Advances American Film Spectacle Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Cecil B. DeMille became Hollywood’s preeminent producer-director of motion-picture spectacle with the critical and box-office success of The Ten Commandments in 1923.

Summary of Event

When Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments opened in Los Angeles and New York in December, 1923, its enthusiastic reception immediately solidified DeMille’s reputation as Hollywood’s preeminent showman. Fans, critics, and Hollywood itself, with only a few exceptions, were dazzled. Completed at a cost of slightly less than $1.5 million, DeMille’s silent-era spectacle rang up a box-office take of more than $4 million. James R. Quirk, Quirk, James R. the influential editor of Photoplay magazine, called it “the best photoplay ever made” and “the greatest theatrical spectacle in history.” Hollywood’s moguls rejoiced as well, because the film’s epochal retelling of the story of Moses leading the Children of Israel out of bondage from Egypt to the Promised Land helped to defuse the efforts of conservative activists seeking to control the content of films through various forms of censorship. Ten Commandments, The (film) Motion pictures;The Ten Commandments[Ten Commandments) Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Cecil B. DeMille[Demille] [kw]Ten Commandments Advances American Film Spectacle, The (1923) [kw]American Film Spectacle, The Ten Commandments Advances (1923) [kw]Film Spectacle, The Ten Commandments Advances American (1923) Ten Commandments, The (film) Motion pictures;The Ten Commandments[Ten Commandments) Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Cecil B. DeMille[Demille] [g]United States;1923: The Ten Commandments Advances American Film Spectacle[05740] [c]Motion pictures;1923: The Ten Commandments Advances American Film Spectacle[05740] DeMille, Cecil B. Goldwyn, Samuel Lasky, Jesse L. Macpherson, Jeanie Zukor, Adolph

Produced by the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation Famous Players-Lasky Corporation[Famous Players Lasky Corporation] and released through its Paramount Pictures Paramount Pictures distribution arm, The Ten Commandments consolidated DeMille’s reputation as the foremost American director of movie spectacles. Although esteemed for having codirected one of Hollywood’s first feature-length films, The Squaw Man (1914), and for such popular and critically acclaimed productions as The Cheat (1915) and Male and Female (1919), in 1923 DeMille needed a hit to counter a recent downward spiral of such lackluster releases as Adam’s Rib (1923), which had received only tepid box-office and critical support. DeMille knew as well as anyone that in Hollywood he was considered only as good as his last picture. With the rousing success of The Ten Commandments, DeMille was again atop the short list of bankable and therefore elite Hollywood directors. Also, the epic was the first in a long line of lavish and successful extravaganzas—including his last directorial assignment, a second rendition of The Ten Commandments (1956)—that forever would be linked to the name of Cecil B. DeMille.

The Ten Commandments consists of two parts. The first, the spectacle, depicts biblical stories taken from the book of Exodus, including the persecution of the Jews by the Egyptians, the flight of the Israelites through the parted waters of the Red Sea, the giving to Moses of the Ten Commandments, and Moses’ defiant breaking of the tablets upon his discovery of the Israelites’ worship of the golden calf. The film’s second part, a contemporary family melodrama set in San Francisco, centers on the moral conflicts between two brothers, one who is good and keeps the commandments, the other who is bad and breaks them. In essence, the second story is an allegory designed by DeMille and his dependable scenarist Jeanie Macpherson as a warning to modern society to heed God’s injunctions. Therefore, when critics and historians refer to The Ten Commandments as a spectacle, they generally have in mind the film’s sumptuously mounted prologue.

The larger-than-life dimensions of The Ten Commandments can be gauged in several ways. In 1923, a film budget of $1.5 million was staggering, especially given that the expense of a typical feature production of the period was about $100,000. Indeed, the film’s epic budget, while making for headline-grabbing publicity, exacerbated already strained relations between DeMille and his partners, Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky, Famous Players-Lasky’s president and vice president in charge of production, respectively. At one point in the midst of shooting, DeMille, fatigued by the constant carping from New York on such matters as an invoice for $2,500 for a pair of magnificent coal-black horses to draw a chariot, offered to buy the film outright for $1 million. DeMille’s bold demonstration of faith in his project shocked Zukor and Lasky, who wisely decided to relent. Although each of the New York-based executives sent warm congratulatory telegrams to DeMille on the film’s successful debut, the animosity created by the incessant budgetary wrangling during production eventually resulted in DeMille’s painful resignation from Famous Players-Lasky in 1925.

Budgets aside, what most impressed moviegoers of 1923 and 1924 was the film’s on-screen display of spectacle. Although thwarted by the cost-conscious Zukor from shooting on location in Egypt, DeMille bolted the confines of Hollywood for Guadalupe, an arid desert area near Santa Maria in central California, where a construction gang of more than one thousand carpenters, electricians, painters, and landscape gardeners erected a still-amazing facsimile of the ancient Egyptian city of Per-Ramses. As construction progressed, DeMille commuted to Los Angeles in order to shoot some of the film’s interior scenes. Eventually, twenty-five hundred actors and forty-five hundred animals, including two hundred camels, were settled in Camp DeMille, itself a virtual replica of an army camp. For added authenticity, DeMille, in part reflecting the influence of David Belasco, the great theatrical realist with whom he had worked as a young man, hired a contingent of Orthodox Jews to play the Children of Israel.

DeMille’s special-effects expert, Roy Pomeroy, played a pivotal role in the film’s success by achieving such still-convincing miracles as the parting of the Red Sea, the drowning of the Egyptians, and Moses’ reception of the Ten Commandments from the incendiary heavens. Special effects, motion pictures Indeed, most film historians have judged Pomeroy’s effects of 1923 more convincing than those he created for DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments. The element of spectacle in the 1923 production was heightened even further by DeMille’s decision to shoot parts of the prologue in an early and then experimental version of the Technicolor process (in contrast to the conventional black-and-white treatment given the modern story). Audiences and critics alike were impressed by the enhanced sense of realism.

Significance

The Ten Commandments emphatically confirmed DeMille’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s most astute judges of public taste. Sensing that the vogue for Jazz Age depictions of fast living had begun to alienate a growing number of Americans—a shift in public attitude hastened by the day’s lurid headlines screaming the latest off-screen Hollywood scandals—DeMille devised a narrative dramatic formula that offered both gaudy titillation and moral rectitude. Given the approval The Ten Commandments received from all segments of the public, including the clergy, a high moral tone became a basic thematic component of DeMille’s subsequent films. In his condemnations of wrongdoing, however, DeMille felt it dramatically and commercially necessary to portray sin and sexuality with lingering, graphic detail. It was a solution that helped to ensure not only DeMille’s own future but that of the industry as well. Indeed, when Hollywood was again threatened by censorious pressures in the early days of synchronized sound, DeMille’s “have your cake and eat it too” strategy was institutionalized in the canons set forth by the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (the Hays Code). Hays Code

An extensive press campaign during the production of The Ten Commandments kept the director’s image before the public. With his drooping pipe, puttees, pistols, riding boots, and silver whistle, DeMille became the public’s flesh-and-blood embodiment of the archetypal Hollywood director. DeMille loved the attention and the perks his meticulously choreographed image helped secure. He even appeared in cameo roles, most notably in Hollywood (1923) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), playing himself. Perhaps most significant, “DeMille” was a name the public knew and responded to with the kind of devotion otherwise given only to stars such as Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks.

Another consequence of the success achieved by The Ten Commandments was the typecasting of its director as a maestro of the film spectacle. Indeed, DeMille’s name remains inextricably linked to the genre of the spectacular epic, conjuring up images not only of the director’s two versions of The Ten Commandments but also of a succession of mammoth epics that included The King of Kings (1927), The Sign of the Cross (1932), Cleopatra (1934), The Crusades (1935), The Plainsman (1937), The Buccaneer (1938), Union Pacific (1939), Samson and Delilah (1949), and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952).

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In assessing DeMille’s overall impact, the director’s crucial role as a founding partner of the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company in 1913 should not be forgotten. As the fledgling firm’s director-general, it was DeMille who was responsible for deciding to make its first production, The Squaw Man, Squaw Man, The (film) a six-reel “feature” film. Subsequent features directed and produced by DeMille and employing such well-known personalities as Metropolitan Opera diva Geraldine Farrar and silent-film star Mary Pickford solidified the Lasky Company’s leadership in the growing feature-film market. Consequently, DeMille is justly regarded as one of the individuals who established Hollywood as the film capital of the world.

DeMille’s unique role as a master showman with tremendous ability to anticipate and play to the shifting tastes of the public should also not be discounted. Indeed, his sexual melodramas such as Old Wives for New (1918) and Male and Female accurately gauged the public’s appetite for vicariously sampling the lifestyles of the era’s rich and famous, a natural enough manifestation of human curiosity that had been made urgent by the deprivations and sacrifices required by the U.S. involvement in World War I. In the process, DeMille’s parade of high fashion, his elevation of bathing to an art form, and his detailed depictions of the rules of etiquette required by high society for getting on in life educated and titillated Americans and influenced their behavior. Ten Commandments, The (film) Motion pictures;The Ten Commandments[Ten Commandments) Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Cecil B. DeMille[Demille]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Birchard, Robert S. Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004. Study of DeMille’s life and work and of the effects of his work on the history of American filmmaking. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brownlow, Kevin. “Cecil B. DeMille.” In The Parade’s Gone By. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968. Brownlow’s incisive assessment of DeMille’s silent film career includes telling and balanced quotations from actors Gloria Swanson, Leatrice Joy, Bessie Love, Adela Rogers St. Johns, and Gary Cooper, director William Wellman, producer David O. Selznick, and historian William Everson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DeMille, Cecil B. The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille. Edited by Donald Hayne. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1959. A thorough and personal accounting of DeMille’s life, times, and career with important insights on the rise of Hollywood, DeMille’s switch from theater to motion pictures, and the controversies swirling about his larger-than-life epic films.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Essoe, Gabe, and Raymond Lee. DeMille: The Man and His Pictures. New York: Castle Books, 1970. A valuable if flawed source. Includes useful appreciations by Charlton Heston, Henry Wilcoxon, and Elmer Bernstein, an impressive collection of production stills and photos, a filmography, and a listing of DeMille’s various honors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Higham, Charles. Cecil B. DeMille: A Biography of the Most Successful Film Maker of Them All. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973. A lively and indispensable account of DeMille as an initially great director contented, finally, to be a great showman. Higham’s penetrating insights are grounded in DeMille’s voluminous correspondence and notebooks and extensive interviews with more than two hundred of DeMille’s colleagues. Includes a filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacobs, Lewis. The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History. 1939. Reprint. New York: Teachers College Press, 1968. Jacobs’s masterful history includes a candid essay on DeMille’s social-cultural impact and, in Jacobs’s view, DeMille’s severe limitations as a director.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koszarski, Richard. “Cecil B. DeMille.” In An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990. Koszarski provides an overview of DeMille’s artistic and cultural importance set against the evolution of the American silent feature film.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Orrison, Katherine. Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic, “The Ten Commandments.” Lanham, Md.: Vestal Press, 1999. In-depth study of the making of the film, including photographs taken on location during production.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pratt, George C. “Cecil B. DeMille.” In Spellbound in Darkness: A History of the Silent Film. Rev. ed. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973. Includes Pratt’s brief yet trenchant assessment of DeMille’s silent-era career as well as reprints of contemporary reviews of several of DeMille’s films.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rotha, Paul. The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema. Rev. ed. London: Spring Books, 1967. Classic work, first published in 1930, is one of the first attempts to survey the international film. Conveys the British author’s candid assessments of the most prominent American directors, including DeMille.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zukor, Adolph. The Public Is Never Wrong: The Autobiography of Adolph Zukor. Edited by Dale Kramer. London: Cassell, 1954. Zukor’s recollections are gentlemanly yet candid and are especially useful in corroborating and expanding on DeMille’s pivotal role in the formation and evolving fortunes of Paramount Pictures.

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