DeMille. Griffith and von Stroheim made better, early, epics but DeMille is no hack—he put together a strong collective body of work through these eight films (and I’m sure I’m missing a few that belong in the archives that I just haven’t caught yet). The case for DeMille here is the three films that land in the top 100 of their respective decade (basically as many as anyone left to add to this list) and the remarkable consistency between the films. It doesn’t matter the decade, whether it was in color, black and white or silent—such uniformity. That’s very impressive. The case against him is The 10 Commandments isn’t a lock to stay on the top 100 of the 1950’s as I add and see more films and that is his strongest film (though not by a wide margin).

Best film: The Ten Commandments

  • Remake of DeMille’s own 1923 film- this would be DeMille’s last
  • too few of the beautiful landscape shots – keeps it a notch below the works of Lean and Ben Hur from Wyler
  • It’s soapy in some of the writing and it hurts the performances in parts—but on the whole—it’s an engaging melodrama (that moves surprisingly well for 3+ hours) with some scenes showcasing the epic size of the film to praise
  • At least 14,000 extras and 15,000 animals used in the film—plays to the film’s scope and grandeur—DeMille loves the epic
  • Heston would admit Brynner gives the best performance in the film and he’s right—the extended ensemble (Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, and John Carradine barely have lines) is great but the film vibrates when Brynner speaks and lights up when he shows up
  • Brynner shines brightest here in a cast loaded with great actors
  • The illusion of the Red Sea parting was achieved by large “dump tanks” that were flooded, then the film was shown in reverse.
  • The film’s theme is literally told you by DeMille as the narrator and wit his awkward introduction “the theme of the picture is”
  • Shot in VistaVision but there are, sadly, so few wide shots, even with the high number of extras and animals and locations. DeMille is not David Lean—it’s like he’s shooting a sitcom box for much of the running time.
  • Best of the best not just with the cast but crew- Edith Head costumes, Elmer Bernstein
  • You could play a drinking game—speaking of forecasting what the theme is—with the mention of “bondage”—repeated 30 times—beating a theme to death– “So let it be written, so let it be done”
  • Lots of rear projection work- some better than others
  • Edward G. Robinson is fantastic and as I said Yul Brynner comes away with the film from an acting standpoint—won the Oscar in The King and I the same year—this had to have helped—he and Charlton Heston are great here actually going back and forth with their dueling baritones
  • I’m mixed on the curvy Anne Baxter- she hams it up for sure but she’s not helped by some of the writing “Oh Moses you stubborn splendid adorable fool
  • Anne Baxter has been better– she’s good at times but pushes that drama to melodrama too often
  • DeMille’s narration—it’s good form, coming in and out at the right time during transitions, but he’s playing this to land so broadly with audiences—he tells you what you’re looking at “chopping stray” and shows someone chopping straw
  • The Exodus scene with the extras is really something to watch-
he doesn’t keep it up throughout the whole film but this one shot is certainly worth of like a David Lean epic – from The 10 Commandments
ditto here with a shot as beautiful as anything in Gone With the Wind
it is delivered via rear projection but still- large set pieces, hundreds of extras is certainly a trademark of DeMille’s cinema

total archiveable films: 8

top 100 films:  0

top 500 films:  0

top 100 films of the decade: 3 (The Cheat, Male and Female, The Ten Commandments)

most overrated: Nothing for DeMille actually. He doesn’t have a single film on the TSPDT top 1000—The Ten Commandments is close at #1082 but that’s not overrated.

most underrated: I’d pick Male and Female and The Cheat– two pre-1920 films that should be somewhere on the TSPDT top 900-1200 and aren’t (they are not in the top 2000).

gem I want to spotlight : Sampson and Delilah. It isn’t nearly as well-known at The Ten Commandments but has many similarities both in the quality of the work and the genre, scope, and source material.  

stylistic innovations/traits:  DeMille made historical epics, costume melodramas, often from the Bible with big casts, opulent costumes and set pieces. DeMille practically (along with Griffith) invented the genre. DeMille loved this throne shot set-piece (again he’d use this go-to shot and others decade after decade in various formats as the industry changed around him). He used hundreds if not thousands of extras to give his film the proper size and scope. As far as content, his films were not the best written, often turning from drama to melodrama unintentionally) but you have to admire the grandeur and ambition that permeates his oeuvre and they manage to move briskly and be rewatchable.

from Cleopatra – the same shot, whether it’s in black and white, silent, wide screen color, etc.
from Sampson and Delilah — a familiar shot to those who have seen DeMille’s work
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extravagant set pieces and costume work in The Ten Commandments in 1956

top 10

  1. The Ten Commandments
  2. Male and Female
  3. The Cheat
  4. The King of Kings
  5. Sampson and Delilah
  6. The Greatest Show on Earth
  7. Cleopatra
  8. Reap the Wild Wind
from The King of Kings– DeMille’s genre of choice for sure

By year and grades

1915- The Cheat HR
1919- Male and Female HR
1927- The King of Kings
1934- Cleopatra R
1942- Reap the Wild Wind R
1949- Sampson and Delilah R
1952- The Greatest Show On Earth R
1956- The Ten Commandments HR

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives