Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Cecil B. DeMille

Cecil B. DeMille, 1934,
during the making of
For painters, it's not uncommon to find something that works, then "milk it" into fame and fortune. Okay, it is uncommon to go that far, but you know what I mean. It might be something as simple as vertical landscapes, or something as complex as a certain winning color combination. Sometimes it has to do with subject matter. I once discovered I could sell all the cat paintings I could produce for between twenty-five and fifty dollars (usually one or two hours work for an average 12"x18" format). I still could. But I haven't painted a cat in years. This phenomena is called a "winning formula" and for some artists, once they discover the secret, it dominates their careers forever. It should come as no surprise that this "success formula" carries over into other areas of the arts as well. I'm thinking specifically of the movie industry, but the same is true in music, literature, and drama...perhaps even more so.

Hollywood's first film...also
DeMille's first, 1913
Did you ever wonder who made the first Hollywood movie?  The year was 1913, the movie was a silent film, of course, a six-reeler called The Squaw Man (right), produced by the Jesse Lasky Feature Play Company. Besides Lasky, two other film pioneers were involved, Sam Goldfish and the director, Cecil B. DeMille. It was his first movie. Sam Goldfish (I swear, that was his real name) later changed, for obvious reasons, to Samuel Goldwyn, later the middle initial and godfather of MGM. The Lasky company later merged with Adolf Zukor's Famous Players to form the nucleus of a corporation that would eventually become Paramount Pictures.

Demille's pre-production-code Madam Satan
from the 1920s displays the typical of the racy
costumes of the director's early pot-boiler comedies.
Born in 1881, into a theatrical family (his mother, Beatrice, wrote plays, Cecil and his brother, William, produced and directed them), DeMille cut his teeth on silent films,--The Warrens of Virginia (1915), Joan the Woman (1916), and the Whispering Chorus (1918, interesting title for a silent film) among others. In the process, he also defined forever the stereotype of the early movie producer/director as a swaggering, loudmouthed, megaphone-toting, womanizing, dictator with an ego the size of Hollywood itself. To his crew he once blasted, "You are here to please me. Nothing else on earth matters." He was a bodacious self-promoter. He made himself a household word long before there was even movie stars. A series of small, social comedies he made in the early 1920s promoted a liberated sexual morality, wrapping it in traditional values. Apparently they weren't wrapped tight enough for the result was the movie industry's famed, self-imposed "Production Code of Ethics" (a board of censors) which dominated Hollywood output for the next forty-five years until our current rating system replaced it in the late 1960s.

The original, 1923 silent version to
be revived in 1956
In reaction to this, DeMille stumbled upon his formula for success. Basically it boiled down to the fact that he could sexually titillate all he wanted so long as the movie was of blockbuster proportions and cloaked in some pious epic, often biblical, while studded with overblown spectacle and a big name cast. Gloria Swanson was one of his discoveries. His silent Ten Commandments (1923, right) and The King of Kings (1927) proved the box office validity of such a combination. In the 1930s, Cecil B. DeMille Productions, under the shield of Paramount, tested the formula with talkies in their 1932 epic, Sign of the Cross, then pulled out all the stops to unveil (literally) Cleopatra (1934), and The Crusades (1935). From that time on it was just one big-budget (for that era) hit after another Including such films as The Plainsman (1936), Union Pacific (1939), Reap the Wild Wind (1942) and Samson and Delilah (1949). 

Forty years to win an Academy Award
Demille's final film, the first
of the "remakes" that later kept
Hollywood occupied for half a
In 1952, DeMille won an Academy Award for The Greatest Show on Earth (above) and in the process made of Charles Heston a hero ready to step into the lead of his next and last big mega-film for which he is best known, The Ten Commandments (1956, right). It was a suitable exit number (he died in 1959). It was also the first time a producer/director had ever done a remake of one of his earlier films. And it was, indeed, the hallmark of blockbuster films--a standard against which all other blockbusters would forever be measured. The special effects were impressive (for their time), the star was too, and so were the scantily clad female bodies dancing around the golden calf. It was the same DeMille, seventy pictures later, the same formula, even the same story which had launched him thirty-two years before. Hmm...maybe I'll go back to painting cats.

No comments:

Post a Comment