Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood revisited

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University Melbourne

It is tremendous to see that the University of Kentucky Press is republishing Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood.[1] First released in 2004, Robert Birchard’s book helped spur a renewed interest in Cecil B. DeMille, which had begun to grow around 1985. Cecil B. DeMille’s reputation had been trashed from the 1960s to the 1980s as a commercially crass director with savage right-wing tendencies.

Any fair-minded reader of the book Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood would see immediately that DeMille was far more than Charlton Heston parting the sea in The Ten Commandments (1956). The first thing that is immediately evident is how many silent films DeMille created from 1915 to 1924. More than one critic has argued that DeMille was at his best during this time.

The second thing is just how little of his output was biblical epics. The biblical epics are his signature films, but they are hardly a major part of his career. If you count both versions of The Ten Commandments, King of Kings, and Samson and Delilah, the biblical epics add up to four films. Out of 70 films in a career spanning over 41 years, these cannot be considered an accurate summing of the director’s cinema.

Birchard’s careful examination of his films reveals a more complex and nuanced career. At its beginning, DeMille often struggled for a profile, and at various times he even battled to find work. He also changed his image and focus to suit the circumstances of the time. DeMille was an adapter of Victorian theatrical plays in the 1910s and domestic comedies where couple remarry in the 1920s. He began a series of American historical epics and westerns in the 1930s. There were also one-offs such as The Cheat (1915), The Godless Girl (1929), This Day and Age (1933), and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), along with film versions of operas such as Carmen (1915), and even a proto-film noir in The Whispering Chorus (1918). Films such as Madam Satan (1930), which finished with people escaping with parachutes from a masked ball aboard a zeppelin thrashing about in a storm, defy any serious attempt at a category. It is impossible to pinpoint any consistent thread in his filmmaking.

I wrote a book in which DeMille featured heavily called Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist, published in 2016.[2] I contacted Robert while writing my book, and he could not have been more supportive. As my study progressed, it became clear that many of DeMille’s reputational problems came from the coverage of his actions at the Screen Directors Meeting of 1950. Unfortunately, the Directors Guild of America denied access to their records, and the transcript was difficult to find. That all changed when Joseph Mankiewicz’s family released his copy to the Margaret Herrick Library. Looking at the court transcript of the meeting revealed that most participants had been either misquoted or selectively quoted. In particular, John Ford’s contribution was savagely misquoted and misrepresented. This discussion was not some minor footnote of interest to pedantic historians as Ford’s attack on DeMille was one of the mainstays of both their reputations as well as a Hollywood legend. In that book, I demonstrated a lot of what had been written about the Screen Directors Meeting of 1950, where Cecil B. DeMille was deposed, was pure invention. I paid credit to Robert Birchard for being the first historian to detect the false history – that judgment still stands.

That conclusion was obvious from a simple reading of the document, but Birchard did more than just read the document. On viewing the Screen Directors Meeting transcript, Birchard then suggested that Ford had not said: “I don’t like him, but I admire him”  – a comment supposedly made to damn DeMille. What Ford had possibly said was, “I not only like him, but I admire him.” Read in context with Ford’s relationship with DeMille and the rest of speech, Birchard’s view is almost certainly correct. Birchard also noted a clear misrepresentation of Ford’s remarks.  He wrote to me: ‘I believe that the words… that read ‘I mean the little guy that creeps in and says that [the] russians stink.’  should more probably read ‘I mean the little guy who creeps in and says the rushes stink’  i.e. the producers who complain about the footage the director is turning out.  The expression ‘that the russians stink’ makes no real sense – even though it has been quoted widely.

The above example showed how a good film historian could look at an old source and uncover new information.The same approach can be seen throughout the book Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, representing a fine example of a film historian looking again to reveal a more nuanced picture. I am not the only historian who has a debt to Birchard, as almost every writer who has looked at DeMille since 2004 owes something to his work.

When it was published, DeMille’s reputation was rising – albeit slowly. In 1977 George Lucas directed Star Wars, a large-budget film, which had opened up a new era of epic cinema. The most successful director of the period was Steven Spielberg, director of his big-budget films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and he would later claim that one of the directors who influenced him as a young man was DeMille.[3] Big budget epics were back in favour, and DeMille’s career was being more politely considered.

It was a happy accident that put DeMille back on the front pages. In 1923, probably to save money, DeMille had ordered that the set of The Ten Commandments be dismantled and covered over by the sand. The set remained undisturbed until 1985 when it was found by filmmaker Peter Brosnan and archeologist John Parker.[4] The site’s discovery created worldwide media attention and focused on DeMille’s role as a Hollywood pioneer. It was a serious boost to DeMille’s reputation because the discoverers depicted DeMille in more positive terms. A group organiser claimed, “Without Cecil B. DeMille, (films such as) Titanic would never have happened. Because Hollywood as we know it would never have happened.” [5]

Birchard built on this momentum. Yet his work could not have emerged without the support of the de mille family, who released his documents through the Cecil B. DeMille archive at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and gave him other support. In 2004, Kevin Brownlow released a documentary on him for American TV – with Birchard being interviewed extensively for the film. It was clear that DeMille’s star was on the rise, and Birchard’s book arrived exactly the right time. He could not have asked for better pre-publicity.

My only regret with the book is that Robert Birchard did not follow through on his original idea to write a full biography. His book is mostly confined to the production history of films, which take up a fair proportion of DeMille’s life. Still, you can see that he occasionally allowed himself to wander away from the films to look at DeMille’s life and times. I think if Birchard had wished, he could have written an exceptional biography. This book is a fine achievement, but it leaves you wanting more.


[1] Birchard, Robert S. Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood. University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

[2] Kevin Brianton, Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist. 2016.

[3] Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic, directed by Kevin Brownlow, 2004.

[4]Anne Edwards, The De Milles: An American Family, Collins, London, 1988, p. 7 and http://www.lostcitydemille.com.

[5] The organiser is not named but they are quoted on http://www.lostcitydemille.com/titanic.html.

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