Even among cinema-goers who have never seen his films, Cecil B DeMille is a byword for grandiose movie-making. Fittingly, Simon Louvish, biographer of Mae West, W C Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers, has honoured this great director with a similarly epic book. His heavyweight biography is almost as ambitious as one of DeMille's movies, straddling references as diverse as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Yet if any auteur deserves such an extravagant tribute, it must be DeMille, a man whose lavish life-story doubles as a history of early Hollywood.
DeMille began his career on Broadway as a jobbing actor and playwright. When he decided to try film-making, his elder brother William (also a playwright, but far more successful) was aghast. "I cannot understand how you are willing to identify yourself with a cheap form of amusement," scolded his big brother, "which no one will ever allude to as an art." Cecil had the last laugh. William's plays are forgotten, while Cecil's movies are acknowledged as harbingers of a new genre.
DeMille started off making romantic comedies, but the First World War transformed the zeitgeist, and DeMille was quick to react. "Out of this war has been born a great wave of mysticism," he observed. He responded with two biblical spectaculars, The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings.
DeMille survived the transition to the talkies, but Louvish doesn't hold his sound films in such high regard. Of his 28 talkies, Louvish only rates half a dozen. Yet these uneven melodramas are best remembered, rather than his 52 mute masterworks. To redress this imbalance, Louvish focuses on the silent films, and this is what makes his book so timely. Though some of DeMille's early films have been lost, others have recently been re-released on DVD. This bulky book is an ideal companion to that welcome renaissance.
Louvish charts DeMille's career with academic precision. He's less successful at painting a portrait of the man himself. Despite, or maybe because of, his flamboyant mannerisms, DeMille remains remote an iconic archetype. It's left to others to capture the essence of the man: Gloria Swanson says he wore his baldness like an expensive hat. Nevertheless, this is an important piece of scholarship about a unique cinematic epoch. Like all the best film biographies, it makes you yearn to sit in a darkened room and watch the movies back to back.
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