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THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
(Cecil B DeMille . 1954)

“Thou shalt not…”

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

Cecil B  DeMille . 1954

 

“I know I’m made fun of. I know they call The Ten Commandments: The Sexodus  and what have you….

But my ministry was making religious movies and getting more people to read The Bible than anyone else ever has.”

– CB talking to cast member and later clergyman, Dr Donald Curtis.

 

Love him or loathe him, Cecil Blount DeMille is one of the founding fathers of Hollywood. He started making  films there in 1914, co-directing The Squaw Man and co-producing it with Jesse L Lasky, father of one of his Commandments  scenarists, Jesse Lasky Jr (“the company Hebrew,” he called himself). The three-week Squaw shoot became such a smash hit it turned Jesse L Lasky Feature Players Company into Paramount Pictures, keeping DeMille in work (once helming two movies simultaneously) and making Hollywood the world’s film capital. (The third key figure in the company was Lasky’s brother-in-law, a certain Sam Goldfish; you know him better as  Samuel Goldwyn).

CB was now 73 (dead four years later) when he  determined to make a revision of his 1923 film on the life of Moses. That had been merely a Biblical prologue to a contemporary story. This time it would be all Moses and no supposes.  “The world needs a reminder of the law of God…  the essential bedrock of human freedom.”  He probably felt it would be his finale, even though he also set Jesse Lasky Jr to penning On My Honour - to star David Niven as the founder of the Boy Scouts movement, Lord Baden-Powell.

For now, the old man was not in the best of health. He had just lost his loyal and adoring secretary Gladys Rosson, to cancer.  They’d worked  together since 1914, and she was also his mistress for half of those 40 years   Making Commandments helped fill an immense void for him.

His dodgy heart was not helped by climbing Mount Sinai during the Egyptian locations. Much later, he was directing the Exodus scene by walkie-talkie, passing instructions to Frank Westmore, in costume behind Charlton Heston, at the head of the masses, when CB vanished in mid-sentence and Frank heard another voice. ”Something’s happened to Mr DeMille...”  He was having a heart attack, turning him ashen. He still got back on line: “Don’t worry Frank. I got the shot.”   He was back the nextt day, against the orders of  the quack doctor he shared with the Kennedys, then took three days off, Stateside.

He had “my most important film” to finish

Before it finished him.   

When finally shooting back at Paramount studios, he celebrated his 75th birthday (with Bob Hope, Mary Pickford, son-in-law Anthony Quinn and the durable lieutenant,  Henry Wilcoxon)  making CB the oldest working Hollywood director.  That's young  these days. . Clint Eastwood was  91 - and working - in 2021.

DeMille has been toying with a Helen of Troy, but Warner Bros and Howard Hawks beat him to it…  and almost with CB’s Sephora, Yvonne De Carlo.  Once the Commandments news leaked, Fox moved fast to get into cinemas  first with The Egyptian - starring  De Mille’s Samson, Victor Mature.   CB made it a rule. No one in the Fox film could  be in his… There were some exceptions.  He gave John Carradine and Mimi Gibson support roles. Michel Ansara and Peter Coe  were uncredited in lesser parts. So, they appeared in both movies - as did many Egyptian costumes! ”Take a look at the Egyptian court scenes,” noted actress Vicki Bakken.

The Egyptian was made first, using California’s Red Rock Canyon State Park, where CB shot much of his first Commandments, He’d also used such other Western locales as Muroc Dry lake (Stagecoach) and the Buttes jn Palmdale (Blazing Saddles).  This time he was shooting his story where it actually happened. In the Holy Land. Plus Monument Valley (John Ford/Wayne country), Cantil (Wagon Train) and the very Egyptian deserty Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes.

The Western connection remains

a constant with DeMille.  

Edwin S Porter’s The Great Train Robbery  first spurred him from stage yo screen in 1903. .   His first film was a Western, The Squaw Man, with Dustin Farnum (where Dustin Hoffman’s parents got his name from). He would make three more.  And many of the guys seen for Commandments roles (there were more roles  for women) were current or future cowboy stars: Rory Calhoun (also seen for Samson),  Hugh O'Brien, etc.  And daft as it was, CB wanted Hopalong Cassidyh as Moses!   There was even a cowpoke  in the 1923 cast.  Richard  Dix.

This time everything was epic with Cecil B. He had a script of 380 pages, calling for 70 speaking roles. He shuffled through 108 stars for the top roles. He used upwards of 14,000 extras, 15,000 animals and more than 1,200 storyboard sketches - “so beautiful, they  looked like etchings,” said Mickey Moore, CB’s assistant  and second unit) director. “They told the whole story, so everyone was very prepared.”  Therefore, naturally, the budget was the highest yet known at the time: $13 million. It became Paramount’s highest-grossing movie, second only to Gone With The Wind  - the one he wanted to beat.

DeMille never liked to divulge  technical details of, for example, the  parting of the Red Sea  (because other people would get the credit? Namely Jan Domela, Farciot Edouart, John P Fulton, Johnny Jensen,  Paul K Lerpae, etc). Their tricks included splicing together footage of the real sea  with scenes  of 360,000 gallons of water pouring from large U-shaped trip-tanks set up on the Paramount parking lot – and simply projected  in reverse.  Plus a studo-made waterfall to create the effect of the sea’s “walls.” In all, revealed Henry Wilcoxon, opticals, minatures, matte paintings  a record 34 negatives were utiluised. Naturally, the  sea opening and closing were the same shot - normal for the first, reversed for the second. So there you have it…   

The production took forever and Paramount tried to speed things up.  “We can stop right now,” snapped CB., “and call it The Five Commandments,” He was even more aghast when a publicity man planning the opening night’s banquet referred to…  The Twelve Commandments. (There was an eleventh: Thou shalt not question Mr DeMille!) 

One Englishman man wrote to DeMille,

who was rightly impressed.

The letter came from a London-born actor called HB Warner  - “the definitive Jesus Christ’  in CB’ s first epic, The King of Kings, in 1926.  HB was asking   if there might be a small role for him.  As DeMille understood it, the old-timer wanted to go out “with his boots on.” He was 78 and thought to have only months, even weeks to live.  (As it was, he lasted until 1958, dying a month before De Mille.

“He  told me to sign him for the part of Simon,” recalled casting director Bill Meikeljohn.  “Warner was very sick and simply wasn’t strong enough to play Simon.  Then CB said maybe he could be The Blind Man, but Mr Warner was dying and he can’t do that either – it would entail several days’ work.  ‘Well, give him something he can do.”  Which is how  HB became  Amminadab, an  old Hebrew, as frail as HB, himself, about to die in the desert, during the Exodus sequence..

Warner could not walk. ”So have him carried,” snapped CB.  He asked actor Donald Curtis (as Mered) to carry him to Bithiah’s sedan-chair. But he couldn’t manage his discourse there.. DeMille had chosen some suitable lines from Psalm 22 for him - “I am poured out like water - my strength dried up into the dust of death…” CB told him to say whatever he wanted… and he went out “speaking words that came directly from his heart,” said Curtis,

“There,” declared Meikeljohn, “that should give you an idea of the real Cecil B Mille!” 

And yet this was the same man  whose  wrath 

was mercurial, a thing of legend.

“Senseless rages that seemed tp sweep away reason,” Lasky called them and matching CB’s tyrant garb of jodphurs and boots, with mega or microphones in his hands, where one expected a whip. Paramount’s top costume designer Edith Head called him “a conceited  old goat… a freak trying to play God.” In one typical tirade, he threatened  to “fire all extras and replace them with actors.” Although he’s always claimed: “There are no extras in my movies. I only hire actors.”   

He saw himself as a patriarchal figure, your boss, your superior.  But there was something sanctimonious in the way he narrated his  films (like this one), and appeared, indeed starred in his trailers. His vocals were so stuffy, professorial,  they actually turned me off his films which, if truth be told, were often portentous as well.   With, as much sex as he could get away with (women in baths or flimsies) to boost the box-office.

As per his theatre days, casting never began until the play or scenario was marked  Final Draft Script.    “Casting a movie with DeMille could take years,” said Meikeljohn “On The Ten Commandments,   it  did  etake years.” One reason was that the producer- director was always  looking for a bargain. H was a sklinflint, he never liked to pay top dollar. He felt it was prestigious for the actors  to work for him.  They tended to agree with him.  

“My blood is in every frame of this film”

- associate producer Henry Wilcoxon.

Moses . There are some suggestions that Burt Lancaster was CB’s ”original choice.”   Hardly. Considering he had already twi e rejected him - for Samson and Delilah and The Greatest Show on Earth (the circus film and Burt was the only Hollywood star to have started out started on a circus trapeze). The rejection was politics.  (No, really!). DeMille was an ardent Republican while Lancaster was a  a left-wing liberal Democrat (so much so that FBI director J Edgar Hoover kept tabs on him during 1948-1963). Worse, Lancaster was an aethiest and De Mille a Christian, more holier-than-thou than devout.   He  wa  a married man with four children and,  at least, three known mistresses. Jeanie Macpherson, an actress turned silent-film scenarist or CB, actress Julia Faye, were simultaneous  but  the most important, was Gladys Rosson.  (Faye acted in every CB production between  being the Pharoah’s wife, at  age 31, in 1923,  and Aaron's wife, Elisheba, at 62,  in 1954).

And as for Lancaster, he refused the Heston role of Ben-Hur, 1958, and was eventually  Moses the Lawgiver  in the 1974 mini-series.

No, CB’s plan (one of many such first choices that never happened) had always been William Boyd - “my greatest acting discovery,” from n the 20s. Boyd was Simon the Cyrene in  DeMille’s The King of Kings, in 1927. They first discussed the new  epic  in 1952 and again the following year with CB explaining his reasoning. Moses grows from 20 to 120 in the script, but mainly seen between 40 to 60. Therefore, a prematurely white-haired 50-year-old would be perfect - particularly one he’d known for 30 years. 

Boyd knew better.  He was wrong for the job.  Because he was no longer William Boyd but TV’s first Western star, Hopalong Cassidy.  His kiddy fans would be perplexed -  Boyd’s way of avoiding to say that their parents, the public as a whole, would laugh their socks off at the sight of ole Hoppy descending from Mount Sinai brandishing two  granite slabs of commandments.

Not that CB called the role Moses,

but “the Theodore Roberts part”…

after his first Moses in the 1923!    

Richer than CB, William Boyd flew to Egypt for a surprise  visit to his old mentor. - asking if he could play through this sand trap!  DeMille was so moved for this support, he shed tears.

As we all know, he settled upon Charlton Heston, leading man   of his previous endeavour, The Greatest Show on Earth. And born, incidentally (like his co-star Anne Baxter) in the year DeMille released his first version: 1923.. “My choice was strikingly confirmed,” he wrote, “when I had a sketch made of Charlton Heston in a white beard and happened to set it beside a photograph of Michelangelo’s famous statue of Moses. The resemblance was amazing.”

So it was. But it was just another example of how CB lied, forever claiming he’d done this or that. It was Henry Wilcoxon (like who else?) who drew a beard on a 10x8 still of Heston and  made the comparison with Michelangelo.  

Rameses II . Three Brits - CB De Mille’s s first choice of James Mason, and  Stewart Granger, Michael Rennie - were up for the Pharoah.  The second batch comprised two future cowboys, Rory Calhoun and Jeff Chandler.  Plus Anthony Dexter (Valentino in the 1950 biopic), Mel Ferrer and William Holden (he was  Brynner’s rival to succeed the late Tyrone Power in Solomon and Sheba five years later).

However, once CB saw Brynner ruling Siam in The King and I musical  on Broadway, it was game over, They discussed the epic during an intermission and shook hands on the deal.  As a favour, Billy Wilder shot Brynner’s  test and Broadway’s King was signed as Egypt’s  before Christmas 1953. 

He  was still in his stage show when shooting began the following October. He shot all his Egyptian scenes in a day then flew back to Broadway and  months  later, Hollywood for the studio shooting. “He was he was was proud of his performance,” reported his son, Rock, “and very proud of being in the film. He regarded it as the biggest film ever made, forever." Heston always thought Brynner gave the best performance in this movie.

Nefretiri . CB wanted Audrey Hepburn for the Egyptian throne princess - described  by the Paramount publicists  as "the most sought after role of the year." (More so than Moses or Rameses?). The reason she never made the film was CB  found her, er,  “too slender,” his way of not saying ”too skinny” or “flat-chested.”   Like Cubby Broccoli and his Bond Girls, CB liked his Biblical sirens to have Hollywood oomph.

Next in line? Ann Blyth and her former Broadway understudy, Vanessa Brown, Joan Evans, Rhonda Fleming, Colleen Gray, the British Jane Griffiths (fromThe Million Pound Note with Gregory Peck), Jean Marie, Joan Taylor.

And, if you can imagine it, Vivien Leigh

and Jane Russell up for the same role… !

Anne Baxter won the skin-coloured undies beneath her sljnky costumes because CB had all but promised her Sephora, Mrs Moses… until Yvonne De Carlo was seen curling Vittorio Gassmann’s toes in Sombrero.

The fact that he never named her in the first version fuelled rumours that stuffy old CB changed the Bible’s name for Rameses II’s queen from Nefertiti to Nefertiri to avoid any “titi” jokes.  She always was Nefertiri (Egyptian for beautiful companion). There was a Nefertiti, of course. She was Amenhotep IV, akaAkhenaten’s queen 60 years before. In fact, Bella Darvi played her in The Egyptian, with her name cut to Nefer.  So it was head Fox Darryl F Zanuck, not CB, who was the stuffy one.  DFZ did not want jokes about the ample bosom of hisFrench mistress.  

Dahan .  CB was not batting well.  He’d lost his pet choices for Moses, Rameses, Nefetiri… and now the villain of the piece.  He was aall set to sign  Jack Palance, the 1952 Shane gunslinger, when  the theft of 100 script pages  script was discovered. And, apparently, Palance had read them! Or Dahan’s pages, at least.  CB‘s rule was simple, dictatorial.  Candidates did not read the script. Anyway, Palance (yes, another cowboy) did not want to stuck with playing bad guys.  CB quickly replaced him, with Raymond Massey (22 years older!). Then, Massey e  preferred fathering John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin,  in The Prince of Players at Fox. (The son was John Derek, soon to be DeMille’s Joshua).

CB and Bill Meikeljohn looked over Raymond Burr, Lee J Cobb, King Donovan, James Griffiith, Peter Hanson, Victor Jory, Fredric March, Stephen McNally, Shepard Menkin, Gary Merrill, Arnold Moss, Basil Rathbone, Robert Ryan, George Sanders, Everett Sloane. Plus the British Leo Genn, Robert Newton, Eric Pohlmann and Peter Ustinov (Nero in Quo Vadis). And, naturally, a couple of tomorrow’s TV cowboys: Hugh O’Brian and Dale Robertson. 

It came down to close friends Vincent Price and Edward G Robinson, partners in a Rodeo Drive art gallery.  Jesse Lasky voted Eddie G.  ”He’s Jewish, a great villain and has a strong presence - too bad about what Red Channels had to say.”  Channels was a right-wing list naming showbiz 151 names (correctly or otherwise) as Communist sympathisers… such as Leonard Bernstein, Lliian Hellman, Burgess Meredith, Pete Seeger, Orson Welles.  CB had obeyed the list when castjng  previous films. Now, he’d had had enough.  Robinson got the job. His career was saved. Ironically, in a film about the freeing of the Israelites, Eddie G was sole Jewish star.

Sephora .  This time CB did change a Biblical name. Using the Greek spelling of Sephora instead of the Hebrew Zipporah. Heston explained why. "It’s difficult today to make love to a woman called Zipporah. You must be careful not to make modern audiences  laugh at a name."  DeMille also lost his first choice again:  Grace Kelly. (Her friend and 1956 Monaco bridesmaid, Rita Gam, was also considered). Mrs Moses was a vital role for CB.

“He always took the most time

casting the women,” said Meikeljohn. 

“He was very picky…” 

He had an idealise, almost[silent movie view of his leading-lady roles… "He was always looking for the perfect combination of star-looks and ability - as well as someone he’d enjoy working with.”

However his estimations weren’t always right.  For one stunning example: “Her voice isn’t very pleasant. Looks the part; not a very good actress,” That was his note in his casting journal about…  Anne Bancroft, future Oscar-winner for The Miracle Worker, 1961, and The Graduate, 1966.  She also married Mel Brooks and the  comments may well have led to his CB demolition section of  the  1980 History of the World: Part 1. (Mel’s cameos included Moses).  

The known and unknown were called in, more candidates  than for any other female roles.  DeMille felt Patricia Neal looked ill; well, she was breaking up with Gary Cooper). Rachel Ames became  the soap queen of General Hospital (for 54 years).   Jacqueline Green and Frances Lansing had a total of just five credits between them. Also in the mix: Anne Baxter (later selected, against type, for Nefertiri), Shirley Booth, Diane Brewster, Peggie Castle, June Clayworth, Linda Darnell, Laura Elliott, Rhonda Fleming (also up for Nefertiri), Barbara Hale (Perry Mason's secretary Della Street, for nine years), Maria Palmer, Jean Peters (also seen for Lilia), Ruth Roman, Barbara Rush and the British Elizabeth Sellars.

Then there was Allison Hayes… Her agent took her to lunch at Paramount because he noticed how much she resembled CB’s very own drawing of Sephora.  Sure enough, he noticed her, invited her to his office and, according to the agent, signed her. Certainly, he called in Henry Wilcoxon to read a scene with her (to shoot the scene, said the agent). That is when someone blew the whistle. Hayes was under contract to Universal; her agent had told her not to mention it. De Mille was furious. He showed  them the Paramount door and made sure it would never be opened to either of  them again.   No wonder he hated actors' agents.

As well as being famous for thoroughly embarrassing the mighty DeMille, Hayes won a certain following for her Universal B-movies, such as, of course, Attack of the 50ft Woman!

Upset by the incident, CB, mused anew upon Yvonne De Carlo.  She’d been an idea for Nefetiri. He tested her in '43  for Tremartini in The Story of Dr Wassell. Watching her  two recent UK films around  Christmas 1953, he noted:  “She has improved greatly since Dr Wassell,. she gave a a very good performance in Sea Devils and also in The Captain’s Paradise.”  (The Captain was Alec Guinness and Rock Hudson was the devil). Then, Henry Wilcoxon took a look at Sombrero to examine Nina Foch (for Bithiah) and suggested De Carlo as Sephora.  CB also watched the movie (and George Sherman’s Border River) in August '54 and found “the face I've been looking for as Moses' wife.” She signed her deal on September 8, 1954 – a month before shooting began in Egypt.   

Eva Perón, no less, was among De Carlo's fans, Burt Lancaster among her claimed two dozen famous lovers.  She met her husband, stuntman  Bob Morgan, on the epic, They wed in November 1956 and DeMIlle offered to be their son’s godfather. “He seemed to like me,” she said, “and he treated me with respect - a respect I’d earned.”

Lilia .   In what had now become a habit, In what had now become a habit, CB lost Pier Angeli when MGM refused to sanction her release.  He knew what he wanted and his notes after his August 11, 1954 interview with  “the  very cute and graceful” Polish-born Irene Montwill said it all. “This little girt is very clever. Her DICTION IS  GOOD -  the clearest diction of any of these kids - you can understand every word.  Would like tp use her in some part…”

Meikeljohn adored Lucille Ball’s cousin, Suzan Ball, in Crazy Horse, with CB’s Samson, Victor Mature. ”But,” said Bill, “she developed cancer and died [at 21] , marrying (actor) Richard Long just months before her death. As I recall, she had to be carried down the aisle. It was very sad.”

Vanessa Brown (still in college),  Pat Crowley, Piper Laurie, Lori Nelson, Cathy O’Donnell, Jean Peters (also on the Sephora list)), Karen Sharpe, Donna Reed were seen and sent home. So, Wilcoxon went to the movies again. And adored Debra Paget in Broken Arrow with James Stewart - Buttons, mysterious clown never removing  his make-up   in The Greatest Show on Earth

Giving her a  contract was not so simple. Sure, said Fox, she’s yours – if you give our John Derek the role you’ve  already tested him for: Joshua. Naturally, a dictator like DeMille did not enjoy being dictated to like this. He chose Joshua, not Darryl F Zanuck!  And CB had already signed Cornel Wilde, his Greatest Show trapeze star.

To get Debra Paget, he had to sign John Derek

- and break his wore to  Cornel Wilde  

C’est la vie d’Hollywood.

This loss of face was doubtless among the reasons why DeMille  was more harsh with De Carlo on-set than his other female stars. He wasn’t impressed by the way she offered herself, promising “anything,” to  Edward G Robinson’s Dahan.   One of the spear-carriers, Dehi Berti,  recalled CB telling her off.  “We will have to do it again, not that you show any signs of doing it any better, but maybe the fates will smile on us yet!”   Such a  gent…

Joshua .   Well, you know how it goes by now…  CB wanted Cornel Wilde as  Moses’ chosen successor as leader of the Israelites.  And so, of course, he didn’t get him.  As explained in the above Fox deal..

John Derek’s rivals for the stone-cutter were Jeff Chandler, Tony Curtis, Vince Edwards, Eric Fleming (another cowboy, although not yet into Rawhide with Clint Eastwood), Arthur Franz, Rock Hudson (later up for Heston’s  Ben-Hur), Brian KeIth, Cameron Mitchell, George Nader, Jack Palance (rejected after managing to read Dahan), Australian Michael Pate, the UK’s Richard Todd.  Plus Clint Walker, the only one looking like an actual stonecutter, said Meilkeljohn.  Walker’s  test led to  his Warner Bros contract and the Cheyenne series, “six twelve-hour days a week.”  CB had made yet another Western star!   

Sethi . Casting ace Bill Meikeljohn said Dean Jagger was in a bake-off with  true Brit Sir Cedric Hardwicke to be the father of Yul Brynner’s Ramese II. The knight won the day

Bithiah .  Joan Crawford asked for a small role and CB suggested the adoptive mother of Moses. He then talked with Bette Davis about being Bithiah’s slave, Memnet…!!!  He must have known that the two bitter foes would  never agree tp such roles.  (Well, Crawford would have!).  Nina Foch and Judith Anderson had no such problems with the roles. 

Other possibilities had ranged from Claudette Colbert, De Mille’s unforgettable Cleopatra in 1934 (when Henry Wilcoxon was Marc Antony) to Jayne Meadows.  Jayne won but refused to be away from her family for so long.  She lived in New York where her husband, Steve Allen, had his talk show.   So CB lost out yet again on his first choice, but proved happy with Wilcoxon’s suggestion of Nina Foch. (They had co-starred in the 1951 Scaramouche, with e Rameses candidate Stewart  Granger).  Also in the frame: Rosemary DeCamp, Irene Dunne, Merle Oberon and Alexis Smith…  

Yochabe .   CB ‘s casting notes: “Mildred Dunnock is a splendid actress but she has a hard, raspy voice.” Even so that was enough to win Moses’ mother from the Greek Katina Paxinou.  But no and a further initial choice hit the ground, when DeMille sacked her.  Martha Scott took over without an audition or a test  ”I was simply called and told I had the part.”  On Heston’s say-so. "I could vouch for her absolutely, both as actress and pro.”  . They were  man and wife in a play, Design for a Stained Glass Window.  She was his Mum  again in Ben-Hur - and his wife again, in Laurence Olivier’s Broadway production of The Tumbler.

Memnet .   This  time the dropped first choice was an old friend - he put her under contract in  1919 - Gloria Swanson.  She left to find funding for a stage musical version of Sunset Blvd.  (In that 1949 Billy Wilder film, CB had played… CB).  Gloria had earlier blotted her copybook with DeMille by switching to RKO, and becoming the lover of the boss, JFK’s father Joseph P Kennedy.

Finding Memnet was easy, according to Bill Meikejohn.  DeMille saw Vivien Leigh’s  Caesar and Cleopatraand “hated” his first suggestion: Flora Robson. “She is blue-eyed,” noted CB, “and looks like hell as an Egyptian. Wore that funny wig.” Bette Davis obviously refused to be the slave of Joan Crawford’s Memnet. De Mille watched Hitchcock’s Rebecca and thought Judith Anderson was wonderful. She won over two other candidates:  Marjorie Rambeau and (surprisingly) Marie Windsor

Baka .  For once, a first choice remained in place…  The short-list for the Pharaoh's master builder featured Lyle Bettger (the nasty elephant trainer in The Greatest Show on Earth), Noel Cravat and  Edmond O’Brien.  CB was ready to sign O’Brien if Price proved unavailable. Vinnie didn’t need to be asked twice!  "I felt that if I hadn't worked in a DeMille picture, I really wasn't a movie actor,” he said. “I know that Judith Anderson  and Edward G Robinson really felt the same way I did.” 

Miriam . De Back on form, CB Mille lost his first choice. He wanted Lydia, his star’s wife, to be Miriam. . Except Lydia and Charlton Heaton were infanticipating. Lydia was, therefore, denied  the  double whammy  of being the real-life wife of Moses and real-life mother of  the baby Moses…   “played” by the expected child, Fraser C Heston. Always a stickler for accuracy, DeMille delayed the scenes of Moses Jr being shoved out in a basket on the Nile river until Fraser was  the correct age of three months old. 

Olive Deering got the part.  Typecasting!  She'd  also been a Miriam in Samson and Delilah.  This time, however, she found herself on the receiving end of one of CB’s  thunderous tirades during in  the Passover sequence.

Pentaur .  DeMille chose Henry Brandon (yes, another cowboy) to be the Commander of the Hosts.  But once he started shooting in Egypt, CB was struck by the number of unknown Egyptian faces versus the known LA faces… and asked  Henry Wilcoxon, his right-hand man and associate producer, to take charge of the chariot corps.,

Rameses the First .  And for the thirteenth time, another first choice fell by the wayside… The  foundingpharaoh of the 19th Dynasty of ancient  Egypt, - and grandfather of Yul Brynner’s Rameses II - was given to John Miljan but finally portrayed by Ian Keith.  They were both CB players  from  the early  1930s’ dynasty of Hollywood!   Compensated with The Blind One, Miljan scored 211 screens roles, such as General Custer in CB’s The Plainsman, 1936.  Keith’s 121 credits  included five DeMille movies, from The Sign of the Cross, 1932,, to the new Commandments.

The Voice of God .  Or voices..?  Many have claimed the honour - such as  (the obituary of) Jesse Delos Jewkes, of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  But Edmund Penney revealed all to author Katherine Orrison.  He worked for seven months, “six twelve-hour days… most days stretching to 16 hours,” on looping, dubbing, post-synching or as it’s more formally known,  additional dialogue recording - writing and re-recording badly taped dialogue or  lines spoken  in a foreign (Egyptian) tongue and dialects or simply (!) requiring a vocal change of a phrase or even just one  word.  (The word, usually, was...  Moses!   Wilcoxon supplied four words for an absent Edward G Robinson, for example. 

Heston’s voice, slowed down to help deepen it, was used during the scene of the burning bush.  But for arriving with the tablets during the Golden Calf orgy it was  a complicate, painstaking, time-consuming compilation.  “Not just one voice, but several. It’s mainly DeMille’s and Heston’s electronically combined.  That is, both men came in, read God’s dialogue, and one track was laid on top of the other, along with, to a lesser degree, a couple of other men’s [voices], so the completed whole sounded majestic, all-powerful, and commanding.”

DeMille never went on the record about any of this. “It was a matter of pride with him,” said Ed Penney. “He was afraid people would crack wise about it. You know: DeMille has always acted like God – now he’s talking like God!"

Well, didn’t he once say he liked to believe  

“there’s a little bit of God in DeMille

and a little bit of DeMille in God.”

There is is a Keith Richards in the cast.  As well as  the  real Mike Connors  in  his Touch Connor and pre-Mannix days.  Herb Alpert was the drummer on Mount Sinai. The 1988 Batman producer Jon Peters was the boy on the donkey crossing the Red Sea. Stuntman    Richard Farnsworth  was a chariot driver  - no wonder he could handle ta ’66  John Deere lawnmower in his 93rd and final film, David Lynch's The Straight Story,1998.

if you saw his movies as a child, they stuck with you for life.”

Robert Vaughn scored two uncredited gigs as a spearman and  a Hebrew at Golden Calf orgy -   a good gig because it had to be shot twice over. That meant three weeks’ pay.   The problem was  how to display debauchery and  lasciviousness without showing debauchery and  lasciviousness. No wonder  all  the dancers and stuntmen involved looked so… listless.  “The only person who’s having an orgy down there,” remonstrated DeMille from on high on his cran, “is Mrs Henry Wilcoxon.”  He always called Joan Woodbury that way.  

Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia, was a Court Lady. Another cowboy-to-be, Robert Fuller, was among the extras.     So, goeth  the legend, was none other than Fidel Castro. (Taking dictator lessons from CB?)  Shirley MacLaine said she asked Castro  about that.  He did not say yes.  Then again, he did not say no, either.

The joke on the set was if the movie has a hit,

it was all due to Cecil B DeMille.

If it flopped, it would be God’s fault.  

It did not flop.

From its premiere at  New York’s Criterion Theatre on November 8, 1956, to this day, it remains one of the most successful and popular films ever made.   It is always on.  Somewhere.

When I took my family to Los Angeles before moving to France in 1980, we settled into the Sunset Marquis (“So Hollywood, the pool is shallow at both ends”!), got some grub and turned the tube on and there it was.  And there he  was. Warning us, 21 years after his death: ”The story takes three hours and thirty-nine minutes to unfold,” he said in his prologue. “There will be an intermission. Thank you for your attention." 

An intermission? On US TV that night, there were ten commercials every ten minutes, or so it seemed  We turned it off.

Martin Scorsese never did. “I like DeMille: his theatricality, his images. I've seen The Ten Commandment s3dmaybe 40 or  50  times,” he confessed in a 1978article about his  guilty pleasures in  Film Comment.  “Forget the story - you've got to - and concentrate on the special effects, and the texture, and the color. For example: the figure of God, killing the first-born child, is a green smoke; then on the terrace while they're talking, a green dry ice just touches the heel of George Reeves or somebody, and he dies. Then there's the reel Red Sea, and the lamb's blood of the Passover. DeMille presented a fantasy, dreamlike quality on film that was so real,

Cecil B DeMille never made another film. He went out on a triumphant high,  With his priciest production and his largest financial success.  As many as 262 million tickets sold - and a box-office return of, in today’s money, way but way  beyond $2billion.

But no Oscar. 

Or not for CB. 

It is as inconceivable as Cary Grant never winning for his acting  that the founding father never won a directing Oscar from the Hollywood he had largely – and accidentally -  created.  When looking for a  “real”  location for The Squaw Man in 1923 his actual destination had been Flagstaff, in Arizona.

Then again, as we have learned, he hardly ever got his first choice.

 

Footnote.

I have to acknowledge (and applaud) Katherine Orrison’s abundant oral history: Written in Stone, Making Cecil B DeMille’s Epic, The Ten Commandments (Vestal Press, Inc.,1999.), without which  this essay would be rather lacking in colour – and, indeed, facts. Merci, madame.!

 





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