Cecil DeMille


(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

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Cecil De Mille era figlio di un commediante; dopo aver studiato arte drammatica a New York, scrisse alcune commedie, e, col ricavato si trasferì a Hollywood e vi fondò una casa cinematografica. Nel 1913 diresse il suo primo film, The Squaw Man un western melodrammatico. In order to pay his debts, a despicable English earl, Henry, steals money from a trust fund for orphans that he is supposed to administer. His family places the blame on his brother Jim, who had already decided to leave for America because Henry was jealous of him (Henry's wife being fonder of Jim than of her own husband). Jim lands in America and moves west, buys a ranch and starts a new life. One day he witnesses the murder of a man who had cheated an Indian chief, and protects the real murderer: the chief's daughter. She returns the favor by saving his life when he is lost in the snow. They get married and have a child. He is now bankrupt, but just then the good news reaches him that, on his dying bed, Henry has confessed, thus clearing Jim's name and allowing him to become the new earl. In the meantime, Diana is traveling towards the ranch to find again Jim, whom she has probably secretly loved all the time. Nobody knows that Jim is married to a squaw and has had a child from her. That child is now entitled to the life of an English nobleman, but the squaw can't possibly become an English lady. Worse: the sheriff is under pressure to solve the murder. Eventually he finds out the truth and organizes a posse to go capture the woman. Diana arrives at the ranch, and, after being disappointed to learn the news, accepts to take the child with her to England, while Henry stays to defend his wife. The squaw realizes that she is only a burden now, and commits suicide.

Nel 1916 diresse The Cheat, un melodramma che rappresenta un significativo passo avanti dal punto di vista tecnico.

Richard is a businessman who has invested all his money in a major deal. His wife is vain and likes to waste money, and resents being told to stop spending. She likes the company of a wealthy Burmese king, who is getting on the nerves of her husband. At a party for the Red Cross, she is approached by another business man who tells to invest everything into a different deal. She steals the money of the Red Cross and gives it to this man to invest. But she loses all the money. Terrified at the idea of being exposed as a thief, she accepts to become the lover of the Burmese king, who was only waiting for his chance. But just minutes before the night appointment with the king, her husband walks home with the good news that he made a fortune. She asks for the sum she owes, pretending to have lost it at cards, and he gives it to her. Now she can pay back the king, but he demands that she sticks to the agreement and even brands her with a hot iron. She grabs a gun and shoots him. Her husband, suspicious of her storys, has followed her and arrives just as the man is fainting and she is running away. He understands what has happened and tells the police that he is the killer. He goes to jail, and the king, when he recovers, the king does nothing to change his version of the facts, despite the woman's begging. In fact, he hates the woman so much that he accuses Richard at the trial, and Richard loves her so much that he accuses himself. So the jury finds him guilty. But then the woman erupts and tells the whole story. The crowd in the court tries to lynch the Burmese king, who is barely saved by the police. The judge sends the couple free. Giostrando con i chiaroscuri e imponendo una recitazione più misurata De Mille ottenne un effetto più violento. Il film inauguro` anche l'enfasi sul sesso che rimarra` una delle sue costanti.

Nel 1916 diresse anche il suo primo colossal, Joan The Woman.

The Whispering Chorus (1918)

Alla fine del decennio passò alla commedia di costume, con film leggeri e briosi che avevano per interprete Gloria Swanson: Male and Female, soprattutto The Affairs of Anatole (il primo "all stars film"), attinte dal teatro leggero. I soggetti erotici (ispirati alla amoralita` dell'epoca), più ancora che le coreografie sfarzose, soddisfarono la sete di spregiudicatezze del suo pubblico.

The Affairs of Anatole (1921) is a rather tedious (and misleading) adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's "Anatol" (1893), an example of male chauvinism at its worst.

The socialite Anatole is married to the vain Vivian (Gloria Swanson) and getting quite frustrated. He goes out to party with friends and meets the loose cabaret girl and old flame Emilie, who is controlled by her elderly lover Gordon. Anatole decides to rescue her, while Gordon laughs at the young man's naivete. Anatole's wife is offended. Anatole funds Emilie's education and she becomes his mistress. However, Emilie also continues her relationship with Gordon, who showers her with jewels. When Anatole finds out, he is willing to forgive her if she throws the jewels in the river. She only pretends to do so, because she is too selfish, just like he is too selfish to divorce his wife for her. Eventually Anatole finds out that Emilie is still partying with Gordon and destroys the apartment he furnished for her. Gordon offers Emilie another jewel and she's all his. Anatole goes home to ask his wife for forgiveness. After an Indian hypnotizer embarrasses her in front of all her friends, they decide to take a trip to the countryside. Anatole has to rescue Annie, a farmer's wife who has used church money to buy herself some pretty clothes. Annie pretends to be unconscious so that Vivian goes to call for help, but then Annie seduces Anatole and steals his wallet. When she comes back with a doctor, Vivian sees them kissing and, furious, takes off with the car. Annie gives her husband all the money she found in the wallet, pretending that it was a gift from a kind man. Rejected by his wife, who has had enough of his escapades, Anatole goes out for another night of partying. He meets the beautiful and famously wicked show-girl Satan Synne, who seduces him and asks for a huge sum of money. She pretends to be a femme fatale but she's actually a devoted wife, willing to prostitute herself to save the life of her husband, who needs an expensive surgical operations. When Anatole learns the truth, and that the husband will probably die anyway, he leaves her the money and returns home. This time he does not find his wife, who comes home only in the morning with their friend Max. Max protests that they are just friends, but now Anatole is devoured by jealousy. He asks the Indian hypnotist to hypnotize his wife so that she will answer truthfully. Max begs him not to humiliate his wife. At the last minute Anatole decides to trust her and does not ask the question. The Godless Girl (1929) is a melodrama that mocks atheism. In the campus of a university Judy is a member in a society of atheists. Bob, instead, is a very religious boy and also the president of the student body. When the dean threatens to have the atheists arrested, Bob intervenes and pledges that the students will wipe out the blasphemy themselves. Bob leads his posse of religious fanatics to storm a meeting of Judy's atheist society. The atheists heroically stand up to the violent aggressors. In the brawl a friend of Judy falls down the stairs. As the police arrive and upheld the leaders of the fight (Judy and Bob), the dying girl begs Judy to tell her that there is an afterlife. Judy refuses to lie. One of the cops tells the girl that God is waiting for her and she dies smiling. Judy and Bob are sent to the reformatory. Judy befriends a blonde who is religious and one day they get in trouble for trying to help each other and are sent to punishment. Bob too gets in trouble and is sent to the same place. There is an electrical fence between the men's and the women's camp. Bob and Judy start talking, confessing they love each other. They are touching the fence: a fascist guard sends the electricity to burn their hands. Bob swears revenge and promises that he will free Judy. He manages to escape from his high-security cell and, wearing a guard's uniform, to smuggle Judy out of the camp. They flee through the idyllic countryside, chased by the posse that the fascist guard has organized. They make love in the woods but the dogs are closing in. Captured, Bob tries to save Judy, but Judy does not want him to be tortured so she surrenders too. They are brought back to the prison and each chained in a room. A fire erupts in the women's prison. The blonde friend rushes to the guards asking for the keys to open Judy's handcuffs. The guard gives her the keys but the other girls realize that they can use those keys to escape and take them from the blonde. In the meantime Bob has escaped from the male prison to help save Judy. Judy. desperate, is praying the God she never believed in. As the fire envelops everything, Bob climbs a window and gets into the building, but the fascist guard doesn't want to let him save Judy. The two men fight and the guard gets stuck in an electrical door. Bob saves his life by turning off the switch. Then he grabs the keys and saves Judy. They save the guard who would have otherwise burned alive. Before dying the guard tells the director that they deserve to be released.

A parte si situa Madame Satan (1930), una fantasia di musica e melodramma senza capo né coda.

Il passo successivo fu rappresentato dalle superproduzioni bibliche, sorta di kolossal ambientato nell'antica Palestina non alieno da scene sanguinarie ed erotiche; The Ten Commandments (1923) sovrappone (a` la Griffith) scene della vita di Mosè e una storia moderna, in cui un architetto viola i comandamenti e muore contagiato di lebbra da una cinese. Solleticato dalle ricostruzioni storiche passò i primi anni trenta a riesumare figure ed episodi di mitici del passato, da Cleopatra alle crociate.

De Mille rappresentava la nuova etica dell'ovest, allo stesso tempo permissiva e puritana, nella quale il sesso aveva il ruolo più ambiguo. De Mille seppe cogliere gli istinti repressi, pornografici e violenti, del californiano medio e accomunarli al senso americano dello show lussuoso.

Altri colossal: The King Of Kings (1927), The Sign of the Cross (1932), Cleopatra (1934), The Crusades (1935).

Nel 1936 ritornò al western, genere a cui diede un suo maturo contributo con The Plainsman (1936) (bisticci d'amore fra due leggende della frontiera, Bill Hickok e Calamity Jane, sullo sfondo delle guerre indiane: Calamity rivela agli indiani i piani della cavalleria per evitare le torture all'amato, che le perdona il tradimento e il massacro conseguente soltanto in punto di morte), Union Pacific (1939) (sulla classica gara fra due compagnie ferroviarie), Unconquered una giovane deportata di buona famiglia (assassina per difendere il fratello) è corteggiata da due ufficiali, e il migliore dei due di guadagna il suo amore con coraggiose imprese contro i pellirosse con l'aggiunta di North West Mounted police (1940) con Cooper nei panni di una giubba rossa che combatte il famigerato Grande Orso; l'epica di De Mille trattò il western come una ricostruzione storica nazionale, sicché questi film sono in realtà la logica continuazione dei kolossal biblici. E alla fine della sua carriera ritrovò la vena drammatica del capolavoro giovanile, The buccaneer, Reap the wild wind (1942) (film marinaro con naufragio e rivalità fra un capitano e un avvocato) e The greatest show on earth (sulla vita del circo), dove ancora toccò temi scottanti riuscendo sempre ad impressionare il pubblico.

Samson and Delilah (1949) is a very loose adaptation of a Biblical story turned into a typical Hollywood melodrama around a stereotypical film-noir archetype (the weak man torn between the femme fatale and the good virgin).

In 1000 BC the Israelites are enslaved by the Philistines. Samson lives in a village that dreams of freedom. He is in love with a Philistine girl, Semadar. The rest of the village is opposed to the marriage, that they view as treason. There is also another obstacle: the Philistine warrior Ahtur, who wants to marry Semadar himself. The spirited Delilah, Semadar's younger sister, watches amused: she has a crush on the strong Samson. Delilah is on Samson's chariot when they are attacked by a lion and he kills him with his hands. The king just then arrives, and with him Semadar and Ahtur. The king challenges Samson's strength by having him fight against his strongest man. Samson easily wins. As his reward, Samson asks for a Philistine bride. Delilah is delighted and thinks she's the one, but Samson picks her sister. At the wedding he is faced with the hostility of the Philistine men. He challenges them to solve a riddle and promises rich prizes to those who will. The clever Delilah devised a way to disrupt the wedding. She tells Ahtur that Semadar can certainly extort the solution to the riddle from her groom. Semadar does. When the Philistine men answer the riddle, Samson understands that she has betrayed him, calls off the wedding and walks out. He robs Philistines to gather the prizes he has promised to the Philistine men. Then he comes back to the wedding party. Semadar's father offers him Delilah, who truly loves him, but Samson feels insulted to be offered a "wild cat" instead of the princess. He catches his bride in the arms of Ahtur. A fight erupts between Samson and the Philistine men. They accidentally kill Semadar. Samson kills scores of them and sets the palace on fire. Delilah survives but now she hates him and vows revenge.
The Philistines search for Samson, who is now wreaking havoc all over the kingdom, but his people prefer to die than to betray him. To stop the harassing, Samson surrenders to the Philistines and is dragged by Ahtur in chains. Delilah has become the mistress of the king, covered in jewels, and welcomes the news of Samson's arrest. But Samson frees himself and kills Ahtur's entire army with his bare hands. Ahtur, wounded, tells the king that Samson's supernatural strength must due to a secret power. Delilah offers to seduce Samson and extort the secret, the way her sister extorted the solution to the riddle. Delilah finds him and seduces him. They live together in blissful oblivion for a while. Samson naively tells her that his secret is his hair. Then Miriam, the sweet girl of his village who grew up with him, and has secretely loved him all the time, brings him the news that his people are being slaughtered by the Philistines and Samson decides to leave. Delilah, after confronting the girl, tries again to seduce him. She gives him a potion that puts him asleep and then cuts his hair. When the Philistine soldiers called by her arrive, he is powerless. They burn his eyes and turn him into a slave. When she finds out, she realizes how much she really loves him. She visits him and shows him that he has regained his strength. They plot to destroy the palace. During the king's festival, Samson is humiliated in front of a cheering audience. Miriam begs the king for Samson's life. Delilah pretends to be merely jealous and tells the king to deny her wish. Then she walks into the arena, grabs a whip and pretends to exact her revenge, but in reality she takes him to the pillars that support the colossal idol of the Philistines. Samson detroys the idol and the entire place, while the king toasts to them. They all die. Only Miriam survives and returns to her village.
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), already weakened by the flimsiest of plots, is ruined by too many documentary-style scenes of circus performances. Brad (Charlton Heston) surveys the animals of his giant circus. In the meantime the investors in suit and tie is discussing whether it still makes sense to play the small towns. Brad convinces them by telling them that they just hired a famous star, the "great" Sebastian, a trapeze artist who has a bad reputation as a womanizer and troublemaker. The one who is sorely disappointed is Holly, Brad's girl, who was hoping to be the star of the trapeze with the act she had been refining with three years of hard work. Brad tells her that the show comes first. Later she is alone with the good clown (James Stewart), who is Brad's best friend (and never takes his make-up off, so nobody really knows how he looks like). Sebastian likes Holly right away and likes her ambition, while Brad is concerned about her safety. She starts competing in the air against the more famous and experienced Sebastian, and resents that Brad is consistently opposed to her bolder and bolder acts. She almost kills herself rather than admit that Sebastian is better. One day Brad saves her life by lowering a rope that is about the break, but Holly thinks he just wanted to humiliate her in front of everybody, and Sebastian is ready to console her. Only Holly's friend Angel sees the rope that was about to get her killed. Sebastian is about to kiss Holly after promising her the usual moon when Angel comes to kidnap her with an elephant and talk some sense into her. Meanwhile, Brad kicks out of the circus a man who was cheating a customer. His protector comes to threaten Brad of trouble. Sebastian, trying to impress Holly, falls from the trapeze and is wounded and left a cripple. Now Holly can have the center act she dreamed of, but she feels guilty that she forced him to do more and more dangerous acts in order to compete with her. Holly chooses Sebastian, while Angel confesses her love for Brad, but another circus artist loves Angel, Klaus. One day a police officer shows up asking for a doctor. The doctor that he is looking for is the clown (James Stewart), who apparently used to be a doctor and killed his wife because he loved her. That's why the clown never shows his face. Brad understands. The clown in fact tells him that Sebastian might recover some day, a fact that only a doctor could have assessed. Brad proves to Sebastian that he can still use his hand: Sebastian would have never married Holly as a cripple, but now he just might, and it was Brad himself who helped him, because for Brad the circus (a good trapeze artist) comes before love (a good wife).
That night robbers attack the train to steal all its cash. One of them is Klaus. When he realizes that the circus' train is headed for a collision with another train, he turns the robber's car and drives on the railway to warn the train. His car gets caught in the middle of the colossal collision. Brad is badly wounded, bleeding to death. Holly, who has understood who the clown is from a newspaper article, begs him to help. The clown admits his identity and rushes to save Brad. Even if mortally wounded, Brad is still the same: worried about the performance of the circus, and cynical about Holly. Sebastian happens to have the same blood type as Brad and donates blood to save Brad, despite Brad's protestations that he'd rather die. Angel pledges to Brad that she'll get the circus going, no matter how big the catastrophe is. They do march into town, and they do set up the tent. The clown, having revealed his identity, is arrested by the cop. But the whole episode has transformed Brad, who now would like to tell Holly that he loves her. Except that Holly has transformed into him: her priority is the performance.
The ending, full of action, surprises and lively dialogues, redeems the slow pace and dull story of the previous two hours.

Dotato di un grande senso dello spettacolo, De Mille riuscì a far colpo sul pubblico in tutti i generi spettacolari (escluso cioè il comico); nei suoi film tutto è in realtà funzione dello spettacolo, per cui le ricostruzioni storiche sono sovente fasulle e le allusioni al sesso servono soltanto a stuzzicare il pubblico, ma sono prive di qualsiasi intento polemico o satirico. De Mille fu un cineasta popolare, dedito unicamente a produrre uno svago facile per il suo pubblico. Fu lui a portare alla perfezione la tecnica narrativa del cinema. Nei suoi film non vengono affrontate problematiche morali (egli non giudica mai i suoi personaggi, li accetta così come sono) e non si sviluppa mai la psicologia dei personaggi (semplici maschere insomma). L'epica è sufficiente ad attrarre lo spettatore. De Mille fu il primo a concepire il cinema come spettacolo e lo spettacolo come falsità. Schiacciato da Griffith nella ricostruzione storica e nel melodramma, e da Ince nel western, De Mille fu comunque una figura determinante nell'evoluzione della commedia.

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