Saturday, November 19, 2005

DeMille and de Mille


* * * * *

No, this is not another blog post about Anthony Hopkins. Last week I saw a pair of films directed by the DeMille brothers. One apiece, not working as a pair like the Coens or the Pangs or the Farrellys (Just who started this brother-directing-team trend anyway? I'm having trouble thinking of anyone earlier than the Brothers Quay). Cecil B. DeMille everyone knows for having directed the Ten Commandments (which I haven't seen) and the Greatest Show on Earth (which is inaptly named as it's probably the worst Best Picture Oscar winner ever) but he made some very watchable smaller-scale films earlier in his career, particularly in the silent era. I highly recommend Male and Female for some good, class-conscious comedy from 1919. Cecil's older brother William C. de Mille (they each spelled their last name differently for some reason) directed a long list of silents too but quit Hollywood after completing only a few talkies. The final film he directed on his own was the 1932 drama Two Kinds of Women, starring Miriam Hopkins as Emma Krull, the daughter of a "hick Senator" (Irving Pichel) from South Dakota who falls in love with a New York playboy (Phillips Holmes).

Two Kinds of Women for the most part plays like a typical romantic melodrama of the time. In part because the Holmes character is underdeveloped, Emma seems very naive (to her disapproving father and to the audience) to put faith in her new beau's renuciations of his former lifestyle. We're set up to see the usual conflict between "jazz age" values and traditional ones, but Emma sees no such conflict, moving into the world of speakeasies and police raids without abandoning her wholesome, Midwestern outlook. Though the script feels like nothing special, there are a couple of shocking directorial choices, especially in the context of a studio-themed series in which a certain house style is maintained. Besides the famed "Paramount Glow" there was also, for example, an avoidance of any camera movement drawing attention to itself. De Mille shatters this convention several times, most startlingly with a hand-held shot taken from the point of view of a drunken gold digger. There were audible gasps in the audience; one might even have been mine.

The accompanying co-feature was Cecil B. DeMille's This Day and Age. Absent any real lasting stars in the cast, it has become one of DeMille's most obscure and rarely-seen films. The most famous face belongs to Charles Bickford (also found in another Balboa series film, the outrageous White Woman), who plays a racketeer with ironclad connections in all the centers of power throughout the city except for the student body council at the local high school. When he murders Herman, an independently-minded tailor popular with a group of students, they determine to bring him to justice even if the community of adults is paralyzed by his power.

When a Cecil B. DeMille film is working, it unrelentingly sweeps me into the passions and thrills of the story, like a speech by a gifted demagogue. Thus did This Day and Age, milking the maximum narrative mileage out of each on-screen injustice against the youth and society, helped along by a healthy dose of salacious appeal in the form of a subplot in which a schoolgirl (Judith Allen) is used as sexual bait to distract the racketeer's bodyguard. It's only once DeMille spends several minutes more than absolutely necessary on elaborate, extra-packed shots of a victory parade from the scene of Bickford's inquisition (over a pit of rats!) and forced confession, to the courthouse where a previously unsentimental judge proclaims the mob of junior vigilantes "heroes", that I really had time to pause and reflect on what I'd been seeing. I remembered DeMille's conservative political bent, and suddenly noticed how the film acted as a mirror of fascist youth movements in Europe in the early 1930s in its expression of a desire for a new generation to assume the mantle of leadership from adults immobilized in the face of corruption.

I wouldn't necessarily go as far as some have in calling the film a fascist one, in part because it's missing a crucial implication we expect from the word today, that of racial purity. The extremely sympathetic character Herman is a Jewish immigrant who prepares ethnic food for the students, knowing that "the stomach is the last place to get patriotic." Robert Birchard, in his data-laden but context-light book Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood, points to this and to the existence of a "well-dressed and well-spoken black classmate" whose role in the plot against the racketeer requires him
to masquerade as a stereotypical shoeshine boy. This acknowledgement of black role-playing as a mode of social survival within the predominant white society is virtually unique in pre-1960s American film. (page 262)
Birchard is correct in pointing this out, but his attempt to completely exonerate the film from fascist implications doesn't quite convince. In the prior paragraph, he calls the film an "allegory (represented by youth versus adults) about the necessity for society to renew and maintain the will to defend itself against totalitarian forces (the gangsters)." But if the gangsters are the totalitarian force in the film, what do we call the vigilante methods of intimidation, interrogation and torture so admired by the judge at the end of the film? Clearly the film, like so many Hollywood products, leaves enough room to be read both ways. The fact that the youths use gangster-like tactics on the gangster makes it very similar to a film released by Warner only two months earlier, The Mayor of Hell. Except in that film the youth rebellion is led by James Cagney's gangster character, while This Day and Age cloaks the rebellion's gangster tendencies by casting his mob exclusively with youthfully innocent actors and extras.

Tonight I'm going back to the Balboa to see two more Cecil B. DeMille films, both the type of period epics he is most remembered for: the Sign of the Cross and Cleopatra. I've never seen either before, and I'm very excited to see how they play with such a fascinating (if somewhat repellent) film as This Day and Age fresh in my mind. Will I be swept up by the narrative again, only to find myself cheering for a questionable cause?