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#119. Cecil B. DeMille

“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Those who remember my post from a year and a half ago would know that this famous quote is from the 1950 film Sunset Blvd. of which the aforementioned DeMille plays himself. What’s key to know about Cecil B. DeMille is that before he directed some of his greatest works, he was a master of silent cinema. This is why Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an out of work actress due to the advent of sound, chose this famous silent film director to help her make a comeback: his success spanned the two worlds of filmmaking. And yet, even though he directed more than three times the amount of silent films than sound films, his most well known works were made at the end of his career. This week’s two films are the last two movies Cecil B. DeMille ever directed.

                                                      The Greatest Show on EarthThe Greatest Show on Earth
Year: 1952
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 152 minutes / 2.53 hours

A few years ago, when I was watching through all of the Best Picture Oscar winners, I came across this film and I must admit that I had never heard of it before. Sure, I was familiar with the slogan, which Barnum & Bailey use to advertise their circus, but I never knew it was a movie. Of course, one wonders if DeMille won Best Picture for this film for his nearly 40 years of directing up to this point. And yet, just three years earlier, he had received an Honorary Award from the Academy because he was a “distinguished motion picture pioneer for 37 years of brilliant showmanship.” It then comes as no surprise that this showmanship carried over into The Greatest Show on Earth, a “behind the scenes” look at the circus and the people who make it possible. After all, more goes into a show under the big top than most people realize.

Everyone’s had those fleeting dreams of running off to the circus, but very few of us actually do. Even fewer people actually run the circus. Brad Baden (Charlton Heston) wants to keep everyone who works for the Greatest Show on Earth employed, especially in trying economic times. In order to do this, he has convinced the owners to continue the railroad-based circus until it can no longer sustain a profit. Of course, even though his bargaining has kept everyone’s jobs intact, he still has to deal with the milieu of characters under his purview. From a famous, womanizing trapeze artist, to his shunned trapeze artist girlfriend, to a crooked midway game manager, to a clown with a mysterious past (played by James Stewart), Brad keeps everything running smoothly. That is, until the whole thing derails, literally. In a show of community, everyone pitches in to overcome a tragedy and still put on a great show.

The Ten CommandmentsThe Ten Commandments
Year: 1956
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 220 minutes / 3.67 hours

Even though DeMille’s “Greatest Show” won him a Best Picture, his most well-known film is by far The Ten Commandments. Since this film was the last he ever directed, it’s good to know that he went out of the business on such a high note. Of course, DeMille had a bit of practice with Biblical epic films, having directed The King of Kings (1927), Cleopatra (1934), and Samson and Delilah (1949). And yet, with the subject of the Ten Commandments, DeMille had already directed a film of the same name 33 years ago (much like Alfred Hitchcock did with The Man Who Knew Too Much). Even though he re-shot some sequences with new actors, DeMille also took this opportunity to expand on the story and examine more of Moses’ early life in the remake. This film bears a striking similarity to Ben-Hur, which also had a silent-era counterpart before being remade into the Oscar winning film that it was.

Charlton Heston reprises his lead role status from The Greatest Show on Earth when he portrays Moses, a young Hebrew man raised by an Egyptian princess. Even though he is shown to be a great warrior, he is concerned by the plight of the Israelites. Eventually he learns of his origins and is banished when he kills an Egyptian who is mistreating an Israelite. In the wilderness, Moses comes across God in the form of a burning bush. God tells him that He has heard the cries of the oppressed and sends Moses back to Egypt to bring His people to freedom. Through a series of miracles and plagues, culminating in the parting of the Red Sea, Moses leads the exodus of God’s people out of the hands of the Egyptians. Now that the Israelites are free, it’s time for some ground rules. The end of the film shows Moses receiving the titular Ten Commandments.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 displays of DeMille’s directorial talent

Bacon #: 3 (The Ten Commandments (Director) / Charlton Heston -> Almost an Angel / David Alan Grier -> The Woodsman / Kevin Bacon)


One response to “#119. Cecil B. DeMille

  1. Pingback: End of Act Three | Cinema Connections

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