Cecil B DeMille and the Golden Calf by Simon Louvish - review by Frank McLynn

Frank McLynn

King of Hokum

Cecil B DeMille and the Golden Calf


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DeMille is not a name that has lived on, like Hitchcock, Welles or Ford. Yet in his time Cecil B DeMille was the most commercially successful showman-autocrat in Hollywood, whose films by 1942 were estimated to have sold 800 million tickets. An unashamed vulgarian, he capitalised on subjects that one is supposed to avoid in polite company: sex and religion. Beginning with sex comedies in the 1920s, he moved on to action adventures and then finally to the biblical epics for which he is best known. Under pressure from the new puritanism and the Hays Office after the late 1920s, DeMille discovered that a fortune could be made by appealing to the ‘devotional’ sensibility of America’s Bible Belt, but an even bigger fortune if the biblical tales were leavened with a barely concealed subtext of sexuality. As DeMille cynically remarked: ‘Give me any couple of pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.’ Or, as his brother William (a more intelligent man but less successful in a worldly sense) put it: ‘Having attended to the underclothes, bedrooms and matrimonial irregularities of his fellow citizens, he now began to consider their salvation.’ DeMille, in short, was the greatest exponent of hokum since Barnum and Bailey. 

DeMille’s career brings to mind Orson Welles’s dismissive remark: ‘Anyone can be a director. Just look at the people who have been!’ After a fortuitous meeting with the impresario Jesse Lasky Junior, DeMille, then a thirty-year-old struggling writer, simply decided there and then that, with Lasky’s money to back him,

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