BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE CECIL B. DeMILLE COLLECTION

By • May 23rd, 2006 •

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Universal Home Entertainment
Five disc set
B&W

“A Cecil B. DeMille film is like a nine and a half foot tall showgirl. Great to look at, glittery, a bit naughty, but excessive” wrote one critic about this very famous, and showy film-making pioneer.

Universal is letting DVD buyers wallow in wicked, enjoyable excess with their five-disc Cecil B. DeMille Collection. I’ve been a lifelong DeMille fan (I also suggest that film goers seek out his lesser known films such as THE CHEAT (1915), his 1923 TEN COMMANDMENTS (on the PARAMOUNT deluxe edition of his 1956 remake) and his salute to art deco and decadence, MADAME SATAN (1930). I have not seen his 1939 film UNION PACIFIC in years, and this box set let me catch up to this robust and energetic western. It follows the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869, linking the east and west coast through dangerous Indian territory. Barbara Stanwyck’s odd Irish accent adds a degree of welcome silliness to what could have been another bland “leading lady” character. You can never go wrong with Joel McCrea as the hero. There’s one helluva train wreck that’s worth waiting for, and film fans should look out for Lon Chaney Jr, and Ward Bond in uncredited cameos.

As a side-note, has anybody seen the recent made-for-TV version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS? Whoever made that one refused to give the film any energy. It was the above-mentioned giant showgirl on heavy medication. Whereas THE CRUSADES has that DeMille energy and spunk. What hurts the film is the casting of the barnstorming Henry Wilcoxon as Richard The Lion Hearted. He peppers all of his dialog with old theatre machismo. Every time he opens his mouth, he sounds like he’s trying to pass a pineapple! I would have preferred Fredric March. You do, however, have DeMille’s terrific handling of the storming and reclaiming of 12th Century Jerusalem.

Henry Wilcoxon was the perfect sexual boy toy for the playful Claudette Colbert in DeMille’s CLEOPATRA. Forget that boring Liz and Dick version, Claudette is the cinematic Queen of the Nile! The dialog sequences here have the feel of a 1930’s comedy about high society. The scene where Cleopatra entertains (with an army of dancers, acrobats and chicks in cat costumes) Wilcoxon’s Marc Anthony on her yacht- sized barge is not history reproduced but history daydreamed. The near climax of the film is a dizzying battle sequence done with quick montages. DeMille quickly cuts wide battle shots with ultra tight close ups, and underwater scenes.

The one DeMille non-epic in this set is the hard-to-catch FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE. This 1933 adventure finds a group of tourists stranded on a desolate island. Herbert Marshall is the star, and it makes you wish this low-key talent had more leading roles. Schoolmarm Claudette Colbert sheds her prim dress, eyeglasses and hair-in-a-bun for a bikini made from enormous banana-tree leaves. Mary Boland, who always played stuffy rich dames (such as Katherine Hepburn’s easily shocked auntie in BRINGING UP BABY), steals the film as a tough, sarcastic sarong-clad broad who becomes a dictator over some confused natives. It’s elusive and fun DeMille material.

I saved the best for last! While THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is DeMille’s most famous film, his 1932 production of THE SIGN OF THE CROSS is far and above his best! Set in Ancient Rome, SIGN OF THE CROSS follows Roman Police Prefect Marcus Suberbus (young Fredric March with eye-shadow and a tendency for delicious barnstorming!) He is ordered to capture and sometimes kill Rome’s “dangerous” and elusive underground Christian cult. However, he falls in love with Mercia (Elissa Landi), a captive girl who refuses to give up her faith. Along the way, we meet Nero, portrayed by Charles Laughton as a boozed-up, spineless, psychotic baby. Claudette Colbert takes it all away as Poppaea, Nero’s wife. Her nude milk-bath, and constant, demonic, purring dialog delivery, hypnotizes the audience. (“You’re evil, Poppaea!”, “I knowww.”) There’s a bizarre orgy sequence about half-way through the film where a lunatic dancer entertains the crowd and us with her “Dance of the Naked Moon”. Trust me, you have to see this.

Then comes the third act of SIGN OF THE CROSS. The captive Christians are forced to participate in deranged and warped games at the Coliseum that will simply blow you out of your comfy-chair! Naked girls are fed to alligators, one is offered to what looks like a lovesick gorilla, Amazon women fight and behead hopping pygmies, men are made to box grizzly bears, and much, much more. DeMille adds to this craziness by cutting in reaction shots of the Coliseum crowd. Some scream in horror, a woman is obviously turned on by the carnage, many gawk and gamble, while others yawn in boredom. I can only imagine being with a movie theatre audience watching this in 1932!

If you caught SIGN OF THE CROSS, let’s say on late night TV in the past, you saw the heavily-censored version with most of the above insanity cut out. For a 1944 re-release, the Production Code forced most of the Coliseum scenes to be removed. A prologue and epilogue with World War II fighter pilots talking about Nero’s Rome was tacked on. This is the original 1932 uncut version, with the Coliseum craziness replaced and the fighter pilot footage removed. Luxuriate in it!

One of DeMille’s famous quotes was: “A theory that died very hard was that the public won’t stand for costumed players in a movie set in another period. I got around this objection by staging and filming a vision. The poor working girl was dreaming of “Tristan and Isolde”. The scene fades out, and the screen reveals what the girl was supposed to be reading. Thus, the costume picture was put over on the public who paid to see this picture in a theatre. The public did not protest!”

(Editor’s note: You can consider your DeMille collection adequately complete with this handsome boxed set, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, and Criterion’s KING OF KINGS. I won’t, however, until Paramount Home Video gets around to releasing SAMSON AND DELILAH. Come on, guys. What’s the hold-up?)


SIGN OF THE CROSS
Screenplay by Waldemar Young, Sidney Buchman
From the play by Wilson Barrett.
Produced and Directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
With Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton
Paramount. 1932. 2 hrs. 5 mins

FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE
Screenplay by Bartlett Cormack and Lenore Coffee.
From the Novel by E. Arnot Robertson
Produced and Directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
With Claudette Colbert, Herbert Marshall, William Gargan, Mary Boland, Leo Carrillo
Paramount. 1933. 1 hr. 19 mins.

CLEOPATRA
Screenplay by Waldemar Young and Vincent Lawrence
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
Produced by Adolf Zukor
With Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Henry Wilcoxon, Ian Kieth, Joseph Schildkraut Gertrude Lawrence, James Lorinz.
Paramount. 1934. 1 hr. 42 mins.

THE CRUSADES
Screenplay by Harold Lamb, Waldemar Young and Dudley Nichols.
Produced and Directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
With Henry Wilcoxon, Loretta Young, C. Aubrey Smith, Ian Kieth, Alan Hale, Jospeh Schildkraut, Mishea Auer
Paramount. 1935. 2 hrs. 6 mins.

UNION PACIFIC
Screenplay by Walter Deleon, C. Gardner Sullivan and Jesse Lasky, Jnr.
Based on an Adaptation by Jack Cunnigham of a Story by Ernest Haycox.
Produced and Directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
With Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Akim Tamiroff, Robert Preston, Anthony Quinn, Lynne Overman, Brian Donlevy, Stanley Ridges, Evelyn Keyes, Henry Kolker.
Paramount. 1939. 2 hrs. 19 mins.

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