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.

Your Honor and the legacy of noir

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne Australia

Your Honor has a great debt to film noir.

In the recent TV series Your Honor, (Stan in Australia) a respected and fair judge descends down a moral abyss to protect his so. Desiato is depicted as a liberal judge handing out fair sentences in the hopelessly corrupt city of New Orleans, and he appears to have a strict moral code. When his son Adam is involved in a hit and run, Desiato does not cover up but takes Adam down to the police station to report the crime, only when he discovers that his son has killed the son of a violent crime family head – that he begins a cover-up. Judge Michael Desiato breaks every rule to protect his son from the wrath of a vicious organised crime family.

The TV series was adapted from the Israeli TV series Kvovo, which has a similar premise. This series is set in New Orleans, and it contains the basic stories in film noir: individual moral decline and a doomed attempt to beat the system.

The TV series has many of the elements of film noir. Underpinned by the production code, film noir in the 1940s and 19050s contained the idea that anyone committing a crime must pay the penalty. Without giving away the ending, Your Honor keeps to the formula. The moral fabric of the universe, or the gods that run it, will not allow an individual to break the rules and get away with it.

The plot has many elements of Scarlet Street (1945), directed by Fritz Lang. In Scarlet Street, an honest man, a painter called Christopher Cross, played by Edward G. Robinson, is in a loveless marriage and a hopeless job. His meeting with Kitty March, played by Joan Bennett, paves the way for personal destruction. Cross makes some decision to embezzle funds from his employer to pay for Kitty.

The key difference in Your Honor to film noir is that there is no femme fatale to lead Desiato to the brink. Joan Bennett provides the lure for Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

When betrayed, Cross commits murder and implicates the wrong man, who goes to the gallows. Christopher fails at suicide, becoming homeless and needy, and he cannot even claim credit for his paintings, one of which has now been sold for a small fortune. He wanders New York, constantly hearing his victim’s voices in his mind.[1]

In film noir, stepping off the moral path destroys the individual. Like Cross, Desiato’s action starts a chain reaction where people are killed, and the innocent are found guilty of crimes they did not commit. Every action Desiato takes to defend his son results in more mayhem and death. It is a dance with the devil, spiralling down to hell.

. In Double Indemnity (1944), the central character is an insurance salesman who tries to beat the system by murdering a client to run off with his wife. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Desiato promises his son that he can fix this problem as he understands the system. In Double Indemnity (1944), the central character is an insurance salesman who tries to beat the system by murdering a client to run off with his wife. Neff says, “You’re like the guy behind the roulette wheel, watching the customers to make sure they don’t crook the house. And then one night, you get to thinking how you could crook the house yourself. And do it smart. Because you’ve got that wheel right under your hands.” The salesman, Walter Neff, wants to receive double the payout from a life insurance policy. Every element of the murder is successful, and it appears certain that he and Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barara Stanwyck, will triumph.[2] However, film noir’s rules demand that their murder is exposed, and both must suffer for their crimes. They must take the “ride to the end of the line, ” which in their cases is death. Desiato also takes the same ride.

In a comment on the theme, Woody Allen wrote and directed Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), where there is no punishment for the guilty. The originator of the film’s murder, Judah Rosenthal, says: “And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background, which he’d rejected, are suddenly stirred up… Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse-an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then, one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him, and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe, and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person-a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s scott-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.”

Rosenthal is challenged, but he responds that his accuser has, “seen too many movies. I’m talking about reality. I mean, if you want a happy ending, you should go see a Hollywood movie..” [3]

The key difference in Your Honor to the film noir of the 1940s is that there is no femme fatale to lead Desiato to the brink. The women in Your Honor are strong and ethical. Desiato’s decision to fix the system is his own. The decision is based on reasonable fears that Adam will be murdered in prison by the criminal gangs. Whatever the reasons, having moved off the moral path, Desiato finds that his decision leads to even worse outcomes. People – innocent or otherwise – are killed or have their lives destroyed. The themes of film noir resonate today, but in today’s world, it should be noted that the murderer of an innocent man – the son of a gangster – gets off scott free. Those with values or principles appear to be trampled.


[1] Alan Silver and Elizabeth Ward (ed.), Film Noir, London: Secker Warburg, 1980, p. 248.

[2] Alan Silver and Elizabeth Ward (ed.), Film Noir, London: Secker Warburg, 1980, pp. 93-94.

[3] Woody Allen Crimes and Mideamnours, 1989, in https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097123/quotes/?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu