Cecil B. DeMille takes Loretta Young on a Big-Budget “Righteous Crusade”
DIRECTED BY CECIL B. DEMILLE/1935
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MARCH 7, 2023/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Even though the critical reputation of Cecil B. DeMille as a movie director is not (and has never been) on par with the commercial success he attained within the industry, his contributions to the cinematic arts provide substantial material to consider in appraising the enduring significance of his achievements. Hundreds of highly ambitious, prodigiously creative, and artistically influential filmmakers have followed down trails that DeMille blazed in the formative years of Hollywood and defined throughout its Golden Age – but there is still only one “Cecil B.” and it’s a certainty that we will never again see a singular figure so dominant in the medium.
DeMille’s career stretches back nearly to the dawn of commercial cinema, and culminated in his final blockbuster The Ten Commandments (1956), which was actually a remake of sorts of his 1923 film of the same title. As a director, his name is affixed to 70 feature-length productions, beginning in 1914, and he had a major hand in producing many others. His ability to craft marvelous epics involving the proverbial “cast of thousands” that catered earnestly, and sometimes shamelessly, to the tastes of mass audiences had an incalculable influence in shaping the ethos and business practices that made the Hollywood studio system arguably the single most powerful cultural force on a global scale during the first half of the 20th century.
But as I’ve already alluded, his willingness to indulge popular appetites with a surfeit of sentimentality, garish spectacle, and lurid theatrical pomposity also set him up as an object of some derision by commentators of more refined or subtle tastes. And in my view, a lot of that critique is very well-deserved. Though he covered many genres over the course of his career, including small scale melodramas and broad comedies, he’s destined to be remembered for his big-budget epics, especially those that focused on biblical and religiously-based narratives. Those films in particular ratcheted up the moralism and simplified the historic complexities into dramatic clashes of good vs. evil, menacing forces of darkness striving to vanquish the bearers of light.
Still, there’s much to be learned from watching his films, especially those he made after launching into the upper ranks of Hollywood directors, and reflectively considering the basis of their populist appeal. Even those that were not as financially successful or as widely remembered as 1935’s The Crusades, which I discuss in the video clip below, offer fascinating insight into the dialogue that DeMille sought to initiate with his viewers as he depicted world-changing events from the distant past, set in exotic environments and presented in a quasi-mythological context.
In addition to the observations I made in that clip, after my second viewing, I’ll add a few more comments about the Kino Lorber disc itself. First, the image quality is sharp and clear. It’s a standard 1080p transfer, and I can’t find any information online as to whether or not this was a full restoration, but in any case, I found nothing lacking in the presentation of the film itself. The feature looks much better than the trailer which I used in my clip. And speaking of trailers, there’s a great sampling of highlight reels for films directed by DeMille (Unconquered, Reap the Wild Wind, Union Pacific, The Plainsman) or featuring Loretta Young, the top-billed star of The Crusades (Because of You, The Stranger, China, and her Oscar-winning performance as The Farmer’s Daughter).
Kino Lorber also commissioned a lively, rambunctious commentary track featuring DeMille enthusiast Alan Arkush (director of Rock’n’Roll High School) and film historian Daniel Kremer. The bonus audio definitely adds value to the disc, especially because Arkush is so amusingly garrulous in his observations. The only knock that I have is that for a commercial release, the audio quality is pretty sketchy. It’s evidently a one-take recording of a recent online conversation they had while watching the movie that includes a lot of background noise, occasionally indecipherable cross-talk (Arkush does tend to run on and steamroll his co-commentator from time to time), and more digital compression artifacts than I would typically put up with in my own homemade DIY podcast. Clearly, they did not bring the same obsession for perfect execution and overwhelming attention to detail as the subject of their conversation – but then again, why even try? Nobody can compete at that level with the one and only Cecil B. DeMille.