The Faith and Films of C.B. DeMille

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll
2015 30 Sep

In case you haven't noticed, Tinseltown is turning out biblical films on a scale not seen since the 1950s. With the showings ofNoah, Heaven Is for Real, Son of God, God's Not Dead,Left Behind,Exodus,andMary, Mother of Christ, 2014 has been called the "year of the biblical movie." It is a genre and trend traceable to the cinematic influence of Cecil B. DeMille.

Box office hits likeQuo Vadis(1951),The Robe(1953), andBen-Hur(1959) made the fifties a golden era for the biblical epic. But it was DeMille'sSamson and Delilah, the number-one moneymaking movie of 1949, that launched the era, and hisTen Commandments(1956) influenced filmmaking well into the next decade, which saw the release ofThe Story of Ruth(1960),King of Kings(1961), andThe Greatest Story Ever Told(1965).

A Filmmaker's Filmmaker

Arguably the most successful filmmaker of his time, Cecil B. DeMille made over seventy movies in a forty-year career that began long before the "talkies."

Wearing his signature outfit of jodhpurs, knee boots, riding crop, and sometimes side arm (for snake protection, he claimed), C. B., as he was known in the industry, directed "casts of thousands" on elaborate sets that were trendsetting for their authenticity and grandiose scale.

Because he began in the early days of motion pictures, over fifty of DeMille's films are silent, and nearly sixty are "pre-code" (i.e., pre-1934). Fans who remember him for his biblical epics may be surprised to learn that many of his pre-code films contain much that is salacious and anachronistic. EvenSign of the Cross(1932), a love story set in the early Christian era, includes nudity, sexual images, and an orgy complete with a lesbian dance.

DeMille made the first of his seven religious-themed films in 1920.Something to Think Aboutstarred Gloria Swanson as a woman who, through the religious faith of a housekeeper, is motivated to honor a promise she made to a handicapped suitor. His last religious film,The Ten Commandments, was the most spectacular, most critically acclaimed, and highest-grossing picture of his long, illustrious career.

A filmmaker's filmmaker, DeMille's body of work is a testament to his ambition, creativity, and skill. But it is also evidence—or, perhaps, a product—of a certain tension between the faith he professed and the life he lived.

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