Archive for Cecil B Demille

The Sunday Intertitle: Smile

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 9, 2015 by dcairns


What with Film Club coming up, I thought this week’s intertitle ought to come from Buster Keaton, since he was such an influence on Richard Lester. In GO WEST, Buster is able to parody Cecil B. DeMille’s THE VIRGINIAN, with a paraphrase of its most famous line (above), and Griffith’s BROKEN BLOSSOMS with his own reaction. Buster is literally unable to smile to save his life, so with a six-shooter aimed at his heart he resorts to the Gish Manipulation ~


(My maternal grandmother told me that, seeing Lillian Gish force a smile like this in BROKEN BLOSSOMS struck her and her young friends as hysterically funny when they saw it, which puzzled me, as I assumed Griffith’s films were taken seriously in their day. Then I did my sums and realized she must have seen it on re-release, probably the sonorized version, in the late twenties or early thirties — and Griffith’s Victorian melodrama would have seemed high camp to the young people of the jazz age. Did Edinburgh have a jazz age?)

Lester’s debt to Keaton isn’t just a fondness for slapstick, or a tendency to use accelerated motion to evoke silent-film action (only in a few films, from 1964-1966). There’s a whole philosophy of composition. We could start with the famous dictum “comedy is long shot, tragedy is closeup,” and then add in the love of flatness, emphasizing the screen’s two-dimensional aspect rather than trying to transcend it. The simple, flat, graphic composition is easy for the eye to read, and clarity is the most crucial factor in visual comedy. It also stylises everything, removes it from reality (look at Wes Anderson’s similar love of the planimetric shot), making it easier to achieve comic distance.

Lester credits Keaton with being the first to really use the space around the comedian as part of the joke. With Chaplin, he’s said, you always sense the proscenium arch (though Chaplin was certainly careful to get the right distance between subject and lens). With Keaton, somehow the shot itself is funny. Lester has used the example of Keaton and the cow in GO WEST — extremely beautiful, and inherently funny just by the arrangement of objects in 2D space.

I wasn’t exactly sure which shot he meant. But he could have meant all of them. You can tell this is a comedy, can’t you, just from the shapes?




Canada’s Sweetheart

Posted in FILM with tags , , on May 13, 2014 by dcairns


The spot where Mary Pickford was born. Now a maternity hospital, so in this, as so much else, Mary was a trendsetter. These days, it seems like everybody’s being born.

Photo by Miloš Tomin, who served as guide and conversationalist. He takes a good picture too, though I regret that while Mary’s bust says “America’s/Canada’s Sweetheart” loud and clear in green-tinged metal, my portrait has more a vibe of “keeps abductee in basement.”

One degree of separation from Mary P. is Cecil Blount DeMille, the subject of this month’s Primal Screen, the silent movie column in Sight & Sound. And zero degrees of separation from the column is me, since this month I wrote it. Evidence. By looking at one DeMille from 1914 (centenary!) and one from 1915, I aim to give a lightning sketch of race in American movies and CBD’s rapid development from stodgy beginner to one of the most sophisticated visual storytellers in cinema of the day, all accomplished in a single year. His journey back to stodge would take decades.


Film Directors with their Shirts Off #56749 Cecil Blount DeMille

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2014 by dcairns


Cecil B. DeMille is such a figure of dignity! Always Dignity! that I despaired of ever finding a shirtless image of the Great Man for my occasional series on cineastes sans chemise. And yet, in Robert S. Birchard’s estimable volume Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, we find not one but two such images. The first shows the entire unit of FEET OF CLAY (1924) basking in the sun. Cecil wears what is either a one-piece bathing suit or a very tight dark vest and shorts. Probably the former. He still has his pipe in though.

But the above image really does it — FLESH is what the public screams for, and Cecil is not one to disoblige a screaming public. He’s chatting to Herbert Marshall and Claudette Colbert on the set of FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE (1934), effortlessly maintaining his sang-froid and keeping his smoking materials lit at the same time, proving that true dignity can be maintained in any circumstance, even while exposing one’s moobs.

DeMille may be showing solidarity with his leading lady, who goes nude in the film. Bathing under a waterfall, Claudette is filmed in extreme longshot so that we will have to wait for the Blu-ray to get busy with a magnifying glass and see if it really is her bottom. My theory is that DeMille here is disrobing just as Paul Verhoeven did on STARSHIP TROOPERS when some of his young actors were reluctant to strip for a communal shower scene. (While one applauds the Dutchman’s nerve, it isn’t really the same thing — his ass wasn’t going to be put on film and projected at millions of people.)

I guess the DeMilles I should be checking out are MANSLAUGHTER, THE WHISPERING CHORUS and other of his more sophisticated dramas, but somehow I always just want to watch the last half of MADAME SATAN and let my eyeballs rejoice at the costumes of Mitchell Leisen.


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