Time’s Arrows

The trouble with online film festivals is similar to that with physical film festivals — finding time to see everything. Pordenone has been putting everything up for around twenty-four hours, though sometimes mysteriously not quite that long, which does alleviate the problem. But I didn’t organize my waking hours correctly so I saw mere minutes of Cecil B. DeMille’s ROMANCE OF THE REDWOODS.

So this isn’t a review, and doesn’t aim to answer the question of whether Howard Hawks was right to say “I learned what to do by looking at John Ford, and what not to do by looking at C.B. DeMille.” However the answer is “yes.”

But the opening minutes of ROTR do showcase what was obviously popular about DeMille: he threw lots of bold images at the screen and made a naked appeal to the audience’s emotions. The tableau above is just gorgeous, and the scene fades up with everyone frozen in place just like a painting, and then presumably Cec blasts “Action!” at them through a megaphone the size of a Christmas tree, and everyone comes alive. Are the ridiculous aspects of this movie down to the merciless passage of time, my own cynicism, or a lack of delicacy on CB’s part? That one I can’t answer.

Lots of wild night/day clashes in the first minutes. Of course there was no satisfactory way of doing consistent night scenes in 1917, but it’s very weird when CBD cuts from the above day exterior to an interior of the stagecoach, in continuous time, and the bandit is seen inhabiting an abstract black void.

But I kind of enjoy this kind of naïve technique.

It’s 1849. Everybody’s naïve! The particularly naïve Mary Pickford, newly orphaned, is, it seems, keen to join her uncle prospecting in the California Gold Rush. She admires a photograph of the geezer. Cecil cuts to a wagon train, where said uncle is rapidly beset by marauding injuns. Cut back to Mary preparing for her journey. Carefully rolling a jar of conserves in cloth, packing plenty of essential frocks. “Jenny, your uncle’ll be so proud when he takes you to a ball!” predicts her friend. They pause to admire unc’s photo again.


Bold, bloody and bathetic. You can’t fault Cec for timidity. As his brother, the more modest William, put it, “Cecil has a habit of biting off more than he can chew, and then chewing it.”

But then he immediately provides some more clearly deliberate humour: when Mary’s friend shows her the book illustration reproduced up top (a vaguely BUSTER SCRUGGS moment), Mary shows her the sensible precautions she’s taking, by producing, with infinite care, the world’s tiniest pistol:

Quite sorry I couldn’t see all of this one.

Frame-frabs mostly by Mark Fuller. Thanks, Mark!

7 Responses to “Time’s Arrows”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    Good comment, David. Hawks’s remark about C.B. certainly applies to his heir Steven Spielberg today.

  2. I think you could find things in Spielberg that would be worth copying. His technique is terribly effective. The trouble is what he uses it for. To say we couldn’t copy him is like denying we can copy Lean, since Spielberg borrows shamelessly from Lean, or Hitchcock…

  3. To be completely honest, I have a lot of affection for some of Spielberg’s entertainments.

  4. Tony Williams Says:

    “Some”, yes since we are now past the old Cahiers axiom of good directors can never make bad films, and bad directors can never make a good film. Yet, the championship of him being on the same level as Hawks, Hitchcock, Capra etc and dismissing the critical opposition as Marxists and anti-semites can not conceal the problematic nature of most of his work. Borrowing shamelessly and not developing the elements in the original puts him on the level of Tarantino and other worthless hacks.

  5. I think it takes a really curious and sharp mind to find considerable value in all the directors who’ve been cited above. Thanks for your post, David. I don’t think you missed much; I struggle to find nice things to say about DeMille films but occasionally I get there.

  6. Thanks! Well, DeMille was there pretty much at the beginning. I’m not sure his film language ever evolved much beyond 1915, but it was nice to see a good copy of one of his silents, the box set I accessed years ago was pretty fuzzy. Good definition definitely helps him.

  7. I never look at these directors this way and find your article fascinating. Thanks for the post.

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