The author of “Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood (2004, University Press of Kentucky), Robert S. Birchard, had seen every available film made by the king of spectacle. (Mr. Birchard died in 2016.)
The majority of DeMille’s 52 silent films and all his 18 sound films survive. ( I was amazed to realise that the famed director had only made 18 films in the sound era.)
The book’s format discusses each DeMille film from a production point of view, with Paramount allowing the director to be an independent in- house producer/director.
So, for each film, from The Squaw Man to The Ten Commandments, we get some fascinating insights into the film making process, DeMille style.
I confess to skipping over the silent film chapters and will quote exclusively from the sound film comments.
- SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932)
……Fredric March was on loan to MGM for SMILIN’ THROUGH and shooting was delayed for a week.
……..Claudette Colbert was paid $15,000 for her role of ‘Poppaea’.
……… Art director Mitchell Leisen built a full sized replica of the Coliseum for $45,000.
The film had 15 sets and locations and thousands of extras. The total cost for the epic was $700,000.
In contrast, Ernst Lubitsch spent over a million dollars on the four character ONE HOUR WITH YOU.
Samuel Goldwyn bet DeMille $100 that his THE KID FROM SPAIN would outgross “Sign of the Cross” by at least 30% – DeMille wrote a cheque! ( though “Sign of the Cross” made a profit of half a million dollars).
- CLEOPATRA (1934)
……..DeMille said to a colleague: “Don’t faint. Do you think Adolph Menjou could play Julius Caesar?” (He settled on Warren William).
……..It’s always interesting to hear who was considered for different roles in a film.
For the part of ‘Marc Anthony’, DeMille considered Richard Dix, Charles Bickford. He offered William Gargan a test. But he liked Henry Wilcoxon.
DeMille had a habit of getting his secretaries to take notes of ideas he had and then remind him later. One note said, “C.B., you want to talk to Wilcoxon about ‘abandon’ – so he will lose some of that British reserve .”
The minute detail of daily production costs and delays – “84 minutes lost owing to Miss Colbert not answering her calls on time.”
- The Crusades (1935)
…………Considered for the female lead were Madeleine Carroll, Merle Oberon, Ann Harding. There’s a wonderful memo from the Paramount casting director discussing Olivia De Havilland: “She is a San Francisco society girl – has never done any picture work or made any screen tests.”
Loretta Young was borrowed from Fox at $2500 per week for 8 weeks.
……….Censors in Egypt, Syria and Palestine rejected “The Crusades.”
- The Plainsman ( 1937)
……….Paramount insisted on Gary Cooper playing the lead.
Regarding the film’s ending, DeMille said to his wife, “When thinking it over, I conclude that if Wild Bill was not killed, ‘The Plainsman’ would just be another cowboy picture and the public would forget the whole thing almost immediately.”
- Union Pacific (1939)
………..Joel McCrea was DeMille’s first choice for the lead. Claudette Colbert turned down the role of ‘Mollie Monahan’.
……….. DeMille described Barbara Stanwyck as “the most cooperative and least temperamental.”
………….Filming started in November 1938 and the film was in cinemas in April 1939.
………… DeMille was hospitalised for an operation and then directed for five days of shooting from a stretcher – to the delight of the publicity dept.
- Reap The Wild Wind (1942)
…………DeMille wanted Vivien Leigh for the lead.
An anonymous moviegoer wrote to DeMille: “Dear Mr. DeMille, The parade passed you by years ago. Your pictures are TRIPE. Why don’t you give up. Your ‘Reap The Wild Wind’ stunk.
You’re smart to drag in everything but the kitchen sink, and yet it died.”
Wow! Not much different from trolls on the internet today.
(The film made a nice profit).
DeMille with Anne Bauchens (1882-1967) who edited all of his films. She was the first woman to win an editing Oscar (for NORTH WEST MOUNTED POLICE in 1940)
DeMille died in 1959.
An excellent book and reminds me again that many museums and universities in America have the archives of Hollywood studios and artists. Hopefully some day, the invaluable records will be digitised.
The first Cannes film festival was to be held in 1939 but was cancelled due to the outbreak of war.
After screening seven of the twelve films originally selected for that 1939 festival, the 2002 Cannes Film Festival selected Union Pacific to receive the Palme d’Or .
DeMille still doesn’t get the respect he deserves. One of the greats. His silent comedies are simply wonderful – somehow he managed to make sophisticated comedies, without slapstick, in the silent era.
I think CLEOPATRA is his masterpiece.
He certainly pleased the public.