Silents are Golden: The Silent Films of Cecil B. DeMille
Well known for beloved classics like The Ten Commandments (1956), Cecil B. DeMille is indisputably one of Hollywood’s great directors. While he is perhaps not considered as “artsy” as some of his contemporaries, he did have a distinct flair for the epic and dramatic, much to the enjoyment of generations of viewers.
It may be surprising today, but in the late 1910s and early ‘20s, DeMille was known more for fluffy “society” comedy dramas than gigantic Biblical spectacles. These were full of lavish gowns (often on the “extreme fashion” end of the spectrum), and “rich people” toys like couches with fancy hidden bars in the armrests. Of course, it wasn’t long before DeMille starting making his grand epics, too. Let’s look at some highlights from his early filmography:
5. Male and Female (1919)
While on the surface it seems like one of the sillier DeMille society dramas, deeper down Male and Female is a wry study of class difference – with a heavy dash of Swiss Family Robinson. It stars Gloria Swanson and the early matinee idol Thomas Meighan. Swanson had gotten her start in comedies at Sennett and was happy to transition to wearing ballgowns in DeMille romance features. His films certainly helped make her a major star.
In Male and Female, based on J.M. Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton, Swanson plays the spoiled daughter Lady Mary in a wealthy family and Meighan is their butler Crichton. The two are attracted to each other but Mary rejects Crichton because of his “lowly” status. Circumstances change, however, when the household becomes shipwrecked on a desert island and are forced to defer to Crichton, who turns out to have excellent survival skills. Filmed attractively and with plenty of humor, it’s a fun “what if?” scenario and also offers a famous fantasy sequence where Swanson, in a scene set in ancient Babylon, did a dangerous shot with a real, roaring lion.
4. Why Change Your Wife? (1920)
This author’s personal favorite of DeMille’s “upper crust” fantasies is Why Change Your Wife? again starring Swanson and Meighan. The plot concerns the travails of Robert, dismayed over his wife Beth’s current frumpiness and prudishness. He longs for her to be more of a “sweetheart” again, and she can’t understand why he’s less interested in her more “cultured” pursuits. Eventually, Robert has an affair with the very stylish and flirty Sally (Bebe Daniels). When Beth finds out – and also discovers everyone is gossiping about her failing marriage – she angrily decides that if an “indecent” flirt is what’s in vogue, then she would give herself the most extreme makeover she could and really show everyone!
While the plot hasn’t aged quite like fine wine, the film is so frothy and full of outrageous fashions that I can’t help finding it irresistible. Plus, there is the spectacle of a very serious “artsy” character in the most ridiculous male bathing suit of all time, and that alone is worth the price of admission.
3. The Affairs of Anatol (1921)
Swanson again is one of the stars in this film, the other being the legendary Wallace Reid, the handsome picture idol who was gone too soon. Anatole Spencer (Reid), a “high society” man, has a shaky marriage with his wife Vivian (Swanson). His relationship is further complicated by his, say, unusual propensity to try and help “fallen” female friends lead better lives. He tries to save young Emilie from being the sugar baby of a wealthy gent, but she winds up falling for him. After Emilie shows herself to be unrepentant after all, Anatole is outraged and vows to stop “rescuing” women in the future (the scene where he trashes an entire room in his anger is something to behold). Naturally, Anatole’s promise doesn’t last long.
This is the last surviving full feature of Reid’s before his unfortunate death from morphine addiction in 1923 (he was originally prescribed morphine by doctors). Despite his affliction at the time, his charm and good looks still shine. The film is also worth taking in for Bebe Daniel’s role as an infamous performer named – no joke – Satan Synne, in appropriately theatrical outfits.
2. The Ten Commandments (1923)
This article certainly couldn’t leave out one of DeMille’s biggest hits, without which the beloved 1956 Charleton Heston version wouldn’t exist. The epic Egyptian sets and grandiose performances are all there, but with the added twist of the Exodus story being recounted in a long prologue, and the main story having a modern setting.
After watching the story of Moses (Theodore Roberts) and the creation of the Ten Commandments, we’re introduced to the two brothers John (Richard Dix) and Dan (Rod La Rocque) McTavish. Their God-fearing mother teaches them to follow the Ten Commandments, but only John listens, becoming a poor but honest carpenter. Dan, on the other hand, becomes an atheist and decides not to let any Bible teachings get in the way of becoming a worldly success. Dan’s decisions, of course, ultimately catch up with him.
Even back then the modern story was considered a bit of a letdown after all the Biblical spectacle, but The Ten Commandments was still one of the big hits of 1923. Today the film still has its fans, despite inevitable comparisons with the 1956 version.
1.The King of Kings (1927)
A major blockbuster of the era, DeMille’s epic tale of Jesus Christ pleased both crowds and critics alike. Starring H.B. Warner, it focused on Christ’s adult years, with some added concentration on the heavily fictionalized stories of Mary Magdalene (who at one point drives a chariot pulled by zebras!) and Judas Iscariot. Deeply reverent and beautifully filmed, it has thought-provoking moments like Judas secretly rejecting the bread and wine at the Last Supper and touching scenes like Christ “healing” a child’s doll. It’s an ambitious work that’s well worth watching today.
The King of Kings was the first film to play at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, and some theaters had special afternoon screenings specifically geared toward elementary and high school students. It’s regarded as one of the most widely seen silents of the 1920s.
When we watch silent films today, we tend to gravitate towards the era’s artsy features, epic spectacles, or crowd-pleasing comedies. Any curious viewers who want to explore DeMille’s early filmography will be delighted to see that he manages to offer a bit of all the above.
–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.