Mention the Ten Commandments in Holly wood and people never think God, they think Cecil B. De Mille. Back in the early ’60s, when I was in Catholic school and supervising a classroom skit, the nun called out brightly: “Ready when you are, C.B.!” His very initials were so synonymous with orders from on high that they even penetrated backwater convents. In those days, there were only three household names in moviemaking — De Mille, Hitch cock and Disney — and De Mille was next to godliness. His name was above Charlton Heston’s on the 1956 version of the The Ten Commandments, and his one ness with Scripture was such that people often assumed (wrongly) that he was behind Ben-Hur as well.
Strangely enough, little remains now of Cecil Blount De Mille but his name. He made greater history than he did movies. Born in 1881, three months ahead of Pic asso, six ahead of Frank lin Roosevelt and James Joyce, he enjoyed, like those other men, a messianic sense of himself. After all, one century ended with his teens, another began with his manhood; like those others, he was just old enough, and young enough, to believe the 20th century was his to invent. He trained as a playwright, under the tutelage of his older brother William, and when that didn’t pan out, teamed up with his best friend, vaudeville musician Jesse Lasky, and a glove merchant named Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn), to try their luck in the wild new realm of motion pictures. In 1913, the three set up shop in a sleepy suburb of Los Angeles called Hollywood and, in effect, invented everything the place has since become.
De Mille excelled at high-tone com edy — droll infidelities and racy romances heat up the films by which he made his first fortune: The Cheat, The Dream Girl, The Woman God Forgot. “It took only a few years of this sort of thing to make C.B. weary of the shallowness of sophisticated comedy,” brother William wrote later. “Be fore long, he reacted against the very decadence of the jazz-mad age which he had expressed so successfully.”It should also be remembered that by the early ’20s, the Hearst papers were furiously milking the scandal that destroyed Fatty Arbuckle. Many Americans were being led to consider Hollywood the new Sodom, and De Mille, as one of its founders, was desperate to reverse the tide. Of Jewish ancestry on his mother’s side, but raised in a fiery Christian household, he had two huge, often contradictory traditions to reconcile in himself: feeling guilty and feeling preachy.
Hence The Ten Commandments (1923), which is being revived this week by the American Cinematheque to celebrate its new and permanent home at the Holly wood Egyptian Theater. (In a sweet bit of symmetry, the film’s 1923 premiere christened the theater.) Going in you may expect a mute, black-and-white version of a thing you’ve seen a zillion times, only this time without Heston. The truth is more startling — and more fun. De Mille, never having made a biblical epic, hedged his bets by lifting the central premise from D.W. Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance, which had mixed period costume drama with scenes of contemporary life.
The story begins naturally enough inEgypt, unfolding the adventure of Moses, Pharaoh and the escape to the Promised Land in a series of fast-paced scenes. Moses (tall, white-bearded Theodore Roberts) pleads with a Pharaoh (Charles de Roche) whose delicate, thin-lipped profile recalls F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. The first Passover (a terrifying set piece in the Heston version) happens off-camera here, and we are sped to De Mille’s showstopper, the parting of the Red Sea. This is little more than a charcoal sketch, viewed from our epoch of digital effects, but for that all the more impressive — C.B. cleverly combined gelatins, plastics, running water and early optical mattes to create a perfectly plausible illusion. From there, it’s a quick step to Mount Sinai and the great interview with God. (Lots of optical lightning, lots of smoky lettering in the sky spelling out a series of Thou Shalt Nots.)
Meanwhile, back at base camp, the Israelites — led astray by a vampirish femme fatale — construct a golden calf. The ancient decadence has a delightful ’20s flavor; there’s a seminaked flapper in view, dangling from an incredibly long rope as she swings above an abyss of beautiful and damned revelers. Just when you begin to wonder where C.B.’s real heart is — he has a spirited knack for depicting depravity and debauchery — Moses comes back down the mountain, tablets in tow, and ka-boom, we dissolve to the actual 1920s.
Here we find two brothers: John, a simple carpenter (Richard Dix, a dead ringer for the Pharaoh in Part 1), and Danny (Rod La Rocque), a party-happy hotshot who prefers to skip the Scripture and make a fortune in construction. A pretty flapper (Leatrice Joy) comes between the two brothers, and their mother (Edythe Chapman), a stern matriarch, tosses Danny out on his ear for being such a heathen. Despite the heavy intrusions of symbolism (John’s Christ-like carpentry job) and some of the preachier story constructions (Danny becomes a multimillionaire, only to lose his soul when he builds an expensive cath edral out of dangerously cheap cement), De Mille’s wit is unfailing when he just observes people.
The dialogue-titles, written by frequent De Mille collaborator Jeanie MacPherson, are particularly snappy, lightly catching the buoyancy and bite of ’20s speech. “I’m a little hazy on the golden calf, Mom,” says Danny when his mother scolds him for being irreverent. He flips a gold coin from his pocket: “But when the golden eagle on this little 5-dollar sinker flaps his wings, that’s when I kneel down to pray.”
As a further joke — and this is a particularly nice bit of jazz-age business, worthy of Fitzgerald himself — Danny builds an impromptu altar on the family mantel, using a spoon and a cigarette as a kind of cross, and making deep clowning salaams to his gold piece. Johnny, smiling tolerantly at his brother’s antics, gives a toss of his head that must’ve marked the 12-year-old Ronald Reagan for life when he saw it: “Laugh at the Ten Commandments all you want, Danny. They pack an awful wallop.” (Come to think of it, the whole of Reagan’s mature vernacular may have come from this film.) Later, when Danny is scolded by his mother for dancing on a Sunday, he strides out the door with his girl, bragging as he goes, “We’ll play our Victrola till hell freezes — then we’ll dance on the ice.”
There’s also a cook’s tour of some of the era’s less-examined bigotries: a femme fatale who sets her cap for Danny is that bygone movie pariah, a “half-breed,” half French, half Chinese and secretly bearing (of all symbolic ailments) leprosy into the picture. There’s a fine burst of bravura moviemaking late in the drama, when a woman — shot to death behind a drapery — clutches the curtain and pulls it down after her, popping the rings one by one as she falls. It’s easy to picture the 24-year-old Alfred Hitchcock seeing this film, and filing this dazzling moment away for the use he made of it four decades later in Psycho — the match is that exact, right to the downward, diagonal angle of the woman’s clutching fingers.
The Ten Commandments is no masterpiece — it never pierces the soul with its silence, the way Murnau’s Sunrise, Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, or anything by Keaton or Chaplin can — but it’s a first-rate curiosity, an easy, exhilarating bit of travel-in-time. It’s also a primitive, inward passion play that gives us the heart of Hollywood’s pre-eminent pioneer, wrestling in all anguish and sincerity with that century of decadence he was convinced his pictures had set in motion.