Showing posts with label Cecil B. DeMille. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cecil B. DeMille. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille (2016)

The Ten Commandments (1923)

In 1923, Cecil B. DeMille and his crew headed to the Nipomo Dunes of Guadalupe, California, a small town 160 miles north of Hollywood. DeMille brought with him carpenters, electricians, sculptors, painters, set decorators and many more to build a giant set for his new film The Ten Commandments (1923). His crew got to work on building a 900 feet wide and 100 feet tall set which included 20 Sphinxes and four 35 ton statues of Ramses. It was one of the biggest sets in movie history. Too big to build on the Paramount Studio lot, DeMille needed a wide open space that could double as Egypt and the Guadalupe dunes was just the location. The whole project was one of Biblical proportions well-suited for a film director whose approach to films was nothing less than epic. Too large to move back to Hollywood, the set's fate was up in the air. What would DeMille do with it? If he left it there, rival filmmakers would discover it and take advantage of their masterpiece to make their own movies. DeMille would have none of that. So he decided to bury the set, the entire set, in the sands of the dunes.

"If, a thousand years from now, archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe, I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian Civilization... extended all the way to the Pacific coast of North America. The sphinxes they will find were buried there when we had finished them." - Cecil B. DeMille

Fast forward 60 years later. It was the early 1980s and filmmaker Peter Brosnan and his team had set out to find the buried set of The Ten Commandments. It was a project that would be plagued by setbacks and bureaucratic red-tape. Brosnan's documentary, The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille (2016), tells the story the archaeological dig that spanned over 3 decades. What seemed like a relatively straightforward dig became anything but that. The film also explores the making of DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923). Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Brosnan and his team searched for those who worked on the film and Guadalupe locals who either witnessed the production or were extras on the set. As a result of their work to capture these stories, Brosnan provides a plethora of archival footage. In this we find lots of interviews with extras, witnesses and with other figures including Agnes DeMille (Cecil's niece), screenwriter Jesse Lasky Jr., actor Pat Terence, actress Leatrice Joy (audio only) plus many of the people involved in the archaeological dig. There are also contemporary interviews with Peter Brosnan, his team members including Bruce Cradozo, Richard Eberhardt, Kelvin Jones, and DeMille's granddaughter Cecilia DeMille Presley. And to my surprise the documentary also covered the making of the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments which helps complete this almost century long story.

What the film lacks for in production quality it makes up for in a riveting story. The archival footage of the dig and the last surviving witnesses to the 1923 filming add much value to this documentary. I was riveted by the story of Brosnan and his team's quest to uncover the buried set. This is a fascinating documentary and well worth the time of any serious classic film buff.

The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille is now available for digital download. I encourage you to give this one a try. You can find the movie on iTunes.

Additional links: My review of The Ten Commandments (1923).

Monday, May 22, 2017

Hollywood Divided by Kevin Brianton

Hollywood Divided
The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist
by Kevin Brianton
University Press of Kentucky
October 2016
Hardcover ISBN: 9780813168920
174 pages

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powell's

On October 22, 1950, more than 500 directors met at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a Screen Directors Guild meeting. The topic on hand: Cecil B. DeMille's call for the dismissal of SDG's president Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Many big-name directors including John Huston, John Ford, Rouben Mamoulian and many others would deliver speeches either for or against the recall. This meeting occurred during the thick of the Hollywood backlist era and quotes from the speeches would live on for decades sometimes morphing into different variations. It represented what Kevin Brianton, author of Hollywood Divided, calls "one of the bitterest chapters in American cinema history."

It's easy for us to put the people involved in this meeting into two distinct camps: liberals and conservatives. And depending on your political views these two camps would also carry the label of good people and bad people. It's true that liberals were eyed as potentially dangerous because they were most likely to have ties to Communism. And it's also true that conservatives led the charge to seek and oust industry members who they thought were clearly Communist. However, as Brianton explores in his book, the divide between liberals and conservatives wasn't always very clear. Some directors attending the meeting identified as Republican yet made very liberal movies. Others considered liberal sometimes leaned conservative. On DeMille, Brianton explains "it would seem that his rigid conservative ideology drove him one direction, while his personal afflictions tugged him another way." In this book, Brianton breaks down the different motivations and ideologies of many of the top directors involved in this infamous SDG meeting and we discover that not everyone, even the two big players in all of this DeMille and Mankiewicz were as clear cut in their two political camps as most people like to think.

Brianton's book is incredibly detailed. Everything you could possibly want to know about SDG's 1950 meeting can be found within its pages. Its meticulously researched and told in a very unbiased way. The first part of the book explores the events that lead up to the meeting. The second part breaks down almost minute by minute the events of the gathering. And the third part explores the meeting's legacy and the myths that came out of the oral history of that important moment in film history.

I was interested in learning about DeMille's background and how he lead the charge of many conservative movements in the industry even as early as WWI. Directors Mankiewicz and Ford and their motivations and actions are explored closely as well. I'd love to read some additional books exploring the Hollywood Blacklist. Actor Robert Vaughn wrote a book called Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting which I have my eye on. If anyone were to write a book about how films before, during and after the blacklist era both had an effect on the blacklist and were affected by it, that would be a book I'd pick up immediately. If anything this slim volume on one aspect of a dark moment in Hollywood history whet my appetite for more reading.

If you're researching the Hollywood blacklist, Kevin Brianton's Hollywood Divided is a invaluable resource. If you're looking for an overall history of this era, this book would only be a supplement to your reading but still worth your time.

Thank you to University Press of Kentucky for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic

Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic
by Cecilia de Mille Presley and Mark A. Vieira
Running Press
Hardcover - pages
November 2014

If you're going to invest in a high quality coffee table book, you shouldn't just go for looks alone. There is a pride in ownership of Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic. Not only is this oversize book a beauty to behold it's also chockfull of interesting information about one of the grandfathers of Hollywood. The glossy pages hold an array of images pleasing to the eye but it's not a book just to flip through. Take your time, pore over the pages, linger on the words, read it like a book for the full experience.

The organization of the text and images in the book is one of the best arrangements I've seen in a coffee table book. It feels organic in its construction. You have the trusted voice of historian and photographer Mark A. Vieira and the insider voice of DeMille's granddaughter Cecilia. There is a little bit of bias because a family member was involved in the book however I never felt it was anything but honest. The book serves more as a tribute to a legendary filmmaker rather than a critical look at his career and it's very transparent about that fact. The front matter includes a glowing introduction by director Martin Scorsese who saw DeMille as a publicity savvy visionary and a foreword by producer Brett Ratner who painted DeMille as a showman whose films served as entertainment for many generations.

If you wanted to give the book an alternate title it could be Cecil B. DeMille: The Showman. The theme of DeMille as entertainer was the glue that holds the story of his life and career together. DeMille's movies were commercial successes because he gave audiences what they wanted; epic stories with fantastic visuals and charismatic stars.

"Mr. DeMille loved to make movies that took you out of your seat and placed you in another time, another world. He was a great showman." - Leatrice Joy

The book is divided into seven chapters with multiple sub-chapters within each. Along with the introduction and foreword we get a short piece by Cecilia de Mille Presley called "My Grandfather" and a preface by Mark A. Vieira about the purpose of the book. The chapters follow DeMille's life and career in chronological order with a bigger focus on his movies more so than his personal life. 

The book is primarily written by Vieira with insights from de Mille Presley presented throughout the book in paragraph-long inserts and quotes in the main body of the text.  There are quotes from voices of the past including Henry Wilcoxon, Mary Pickford, Gary Cooper, Charlton Heston, Leatrice Joy, and Cecil B. DeMille himself. Photos throughout the book have detailed captions adding nice additional content. The book also contains artist renderings, costume design sketches, behind-the-scenes photos, production notes, photographs of film memorabilia and publicity photos. Most photos are a good size with some stretching out over double page spreads and others tucked in among text. Some material has never been seen before.

"DeMille took a great deal of care with the production stills for his movies." - Martin Scorsese

DeMille knew these would be useful in promoting his films and today they make up the pages of this beautiful coffee table book. This is the first pictorial coffee table book about DeMille and the visuals help you escape into the world of his films.

There was a lot of interesting information in the book. I liked reading about DeMille's long working relationships with Gloria Swanson, Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, Gary Cooper and Henry Wilcoxon.

"He believed in women's abilities. Not many other producers were hiring women for jobs behind the camera at that time." - Katherine de Mille Quinn

DeMille was influenced by art and was a very visual director. Critics didn't like his work but the public loved him. His films were known for lavish sets, exquisite costumes and bathtub scenes. He loved to add an element of sex to his movies. I love this quote:

"Motion pictures cannot be made without sex. Take it away from films and you take away their very life." - Cecil B. DeMille

Throughout the book readers learn about the various studios DeMille worked with, the actors, actresses, visual artists as well as behind-the-scenes tales from his extensive catalog of films.

Films covered in the book include:
The Squaw Man (1914) and (1931)
The Ten Commandments (1923)
The King of Kings (1927)
The Godless Girl (1929)
Dynamite (1929)
Madam Satan (1930)
The Sign of the Cross (1932)
This Day and Age (1933)
Four Frightened People (1934)
Cleopatra (1934)
The Crusades (1935)
The Painsman (1936)
The Buccaneer (1938)
Union Pacific (1939)
North West Mounted Police (1940)
The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944)
Unconquered (1947)
Samson and Delilah (1949)
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
The Ten Commandments (1956)

Here are some images of the book in all it's glory! These include my favorite spreads.

On Samson and Delilah - "As concerned as he was with details, DeMille's primary focus was on five big scenes. These could be advertised. These would prompt word of mouth. These had to be show stoppers, played by bigger-than-life stars in eye-catching costumes." - Vieira

I could tell this book was lovingly put together with great attention to detail. Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic is a great investment in your classic film library and a must-have for fans of old Hollywood.

Thank you to Running Press and their PR team for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Note: This review is not an entry of my summer reading challenge! I should be reviewing my challenge books soon.

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?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

New & Upcoming Classic Film Books (1)

 "I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book." - Groucho Marx

I've been on a reading frenzy lately and with so many good biographies and film books coming out I don't think I'll ever stop. It's so important for classic film enthusiasts to read and learn. It enriches the experience, develops the palate and informs the mind.

I've put together a list of new and upcoming classic film books. The publication dates range from September 2014 to March 2015 (specific on sale dates are subject to change). All title links lead you to the book's page on Goodreads. I've chosen a variety of books from big publishing houses to scholarly presses to small, indie and vanity publishers. This list contains biographies, reference guides, textbooks and more. Take a look through and maybe you'll find your next read.

edited by Randy Schmidt
Chicago Review Press
480 pages - September 2014

by Lesley L. Coffin
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 
246 pages - September 2014 

by Gene D Phillips
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
204 pages - September 2014

John Wayne's Way: Life Lessons from the Duke
by Douglas Brode
Globe Pequot Press
128 pages - October 2014

A Companion to Fritz Lang
edited by Joseph McElhaney
500 pages - October 2014

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood
by William J. Mann
384 pages - October 2014

The 100 Greatest Silent Film Comedians
by James Roots
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
464 pages - October 2014

by Michael Slowick
Columbia University Press
400 pages - October 21st, 2014

by Peter Ackroyd
Nan A. Talese (Penguin Random House)
304 pages - On Sale October 28th, 2014

by John Kisch and Tony Nourmand
Reel Art Press
288 pages - On Sale October 30th, 2014

by William H. Mooney
Rutgers University Press
224 pages - On Sale November 3rd, 2014

by Marc Eliot
Dey Street Books
416 pages - On Sale November 4th, 2014

Hope: Entertainer of the Century
by Richard Zoglin
Simon and Schuster 
576 pages - On Sale November 4th, 2014

by Arthur Laurents
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
192 pages - On Sale November 4th, 2014

by Ruth Barton
University Press of Kentucky
362 pages - On Sale November 5th, 2014

Early Poverty Row Studios
Images of America Series
by  E. J. Stephens and Marc Wanamaker
Arcadia Publishing
128 pages - On Sale November 10th, 2014

Anxiety Muted: American Film Music in a Suburban Age
by Stanley C. Pelkey and Anthony Bushard
Oxford University Press
320 pages - On Sale November 12th, 2014

 Grace: A Biography
by Thilo Wydra
Skyhorse Publishing
340 pages - On Sale November 18th, 2014

Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design
by Jan Christopher Horak
University of Kentuck Press
492 pages - On Sale November 18th, 2014 

edited by Anthony Slide
Columbia University Press
448 pages - On Sale November 25th, 2014

by Tim Snelson 
Rutgers University Press
224 pages - On Sale November 26th, 2014

Columbia Noir: A Complete Filmography, 1940-1962
by Gene Blottner
McFarland & Co
277 pages - On Sale November 30th, 2014

by James L Neibaur
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
228 pages - On Sale December 1st 2014

by Brent Phillips
University Press of Kentucky
368 pages - On Sale December 2nd, 2014

Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic
by Cecilia DeMille Presley and Mark A. Vieira
Foreword by Brett Ratner
Introduction by Martin Scorsese
416 pages - On Sale December 9th, 2014

Color and Empathy: Essays on Two Aspects of Film
by Christine Brinckmann
Amsterdam University Press
282 pages - On Sale December 15th, 2014

edited by Tom Hertweck
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
250 pages - On Sale December 16th, 2014

by Lea Jacobs
University of California Press

280 page - On Sale December 19th, 2014

Buster Keaton's Crew: The Team Behind His Silent Films
by Lisle Foote
McFarland & Co 
300 pages - On Sale December 31st, 2014

The Five Sedgwicks: Pioneer Entertainers of Vaudeville, Film and Television
by Michael Zmuda
McFarland & Co 
277 pages - On Sale December 31st, 2014

by Kristen Hatch
Rutgers University Press
208 pages - On Sale January 2015

Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical
by Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo
University Press of Kentucky
640 pages - On Sale January 13th, 2015

 Art Direction and Production Design
edited by Lucy Fischer
Rutgers University Press
272 pages - On Sale January 19th, 2015

Cinema Civil Rights: Regulation, Repression and Race in the Classic Hollywood Era
by Ellen C. Scott
Rutgers University Press
288 pages - On Sale January 28th, 2015

A Filmgoer's Guid to In-Jokes, Obscure References and Sly Details
by Matthew Coniam
McFarland & Co
On Sale January 31st, 2015

by Michaelangelo Capua
McFarland & Co
On Sale January 31st, 2015

By Peggy Caravantes
Chicago Review Press 
208 pages (juvenile) - On Sale February 1st, 2015

Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog
by  James Grissom
Knopf (Penguin Random House)
416 pages - On Sale March 3rd, 2015

Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films 
by Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr
University Press of Kentucky
248  pages - On Sale March 6th, 2015

by William Wellman Jr.
608 pages - On Sale March 10th, 2015

Lois Weber in Early Hollywood
by Shelley Stamp
University of California Press
401 pages - On Sale March 13th, 2015

Hitchcock a la Carte
by Jan Olsson
Duke University Press
288 pages - On Sale March 20th, 2015

Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much
by Michael Wood
New Harvest
144 pages - On Sale March 24th, 2015

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