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The Greatest Show in Town

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Gloria Swanson and Cecil B. DeMille in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard

Who invented the American movies? There are pioneer names in the histories, hallowed reputations, and scarcely remembered films. Yet every director with his or her first film begins anew. That’s one reason why so many American debuts are so remarkable—Sunrise (1927), Badlands (1973), They Live by Night (1949), The Great McGinty (1940), I Shot Jesse James (1949), The Bellboy (1960), Laura (1944—I know, Preminger had done earlier things, but this was his emergence), and even that other picture, Citizen Kane (1941). And what about The Squaw Man (1914)?

Taken from a play by Edwin Milton Royle produced in 1905, the movie of The Squaw Man is seventy-four minutes long and the first feature film shot and based in “Hollywood.” It was not the first feature made in the Los Angeles area, but it did open a year before D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. And whereas Griffith had made over four hundred short films since 1908 as he “learned the grammar and language of film narrative” (this is approximately the description we all use), Cecil Blount DeMille simply decided to do The Squaw Man, without training, buildup, or much thought. By 1913–1914, I suppose, any halfway alert American just knew how to make a movie. It was like sending an e-mail. The contrast leaves Griffith seeming a slow learner, as well as a stately Southerner with deplorable attitudes toward race and the Ku Klux Klan. Yet whereas Griffith is now regarded by history with reverence (he was on a stamp), Cecil B. DeMille may be more famous for the jokes told about his madcap energy, ambition, and foolishness. Time for fresh thinking—and Scott Eyman intends no less.

DeMille was born in Massachusetts in 1881, the son of a would-be preacher who had turned instead to the excitement of playwriting. He died suddenly when the boy was twelve, and in the early years of the twentieth century Cecil was an actor and a playwright himself, frequently working with the impresario David Belasco. But something wasn’t happening—more to do with fame and glory than money—and in 1913 Cecil shocked everyone who knew him by deciding to break out into movies. His older brother, William, another devotee of theater, and a providential straight man in this story, wrote to Cecil regretting that the kid would be “teasing nickels and dimes out of the mentally immature by making photographs leap and prance.” This may seem comic as an example of respectable disdain for moving pictures in 1913—but it isn’t necessarily wrong or misplaced as an anxiety. Where were movies taking us? Where are we?

Cecil had an answer, and it drew on the giddy populism that swept movies to power: “Where one member of the paying public will see a play, there are two thousand who will see a picture.” Again, though that is couched in terms of audience (and hence money), I think DeMille (like Chaplin, like the Russian directors of the 1920s) was most moved by the excitement of getting at the crowd (bypassing art and education) and maybe saving the increasingly crowded and tormented world. Don’t forget that The Squaw Man and The Birth of a Nation overlap with another novelty: world war, fought with machine guns, aircraft, and gas.

With two partners, Jesse Lasky and Samuel Goldfish (Goldwyn to be), Cecil formed a company. They wanted $20,000 of capital, but fell $5,000 short. The Squaw Man would be their debut, the story of a rich English gent spurred by disgrace to visit the American West. He meets a Native American girl. They marry. But when news comes that the gent can return to his estate, the wife commits suicide rather than get in his way. Politically incorrect or very daring? A bit of both, maybe, for DeMille was often outrageous and reactionary. Give him credit, though—he cast a Winnebago Indian actress as the wife.

It was proper that a story of the West should seek out real locations, and it was sensible because DeMille meant to elude the monopoly of the Motion Picture Patents Company, an eastern syndicate that offered film stock you could trust and outlets where you might show your movies. So he and his partners took the train, stopped off in Flagstaff, Arizona, and were dismayed to find that it didn’t look western. They pushed on to Los Angeles. A film lab heard about them and offered a barn, at Vine and Selma, in exchange for the printing work. Hollywood, as DeMille found it, was “a lazy little village…dreaming peacefully at the foot of gentle green hills.” They couldn’t find a bank to deposit their money so they opened up a line of credit at a grocer’s. They shot the film in January 1913 and Cecil wore a gun—to defend himself against the Patents Company, or because he enjoyed dress-up. The movie cost $15,450, on top of $20,000 for the rights.

They had a nasty scare when they projected it for the first time. The picture wouldn’t hold steady; it kept sliding up the screen. The problem had to do with imperfect sprocket holes in the film strip, so the negative had to be transferred to new stock. By mid-February they showed The Squaw Man to exhibitors and quickly found buyers. The producer’s profit was $244,000, though a quarter of that went to Dustin Farnum, the “star” who had agreed to play the English gent. DeMille was off and running, and The Squaw Man can still be watched with some pleasure and amusement. For DeMille it was a token, and a film he liked so much that he would do two remakes. If you had a good message—like the Bible, or a pretty girl inclined to stray—DeMille believed in doing it over and over again.

I haven’t spoiled the story of The Squaw Man for you—there is a lot more detail in Scott Eyman’s Empire of Dreams. He has had access to the two thousand boxes of the DeMille archive at Brigham Young University and he tells the turbulent, entertaining story with confidence. Eyman has good books on John Ford and Louis B. Mayer to his credit, and his The Speed of Sound (about the revolution in Hollywood that came with sound) is one of the best specialized film books to be read. It is also the case—and this amounts to a significant departure or originality—that Eyman likes Cecil B. DeMille, not just as a movie storyteller and the founding father of a wild business, but as a contradictory man. Woe betide the subject if his heirs have opened up the archive to an author who falls out of love with him. In life, in the movie business, if you didn’t like DeMille (and plenty didn’t) then you could work elsewhere. But if you’re doing the biography you have to do your best by the truth while still believing in the old rascal.

The highest achievement in this book is its ability to make Cecil sympathetic and even fun. The reader feels like his nephew, rather weary of the bombast and hypocrisy, but recalling the sunny, surprising moods and the treats. A big part of that comes from not overrating Cecil, but treating him as a phenomenon of his times. Scott Eyman knows that DeMille was hardly a genius or a saint—but with all that energy and ego, if he had been he would have been insufferable and no one would have bothered to tell C.B. jokes.

Far more than Griffith, DeMille is the dominating influence in silent film history. Whatever Griffith’s importance as a creator of fluency and style in film, he was losing track of the public by the end of World War I. So it’s telling to compare the romances Griffith made after the war—True Heart Susie, Way Down East, and Broken Blossoms—with the films DeMille made in the same years. The Griffith films are charming and soulful; they derive much of their personality from the winsome Lillian Gish. But they are increasingly archaic and moralistic. In those same years DeMille was making a series of flagrantly modern sex comedies with Gloria Swanson. And if Swanson was not quite a flapper, she was the new woman with a mind and a body of her own. Those films—Don’t Change Your Husband, Male and Female (based on J.M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton), Why Change Your Wife?, The Affairs of Anatol (adapted from Schnitzler)—are badly neglected while the Griffith films are still enshrined.

It’s not that DeMille ever bothered to be a good director, or one with style and signature. He trusted to story, construction, the attractiveness of stars, and being a little risqué. We know that Griffith adored women, but is there one in all his films who is actually sexy? All the better for that, you may say. But that’s not what audiences felt in the 1920s, and Cecil—who was as horny as he was handsome—knew that one abiding theme in films was looking at women who had lost some of their clothing. That’s true of Gloria Swanson in Male and Female and it’s a principle that reaches from Claudette Colbert in the bath of asses’ milk in The Sign of the Cross to Hedy Lamarr taking the shears to Victor Mature’s hair in Samson and Delilah.

Those names lead us to the most enjoyable DeMille pictures, the biblical epics. No one ever accused Cecil of devoutness, though Eyman does point out that he had some Jewish blood on his mother’s side. Cecil loved the Bible for its stories and its habitual association of naughtiness and high-mindedness. So long as you condemned a sin and allowed for redemption, the orgy was yours, and audiences were sly enough to catch on to that inner bargain—get an eyeful of this and then feel horrified or superior—in The King of Kings (1927), The Sign of the Cross (1932), Cleopatra (1934), The Crusades (1935), Samson and Delilah (1949), and The Ten Commandments (1956—it still plays on television at Easter or other religious holidays). Does Cleopatra have a place there? Well, yes, in its way, because the apparatus of swords, sandals, sunken baths, and lascivious empresses, deserts, palm trees, and lovely madonnas is in itself “biblical.” The atmosphere is the message; the décor is the gospel.

Of these films, The King of Kings is the most impressive and the one in the series with an authentic spiritual quality, as opposed to a piety that raises eyebrows. The King of Kings was written by Jeanie Macpherson, an ex-actress Cecil took on as a scenarist and with whom he would have a prolonged affair. Yes, Cecil was well married. He told himself he loved his wife Constance and gave her a bouquet of lilies of the valley every year along with formal loyalty. But there were mistresses, just as there is a voyeurist lubricity in Cecil’s work that helps explain why he went into movies. Looking, he intuited, is an aphrodisiac, but guilty looking is best of all.

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Paramount/Kobal Collection
Cecil B. DeMille, Hedy Lamarr, and George Sanders on the set of DeMille’s 1949 film Samson and Delilah

DeMille’s theory of direction put emotional stress on spectacle, and that meant décor, costumes, and crowds. From the outset, he had taken expensive pains over those things. He hired Wilfred Buckland from David Belasco to design his earliest films and by the time he did The King of Kings, he had Anton Grot and Mitchell Leisen (a future director) recreating the world of Christ. He spent way over budget to make it all seem impressive. This was the secret to DeMille’s faith—not an insight into the nature of religion, but a superstition that the spectacle was the miracle. When they had shot the crucifixion scene for The King of Kings, he called a wrap and then spoke to the assembled cast and crew over a loudspeaker system (he had a fine speaking voice—good enough for hosting the Lux Radio Theater):

Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d stop for just a moment. I would like you all to take five minutes—five minutes—for you to just think about what you have seen tonight—and to remember that what we’ve seen tonight is the filming of something that truly happened. I want you to think what it has meant to you. I’d like you to take a few minutes of quiet. I’ve asked the orchestra to play some music.

There was a studio orchestra standing by—C.B. made silent pictures with live music to make a mood for the actors. Now they played Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Some doves were released. It was the movies feeding back into theater or pageant. We may smile at the grandiloquence, but the reverence shows in the film and above all in the restraint and gravity of H.B. Warner’s performance as Christ. Griffith said it was “exquisitely beautiful,” and those close to DeMille thought it “the climax of his life.” As Eyman claims, three quarters of a century later, this is “the cinematic representation of the life of Christ”—if that’s what you want. The picture was well received, but it had cost too much and it had bled DeMille’s company dry. He had left Paramount briefly, but soon hurried back.

He was not quite as grand after sound came along. The people in his films seldom had good lines—and he preferred laconic actors like Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston. But The Plainsman (1936) is a raffish western. It has Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok and Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane (don’t stoop to asking how historically accurate that is), with mischievous chemistry between them, a good deal of sadistic violence, and a cheerful fear and loathing of “savages,” even if one Cheyenne was played by Anthony Quinn, who would marry DeMille’s adopted daughter. Indeed, his view of other races was not friendly. The King of Kings provoked widespread charges of anti-Semitism, and when DeMille remade The Squaw Man (in 1931) he did not risk another Winnebago. He went for the Mexican spitfire Lupe Velez.

Steadily, even in the sound years, DeMille’s pictures made money. Samson and Delilah grossed over $11 million, despite the director’s helpless disappointment with Victor Mature’s floridly absurdist Samson and the lizard gaze and Las Vegas bearing of Hedy Lamarr’s Delilah. This is not a story from which God emerges too well. It’s a film about sex, hair, sadomasochism, and bringing down the house. The public fell upon its Technicolor wickedness with awe, while critics and filmmakers laughed. By then, DeMille was close to seventy, but still vigorous. You may recall him playing himself (as if it was an honor) just a year later in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, when Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) comes to visit him at the Paramount studio.

At that point, DeMille was probably the most famous filmmaker in the world, yet he had gone unrecognized by the Academy. The King of Kings was too early for Oscar. After that, Cleopatra was his only film to earn a Best Picture nomination. It was defeated by It Happened One Night (both pictures starred Claudette Colbert). But in 1949 he got an honorary Oscar “for thirty-seven years of brilliant showmanship.” Then something odd happened. In 1952 he delivered The Greatest Show on Earth, one of those occasions where a title is so misleading as to be in legal peril. It’s a circus film, with a starry cast and a lot of melodrama, and it won the Oscar, even if DeMille was defeated for the directing prize by John Ford for The Quiet Man (his fourth victory). But thereby hangs a story.

The younger DeMille had not seemed unusually political. But after the war, he changed, and Eyman has found handwritten remarks in his files like “The happiest man in the world to see a continuance of the Truman regime would be Joseph Stalin.” He entertained Senator McCarthy at the studio commissary (some other people went across the street to take lunch at Lucey’s restaurant on that day). He joined the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, and turned his attention to the Directors’ Guild and the threat of a loyalty oath.

Eyman’s account of what followed is better researched and more penetrating than anything we have had before. The president of the Guild was Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who had made All About Eve in 1950, a film that leaves Samson and Delilah seeming silent). DeMille knew Mankiewicz socially and had voted for him, but Mankiewicz was part of a faction that saw loyalty oaths as prelude to a blacklist. This was 1950, by which time the Hollywood Ten had been picked out and sent to prison for contempt. The battle lines were drawn.

DeMille (who was a member of the Guild’s powerful and ultraconservative board) pushed through a vote in favor of the oath while Mankiewicz was on vacation. That’s when the showdown meeting occurred at which DeMille tried to move for Mankiewicz’s recall. In the course of debate he implied that his opponents had been disloyal to America, and then he harped on foreign names—“Villiam Vyler” and “Joseph Mankievitch.” Eyman says no one can be sure that crudeness occurred. But some directors were ready to fight. John Huston asked DeMille how many of his supporters had ever worn a uniform.

It was at that point, legend says, that John Ford spoke. “I am a director of westerns,” he began, as if actually in one of his own pictures.

I don’t agree with C.B. DeMille. I admire him. I don’t like him, but I admire him. Everything he said tonight he had a right to say. You know, when you get the two blackest Republicans I know, Joseph Mankiewicz and Cecil B. DeMille, and they start a fight over Communism, it is getting laughable to me. I know Joe is an ardent Republican. I happen to be a state of Maine Republican.

Ford rambled, but his emotional tone was clear and he proposed that the board resign, for new elections. When that vote carried DeMille was blunted. It seems like Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) vanquishing Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) in their film. Yet we know that showdowns can be more than meets the eye.

Admirers of Ford have treated this incident as proof of the tough old bird’s old birdiness. But Eyman can now take the story further. For almost immediately after the struggle, the guys made friends again—as if they had been only actors going through the motions. Ford telephoned DeMille and—all this is noted down by Cecil in his archive—told him:

That meeting Sunday night was a disgusting thing to see—not a wolf pack, but a mice pack attacking you. That was your greatest performance. I just wish you could have seen yourself—a magnificent figure so far above that goddamn pack of rats. I have recommended men for courage in battle, but I have never seen courage such as you displayed Sunday night. God bless you, you’re a great man.

More than that, as a reconciliatory gesture (or something) Mankiewicz himself said, Well, sure, let’s have a loyalty oath! The Guild turned into a club. Eyman delivers a sad, cool verdict:

So the Directors Guild circulated the first loyalty oath in Hollywood. As a result, the Guild’s attempt to head off a blacklist has to be considered an utter failure. Under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, the Screen Actors Guild implemented a separate loyalty oath that same year, and the blacklist remained in force for another ten years.

Surely it was part of that failure and out of contrition toward Cecil that a couple of years later, in 1953, he got not just the Best Picture Oscar for The Greatest Show on Earth, but the Irving Thalberg Award. Whereupon the old man summoned up his energy and presided over the 161-day schedule of The Ten Commandments, filming in Egypt and the dunes of Guadaloupe, California, with the parting of the Red Sea and the impacted Aryan gravity of Heston as Moses. It cost $13.5 million and grossed $80 million in America alone.

Cecil had a last idea, a film about Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts. But he died in 1959, and it’s clearer now than it was then that his death marked the closure of the old Hollywood. He had been there at the beginning and he had been the greatest show in town. Scott Eyman has told his story with remarkable assurance and sympathy. At last, C.B., we are ready for your close-up.

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