Silents are Golden: The Silent Films by Cecil B. DeMille
Known for popular classics like The Ten Commandments (1956) Cecil B. DeMille is undisputedly one of Hollywood’s great directors. Although he may not be considered “artistic” like some of his contemporaries, he had a keen sense of the epic and the dramatic, much to the delight of generations of viewers.
It may come as a surprise today, but in the late 1910s and early 20s DeMille was known for fluffy “social” comedies rather than gigantic biblical spectacles. These were full of lavish clothes (often at the end of the “extreme fashion” spectrum) and toys for the “rich” like sofas with fancy bars hidden in the armrests. Of course, it wasn’t long before DeMille made his great epics too. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of his early filmography:
5. Male and female (1919)
While on the surface it looks like one of the more goofy DeMille social dramas, below it Male and female is an ironic study of class difference – with a hefty shot Swiss Robinson family. It plays Gloria Swanson and early matinee idol Thomas Meighan. Swanson had started comedies at Sennett and was happy to wear ball gowns in DeMille romance films. His films certainly helped make her a big star.
in the Male and female, based on JM Barries’ play The admirable Crichton, Swanson plays the spoiled daughter Lady Mary in a wealthy family and Meighan is their butler Crichton. The two are drawn to each other, but Mary rejects Crichton because of his “low” status. However, circumstances change when the household on a deserted island is shipwrecked and forced to bow to Crichton, who turns out to be a brilliant survivor. Attractive and filmed with a lot of humor, it makes a fun “what if?” Scenario and also features a famous fantasy sequence in which Swanson took a dangerous shot with a real roaring lion in a scene in ancient Babylon.
4th Why change your wife? (1920)
This author’s personal favorite of DeMille’s “upper crust” fantasies is Why change your wife? again with Swanson and Meighan. The plot is about Robert’s exertions, dismayed by his wife Beth’s current old-fashionedness and prudishness. He longs for her to be more of a “sweetheart” again, and she cannot understand why he is less interested in her more “sophisticated” pursuits. Finally, Robert has an affair with the very stylish and flirtatious Sally (Bebe Daniels). When Beth finds out – and also discovers that everyone is gossiping about her failed marriage – she furiously decides that she would give herself the most extreme makeover she could only if a “naughty” flirt was fashionable Really show everyone!
While the plot has not aged all Like good wine, the film is so frothy and full of hideous fashion that I find it irresistible. Add to this the spectacle of a very serious “artsy” character in the most ridiculous men’s swimsuit ever, and that alone is worth the price of admission.
3. The affairs of Anatol (1921)
Swanson is again one of the stars in this film, the other is the legendary Wallace Reid, the pretty picture idol who left too early. Anatole Spencer (Reid), a “high society” man, has a shaky marriage to his wife Vivian (Swanson). Complicating his relationship is his unusual tendency to help “fallen” girlfriends lead better lives. He tries to save young Emilie from being the sugar baby of a wealthy gentleman, but she falls in love with him. After Emilie shows himself to be unrepentant, Anatole is outraged and swears not to “save” any more women in the future (the scene in which he ravages an entire room is impressive). Of course, Anatole’s promise doesn’t last long.
This is the last remaining full function from Reid before his unfortunate death from morphine addiction in 1923 (he was originally prescribed morphine by doctors). Despite his suffering at the time, his charm and good looks still shine. The film is also worth it for Bebe Daniel’s role as the infamous actress named – no joke – Satan Synne in appropriately theatrical outfits.
2. The Ten Commandments (1923)
This article must certainly not skip one of DeMille’s greatest hits, without which the popular 1956 Charleton Heston version would not exist. The epic Egyptian sets and grandiose performances are all there, but with the added twist of the Exodus story told in a long prologue and the main story with a modern setting.
After seeing the story of Moses (Theodore Roberts) and the creation of the Ten Commandments, we are introduced to two brothers, John (Richard Dix) and Dan (Rod La Rocque) McTavish. Her godly mother teaches her to obey the Ten Commandments, but only John listens and becomes a poor but honest carpenter. Dan, on the other hand, becomes an atheist and chooses not to let biblical teachings prevent him from becoming a worldly success. Of course, Dan’s decisions ultimately catch up with him.
Even then, after all the biblical spectacle, modern history was considered a bit of a disappointment, but The Ten Commandments was still one of the big hits of 1923. Even today, the film still has its fans, despite inevitable comparisons with the 1956 version.
1.The king of kings (1927)
DeMille’s epic story of Jesus Christ was a major blockbuster of the era and delighted both the masses and critics alike. Starring HB Warner, it focused on the adult years of Christ, with an additional focus on the heavily fictional stories of Mary Magdalene (who once drives a cart drawn by zebras!) And Judas Iscariot. Deeply revered and beautifully filmed, it has thought-provoking moments like Judas who secretly refused bread and wine at the Last Supper and touching scenes like Christ “heals” a child’s doll. It is an ambitious work that is worth seeing today.
The king of kings was the first film to be shown at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, and some theaters had special afternoon shows specifically aimed at elementary and high school students. It is considered one of the most watched silent films of the 1920s.
When we watch silent films today, we tend to be drawn to the artistic features of the era, epic spectacles, or audience-friendly comedies. Any curious viewer keen to explore DeMille’s early filmography will be delighted to see that they manage to offer a bit of all of this.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of the articles on Leas Silents are Golden here.
Lea Stans is a born and raised Minnesota woman with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely attributes to Buster Keaton). Not only does she blog about her passion on her website Silent-ology, but she is also a columnist for them Quarterly silent film and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.