Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood
Robert S. Birchard
University Press of Kentucky
(July 1, 2008)
Hardcover, 496 pages
22.6 x 15 x 3.8 cm
There's a great story about Cecil B. DeMille from the time when he was shooting The King of Kings. In order for his picture to capture the correct degree of reverence DeMille instructed the cast and crew that whilst his leading characters were still in make-up they were to be treated "as if they were the original characters of the Bible". Everything was going wonderfully until one day the actor playing Jesus, H.B. Warner, kept fluffing his lines. Finally, DeMille blew his top and poured forth a stream of abuse only for Warner to shoot back. "Mr. De Mille, do you realize to whom you are speaking?"1
It's the kind of classic anecdote so typical of the great director's reputation; the pious tyrant so capable of flying into a rage when things went badly. But such stories have become so ingrained in our consciousness that it's sometimes difficult to get beyond them to the real Cecil B. DeMille.
Robert S. Birchard, however, opts for a different approach entirely. Having worked as a "volunteer film archivist" his connections with the DeMille estate not only enabled him to view all of the DeMille films still in existence, but also gave him sufficient access to a wealth of DeMille's correspondence. As a result, "Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood" contains very few anecdotes such as the one above. Instead Birchard concentrates on the facts as conveyed through the mountain of correspondence DeMille left behind him.
The result is an impressively thorough examination of the story of DeMille's films. This should not be mistaken for a DeMille biography. There's nothing of his birth or childhood except in retrospect, and only if it becomes relevant to a particular film. Instead, the book opens in 1913 with the events that culminated in the production of DeMille's first film The Squaw Man. Birchard proceeds to take a separate chapter for each DeMille film. Whilst the chapters that cover the films now lost to us are obviously shorter than the others, they still provide a good deal of information about them. Some, I suppose, would see such history as a little pointless, but, in fact, these chapters are vital; they ensure that the book is about DeMille's body of work as a whole - a narrative comprised of shorter narratives if you will - rather than being a merely a collection of essays about some of his films.Much of the book is comprised of extended quotes from this correspondence, and Birchard uses it to highlight several facets of DeMille that tend to go unnoticed. In particular, DeMille's loyalty to fading stars who had worked for him in their younger years is demonstrated time and again. It casts a very different light on DeMille's appearance in Sunset Boulevard. And indeed whilst Birchard does provide the occasional example of DeMille's famous temper, overall he is presented as far more measured than the anecdotes would have you believe. The kind of person, in fact, who might possess sufficient collaborational skills to be able to produce seventy movies. Particular? Yes. A little short tempered? Certainly. Cruel and out of control? No.
ButBirchard's account is also honest enough not to portray DeMille as someone he wasn't. Birchard accepts that his artistry was not that of certain other well known directors, but insists that, nevertheless, there was more to his movies than he has often been credited with.
Indeed it's this considered, measured approach to DeMille's work that is the book's biggest strength. DeMille's own autobiography is entertaining , but leaves one wondering how things really happened. Higham's biography is criticised as being sycophantic.3 By contrast, Birchard sticks largely to the facts interspersing his own commentary on events with excerpts from letters and telegrams, and sections of movie dialogue. There are also three substantial collections of photos (the majority of which are from the author's own collection). There are also three appendices listing A - DeMille Pictures' Costs and Grosses, B - Other DeMille film credits, and C - Unrealised Projects.
However, at times, Birchard's love for his sources gets in the way somewhat, as the details occasionally elbow out some of the more interesting information. Take, for example, chapter 68 about Samson and Delilah. Birchard discusses, at some length, the departure a largely unknown member of DeMille's costume department - Ralph Jester - even quoting, in full, one of DeMille's letters to him. But moments later, Henry Wilcoxon's promotion to associate producer is given a mere half sentence, despite the fact that Katherine Orrison has written both his biography and a book on DeMille's 1956 Ten Commandments largely based on his memories.4 It also means that, sadly, the book isn't quite as engaging as it perhaps could have been. DeMille was an extraordinary character, but somehow the book drags a little on occasion.
Overall though, it's a fascinating insight into the inner workings of DeMille's seventy films with the such a wealth of evidence and the kind of precision that gives the reader real confidence in the trustworthiness of what they are being told. And whilst no-one will ever be able to capture everything about Cecil Blount DeMille within the pages of a mere book, "Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood" is certainly an admirable attempt.
1 - Amusing though it is, I should clarify that this is precisely the kind of anecdote that the book avoids. It is, in fact, adapted from this story at anecdotage.com.
2 - Birchard, Robert S., "Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood", The University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, Kentucky, 2004), p.xiv
3 - See for example Jonathan Rosenbaum.
4 - Peter T. Chattaway - Interview with Katherine Orrison - FilmChat - March 21st 2006 - http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com/2006/03/katherine-orrison-interviews-up.html