Monday, April 6, 2015

The Ten Commandments (1923) with Jeff Rapsis at the Somerville Theatre

What's Easter without a good Biblical epic? When Jeff Rapsis told me he'd be performing at a screening of The Ten Commandments (1923) on Easter Sunday I knew I had to be there. I've been studying Cecil B. DeMille's life and work recently and was really curious about his part-historical part-modern take on the ten commandments story. And as Rapsis often reminds us seeing a silent on the big screen with live music was the best way to watch it.

This screening was one of several in the ongoing Silents, Please! series at the historic Somerville Theatre. There were about 50 in attendance on Easter Sunday. I overheard someone say that seeing a silent film with live music was something on his "bucket list". This intrigued me especially since I've been spoiled by many silent film screenings with live music and I forget that there are people out there who haven't had the pleasure of the experience yet. It's good to remember what a treasure it is to have talented musicians who love to perform alongside silent films and how we are blessed with the availability of many films from the past.

David and Jeff Rapsis at the Somerville Theatre

David, the theatre's projectionist, gave a brief talk before the start of the film. He  told us that Cecil B. DeMille's success with Biblical epics made him a household name. Audiences back then wanted to see a DeMille movie not because of the acting but because of what David called "that peculiar DeMille touch." DeMille knew how to do lavish productions and this was reflected in his work. David also went into DeMille's conservative politics and his involvement in blacklisting during the McCarthy era. I didn't understand why this was brought up except to give some context to DeMille's penchant for Biblical stories. DeMille also really liked to put sex in his films (Cleopatra and The Sign of the Cross anyone?) but that's a story for another time.

The Egyptian set from The Ten Commandments (1923)

The sets used in The Ten Commandments were full scale and not miniatures as Jeff Rapsis explained in his intro the film.  They were built in the Guadalupe Sand Dunes in California, quite a ways away from Hollywood. Since they couldn't bring back the sets to the lot and DeMille was hesitant to have them used for other films, they were bulldozed, covered in sand and hidden for decades. Ninety years later archaeologists found them and are keeping themselves busy digging up the sets to restore them for public display.

Carlos and I right before the film started
The Ten Commandments (1923) is almost two-and-a-half hours long. The story of Moses and ancient Egypt takes up the first hour of the film and is followed by a contemporary morality tale. We essentially get the history of the ten commandments followed by their significance in a post-WWI world.

As they say, hindsight is 20/20 and it's easy for us to judge the past. We can point our fingers at this film and make fun of it or we can chose to appreciate it for what it is: a fine melodrama with a religious message. I found myself happily lost in DeMille's style of dramatics, visuals and symbolism. I knew about the shift from the distant past to the "modern day" 1920s which helped because otherwise a viewer might be caught off guard.

I was intrigued by the film's consistent use of quotes from Exodus (and Numbers) for the title sequences in the first part. Those larger-than-life Egyptian sets are a feast for the eyes. The special effects used in the parting of the Red Sea will seem a bit hokey to contemporary eyes. To get the effect, the filmed water flowing over blue gelatin backwards. When you see it you can spot the gelatin right away.

The modern story in the film was used to convey several themes and storylines: the breaking of the ten commandments, the moral conflict between older and younger generations during the roaring twenties, a love triangle, sibling rivalry, good versus evil, corporate corruption, etc. They even managed to put leprosy into the contemporary tale.

This is the first film I've seen featuring actress Nita Naldi. She plays the French-Chinese seductress Sally Lung. Her character escapes from a leprosy colony on a shipping vessel and wreaks havoc on the life of Danny McTavish played by Rod La Rocque. Naldi's curvaceous figure and smoldering stare makes her the perfect choice for a silent screen temptress. I was quite mesmerized by her scenes and now I want to see more of her work.

As always Jeff Rapsis did a fine job with the musical accompaniment. I'm not sure how he can keep his energy ip through longer films but he does. I love tapping my feet to the music and am always excited to hear the dramatic music he plays during climactic scenes. He'll be performing again throughout the year at the Somerville Theatre and I hope to catch a few of his upcoming performances.

What film did you watch this Easter?


  1. Hi Raquel,

    Great seeing you guys at yesterday's screening of 'The Ten Commandments.' Thank you for being there, and also for your kind comments about the music! Very much appreciate your support and enthusiasm and glad you were able to enjoy this unusual epic. Hope to see you and Carlos again at another screening soon!

  2. My local library has a copy of this film on its shelf and I always walk by it without picking it up. You've convinced me to borrow it the next time I pop in! I would LOVE to see a silent movie in the cinema, but sadly, the theatres in my area don't screen many of them. I think the last silent that was screened was CITY LIGHTS and I couldn't make it to the showing (bummer).

    I ended up only watching one movie yesterday and that was EASTER PARADE (naturally) xx

    1. Vanessa- You should go to the Toronto Silent Film Festival! I bet they'd have silent film with live music there. I really want to go to that festival and TIFF too.


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