on October 3, 2010
The legendary director is at last ready for his OWN close-up as Eyman -- with excellent biographies of John Ford and L.B. Mayer already under his belt -- draws upon previously unavailable archival matter to craft this fascinating volume. My only real quarrel with the book is its title, which seems a little... I don't know... cotton-candyish for such an imperious figure. Much better would have been something simpler like "Director" or "Showman." C.B. was perhaps THE major figure in the development of the "cult and culture" of the Hollywood director (or, as he was originally called when preparing his first feature THE SQUAW MAN, "director-general") and, as Eyman makes clear, he was a legitimate artistic pioneer during the silent era, introducing challenging and daring subject matter (miscegenation, the challenges facing married people) in addition to technical tricks. During the sound era, DeMille broadened his canvas and made the "epic" his own while, at the same time, paying less and less attention to realism in scenario and dialogue. This went against the grain of contemporary practice and ensured that C.B.'s films would often go begging for critical acceptance, but, when all the elements were in place, his films were among the most effective, exhilarating, and memorable ever made.
Eyman makes a number of the same points that Simon Louvish did in his 2007 biography CECIL B. DEMILLE: A LIFE IN ART but is considerably easier on DeMille's politics and personality in general. The fact that Eyman was writing a bio authorized by the DeMille estate may have influenced the tone of the book somewhat, but the manuscript is certainly not sycophantic; rather, it is, as the slogan goes, "fair and balanced," which is all that one can ask when it comes to such a controversial figure. I gather than Eyman is probably a liberal, but his treatment of DeMille on political matters is eminently even-handed, just as it was in the case of L.B. Mayer. DeMille's famous decision to refuse to pay a $1 fee to the American Federation of Radio Artists to support an anti-"right to work" campaign -- which cost him the right to ever appear on radio and TV in a non-publicity-related capacity for the rest of his life -- is put in its proper perspective as a decision based on principle, though C.B.'s general anti-union sentiments are also made quite clear. DeMille's support of loyalty oaths and such during the blacklist era is qualified by his decision to give work to such "tainted" actors as Edward G. Robinson. The weirdness of DeMille's personal life -- he was a devoted family man who also kept a trio of mistresses on the side -- and the man's legendary tantrums get a full airing, but so too do C.B.'s frequent kindnesses and generous dealings with associates and acquaintances. The relationship between C.B. and his brother William and the description of DeMille's capable handling of his role in Sunset Blvd. are particular highlights of the narrative.
Anyone interested in the history of Hollywood will certainly enjoy this book.
on October 3, 2010
I've always liked Cecil B. DeMille. He's a fascinating man and one of old Hollywood's most popular (probably the most popular, in terms of name recognition and box office) filmmakers. But this book has managed to take my opinion of DeMille and make it even stronger. This is one of the best filmmaker biographies I've ever read, ranking it up there with Kevin Brownlow's masterful book on David Lean, Tag Gallagher's book on John Ford, and Barth David Schwartz's book on Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Not only does Eyman cover DeMille's career, he also sheds light on the man himself, his eccentricities (which are rather charming), his work ethic, the way he made films, the way he treated others (he was very kind, loyal, and quite often willing more often than not to help out old friend and colloberators), and his struggles with Paramount and the triumphs of his work. Despite being an authorised biography, it is no whitewash. Eyman goes over about DeMille's marriage and his mistresses, and DeMille's attempt to take down Joseph L. Mankewicz during the heated, legendary battle of the Director's Guild during the McCarthy era (as we know, DeMille lost, rather badly). It also shows that DeMille hired Edgar G. Robinson at a time he was blacklisted, so DeMille's politics were a little more complicated than the simple right vs. left garbage. Eyman interviews many actors and technicians who worked with DeMille, and many show deep respect for him, and admire his absolute belief in what he was doing.
DeMille started out in the silent days of cinema, and was always sorrowful that those days were gone. He excelled at silent filmmaking, and managed the transition to sound without losing his perspective or his career. He was one of the few hollywood directors to go out with considerable aplomb and panache. His last 2 films were The Greatest Show on Earth (which won him an Oscar for Best Picture, his only win for Best Picture), and the legendary The Ten Commandments. Many have disliked DeMille because of his politics (he was a Republican, even though the book mentions that DeMille voted for FDR in 1932 mainly because the country was in such bad shape) and his (at times) corny yet mesmerizing films.
DeMille deserves respect for not only being his own man, but for managing to have a staying power that most directors would envy. He came from a time when Hollywood filmmakers were not afraid of being themselves and had much more forceful personalities. This is a magnificent book, one that I would recommend over and over.
When I pick up a book about a Hollywood personality I'm looking for 3 things: (1) some basic info about their personal history, especially any childhood experiences that helped shaped them, (2) lots of info about their films and the people they worked with, and (3) positive and negative perspectives from a wide variety of sources. Too often these books tend to give us too much personality and too little filmography (e.g., William Wellman's "A Short Time for Insanity"), or one- dimensionally drawn to portray the person is a too favorable light (e.g., Anthony Quinn's "One Man Tango").
So what a pleasant surprise it is to pick up Scott Eyman's 2010 book "Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille." Every few years Eyman puts out another Hollywood book - his previous works covered Louis B. Mayer (2005), John Ford (2001), Ernst Lubitsch (2000), and Mary Pickford (1991).
Eyman's book on DeMille has something for everyone. There's lots of detail about DeMille's childhood, plenty of material about his major films (and even some of the minor ones), and lots of source material, from comments by his collaborators to reviews to copies of his personal correspondence. As a plus, it's well written and easy to read, and Eyman seems more concerned with covering his life rather than painting it one color or the other.
Film buffs will find this one of the better biographies.
I feel like the eleventh juror weighing in, after the previous ten reviewers all gave this book 5 stars, and here I go again, echoing their thumbs up. In fact I should have kept the number frozen at ten, to mirror the number of commandments on the stone tablets Moses brought down from his meeting with Our Lord. Anyhow Scott Eyman shows that, after a run of lackluster postwar pictures like UNCONQUERED, De Mille somehow got back on the saddle and saw off his career with the trifecta of SAMSON AND DELILAH, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. and the remake of his own TEN COMMANDMENTS. What a way to go out! Perhaps it was the anger and confusion brought on by the Cold War and by De Mille's increasing involvement with directorial politics (right wing variety) that had weakened his interest in his own movies, but something about the 50s, and his general awareness that Eisenhower wasn't going to be a troublesome radical, that set him free once again to pursue his epic canvas. Eyman's story of the making of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (second version) is worth the price of the book.
De Mille's sufferings on the set are like the trials God dealt to Job, and they make Francis Ford Coppola's wellknown problems during the filming of APOCALYPSE NOW seem like a walk in the park. De Mille killed himself little by little, not wanting to let Paramount down. Didn't Coppola work for Paramount too? It must be a studio that inspires intense loyalty among its directors. Eyman shows us how, over decades, Paramount built up its reputation as being a directors studio, nurturing talents disparate as Billy Wilder, Rouben Mamoulian, Mitchell Leisen, Preston Sturges, and De Mille himself, while making stars out of such tiny talents as Alan Ladd, Betty Hutton, Dorothy Lamour, Veronica Lake--actually wait a second, I love all the stars I just mentioned, but one has to admit that at Paramount star power took a back seat to musicals, noir, Biblical epic, whatever the big directors wanted to do with them.
Eyman's account of De Mille's passion makes me wish, for the first time, that he had lived to make ON MY HONOUR, his biopic on Baden Powell and the Boy Scout Movement, and also REVELATION, whatever the hell that was going to be--a visionary, inchoate epic that seems like a 180 degree spin on everything he had done before, like Clouzot's unmade INFERNO. Of course he was not in good health when he announced his plans to make them, but Eyman tantalizes with the details I had never heard before. That's what good old fashioned access to familyheld papers can get a good biographer.
on April 4, 2011
We tend to focus on the great achievements of our famous, forgetting the failure after failure they endured along the way. The risks, financial and otherwise they took on as a matter of routine. DeMille's life is a lesson to us all in the benefits of perseverance and confidence in oneself, traits taught and encouraged by his strong and talented mother and reinforced by his loving, supportive wife of over fifty years.
The book is rich in detail, from a love letter to his wife, speaking to her in the sexual vein of a mistress, to details of conversations during the filming of King of Kings, to the actual wires between DeMille and Sam Goldfish-(Goldman) regarding the unmatched film that almost sidetracked his first triumph, The Squaw Man. We are there, feeling the stress and triumphs of that time.
It is only now searching on Amazon that I realize one of the other books I enjoyed and often think of is the biography of John Ford, also written by Scott Eyman. For those of us who love biographies, and or are intrigued by Hollywood, this is a wonderful book about one of its creators.
on August 13, 2011
As with his unbeatable book on the four years of the introduction of sound to the movie industry, The Speed of Sound, this book is just superb in all respects.
Well written, demon research that is accurate and one can hardly put it down when first starting to read. It's all here and so good, any other author would be wasting his time with a new biography of DeMille.
A magnificent effort that any buff of the movie industry and it's founders simply must have.
What the author could do with a biography of William Fox and Adolph Zuckor would be magnificent. One only hopes.
on October 15, 2010
Mea culpa: I am Scott Eyman's researcher here in SoCal, so I admit to a bias here. That being said, this is his best book, and since my previous fave was his book on Lubitsch, it has taken this long to find both a book and subject to top that one. That he has done that so brilliantly and with a genuine storyteller's gift goes without saying. This is a monumental biography of a man that when you think of Hollywood-not just of the past but what still exists-this should be the man that automatically springs to mind.
Cecil B. DeMille was one of the true pioneers of the film industry, after struggling in the legitimate theater with his wife and brother, he found his true calling behind the camera at a converted horse barn on a dusty street in a quiet town in the Los Angeles area. From that humble place was born both perhaps the greatest movie studio that has ever existed-Paramount, and films that ranged from astounding dramas (THE CHEAT, KINDLING), groundbreaking social comedies (WHY CHANGE YOUR WIFE) to epics that still define the word for all moviegoers around the world (THE KING OF KINGS, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH and two versions of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, the latter still showing on network TV every Passover even close to 60 years after it was made).
For years, many "cineastes" have looked down their noses at the films DeMille made, calling them "pure escapism" or "high camp." Eyman takes the films that, to a great deal of movie lovers are still so incredibly entertaining and fun to watch, and examines them with a sympathetic voice that puts them both into the context of their times and the personal connection with the man who sheperded them into our consiciousness. This is a "warts and all" story of a life, with a look at stumbles as well as triumphs: the break with Paramount over the high cost of the first TEN COMMANDMENTS, the well-intentioned but ultimately failed attempt at independence that still produced one of the best films about Christ, and the infamous days of the witchhunts and loyalty oaths that tore apart the Director's Guild in the early 50's when DeMille tried to impose his right-wing beliefs in a way that is still extremely relevant today.
The Ten Commandments (50th Anniversary Collection)The Cecil B. DeMille Collection (Cleopatra/ The Crusades/ Four Frightened People/ Sign of the Cross/ Union Pacific)King of Kings [VHS]The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930
Yet, DeMille comes off not as an autocrat, although he had those tendencies, but as a man full of contradictions and humanity, which is not easy for a biographer to pull off, and Eyman has done that magnificently. It makes you want to go and watch as many of the man's films as you can get ahold of, and isn't that a true sign of a great biography?
on September 26, 2011
The slang term "epic" has made it into american lexicon to describe an event that will be, or has been unforgetable.
Yet, almost 100 ears ago, as of this writing, Cecil B Demille began directing stories and movies that were so well told, so fixated on detail, and so skillful, that his legacy is also unforgetable.
DeMille developed a reputation and a skill for producing huge casted, ambitious, and later colorful historical stories. He took on subjects that were considered either taboo, or much too large for other director/producers.
Subjects like the Bible, the Circus and ancient Rome.
If his films put him in a pantheon that may never be matched, his character, lifestyle and huge persona were equally impressive. A man of deep principle, and unflagging loyalties, he cut a large swath among almost everyone he touched. His charisma was built on his iron-clad sense of self.
An early story in the book tells of Gloria Swanson, whom he discovered and propelled to stardom. Swanson is attracted to DeMille's overwhelming sexuality, and sits on his lap in the privacy of DeMille's office, and begins a bold seduction. DeMille, though aroused, sits silently until Swanson understands his message. It was this control, and ultimately, his total focus on who he was and what he wanted to accomplish that propelled him to almost unparalled success in the movie industry.
DeMille's drive and focus were legendary. In directing "The Ten Commandments", DeMille suffered a major coronary while scaling a 110 foot parapet to line up a shot. He managed to finish his climb to the top, and after receiving some treatment on the top, managed to climb down. He finished the film, despite medical advise of bed rest, and completed one of the most commercially and critically successful films ever made.
DeMille was a giant in a high profile industry, and an icon.
This is a wonderful biography showing both his powerful strengths and his foibles. It also takes care to show his life in context. It is easy to judge a man based on the mores of contemporary society. For instance, DeMille had long term relationships with several co-workers, though happily married. Yet, in the era he lived, this was commonplace, and he would not be subject to the same hypocracy had he had this behavior in the new Millenium.
A highly informative and enjoyable biography.
on February 2, 2012
I gave this book a rating of four (4) stars instead of five for only one reason. I felt the first 80 pages or so were a bit slow and confusing in general. The book starts as most biographies do, with a historical ancestor/family "set up" which starts before the subjects life and although "Hollywood" had already started before DeMille got there the book dealt with theatrical plays and East coast beginnings and too many names which don't really interest me, although I realize it's essential to the overall work because it provides a foundation background.
That said, the book and DeMille's life story really kicks into gear as soon as he arrives in Hollywood. DeMille didn't start Hollywood because several fledgling units were already up and running, filming on the dusty lots and open-air stages, with the likes of D.W. Griffith and other founders already busy making names for themselves. But, the narriative and descriptions of those early days, the cheap hotel down the block on the gravel street (which is now downtown LA!), the barn used for the first "studio" and the actors and extras renting horses to get to work when a cab wasn't available, and the description of the sunshine, the scent of orange blossoms and pepper trees that hung in the air of this quiet little town shows without a doubt that although DeMille didn't start Hollywood, he was pretty close! He was essentially there at the beginning and saw over nearly the next half century the development of the city and industry which is explained in great historical and film detail that spans the man's life.
DeMille's style, his swagger and his unyielding, uncompromising drive to do it his way, the best, and with class is what made the man a "showman" the likes of which we may never see again! The book is full of interesting anecdotes both funny and touching and showed the times that went from bust-to-fortune, fortune-to-bust and back again until the sheer record of achievement and accomplishment of this great man was finally set-in-stone for all time!
All in all, a great read and an essential work for those interested in the foundation of Hollywood, the film industry and the men responsible for making movies that are the envy of the world.
on October 12, 2010
Eyman's finest work yet and one of the finest film bios I've ever read. It ranks up there with classics like The Parade's Gone By and The Genius of the System.