Simon Louvish’s elegantly exhaustive study of Cecil Blount DeMille (1881-1959) carries the respectful if not necessarily reverent title “Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art.” It examines that life largely though not entirely through his 70 movies, completed during a 42-year career, from “The Squaw Man” in 1914 to “The Ten Commandments” in 1956, itself a remake of his own 1923 “Ten Commandments.” “The Squaw Man” was also remade as an early talkie in 1931, during a period in which all of Hollywood, and DeMille especially, was struggling, often pathetically and disastrously, to make sense and cinema out of the newfangled dimension of talk.
As it happens, I grew up listening to DeMille’s mellifluous voice on the weekly “Lux Radio Theater” as he introduced the stories of recent Hollywood movies, most often with the original stars reading their lines from scripts. Unlike Louvish, however, I was never an admirer of DeMille’s biblical epics, which, as Louvish himself acknowledges, are DeMille’s chief claims to fame, though his only film to win an Oscar for best picture was his 1952 circus extravaganza, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” And yet for all his remarkable ability to outlast and in some instances outlive much greater contemporaries — including D. W. Griffith, Ernst Lubitsch, King Vidor, John Ford, Howard Hawks and the ill-starred Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg — he remains something of a joke among sophisticated cinéastes, largely because of his tin ear for dialogue. (One famous howler is from “The Ten Commandments,” in which Yul Brynner’s Egyptian pharaoh says of Charlton Heston’s Hebraic Moses, “His God IS God!”)
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