- Hollywood's First Auteur:Cecil B. DeMille and the Battle for Reputation
In the late 1950s, French film theorists argued that the director was the most important influence on a movie. Adopting these ideas, Andrew Sarris introduced the "auteur" theory to the United States in his seminal book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions in 1968, wherein Sarris respectfully placed the film director Cecil B. DeMille at the second-highest rank.1 What the French theorists and Sarris did not mention was that the central idea of the director as the driving force of the film was one that DeMille had developed consciously about himself fifty years earlier–well before the term "auteur" became a more common term.
DeMille has always been equated to his biblical epics and his political conservatism. When he died, DeMille's two recent biblical epics dominated any discussion of his legacy. By making his most successful, and certainly his most prominent, films at the conclusion of his career, DeMille's reputation was equated with the big budget films Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956). The sheer scale of his publicity machine for his later films often took the focus off his actual contribution to cinema. Indeed, film reviewer Bosley Crowther would introduce his 1949 review of Samson and Delilah in The New York Times as "Heralded by such a rolling and thundering of press agents' drums as might have announced the ground-breaking for Babel's stupendous tower".2 His 1956 production of The Ten Commandments even made the cover story of the widely selling Life Magazine while it was being filmed. He died a few years after releasing The Ten Commandments and The New York Times obituary mentioned DeMille's other films, including his long period in silent cinema. But the popular perception of DeMille was that of an epic film maker, mainly of biblical or historical epics.3
The idea remains in place to this day. The two most recent biographies of DeMille both feature a version of the movie poster The Ten Commandments (1956) on their dust jackets, showing the astonishing scene of Moses dividing the Red Sea.4 The biblical epics remain his signature films, but these films are hardly a major part of his output. If you count both [End Page 20] versions of The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956), King of Kings (1927), and Samson and Delilah (1949), the biblical epics add up to four films. Even if you rope in Sign of The Cross (1932) – and that is somewhat of a stretch–you can argue he directed five films with religious or biblical themes. Out of 70 films in a career spanning more than 41 years, this group of five cannot be considered an accurate summing up of the director's cinema.
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Aside from his films, DeMille would also be seen as the unacceptable face of American conservatism because of his supposed actions at the Screen Directors Guild in 1950, where he attempted to remove Joseph Mankiewicz as President, sparking uproar throughout the union. Fairly or not, DeMille would eventually represent the example of the crass commercial director with hard-right politics linked to blacklists.5 Yet a careful examination of his films reveals a more complex and nuanced career. DeMille was a superb adapter of Victorian theatrical plays in the 1910s, and then domestic remarriage comedies in the 1920s. It is almost impossible to pinpoint any consistent thread in his filmmaking except to be a commercially successful director and a storyteller. [End Page 21]
Yet the constants in DeMille's career were neither religion nor conservative politics. His focus was on the dynamics of Victorian theatre and his eagerness for publicity. DeMille always strove for a strong story to engage the viewer. Victorian theatre contained many spectacles such as earthquakes, train crashes, explosions and burning buildings, and story is set against these cataclysms. It was an era of sensationalism and excess, with large casts of more than 100 people in any one production. It was a world DeMille knew very well. His father, Henry C. deMille, was a successful playwright...