A biography as sprawling as one of the director’s epics.
Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959) often asked the multitudes of actors gathered on the set of one of his biblical tales to pause for a moment of prayer. Later, on some nights, DeMille invited members of the company back to his estate for a bacchanal to which some, rumors have it, brought their own whips. This was DeMille in life and on film: angelic choruses and hoochy-coochy girls. Film historian Louvish (Mae West: It Ain’t No Sin, 2006, etc.) reaches one obvious conclusion: DeMille was “a hypocrite.” But rather than dig through DeMille’s laundry, Louvish concentrates on the 70 films the director lensed in nearly 50 years. The author devotes more than half of the book to DeMille’s silent films, many of which, he contends, are overlooked gems. Overshadowing these early, gentle works—light comedies and domestic dramas—are the thumping spectacles from DeMille’s sound period: The Greatest Show on Earth, Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments. Louvish packs in detail the way the director packed extras into the scene of the Israelites departing for the Promised Land in The Ten Commandments. A half page, for example, is devoted to W.W. Hodkinson, who revolutionized the way movies were produced and distributed. Despite the detail, Louvish comes up with muddled, equivocal answers to many fundamental questions: Who and what defined the DeMille style, if indeed one existed? Was DeMille an artist or, as many argue, a shameless huckster? Why did his spectacle films, however leaden, clean up at the box office? Were audiences enraptured with the often fundamentalist religious zeal the films bespoke? What in DeMille’s life presaged his lifelong anti-communist, anti-union fervor?
A diffuse, blurry portrait of an American icon.