gloria Swanson. Eyman provides a wonderful vignette of DeMille commanding Swanson in an extended bathing scene from "Male and Female" (1919): "Prolong it! Relish the smell of the rosewater. More rapture!" No one excelled more at selling implausibility. "You really believed that they were taking Jerusalem or worshipping the Golden Calf," director Martin Scorsese once said. "This is why the name 'DeMille' meant that I was going to see a real movie."

Eyman, a journalist and author of previous biographies of film-colony titans including studio mogul Louis B. Mayer and director John Ford, calls DeMille an innovator whose influence still resonates in the contemporary works of Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. DeMille, Eyman writes, "incarnated the world's idea of Hollywood: gleefully dramatic, willfully unsophisticated, exuberantly, joyously excessive. He transcended his individual identity to become the living embodiment of the movie director and, beyond that, the embodiment of Hollywood itself."

Even if his films kept a devoted audience, after his death DeMille's reputation fell precipitously among film critics and scholars, who considered his rousing adventures and Bible-based epics anachronistic. Readers are left with Eyman's helpful insights into the films themselves. Not only does he believe they hold up and are worthy of reevaluation, but he also emphasizes the exceptional skill it takes to finance and produce an epic.

He gives the sense that one of DeMille's greatest talents as a filmmaker was crowd control. Having transplanted thousands of Hollywood bit players into the Mexican desert to make "The King of Kings" (1927), DeMille grabbed a megaphone and summoned everyone to attention. A cast member had died, he told the assembled horde, leaving behind a grieving widow and eight children. As the cast bowed their heads, DeMille ordered the cameras to crank. In fact, no one had died, but this was the shot he wanted: a mass demonstration of solemnity.

It was extraordinarily perverse and extraordinarily effective -- and typically DeMille.

Adam Bernstein is obituaries editor of The Washington Post.

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