Friday, October 1, 2010

Book Review: EMPIRE OF DREAMS: THE EPIC LIFE OF CECIL B. DeMILLE by Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster, 2010)

The legendary director is at last ready for his own close-up as Eyman -- with excellent biographies of John Ford and L.B. Mayer already under his belt -- draws upon previously unavailable archival matter to craft this fascinating volume. My only real quarrel with the book is its title, which seems a little... I don't know... cotton-candyish for such an imperious figure. Much better would have been something simpler like "Director" or "Showman." C.B. was perhaps the major figure in the development of the "cult and culture" of the Hollywood director (or, as he was originally called when preparing his first feature The Squaw Man, "director-general") and, as Eyman makes clear, he was a legitimate artistic pioneer during the silent era, introducing challenging and daring subject matter (miscegenation, the challenges facing married people) in addition to technical tricks. During the sound era, DeMille broadened his canvas and made the "epic" his own while, at the same time, paying less and less attention to realism in scenario and dialogue. This went against the grain of contemporary practice and ensured that C.B.'s films would often go begging for critical acceptance, but, when all the elements were in place, his films were among the most effective, exhilarating, and memorable ever made.

Eyman makes a number of the same points that Simon Louvish did in his 2007 biography, but is considerably easier on DeMille's politics and personality in general. The fact that Eyman was writing a bio authorized by the DeMille estate may have influenced the tone of the book somewhat, but the manuscript is certainly not sycophantic; rather, it is, as the slogan goes, "fair and balanced," which is all that one can ask when it comes to such a controversial figure. I gather than Eyman is probably a liberal, but his treatment of DeMille on political matters is eminently even-handed, just as it was in the case of L.B. Mayer. DeMille's famous decision to refuse to pay a $1 fee to the American Federation of Radio Artists to support an anti-"right to work" campaign -- which cost him the right to ever appear on radio and TV in a non-publicity-related capacity for the rest of his life -- is put in its proper perspective as a decision based on principle, though C.B.'s general anti-union sentiments are also made quite clear. DeMille's support of loyalty oaths and such during the blacklist era is qualified by his decision to give work to such "tainted" actors as Edward G. Robinson. The weirdness of DeMille's personal life -- he was a devoted family man who also kept a trio of mistresses on the side -- and the man's legendary tantrums get a full airing, but so too do C.B.'s frequent kindnesses and generous dealings with associates and acquaintances. The relationship between C.B. and his brother William and the description of DeMille's capable handling of his role in Sunset Blvd. are particular highlights of the narrative.

This book got me so zizzed up that I've asked Nicky to put some DeMille movies in her Netflix queue. You'll be seeing reviews of them in this space soon.

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