The Guillotine: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 26: Cecil B DeMille

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The Independent Culture
I'm ready for my close-up now, Mr DeMille!" So spoke Norma Desmond, the demented diva played by Gloria Swanson, in what was to be the actress's own glorious swan song, Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard.

For Wilder's audiences, Cecil B DeMille, one of the extremely rare Hollywood directors of the period (one might also cite Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra) to have enjoyed the same personal prestige as the stars they directed, was a household name. In those days one went to see a "DeMille movie" in exactly the way, today, one might go to a "Spielberg movie", except that then it was the exception instead of, as now, increasingly the rule.

Although a glance at his lengthy filmography reveals that he made far fewer than his current reputation would suggest, it's fair to say that DeMille's fame, or what remains of it, rests on his biblical or pseudo- biblical romances: the best-known were Samson and Delilah (in which Victor Mature brought down the temple walls with the sweaty, vein-popping energy of a circus strong-man ripping a telephone directory in half) and his twinned versions, one silent, the other sound, of The Ten Commandments. The American cinema's Grandpa Moses, he "filled in" the Bible as an infant fills in a colouring book, selecting only the gaudiest and most lurid of hues. And since he himself was of an authoritarian, right-wing cast of mind, it's perhaps not surprising that, even in his biopic of Christ, the silent King of Kings, one could detect a powerful whiff of the Old Testament.

It was, too, to Hollywood's Old Testament that DeMille himself belonged. It's a curious fact of film history that, even if the popularity of every genre cyclically rises and falls, none of them ultimately ever dies. The musical is dead? What about Alan Parker's Evita, a huge commercial hit? The western is dead? What about Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, one of the genuinely great films of the last decade? Yet there does exist one cinematic genre that would seem to be absolutely moribund: the biblical spectacle. Indeed, it may be said to have died twice over. Not only is it inconceivable that another will ever be made, but it's almost equally inconceivable that anyone will now care to take another look at those, DeMille's included, that already have been made.

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