Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University
Cinematic reputations rise and fall. None more so than Cecil B. DeMille who is the only film director to dominate Hollywood from the 1910s, through the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and well into the 1950s. DeMille is simply without peer throughout the studio era. His only possible directorial rival was John Ford, who had been in Hollywood since 1913 as an actor, but even he did begin his directorial career until 1917. Ford did not have a major directorial success until 1924 with The Iron Horse, at which stage DeMille had been a key director for close to a decade, with his first film The Squaw Man co-directed by Oscar Apfel in 1914. Aside from being a director, he had helped found Paramount Studios. In one form or another, he would dominate Hollywood for close to 40 years, culminating in The Ten Commandments in 1956, one of the most successful films of the era.
Despite his success, DeMille’s reputation would be dragged through the mud for various cultural and political sins. From the early 1980s, DeMille would be depicted as a McCarthyite figure with an anti-Semitic edge, and his films were dismissed for their commercial crassness. Sumiko Higashi’s book Cecil B. DeMille: A Guide to References and Resources published in 1985 shows the coverage of the director had declined to the point of oblivion at the time of publication. One of the final items in the bibliography was an unpublished biography by John Kobal called DeMille and his Artists.
Kobal was five years into the research and writing of the book at this point. He had already written 30 books on film and photography, and this was to be his masterwork. Even though Kobal had chosen an unpopular subject, with his profile, publishing record, and contacts, he would have almost certainly had the book published. Yet people interested in DeMille could only speculate what the book contained, because, until now, that entry in the bibliography was as close as people got to it.
The chances of having his book published crashed when Kobal contracted HIV and died at the age of 51 in 1991. Anecdotally, he had completed the book a few weeks before his death. Despite a decade of work, an 1832-page manuscript of a then unpopular film director would have been a hard sell. Despite Kobal’s obvious writing talent, pulling together a major biography while seriously ill proved impossible. People who had seen the original manuscript doubted if anyone could make anything out of it, and for close to 30 years, that was certainly the case. The manuscript was left to languish until Kobal’s younger sister Monika negotiated its release and then approached the University of Mississippi Press.
After some strenuous structural edits by Graham Coster, which reduced it to a more modest 420 pages, the newly-released book retains Kobal’s focus on Hollywood’s classical era. He dedicated his life to celebrating the visual beauty of its cinema – particularly its photography, eventually establishing a major photo archive of the film industry. DeMille’s almost inexhaustible visual imagination, splendour and the spectacle clearly drew Kobal to his subject. DeMille was essentially a visual director, and many critics regard his silent films as superior to his cinema of the sound era – partly for this reason.
Even DeMille’s sound films were essentially cinematic. If anyone thinks of the director, it is usually in terms of images, and rarely because of the film’s dialogue. His signature scene is where the actor Charlton Heston plays Moses parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956). This image has seared itself onto the popular imagination. Anyone interested in American cinema would immediately identify it –and it would be recognised by millions. Few directors of any stature can claim to have made such a visual impact. Kobal brings an intelligent enthusiast’s energy to his treatment of the director. Scenes in the films are described brilliantly by Kobal, such as a battle in DeMille’s first historical drama Joan the Woman (1916). Not surprisingly, the book has excellent photographs from the Kobal collection that reinforce the astonishing visual quality of DeMille’s cinema.
Kobal’s critical discussion of DeMille’s cinema is interesting and thought provoking. His section on the Whispering Chorus (1918) is a fascinating one, highlighting the tension between artistic and commercial pressures. The film contains a great sequence when DeMille shows a man wrestling with his conscience in a prison cell. The whispering chorus of voices talking to the central character was an artistic and technical triumph. Kobal provides a sound argument why DeMille moved away from the artistic path. Clearly, Kobal is wrestling with the early criticism of Kevin Brownlow, – with whom Kobal co-wrote books – who believed that DeMille had lost his artistic credibility from this point. It would have strengthened his book if he identified to whom he was directing his comments. Kobal points out that the film was both an artistic and commercial success, undercutting Brownlow’s view that DeMille abandoned artistic cinema in favour of commerce.
Using his extensive contacts within the film industry, Kobal interviewed many people, to gain some great perspectives on the veteran director. The interview with his employee Gordon Mounts in which he talks about DeMille’s closest advisor Daniel Hayne’s sexuality and religion is a revelation. Hayne would complete DeMille’s auto-biography and the professional relationship between the two men is a fascinating one. Kobal’s interview with his lawyer Neil McCarthy also open windows onto his little-known roles in setting up a commercial aviation company in the 1920s. Indeed, his interviews are the most important contribution of the book.
The interviews are also one of the book’s key weaknesses. Often Kobal is guilty of repeating Chinese whispers. DeMille set up a foundation to tackle union closed shops in 1945. Kobal argues that the violent strike breaker Tom Gerbich of Republic Steel led his DeMille Foundation for Political Freedom. (p. 372) This was a claim made by Joseph Mankiewicz in 1978 to his biographer Kenneth Geist – who called him Tom Gerdler. It is uncertain where the information originated. In fact, Tom Girdler was the actual name of the Republic Steel head. According to the foundation records, to which Kobal had access, Girdler donated $500 to DeMille’s foundation in 1945, and DeMille thanked him for his “generous help” in 1955. Girdler was an occasional correspondent over the years but appeared to have played no formal role.
In addition, Kobal talks about DeMille supplying information to Joseph McCarthy and HUAC. These allegations were again smears from DeMille’s political opponents, and there is no documented evidence for these claims. DeMille was an FBI informant, but had no role with HUAC. Kobal simply repeats the accusations as facts. Such errors show Kobal was often quickly collating material and often did not check his oral or written sources. Even so, Kobal’s coverage of the controversial 1950 Screen Directors Meeting is far better than many historians who followed him. Kobal made good use of the court transcript and provided a solid description of the meeting. Kobal does not excuse DeMille, for his attack on Joseph Mankiewicz, but he does put his actions in context.
Kobal has not written a critical biography, but it is not hagiography. It is a polite retelling of the life of a director, and the author is a clear fan who knows and enjoys DeMille’s films. The publication of The Lost World of DeMille feeds into a positive reassessment of DeMille that began with Kevin Brownlow’s documentary American Epic in 2004, and it has gathered pace from that point. In many ways, Kobal’s biography compares well to Scott Eyman’s authorised account of 2010, and it is far better than Simon Louvish’s work of 2008. It is a notable addition to the commentary of an important and still over-looked film director.
Originally published at Brianton, Kevin. Review of The Lost World of DeMille, by John Kobal. Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal 50, no. 1 (2020): 88-89. muse.jhu.edu/article/763291.