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 …

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