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 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. These films 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 misrepresented. This discussion was not some minor footnote of interest to only pedantic historians. 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 transcript. 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.

Cold War or old war?

Cold War II: Hollywood’s Renewed Obsession with Russia

Edited by Tatiana Prorokova-Konrad, University of Mississippi Press, 2020.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University

By the time  Joe Biden was elected President, diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia had deteriorated for more than a decade. The media repeatedly used the term ‘a new Cold War” to describe the relationship between the United States and Russia. The first Cold War was a term developed in 1947 by the American writer, journalist and political commentator Walter Lippman. The Cold War was the conflict between the USSR and the West from the end of the Second World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union around 1990. The Cold War was depicted as the clear ideological conflict between communism and liberal democracies across the world – a claim open to debate. Of course, the current state of US – Russian relations has little or nothing to do with communism. This new “Cold War” appears to have been running from 2012 to today when Russia became more aggressive, particularly in the Ukraine. The iciness of world diplomacy has widespread implications, including a renewed interest in Russians as villains in American cinema. The editor of Cold War II: Hollywood’s Renewed Obsession with Russia, Tatiana Prorokova-Konrad, “examines the recent growth in Russia-related films as well as the effectiveness of understanding the current US-Russia political crisis; through the lens of recent Cold War films and T.V. shows.” (4)  A clear influence to many of the writers in the book is Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, which maps out the recent menace of the re-emergence of Russian hostility.[1]  The book hopes to enrich the conventional understandings of the Cold War during both the Trump and Obama administrations.

This collection of articles does not have a uniform methodological or theoretical approach. Still, the editor  Prorokova-Konrad attempts to draw the essays together with an introductory discussion about Hollywood’s previous cold war spasms in the late 1910s and 1950s. Prorokova-Konrad only makes a faint mention of silent films with anti-communist sympathies, and she dates anti-communist films as far back as Ninotchka (1939). However, anti-Soviet films have had a much longer pedigree than the late 1930s. A mention of the film A Bolshevism on Trial (1919) showed that anti-communism had a long lineage, dating back to the Russian Revolution. Some of the 1950s anti-communist films are referenced, but it is an incomplete listing. Even key films in the 1950s, such as Leo McCarey’s anti-communist film My Son John (1952), are only mentioned in passing. If the book’s title is a “renewed obsession,” the reader might be expected to be introduced to what exactly Hollywood was revisiting more thoroughly.

Bridge of Spies is seen as part of Cold War Nostalgia. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The opening section, called “Enduring Clichés,” begins with the article: The Warm Glow of Cold War Nostalgia by Vesta Silva & Jon Wiebel. It is difficult to see how the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis could create a warm glow in any sensible person. Still, the authors argue that “the second decade of the twenty-first century has seen an explosion of Cold War stories in American films and television series that highlight a nostalgic desire for a return to the more certain.” Looking at the issue through the lens of  The Bridge of Spies (2015) and Atomic Blonde (2017), they examine how the Cold War has been depicted through the actions of cinematic heroes. The films promote a sense of certainty that is lacking in the present-day War on Terror and the rise of Russia. The idea of nostalgia is also present in Big Rewards for the Small Screen by Helena Goscilo, and it is the best paper of the opening section. The essay looks at how The Man from U.N.C.L.E was depicted in TV series in the 1960s and a later film version directed by Guy Ritchie in 2015. As well as mentioning some films from the early stages of the Cold War, Grocilo uses the programs as an opportunity to look at the cultural responses within their cultural settings.

Red Sparrow is referenced by many of the essays. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

With any disparate collection of articles, some essays are better than others. There is a mixture of heavy-handed theoretical works, and others are free of such concerns. One of the more impressive articles is  Ian Scott’s examination of the various films that have used Berlin as its setting, such as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965).  It is an interesting and perceptive survey of the topic, and it is refreshing to see a writer who sees this recent crop of films as part of a tradition. The same comment can be made about The Shape of Water and the Cold War Revisited by Cyndy Hendershot. This essay is a highly observant one looking at how The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was reworked in the 21st century. Another good essay is “Your Body Belongs to the State by Dan Ward, which concentrates on the depiction of heroines in Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow. Perhaps the most successful essay is Laughing at the Early Cold War by Lori Maguire, where she provides a good introduction to these films. Again, she shows that films such as Hail Caesar (2016) and Death of Stalin (2017) have many predecessors. By referencing films such as the British comedy Our Man in Havana (1959), Maguire demonstrates a sound grasp of cinema history and the long lineage of these films.

Part of long lineage of Cold War satire is Our Man in Havana. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Yet in presenting a case for a ‘Hollywood obsession,’ some selections are quite dubious. Many of the films are not even American – and cannot be considered part of Hollywood’s cinema – for example, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) was a British, French and German co-production. The Death of Stalin (2017) was a British, French and Belgium co-production, and both films are repeatedly referenced. However, it is not just the film industry. To place TV shows as part of a ‘Hollywood obsession’ is stretching the boundaries a little. One of the essays: Of Mothers and Motherlands by David LaRocca, focuses on the American TV show The Americans (2013 – 2018). The Americans was a popular program that told the story of two agents who passed as the heads of an all-American family. LaRocca provides an excellent survey of the show. Astonishingly for an American program, audiences supported the two Russian spies as they killed and attempted to destroy American democracy. It is a complex program with multi-levels showing how spies had to balance their family lives with their intelligence work.

Each of the essays has various strengths and weaknesses, but what is generally missing from the book is any discussion of the long-running diplomatic rifts between the West and Russia. This group of papers barely looks beyond the Second World War. The end of the Cold War meant that the USSR was no longer a superpower, and Soviet Communism was a spent force in world affairs. Russia imploded but was always going to reassert itself in some form as a regional power. One exception was Lori Maguire, who connected Putin’s rule back to Stalin, but there are other possible historical resonances. Putin represented another version of Russian authoritarianism that has impacted the country’s history for centuries.

Indeed, since the rise of the nation-states in the nineteenth century, tensions and conflicts between countries have ebbed and flowed. Russia has always been a player in the world and European politics. Britain and Russia wrestled for control of Afghanistan for many decades. “Cold War II” is a great title for the marketing department, and it makes for racy headlines for newspapers – but it is just not the case. The world is simply facing the same geographical dilemmas that have faced diplomats for centuries – albeit with nuclear weapons. Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography certainly outlined the continuities of Russian history.[2] The essayists could have also looked further afield at books such as Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of Red Czar,[3] and Steven Lee Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, which links communism and Putin’s rule as back to the Romanovs. Of these writers, Myers is mentioned once and crudely dismissed.[4] These books highlight that authoritarian rulers or Tsars have existed throughout Russian history, and both Stalin and Putin are part of that tradition – there is no new Cold War. The essayists could even have looked back to the reign of Catherine the Great for inspiration to explain some of the depictions. Interestingly, she was also the subject of two TV series: Catherine the Great (2019) and The Great (2020) and, but these were released after the book was written. 

What is also missing is any discussion of the box office success of these films, which might indicate the acceptance or take-up rate of ideas contained in the film. Few of the films examined were highly successful, which raises the question of what impact, if any, they made. It is one thing to say the films contained these ideas, but if the films were not watched, their impact is minimal. Look for the term ‘box office,’ and it is confined to one footnote in an essay discussing representations of US – Russia foreign policy by Thomas J. Cobb as represented in the film Black Panther, which did resonate with United States audiences in a way that Red Sparrow did not. Yet, it is the less successful Red Sparrow that is the focus of several writers.

Black Panther is one ofthe few successful films discussed at any length. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The timing of the book is also a little unfortunate. The Queen’s Gambit (2020) did not make the cut for these essays due to its launch after publication. It is a highly popular TV series with an interesting depiction of the Soviet Union. The central character Beth Harmon is based on Bobby Fischer, a United States chess genius who broke the Soviet Union’s stranglehold in a cold war showdown in 1972. The TV show cuts against the book’s central premise that most television and film depictions of Russia are menacing. While the Soviet Union is depicted as a harsh regime, the people in it are human. The American Beth Harmon goes up against Russians who are ruthlessly competitive, but they are also courteous and dignified. While her opponent Bogrov can destroy any opponent, he is polite, respectful in defeat and triumph, and appears to be a dedicated family man. He even seems genuinely happy at Harmon’s triumph. The show then depicts Harmon’s friends rallying to her assistance to meet the Soviet team on equal terms. They eventually adopt the Soviet collegiate system, where players support each other. If the book had been issued a little later, the success of The Queens Gambit (2020) might have made the book’s tone more optimistic. It is not the only example, as The Courier (2020) also highlighted a positive relationship between a London businessman and a Russian spy that may have helped defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. Aside from a few exceptions, the papers have little or no optimism about the relationship. It is both an interesting and pessimistic book.


[1] Edward Lucas, The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West. Rev. ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

[2] Tim Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, London: Scribner, 2016

[3] Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin : The Court of the Red Tsar. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.

[4] Steven Lee, Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin. First Vintage Books ed. 2016.