Monday, October 05, 2009

The Ten Commandments (1923)

In the presence of Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, daughter of Leatrice Joy.
Kymmenen käskyä / Kymmenet käskyt. US 1923. PC: Famous Players-Lasky Corp. / Paramount. D+P: Cecil B. DeMille; SC: Jeanie Macpherson - many of the intertitles in the first section are direct quotes from Exodus; DP: Bert Glennon, Peverell Marley, Archibald Stout, J.F. Westerberg, [Edward S. Curtis, Ray Rennahan (col.)]; AD: Paul Iribe, Francis McComas; tech. D: Roy Pomeroy; ED: Anne Bauchens; ass. D: Cullen Tate; cast (Prologue): Theodore Roberts (Moses, The Lawgiver), Charles de Roche (Ramses, The Magnificent), Estelle Taylor (Miriam, The Sister of Moses), Julia Faye (The Wife of Pharaoh), Terrence Moore (The Son of Pharaoh), James Neill (Aaron, Brother of Moses), Lawson Butt (Dathan, The Discontented), Clarence Burton (The Taskmaster), Noble Johnson (The Bronze Man); (Modern Story): Rod La Rocque (Dan McTavish), Richard Dix (John McTavish), Edythe Chapman (Mrs. Martha McTavish), Leatrice Joy (Mary Leigh), Nita Naldi (Sally Lung, a Eurasian), Robert Edeson (Redding, an Inspector), Charles Ogle (The Doctor), Agnes Ayres (The Outcast); 12,072 ft /20 fps/ 159 min, col. (printed on colour stock, reproducing original tinted sequences and Handschiegl effects with the Desmet process); print: GEH. Restored in 2002 by GEH. Restoration funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Film Foundation, and the George Eastman House Preservation Fund. E-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Donald Sosin, viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, 5 Oct 2009. - From the GCM Catalogue: "Some canonical American silent films grow in interest over the decades (say, The Crowd or The General). Some films widely admired at release do the reverse (say, Civilization or The Birth of a Nation). Others – and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments turns out to be a fascinating example – keep their appeal by turning it inside out.
DeMille’s long film holds two distinct shorter ones within it. A grandiose Biblical epic is followed by a modest family melodrama. The New York Times review (22 December 1923) expressed starkly a widespread initial response to the film’s bifurcated structure: “Two men might have directed this feature.” The dramatization of parts of the Book of Exodus was “obviously directed by a genius,” but “the strain on Mr. DeMille told,” and much of the contemporary story, about a pious mother and her two sons, was “extremely tedious”. For the first generation of U.S. film historians – including Terry Ramsaye in the 1920s and Lewis Jacobs in the 1930s – the interest of the film still lay entirely in its opening spectacle, because the cost prefigured the lavish ways of new Hollywood. (At $1,476,000, The Ten Commandments was probably the most expensive movie yet produced.) The remainder of the film merited little comment.
It may be, however, that something has happened to the film – or rather to our experience of it – in recent years, and its re-evaluation parallels what we’ve witnessed together over the last decade at the Giornate through the full body of D.W. Griffith’s work. The Griffith films most praised at release – the historical reenactments and Biblical adaptations – have come to feel ponderous and mildly laughable when set beside many Griffith films that were initially dismissed as little more than routine dramatizations of contemporary life. What is distinctive about The Ten Commandments is that it contains both film types within its two-and-a-half hour length.
In the 1960s Kevin Brownlow noted gently in The Parade’s Gone By that the Biblical prologue of the film was “cinematically uninventive”. The first four and a half reels – about the Israelites under Egypt’s Pharaoh, with the vengeful Old Testament God on their side – remain intermittently compelling, notably in the special effect of the Red Sea parting, the two-color Technicolor sequences, and the cast of thousands chased by Ramses’ chariots across the desert. If DeMille had little more inspiration about how to incorporate his massive set into the storyline than did Griffith in Intolerance, DeMille had a better sense for the enlivening human detail. After the Exodus, each of the ten emblazoned Commandments bursts forth sparkling like a Hollywood marquee (appropriate no doubt in Grauman’s new Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, a year old when the film premiered there on 4 December 1923). However, the hyperactive worship of the Golden Calf by awkwardly choreographed Israelite sinners brings the film’s pace to a crawl. Even on set, DeMille sensed the scene veering toward the ludicrous. A journalist reported the director’s words to extras playing the worshippers: “I would like to remark that if any one of you feels humorous, laugh now. If any one of you laughs after I say ‘Camera,’ I will do my best to extract the humor from the situation.”
There’s a defensive tone right from the film’s first intertitle, arguing against anybody’s assumption that what we’re about to see might be in any way “OLD FASHIONED”. The film was publicized, after all, as originating from the will of the people. In October 1922 DeMille initiated a nationwide newspaper contest to find the subject for his next Paramount film (“put it in three or four words if you wish”) and, among the 30,000 entries, a certain F.C. Nelson of Lansing, Michigan, was credited with the primary inspiration: “You cannot break the Ten Commandments – they will break you.” Nelson and seven others who had also suggested an idea based on the Ten Commandments divided the large $8,400 award.
But one also suspects another motivation from Paramount. That studio was home to ALL the central figures in Hollywood’s three fresh scandals: Fatty Arbuckle (tried twice for manslaughter, in 1921 and 1922), director William Desmond Taylor (murdered in 1922), and clean-cut star Wallace Reid (dead of a drug overdose in January 1923). If Hollywood was such a sin hotbed that Will Hays had to resign from the President’s Cabinet in 1922 to set the place straight, then Paramount was demonstrably the sin capital. The Ten Commandments could put the studio right – if not with God, at least with His people on earth. It’s not entirely DeMille’s fault if a whiff of the PR propaganda purpose still clings to his Old Testament images.
But 50 minutes into the film, just as we resign ourselves to cinematic life under Moses’ grim theocracy, The Ten Commandments leaps into life by shifting to (of all unholy places) San Francisco. For viewers now, the contemporary story, running the length of a full feature, reveals pleasures that undercut presumptions of DeMille’s ponderousness. Look especially at the subtly played round-robin emotions and touching character comedy in the scene where the two sons work out their romantic rivalry for the homeless young woman. The misunderstanding about which of the two is proposing is staged with complex 3-shots, deft cutting on glances, and inventive use of a doorway set. Or look at the high-flying dynamism of the literally breathtaking sequence atop the half-built church, which will soon be collapsing, earthquake or no. (DeMille beat Hitchcock in finding vertigo through San Francisco locations.) What the contemporary part of the film melodramatizes for us now is the central cultural battle of 1920s America – pitting the modernizing “Jazz Age” against religious revivalism. (Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson matched DeMille’s budget with her $1,500,000 Angeles Temple, opened earlier in 1923; its electrically illuminated cross was easily visible from the Hollywood Hills.) In the film this cultural battle gets heated when the fundamentalist mother smashes her son’s dance record, “I’ve Got Those Sunday Blues”.
With relatively understated power the contemporary half of The Ten Commandments argues for a philosophical shift toward a more forgiving New Testament morality (under which Paramount’s sinning employees would presumably not be so harshly damned). The visual inventiveness of the contemporary story is deftly sustained by scriptwriter Jeanie Macpherson’s arch modern wit. Give her credit for one of the most memorable intertitles in all silent film, spoken by the good brother to the bad: “Laugh at the Ten Commandments all you want, Danny – but they pack an awful wallop!” – Scott Simmon
The restoration: The Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation of Boston, still trying to market its relatively new product, approached DeMille with an irresistible offer to shoot scenes for the movie at no charge. Ray Rennahan shot two-colour footage of the liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt and their trek across the desert. If DeMille wasn’t satisfied with the results, they would be turned over to the director for destruction. Complementing these scenes and highlighting the remarkable special effects, over 2,000 individual frames featured Handschiegl process coloring. First developed by Max Handschiegl and Alvin Wyckoff for DeMille’s Joan the Woman (1917), a select area of each frame could be individually colored through a complex dye-transfer system. The process was used almost exclusively for Famous Players-Lasky productions until Wyckoff left the studio in 1923. In The Ten Commandments the process was used to best effect in the orange coloring of the “wall of fire” sequence and the blue sea-walls during the parting of the Red Sea.
The main source for this restoration is Cecil B. DeMille’s personal 35mm nitrate print of The Ten Commandments. It came to George Eastman House as part of the DeMille collection, a unique assemblage of his films spanning almost all of the director’s entire silent oeuvre. DeMille kept one print of every one of his features. These were gradually donated to the Archive following his death in 1959. This print features the original tinting throughout, several toned sequences, and the Handschiegl process shots. The Technicolor scenes however, are not present.
In 2002, as part of an ongoing initiative to restore the color back to DeMille’s silent films, George Eastman House began work on the project. Tinting was matched and reproduced by the Desmet process. Reel 8 of DeMille’s personal copy was incomplete due to nitrate decomposition. This was replaced with material held at the Library of Congress. Tinting records were used to restore the color tints to this reel from an original screenplay held in the Cecil B. DeMille Archives at Brigham Young University in Utah. Under the supervision of Johan Prijs, Studio Cine in Rome developed a new system to recreate the Handschiegl coloring. Modern rotoscoping techniques were used to create masks before Desmet flashing colored the designated area. Now, thanks to this restoration, audiences can enjoy the film colorfully tinted and with Handschiegl effects, in a version unseen since its original release. – James Layton." - I revisited the Biblical section only of the famous film which I have seen recently in its entirety. - Paolo Cherchi Usai introduced this as probably the best print that we are ever likely to see. - Impressive to see the colour effects as detailed above. - But the Biblical section itself is curious because of the antiquated quality of its performances, which look like early cinema from the first decade of the 20th century, before Griffith. Certainly Cecil B. DeMille already in his first film, The Squaw Man (1914), was more advanced as a director of actors than here. Not to speak of The Ten Commandments (1956), which is superior in every aspect to the Biblical part of this film.

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