The film in which Claudette Colbert bathed in milk was misreported in the preview of Turner Classic Movies' "Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic" in the April 5 Style section. The scene is from "The Sign of the Cross." (Published 4/6/04)
A film that includes dramatizations of the trial and crucifixion of Christ draws criticism because it has anti-Semitic overtones. "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004? Yes, but also, much earlier, Cecil B. DeMille's "The King of Kings" in 1927, proving again that what goes around comes around, especially if it's bad.
DeMille, a Protestant, bowed to pressure and made changes in his film, according to "Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic," a beautifully produced documentary premiering tonight at 8 on Turner Classic Movies. In a revised scene from DeMille's "King of Kings," a Jewish high priest exclaims -- via title card, since the movie was silent -- "Lord God Jehovah, visit not Thy wrath on Thy people Israel. I alone am guilty!" This was a change added after public protest.
In a grand gesture -- and grand gestures were right up DeMille's alley -- he donated profits from the movie to charity, something that "Passion" director Mel Gibson has not done so far as we know, though his profit may exceed $700 million.
"American Epic" will be shown in two one-hour parts for some strange reason, an unnecessary and inconvenient arrangement, since the film benefits from a single two-hour sitting. Part 1 airs tonight at 8 and again at 11:30, with Part 2 at the same times on Wednesday. Between showings tonight, TCM will air "The Sign of the Cross" (1932), a particularly gauche and grandiose example of orgiastic DeMillery, with gladiators and lions and undraped maidens and all the trappings of the old-time biblical epics, though they were new trappings when DeMille committed them to celluloid.
Some of DeMille's other films will be shown throughout the month as part of a DeMille festival, though not many and not his most famous. "The Ten Commandments" (1956), DeMille's magnificent career climax, had its annual airing last night on ABC; it's too bad TCM couldn't show the film, too, only full-length and without commercials as is the happy custom. Also absent from mention in the documentary or movie channel celebration is the insane "Madame Satan" (1930), perhaps DeMille's only intentionally wacky film; it starts out as a marital melodrama and turns into an art deco disaster picture, with party guests stranded in, then jumping out of, a runaway dirigible.
One rarity that will be included in the TCM lineup is "The Squaw Man," which DeMille directed in 1914. It is considered the first feature-length film to be shot in Hollywood, which is where DeMille settled when he came out west from New York to find a good place to make movies. The movie capital is where it is because DeMille put it there around a century ago.
At the time Hollywood was a sparsely populated and sleepy village with lots of churches, described by its founders as -- get this -- "a vice-free Utopia of Christian values." That would change ever so slightly as the movie business turned it into a one-industry town in the years ahead. These were glorious years for American film, and DeMille became one of the most successful and most recognizable filmmakers in the world. He was an ominous, demanding perfectionist whose movies were larger than life and larger than most other movies.
In his early years he actually made intimate, artful comedies and dramas, but after the success of "The King of Kings," DeMille became best known for grandiose religious epics -- stories taken from the Bible yet filmed according to a formula DeMille perfected: "sex, sadism and lurid melodrama." Sin was condemned, but first it had to be portrayed, as explicitly as censors would allow. DeMille's exotic and florid touches included a lesbian dance in which a wicked woman tries to seduce a virgin, in "The Sign of the Cross" (1932). The dance is missing from some prints of the film, the victim of local or regional censors.
Nobody staged an orgy with DeMille's panache, but there was always a message that was unmistakable: Evildoers will be punished. DeMille actually made "The Ten Commandments" twice, once as a silent in 1923 and then as a VistaVision spectacle in 1956. That's the version that ABC shows annually. "American Epic" includes footage of DeMille negotiating with President Gamal Abdel Nasser for filming in Egypt and the loan of the Egyptian army as extras.
Relatives, friends and admirers of DeMille talk about the myth and the man -- often inseparable -- throughout the film, which is expertly narrated by Kenneth Branagh. "He ruled the set with an iron hand -- and an iron voice, I might add," says Angela Lansbury, who appeared in DeMille's corny but rousing "Samson and Delilah" (1949). Lansbury says she and star Victor Mature "were laughing up our sleeves" during filming: "We couldn't believe what we were participating in."
Steven Spielberg says the first movie he ever saw was DeMille's Oscar-winning 1952 circus pageant, "The Greatest Show on Earth." Spielberg calls DeMille "an opera maker" who "loved being DeMille more than he loved anything else in his creative professional life."
DeMille's famous niece and renowned choreographer Agnes (who spells the family name de Mille), in an interview from 1981, says of DeMille: "Everything he did was the Grand Manner. . . . He had the most tremendous energy of any man I've ever known." Gloria Swanson, who starred in DeMille films: "You felt his presence before he came into a room."
Elmer Bernstein, who so brilliantly scored "The Ten Commandments" and also wrote a suitably sweeping score for the documentary, says of DeMille, "He believed there was some other level to which everyone could go." And he would almost literally whip them into getting there, yet was also known for acts of generosity and for remembering the names of almost everyone who ever worked for him, down to the grips and stuntmen.
DeMille ran afoul of fellow filmmakers during the Red Scare of the postwar period, supporting the notion that every member of the Directors Guild be required to sign a loyalty oath. At a stormy meeting in the Beverly Hills Hotel, DeMille emphasized the "Jewishness" or foreign sound of some directors' names, which earned him an immediate chorus of boos and, from some, an enmity that survives to this day.
Among other visual treats in the documentary -- including Claudette Colbert in her famous milk bath from "Cleopatra" -- we are shown how the Red Sea was parted in "The Ten Commandments." I read once that DeMille used Jell-O, not water, to get the desired effect, but production footage shows that to be utterly false; it was water, thousands of gallons of it in a giant tank on the Paramount lot. Spielberg calls it the greatest special effect ever in the movies, and it wasn't done with computers, either. Those teeming fields of extras in the fantastic exodus scene from "The Ten Commandments" are real people, not digitally created figments.
There is a great deal of unfamiliar footage of DeMille at work in the documentary, but also excerpts from publicity films in which DeMille, often seen riding high next to the camera on a swooping crane, portrayed himself. To a hired mob he makes the now-famous exhortation: "Don't be extras. Be a nation!" Not mentioned is the story of one extra on "The Ten Commandments" helping to pull a giant statue into place, asking another, "Who do you have to [expletive] to get off this picture?" But the remark has been attributed to other films and filmmakers and may be apocryphal.
With DeMille, most of the legends are true and are lovingly recalled in "American Epic," which, in a "Citizen Kane" manner, explores DeMille's foibles and mistakes as well. It's one of the best films ever made about Hollywood (Kevin Brownlow, not surprisingly, is one of the producers), and moving in a way that relatively few such films have managed to be. DeMille's life turns out to be as thrilling and enthralling as his work. This documentary is thrilling and enthralling, too.