New Bio Gives Cecil B. DeMille His Own Close-Up

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Cecil B. DeMille didn't make the kind of movies that wind up in French film festivals. But they have inspired cutting edge directors including Stephen Spielberg and Martin Scorcese. Host Scott Simon talks with author Scott Eyman about his new biography of the filmmaker, Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. CECIL B. DEMILLE (Film Director): Ladies and gentlemen, young and old, this may seem an unusual procedure, speaking to you before the picture begins, but we have an unusual subject: the story of the birth of freedom, the story of Moses.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Who delivered the words of God from a burning bush, handed down the 10 Commandments and parted the Red Sea? God, of course. But if you want to get technical about it, Cecil B. DeMille.

Cecil B. DeMille directed some of the biggest blockbusters that made movies popular around the world, including "The 10 Commandments," both silent and talking, "King of Kings," "The Union Pacific," "Samson and Delilah," and "The Greatest Show on Earth." He didnt make the kind of movies that wind up in French film festivals but they have inspired cutting-edge directors, including Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, and in recent years even earned admiring references in French film journals.

A new biography has just been published, "Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille." Scott Eyman is the author. He's written previous book about John Ford and Louis B. Mayer. He joins us from WXEL in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Scott, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. SCOTT EYMAN (Author): Oh, I'm happy to be here, Scott.

SIMON: And what were the marks of a Cecil B. DeMille film?

Mr. EYMAN: Intensity, size, scope - after the introduction of Technicolor, wild, dense, vivid Technicolor, and a certain stand-and-delivery theatricality that told you you were in a rarified place that was not real life but something much larger and grander than real life.

(Soundbite of movie, "Samson and Delilah")

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Look how it's moving. He has split the stone.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) This man has the strength of a devil.

Unidentified Actor #3: (as character) No. The strength of a god.

(Soundbite of rolling rocks)

SIMON: Victor Mature in "Samson and Delilah."

Of course, as we rattle off some of his best known pictures, they were all, with the exception of "The Greatest Show on Earth," the ones that - which was a circus movie - the ones that I all rattled off, obviously by which he's best known, are biblical epics. In 1923 he made "The 10 Commandments," the silent version, followed by "King of Kings."

Now, did he just think the Bible was the best story going?

Mr. EYMAN: Well, his father had been an Episcopalian minister, although he never took a pulpit. And as a child, he'd listened to his father read after dinner every night from the Bible, and Cecil and his brother, Bill, would take turns rubbing their father's head while he read to them from the Bible. So he had these extremely warm filial memories relating to the Bible stories. And if you read his correspondence and his notations in his Bible, there's no question that he regarded the making of a film like "The 10 Commandments" or the "King of Kings" as a ministry.

At the same time, he realized that in order to have an effective ministry you have to put bodies in all those seats. How do you get bodies in all those seats? You give them something they can't see on the street.

SIMON: Let's move to "The 10 Commandments," the talkie version, if you please. I think its safe to say one of the signature moments in movie history - in fact, I think Steven Spielberg calls it the - the greatest - well...

Mr. EYMAN: The greatest special effect in movie history.

SIMON: Yes. The children of Israel are being chased by pharaoh's army. They're confronted by the Red Sea. What are they going to do? Are they going to drown or survive for history?

(Soundbite of movie, "The 10 Commandments")

Mr. CHARLTON HESTON (Actor): (as Moses): The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us. Behold His mighty hand.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Woo. But like how does he - how did he part the Red Sea?

Mr. EYMAN: Physically?

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. EYMAN: Well, essentially, you have two walls of water, okay. To do the water parting, basically you do a reverse. You have two giant tanks, you have an open space in the middle, you open the tanks. The tanks come pouring towards the center, okay?

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. EYMAN: Then you reverse it and that's the shot of the sea's parting. That shot, the money shot, as I call it, that money shot, they are about 30 different exposures in that shot: the Israelites in the foreground, Moses is a separate shot, the crag is a separate shot, the waters are eight or 10 exposures on each wall, then youve got the exposure of the water pouring back, even though the water was actually, as it was shot, pouring forward. And frankly, it was state of the arts special effects for 20 years.

SIMON: Let me get you to talk about Cecil B. DeMille's relationships with actors, because he loved a few and would use them over and over again. But he could be a difficult man to work for when you were an actor, couldnt he?

Mr. EYMAN: He was a director who rarely directed actors. If an actor came to him and said, what are you looking for in this scene, how do you want me to play it, he'd say, youre an actor, act. And the actor would go out and give the performance, and if he didnt like it, then he would begin pulling the actor one way or the other or maneuvering them. But he did a lot of his direction before they got on the set.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. EYMAN: Because of the kind of films he made, with large sets, lots of extras, extremely heavy production values you've got to get all this worked out; otherwise the money really starts to pyramid up. So he would do a lot of table readings. He would do a lot of rehearsals in the office before production got underway. So he kind of knew what the actors had in mind and the actors definitely knew what he had in mind, so it minimized difficulties on the set himself.

SIMON: Let's listen to a clip. The great Charles Laughton playing the Emperor Nero.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Sign of the Cross")

Mr. CHARLES LAUGHTON (Actor): (as Emperor Nero) Rome will be destroyed when I die. Why not while I live and can see it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAUGHTON: (as Emperor Nero) ...and enjoy it?

Mr. IAN KEITH (Actor): (as Tigellinus) But the palace is threatened, it will fall.

Mr. LAUGHTON: (as Emperor Nero) Tigellinus, I will build another, a fabulous one so that Nero could be housed like an emperor.

Mr. KEITH: (as Tigellinus) And like a god immortal.

Mr. LAUGHTON: (as Emperor Nero) Yes. Now go away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EYMAN: I love that performance.

SIMON: Well, we'd call it campy nowadays.

Mr. EYMAN: Well, yes, we - it was campy in 1932. Laughton, of course, was gay and spent most of his life in the closet in terms of his profession. But in that one film he comes roaring out of the closet and plays Nero as this pouting, dissolute queen, a drama queen, basically, who gets upsets so he decides to destroy Rome. I dont think DeMille directed Laughton to be that flamboyant, to be that queenie. I think Laughton decided to go with it and DeMille decided to go with it and didnt want to reign him in.

SIMON: In the latter stage of his career, Cecil B. DeMille, who had been in many ways reviled by the critics, became a kind of brand - brand name for success in Hollywood, and of course the unforgettable scene where Gloria Swanson as the aging Nora Desmond - well, she walks down a staircase convinced of something.

(Soundbite of movie, "Sunset Boulevard")

Ms. GLORIA SWANSON (Actor): (as Norma Desmond) You dont know how much I've missed all of you. And I promise you, I'll never desert you again, because after "Salome" we'll make another picture and another picture. You see, this is my life. It always will be. There's nothing else, just us and the cameras and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.

SIMON: Ooh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: So with the advantage of all these years' hindsight, were - do the pictures, no matter how they might have been criticized by critics, if you please, do they stand up better than you might've thought?

Mr. EYMAN: DeMille's best work, his most meaningful work as an artist, was done in the silent era. Unfortunately, very few people had a chance to see those films. Once in a while Turner Classic Movies or something will run "The Cheat."

But in the years 1915, 1916, 1917 and on through the '20s, DeMille, not every picture, but cumulatively, his accomplishment is astonishing. He was one of the top four or five directors in the world. Not just in terms of commercial success, but aesthetically.

In sound he was hampered by what amounts to a tin ear for dialogue. And after sound, increasingly, people judge movies by what they hear as much as by what they see. So the fact that his dialogue is often clunky or delivered in a sort of stand-and-deliver style, leads people to think that that's the movie. But if you turn the sound down and watch the images of a movie like "The 10 Commandments" or "Sampson and Delilah," those great climaxes that he builds up to, like a great composer builds up to a thundering climax in a symphony, they're astonishingly well orchestrated and shot and edited. And his - all of his attributes were emphasized in silents and some of his faults were emphasized in sound. But if you look at the totality of his career, there hasnt been a career like his since his death.

SIMON: Scott Eyman's new book, "Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille." Thanks so much.

Mr. EYMAN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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