Archive for Cecil B Demille

The Monday Intertitle: Um

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , on April 7, 2014 by dcairns


Just finished writing about THE SQUAW MAN, America’s first feature film and the first movie adaptation of a Broadway play (or is it? No it isn’t: see Comments section). The article will appear elsewhere, it is hoped, and I will tell you about it later.

Which means I have nothing to say here except to laugh and point at the funny intertitle.

Oh, OK. Let’s compare DeMille’s original (available only in its 1918 re-release form, I believe) with his talkie (VERY talkie) remake.

The first film manages to get its hero, an English toff, Out West in about fifteen minutes, despite pausing for a blaze at sea and some tricky business in New York. The remake takes half an hour to accomplish the same task, and doesn’t even manage the oceanic inferno or the Big Apple stopover.

The first film stars Red Wing, a full-blooded Winnebago (a tribe with what you might call cinematic implications), whereas the talking picture stars Lupe Velez. Lupe Velez was famous for not being an Indian.

The second film gets by with intertitles, although admittedly they have that Edisonian quality of sometimes telling you what you’re about to see — a film with its own spoilers — but the remake has as much verbiage as it has prairie, going on for miles in all directions. Everyone has been instructed to talk slow for the nice microphone, so that Warner Baxter (as an English nobleman, pwahahaha) sounds as much like an Indian as Lupe.

In spite of all this, I do find the remake, ponderous though it is (crude by 1931 standards) slightly more fun, if only because it contains this image —


In fact, Eleanor Boardman, in her penultimate film,  seems to inhabit better compositions than the entire rest of the cast. I must see more of her, starting with Borzage’s THE CIRCLE, recently supplied by a thoughtful Shadowplayer

Their Purple Moment

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , on April 24, 2013 by dcairns


Chapter Two of THE TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS (continued from last week) comes leaping at us with the homoerotic title of THE PURPLE DAGGER.

Seems I erred last week in stating that the serial’s cinematographer is uncredited. His credit is proudly present on the film, just not on the IMDb. King D. Grey had a reasonably long career consisting mainly of serials and B pictures, taking time out in 1918 to shoot Cecil B. DeMille’s THE SQUAW MAN, first remake of what’s sometimes claimed as the first American feature film. (Thanks to Randy Byers for the correction.) His work on TTOTO is superb, and he must be considered a subject for further research.

The second part of our twisting tale starts just as enticingly as the first — the opening titles identifying leading man Ben F. Wilson and leading lady Neva Gerber are illustrated by shots of the characters menaced by the cliffhanging situations we last glimpsed them in, thus enabling the show to get up and running in record speed. The idea of the lengthy recap seems to be a later innovation. Latecomers to this saga just have to fend for themselves.


The bizarre magic trickery that showed hands coming through walls now materializes a whole platoon of unsympathetic chop-socky experts for Wilson (as Carter Holmes, eminent criminologist) to wrassle with. They come looming out of the wallpaper like a dying vision of Oscar Wilde. Fortunately, a good white man has the strength of a dozen fiendish orientals, and he fends them off until dropped down a trap door into the lair of the evil cultists where our heroine is currently threatened with ritual sacrifice.

Did I mention that TTOTO is a thriller?


Now Holmes remembers his gun, and keeps the cultists at bay. They seem to be mainly faux-Arabic, suggesting a Sax Rohmer style non-white alliance. All the shiftier races ganging up on the poor caucasian. Sax Rohmer had already created the Si-Fan, his dastardly pan-Asian conspiracy, but his paranoid racial fantasies hadn’t yet been adapted to the screen — the first adaptation, THE YELLOW CLAW, seems to have happened the year after TTOTO.

Escaping through a secret passage, Carter and Ruth (Neva’s character) are pursued by the masked man, Monsieur X, who seems to be the leader of this whole throng of miscreants. They all give him a left-handed Hitler salute when he shows up (theory: Hitler sneaked into a Berlin cinema to see this, liked the salute, but was watching from behind the screen and so got it backwards).


The film continues surefootedly — having fled down cardboard corridors with hand-painted stonework, our heroes now find themselves in a real stone corridor, which leads them out into the street. The actual interior location thus acts as a kind of buffer zone or pressure chamber allowing the transition from studio set to actuality. Nice.

Now Carter’s bulbous Scottish sidekick, Sandy McNab comes bouncing up with news of another murdered professor. Being involved in the sciences in the 1910s was truly hazardous. Oh, and while this is all going on, every now and then THE EYES intermittently stare out of the wallpaper at people. Holmes empties his revolver into the beady devils, and they blink and fade out, but they’re soon back. This seems evidence of a genuine supernatural element to the serial, which strikes me as unusual. We’ll see where it all leads.


The remainder of the episode is less hectic — the action decamps to the sinisterly named Seal Island (where the unwary visitor stands in danger of being slapped to death with a wet flipper) — breezy outdoor scenery and a dynamite plot by the evil rug merchant who runs the mystery cult. Carter Holmes wants to fit the two daggers he’s obtained thus far (the plot being a kind of treasure hunt) into the stone vault. It being a nice day, he takes Neva along too.


I must have missed the explanation of what’s in the stone vault and why it matters. I think it might be the cursed Egyptian figurine from episode one. I dunno.

Little does he dream that the rug merchant has wired the cave containing the stone vault with “enough explosives to blow up the island.” A rash plan, one might think, since the rug merchant is sitting with the detonator on the island, just a few hundred yards away. But it’s certainly enough of a cliffhanger to end the episode on ~


Food for thought, that. I’m not sure I was even wondering if Monsieur X and the Eyes were One and the Same. I guess since he wears a fringed domino mask concealing his eyes, and they are simply a pair of disembodied, hovering eyes gazing through the wallpaper in a curious fashion, if you put the two together you’d have a pretty good identikit of your felon. Watch this space.

The Easter Sunday Intertitle: Moving in a Mysterious Way

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2013 by dcairns


Cecil B DeMille’s THE KING OF KINGS is a barking mad, surreally vulgar wondershow — the cavalier rewriting of gospel alone is hilarious and delightful, especially in a film so bent on being sincere and respectful and religious. The more DeMille falls over himself to be respectful, the more he smears his idol in kitsch und klatsch. He just can’t help himself.

Since the Bible doesn’t paint in too many memorable, specific or convincing characters, at least as modern dramaturgy would see it, DeMille and his scenarist Jeanie Macpherson depict the disciples with broad strokes, like Disney dwarfs. Young Mark is a wee boy (cured of lameness, he slings away his crutch and biffs an adjacent pharisee), and Peter is portrayed as a giant and strongman, the Porthos of the Apostles.


He’s played by Ernest Torrence, the Edinburgh-born actor with the big face — Steamboat Bill Snr in STEAMBOAT BILL JNR. It’s nice to see a Scotsman in biblical times. In THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, David McCallum plays Judas. I might have known Judas would be Glaswegian. (Joseph Schildkraut, Judas here, turns up as Nicodemus in the later super-film.)

(Incidentally, I can’t work out why the fiddled with Judas’s death in the Stevens film — there’s no scriptural evidence for his self-immolating like that. Different accounts say variously that J.I. hanged himself or that he bought a field, fell over, and his bowels gushed out. Nobody seems eager to stage that last version, but I guess it does show there’s room for uncertainty.)


DeMille’s portrayal of the Magdelene (Jacqueline Logan) as a sultry, high-class courtesan is exactly what one would expect from him — she even has an exotic make-up kit and tray of perfumes, just like Gloria Swanson would if it were one of his modern comedies of manners. She has quite a menagerie too — zebras, swans, a tiger and a monkey. Every bible movie ought to have a character whose social status the audience can aspire to, and she’s it.

If you need a trivia question, I propose, “What movie features both Ayn Rand and Sally Rand?” Hint: it’s this one.


DeMille’s frequent collaborator Lenore Coffee (see here for smutty making-of anecdote on this movie) though HB Warner wrong for the role — Jesus was thirty at the start of the script, and Harry W was fifty. Also Jesus was a carpenter, a craftsman but also a physical labourer. “If Harry Warner picked up a hammer he’d drop it on his toe!” She suggested he-man actor William Boyd (star of DeMille’s THE VOLGA BOATMAN), but she later decided he was a good choice, because he fit the stereotype. There had been so few movie Christs that the public needed someone who obviously fit the bill — maybe later a more challenging portrayal would be possible.

Stock up on the Messiah —

The King of Kings (The Criterion Collection)

King of Kings [Blu-ray]

The Greatest Story Ever Told [Blu-ray]