Silents are Golden: A Closer Look At – The King of Kings (1927)
In the mid-1920s, after being known primarily for melodramas and light comedies with battle-of-the-sexes themes, famed director Cecil B. DeMille was starting to move in a more “epic” direction. Being interested in religious themes, ancient settings and of course spectacle, he combined all of the above in his first version of The Ten Commandments (1923), even working in a modern story as a framework. His second foray into the Bible would be an even more prestigious project: the most high-budget and detailed depiction of the life of Christ on film to date.
In a time when churches were a prominent part of American life, it promised to be a highly-anticipated film. It would have to be handled with the proper reverence and dignity, the New Testament stories being so near and dear to countless people. DeMille was careful to do justice to its pious subject, frequently consulting with clergymen, and also added bits of warmth and humanity to the depiction of Jesus Christ that are still touching today.
Opulent sets and cutting-edge technical innovations, from lighting to camerawork, would also enhance the story, including some scenes being filmed in Technicolor. Recent advancements made it possible to get pure, colorized images without the usual graininess, which served as effective emphasis for the Resurrection sequence. Many of the intertitles would directly quote the Bible, with chapter and verse included, lending authenticity to the production as well as reminding the audience how faithful it was to the Bible.
For the exceptionally important starring role DeMille chose H.B. Warner, a dignified-looking actor best known today as Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Warner, who was in his fifties at the time of The King of Kings (almost two decades older than the actress who played Jesus’ mother Mary!), had a background in Broadway and had acted in films since 1914. Unsurprisingly, the role of Jesus Christ would be the most famous of his silent career. The Virgin Mary would be played by Dorothy Cumming, who would later appear in Our Dancing Daughters and The Wind (both 1928). Both Warner and Cumming were contractually obligated to only play wholesome characters for five years, so they wouldn’t detract from their roles as Jesus and Mary. Interestingly, they also had to be somewhat “method” and refrain from “un-Biblical” activities during the production, such as playing cards or driving cars.
Simon Peter would be played by character actor Ernest Torrence, most recognizable from Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), and Austrian-born Joseph Schildkraut was chosen for the key role of Judas Iscariot, perhaps his most prominent role since D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1922). And these are just a few of the key players in the enormous cast which, if we count extras, numbered in the thousands.
More than a few scenes in The King of Kings are inspired, such as the first shot of Jesus Christ being from the point of view of a blind child whose eyesight he miraculously heals. Another memorable scene shows a little girl asking Jesus if he heals broken legs. When he says yes, she gravely asks if he can heal her legless doll. With a smile, he does.
Other plot choices can seem a little strange to anyone familiar with the Gospels. Mary Magdalene is traditionally considered to have reformed from a life of prostitution, but in The King of Kings (1927) she’s a powerful courtesan with lavish clothes and a chariot drawn by zebras. She’s romantically involved with Judas Iscariot to boot. Of course, these scenes also served to add the kind of “sin and spectacle” that feature in many DeMille films.
The King of Kings was the first film to premiere at Sid Grauman’s newly-built Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. The “Exotic Revival-style” building, which stands proudly to this day, hosted the lavish premiere on May 18, 1927. All the big names of Hollywood attended, making the premiere a major industry event. Shown in its original, “road show” version, The King of Kings ran about 155 minutes long. It would later be trimmed to 112 minutes for general release.
The epic film was highly praised by critics, who admired the high quality of DeMille’s filmmaking and the reverential way he brought the tale of Christ to life. Audiences must’ve agreed, for The King of Kings was a big box office hit, helped by a strong marketing campaign where schools were encouraged to dismiss students early so they could see it. It’s thought to have grossed around $500 million in the late 1920s, making it one of the highest-grossing films of 1927 (only beat by Wings and The Jazz Singer).
The history of The King of Kings has an interesting aftermath. The Temple of Jerusalem set, built on a backlot in Culver City, ended up in King Kong (1933) and then the David O. Selznick film The Garden of Allah (1936). Its last appearance was in Gone With the Wind (1939), where it served as some of the warehouses that were destroyed during the “burning of Atlanta” sequence.
Today, The King of Kings is no longer as well known as it used to be, but it survives in lovely quality and makes occasional appearances at silent film festivals. And of course, it has always been and will always be a perfect film to enjoy during the thoughtful season of Lent.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.