Ngram charting the rise and fall of directors

The Ngram shows references to DeMille. His reputation dives after his death and suffers a fall in the 1980s, before beginning a steady increase

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Charting how a reputation rises and falls is always a challenge. It is a difficult research project to shift through the various sources. However, a recent Google tool may provide some answers.

In 2010, Google released some searchable data derived from its book scanning. The book scanning project has now encompassed 25 million books. While the project has been controversial because of copyright issues, and other legal matters, it has one useful tool that could assist researchers in reputation.

According to Wikipedia, “In the fields of computational linguistics and probability, an n-gram is a contiguous sequence of n items from a given sample of text or speech. The items can be phonemessyllablesletterswords or base pairs according to the application. The n-grams typically are collected from a text.” Basically, what the ngram viewer does is show how many times a certain expression is repeated across the books surveyed.

Now it is always going to be a rough and ready tool, but looking at an individual, we can start to see the shape of their reputation. Taking the director and producer Cecil. B DeMille as an example, the data shows considerable shifts in his reputation over time.[1]

The references begin in 1915, which is when Cecil B. DeMille would have come to attention, when he directed The Squaw Man with Oscar C. Apfel, and starring Dustin Farnum. It was DeMille’s first film and it was also the first feature film in Hollywood. DeMille’s reputation shows a steady increase until about 1923, when it flattens for a decade. DeMille was a highly prominent film director at this time.

Around 1930, the charts takes another jump forward and rises sharply. This coincides with DeMille’s return to Paramount in the early 1930s, and then a strong success story through the sound period. This trend continues up to 1956, when DeMille directed The Ten Commandments.

The number of mentions dips after his death, and reaches a low point in 1964. In the early 1960s, Andrew Sarris placed DeMille in the second rank of directorial hierarchy, and interest appeared to rise until 1974.

DeMille directing The Ten Commandments. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

During the late 1970s, when Joseph Mankiewcz started being interviewed about the Screen Directors Meeting in 1950, mentions of DeMille began to fall. [2] However, in 1980, his reputation turned a corner and he began a steady and unspectacular rise. This continued until 2005, when his mentions started to decline.

DeMille’s decline from 2007 is reflected in basically all other directors from the same period. It simply could be that interest in shifting from the era as a whole. The Ngram open up some interesting lines of inquiry for reputational inquiry.



[2] Brianton, Kevin. Hollywood Divided : The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist. Screen Classics. 2017.