Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Ten Commandments (Paramount, 1923)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

We bussed back to Charles’ place and spent the rest of the night running my tape of the 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments, which like most of Cecil B. DeMille’s films alternates between scenes of vivid power and scenes of utter stupidity. Charles said he was surprised to find that I’d been right all along when I noted that DeMille and his special-effects people parted the Red Sea more convincingly in this version than they did 33 years later (and in the heavily faded two-strip Technicolor, the Red Sea actually did look red), and also that since the Biblical Moses was 80 years old when he led the Israelites out of Egypt (and 120 when he died on the edge of the Promised Land), Theodore Roberts was actually more accurate casting for the part than Charlton Heston was in the remake. I in turn was amused not only at the visual “quotes” from this movie that have appeared in subsequent films (King Vidor stole the scene in which Leatrice Joy ascends a construction elevator to meet Richard Dix, her brother-in-law, for The Fountainhead, and Alfred Hitchcock used the death scene of Nita Naldi — clutching a curtain and pulling it down, ring by ring, as she falls — for the shower murder in Psycho), but also at the treatment of leprosy in the script (Naldi supposedly gives it to her adulterous lover, Rod la Rocque, who in turn fears he’s given it to his wife, Leatrice Joy, and then to his brother, Richard Dix), which is strikingly premonitory of the mainstream view of “HIV/AIDS” (well, you didn’t think I was going to write a whole journal entry without mentioning it at least once, did you?). Later we came to Alabama Street to find our roommate John P. watching a documentary on The Making of “Dr. Zhivago,” and I said, “That’s a terrible movie. It’s a great book, but they turned it into a terrible movie” — and Charles said, “You could say that about The Ten Commandments as well.” — 5/19/96


Charles and I got home and I got out the DVD of the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, a film that had come back to my consciousness in an odd way: on last Friday’s Jeopardy! program announcer Alex Trebek had said they were doing a category of questions about archaeology in honor of Saturday, October 18 being National Archaeology Day. I’d never heard of National Archaeology Day and I wondered how it would be promoted (“Today is National Archaeology Day — go dig something up!”), but Charles rooted around on the Internet and found a news story about how people digging in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes near Santa Barbara had just unearthed the giant set representing ancient Egypt that was built there for this 1923 film. Even though the “find” was only 91 years old and was built by Hollywood craftspeople, not ancient Egyptians, the people who uncovered it (based on some cryptic clues in DeMille’s posthumously published autobiography) were saying the find was a good teaching opportunity for the importance of archaeology in general. The 1923 Ten Commandments was a movie I’d previously watched on a Paramount VHS videotape with the Red Sea sequence in a badly faded version of the original two-strip Technicolor and a soundtrack recorded on organ by the late, legendary theatre organist Gaylord Carter. The one we were watching last night was on the third disc of a boxed set devoted mainly to DeMille’s 1956 remake with Charlton Heston as Moses — DeMille told Heston he cast him because he thought Heston looked a lot like Michaelangelo’s statue of Moses (and almost a decade later Heston would play Michaelangelo on screen in The Agony and the Ecstasy!) — but which I bought mainly to get the 1923 version since I like it a lot better than the 1956 version anyway.

There are plenty of film directors whose creativity went into a stall when they reached middle age and no longer had the hunger of youth to push them, but DeMille is the only major one I can think of whose skills as a director actually got weaker as he aged. I think that’s mainly because he realized that he could make box-office mega-hits just by throwing lavish sets on the screen and peopling them with thousands of extras (back when “a cast of thousands” meant literally that; you couldn’t artificially create hordes of extras with CGI the way James Cameron did with Titanic and Ridley Scott with Gladiator) and didn’t need to direct his spectacles with any degree of artistry. Indeed, during his first decade or so as a director DeMille regularly complained that his little, “artistic” pictures were his only box-office flops! The Ten Commandments — the 1923 version (silent, of course!) — runs a shade over 2 hours and 15 minutes, of which the first hour is taken up by a stunning, lavishly produced but somewhat dull retelling of the story of Exodus (quite a lot of the explanatory titles come direct from the King James Bible and are literally quoted chapter-and-verse), though only a small slice of it — between the end of the ninth plague and the drowning of Pharoah Rameses’ army in the Red Sea (which I still think parted more believably here than in the 1956 remake — DeMille and his special-effects person, Roy Pomeroy, did it by making the Red Sea out of Jell-O, melting it under the hot camera lights and then running the film in reverse) and the Israelites’ worship, and Moses’ destruction, of the Golden Calf (considerably less anatomically correct and more Deco than in 1956) — makes it onto the screen. Moses is played by character actor Theodore Roberts, who looks considerably older than Charlton Heston in the remake — though as Charles pointed out the first time I showed him this film, the Biblical Moses is described as being 80 years old and therefore Roberts was closer casting to the book’s description of the character than Heston. Rameses is played by Charles de Rochefort, and it’s interesting in light of DeMille’s reputation that though he’s played as a vain asshole, he’s also given a moment of real sympathy when his son (Terrence “Pat” Moore) dies (as part of the 10th plague Moses has had God loose on the Egyptians: the deaths of all their first-borns) and he desperately — and fruitlessly — prays to the gods of Egypt to restore his son to life.

The mighty front of the Egyptian palace, including reproductions of the famous four statues of Rameses at Abu Simbel as well as a huge wall etched with giant depictions of the king on a chariot, is not only impressive to look at but visibly towers over the actors; just a few years later they would have done it with models and a process shot, but the process screen didn’t exist in 1923 (it would be invented in the next few years by German cinematographer Eugen Schuftan for Fritz Lang’s use in Die Nibelungen and especially Metropolis), and instead of building a small-scale palace front and station it behind the actors DeMille ordered a life-size one constructed that would loom over the poor Israelites who are being enslaved and worked to death by the Egyptians. The most interesting characterization in the first hour of this film is Estelle Taylor’s as Moses’ sister Miriam, who’s obviously being characterized as the “bad girl” to Moses’ good guy; though it’s their brother Aaron who orders the building of the Golden Calf, it’s Miriam who does the big dance in front of it and as a result is struck down with leprosy and develops lesions visibly on screen. (Roy Pomeroy developed a system combining colored makeup and colored filters on the lights — one combination would render the makeup invisible, one combination would make it visible, and by dissolving from one to the other Pomeroy could make his makeup either appear or disappear on screen; nine years later the same technique would be used to depict Fredric March’s on-screen transformations in the 1932 Rouben Mamoulian film of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) The first hour of The Ten Commandments is a bit ponderous and slow — which should have been a warning of what was going to happen once DeMille started making films set entirely in Biblical or historical times — but the second hour and a quarter, taking place in the 1923 present, is more clichéd but also better filmmaking. We dissolve from one to the other when a sequence showing the aftermath of the Golden Calf and its destruction (and Moses’ embittered smashing of the tablets containing the Ten Commandments at the foot of Mount Sinai — after the spectacular light show Pomeroy conceived to get him the Commandments in the first place; the words literally emerge from the mountain in what looks like a combination of fireworks and lava) dissolves to the widow Martha McTavish (Edythe Chapman) reading the Book of Exodus to her two sons, John (Richard Dix) and Dan (Rod LaRocque).

John is a good boy who believes in God, the Bible and the Ten Commandments; he’s also a carpenter (note the Biblical symbolism of that profession!). Dan is an unbeliever who couldn’t care less about the Ten Commandments and is willing to break any or all of them if he can achieve material success — which he does; within three years of being thrown out of his mom’s house Dan is the most successful building contractor in San Francisco (the city isn’t named in Jeanie Macpherson’s script but it’s obvious on screen — the cathedral the McTavishes are building is a replica of the famous one of St. Francis in North Beach and a crowd scene obviously takes place in Union Square). Dan and John also had a squabble over a homeless girl named Mary Leigh, whom John wanted to marry but Dan got instead because, as she pointed out, she finds Elinor Glyn much more interesting reading than that stuffy old Bible thing. (Elinor Glyn was a racy romance writer whose works were being successfully filmed by Paramount in the 1920’s; her most famous book, It, became more or less the basis for Clara Bow’s most successful film in 1927 — I say “more or less” because the book and the film had two different plots, though the book features in the film and Glyn wrote the stories for both.) Alas, Dan is not only ensuring the profitability of his latest venture, a big church, by skimping on the amount of cement in the concrete (and bribing the building inspector, played by Robert Edeson, to get away with it), he’s also romancing gold-digging vamp Sally Lung (Nita Naldi — who else?), a half-French, half-Chinese woman who escaped from the leper colony on the island of Molokai, Hawai’i, established herself in San Francisco and glommed onto rising young contractor Dan McTavish. Dan put John on this job as his foreman in hopes that John’s honest reputation would be an added protection against his getting caught, only Mary decides to visit John on the construction site, rides an elevator the 19 stories up there (in a scene that clearly influenced King Vidor when he shot a similarly vertiginous rendezvous between Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal at the top of Cooper’s latest, uh, erection in The Fountainhead), then slips and nearly falls because the weak concrete gives way under her high-heeled foot. John tries to get the builder who’s working under him to stop work on the edifice because it’s clearly unsafe — though it’s not yet finished the walls are already cracking under the strain of the heavy automotive traffic on the block — and he ultimately orders the workers off the site and the unfinished building closed.

Alas, his security person admits Mrs. McTavish to the site — thinking John’s edict can’t possibly apply to his own mother — and so she’s in the building when the south wall collapses on top of her, she’s killed (though she’s left alive long enough to confess that she made a mistake with Dan, trying to get him to believe in God through fear instead of love — a bit of DeMille philosophy that carried over into the fascinating film The Godless Girl five years later, when the atheist played by Lina Basquette’s first glimmer of belief comes when she’s presented a vision of religion based on compassion and love instead of hatred and fear) and Dan’s corrupt practices are exposed. Dan grabs for a gun in his desk drawer and is about to shoot himself when the corrupt building inspector he bribed grabs the gun from his hand, saying he’s not going to be left holding the bag for the disaster by Dan’s untimely exit. Instead Dan decides to visit Sally Lung and ask her to return his presents so he can sell them and get the money to get himself out of trouble; she refuses, he assaults her and grabs the string of pearls he gave her, she says he’ll never be rid of her because she has leprosy and she’s given it to him, and he shoots her as she’s holding onto a curtain dividing her living room from her bedroom. Instead of letting us see her fall, DeMille shoots her death with her on one side of the curtain, whose rods pop open one by one from the weight of her body clutching the curtain as she falls dead. Though she was shot instead of stabbed, and she was in her bedroom instead of her shower, the parallel to Janet Leigh’s murder in Psycho is obvious — it’s impossible to believe Hitchcock wasn’t thinking of this scene when he designed and storyboarded the one in Psycho! Now that he’s broken all the Ten Commandments, Dan first tries to infect his long-suffering wife Mary (who by now has realized she made a big mistake when she chose him over John!) with leprosy (Charles noted the similarity to the Clara Bow vehicle Call Her Savage from nine years later, which also featured a scene in which a pathological husband deliberately tries to infect his wife with a sinister disease), then attempts to flee to Mexico on a speedboat, Defiance (DeMille’s and Macpherson’s ham-handed symbolism strikes again!), only he crashes the boat on a rock in mid-ocean much the way Pharoah’s armies were drowned in the Red Sea back in the Biblical prologue (you remember).

The reviews in 1923 generally found the Biblical prologue more interesting than the modern-dress part of the movie (though the film was an enormous hit and Warner Bros. copied the combination of a dramatization of a Biblical story and a modern-dress parable illustrating it in Noah’s Ark six years later); the New York Times reported that at the juncture between the two stories the film went “from the sublime to the out-and-out movie” — but this time, at least, I found the modern-dress story, as dated as it is (no one, not even in 1923, dragged the Ten Commandments into everyday conversation as much as these people do), considerably more creatively directed and viscerally exciting. Watching DeMille’s silents, one can understand why in the early days he was considered a major artistic director as well as a box-office hero and why people like Stroheim, Eisenstein and Lang all proclaimed their admiration for DeMille and desire to emulate him. The Ten Commandments also shows DeMille’s mastery of the double game forced onto all Hollywood by the various moralists who were trying to censor movies and succeeded in 1934 when the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency forced the studios to put teeth into the Production Code: tantalize and titillate the audience with vividly staged depictions of sin, and then slam the sinners with horrible retribution (the Code called it “compensating moral values”) while the good characters get redeemed — in this film literally by Jesus Christ, to whom John and Mary pray for Mary’s leprosy to be cured, in a DeMillian “vision” of Christ and his apostles that looks like a screen test for The King of Kings, DeMille’s Jesus biopic and first all-Biblical film, four years later. The Ten Commandments remains a remarkable film by a director who’s underrated not only because his old-fashioned moralism has long since fallen out of fashion but also because he became so sloppy and slovenly in his later years — virtually nothing DeMille made after The Crusades is watchable because after that point he stopped pushing himself artistically and his slogan of “give the public what it wants” became an excuse for him to take the easy way out on each new project. — 10/19/14