Friday, July 3, 2009
Book Review: CECIL B. DeMILLE, A LIFE IN ART by Simon Louvish (Thomas Dunne, 2007)
The name of Cecil B. DeMille has long since become a synonym for "movie director." Indeed, many of the stereotypical attributes of a director -- folding chair, megaphone, sunglasses, imperious aura, the whole bit -- can be directly traced to DeMille. Oddly enough, very few books have been written about DeMille and his films. Louvish's bio-slash-filmography broadens the conventional view of DeMille as a hokey huckster, describing in detail the wide variety of films he made during the silent era -- not just the well-known King of Kings and the original version of The Ten Commandments, but quasi-realistic social dramas and incisive portraits of marital relations. Unfortunately, Louvish's patience with DeMille begins to run out once the actors' voices begin to be heard. Yes, he does give DeMille good marks for such fine sound films as Reap the Wild Wind, The Greatest Show on Earth, and the 1956 version of The Ten C's, but most of the others receive back-handed slaps, and all of DeMille's talking pictures get much skimpier -- and snarkier -- synopses than the silent ones. Perhaps Louvish assumed that people were already familiar with the later DeMille classics, but, apart from The Ten C's, they don't appear on TV that often these days. The sour asperity that scars the last few chapters of this book may stem from Louvish's feelings about what he terms the director's "loathsome and offensive" attacks on Communism and labor unions later in his career. In one respect, DeMille was lucky; he was too powerful and respected a figure to be directly "reverse-blacklisted" for his opinions after his death. The critics focused on tearing down his later movies instead. While Louvish does reinforce some of the standard stereotypes about DeMille, it is clear from this book that C.B. was a far more substantial auteur than many movie fans give him credit for being.