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The movies and biblical epics of Cecil B. DeMille

By William D. Romanowski

The 4th of December marks the 90th anniversary of the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923). A silent film, this was the first in a trilogy by the famed director that established the conventions for Bible-themed movies: religion, sex, violence, and cinematic spectacle (and not necessarily in that order).

A devout Episcopalian and Bible literalist, DeMille was also a consummate Hollywood showman with a keen sense of audience desires. His bedroom melodramas, like Old Wives for New (1918) and Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), were scandalous and enormously profitable, voyeuristic in style, while still cautionary in theme. DeMille made the best of Hollywood’s principle of “compensating moral values,” which the studios took as liberty to “present six reels of ticket-selling sinfulness if,” as film historian Author Knight put it, “in the seventh reel, all the sinners came to a bad end.” In The Ten Commandments, DeMille shows Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai while the Israelites go off in a drunken orgiastic feast around the Golden Calf below.

Hoping for even bigger box-office returns DeMille announced plans in 1926 to make an epic film on the life Christ—or maybe Judas Iscariot. It wasn’t entirely clear who the central figure would be, but the original scenario was classic DeMille: a religious extravaganza on the life of Christ interlaced with a steamy love affair between Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot. “It is not possible to produce a great and successful film dealing with historic characters and not have a love-interest,” he explained to a church adviser during script preparation for The King of Kings.

To boost commercial prospects and fend off religious criticism, DeMille utilized high-profile Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish advisers in the production, including Father Daniel A. Lord, who would later write the rationale for the 1930 Production Code. The Protestant adviser, Rev. George Reid Andrews, actually worked on the scenario with DeMille’s writers and afterwards helped promote The King of Kings among Protestant constituencies. By Andrews’ account the shooting script differed “radically” from DeMille’s original treatment with the final result a synthesis of the director’s “fine dramatic sense” and “the constructive criticism” from the religious advisers.

After a sensational Broadway premiere on Good Friday, 1927, Variety lauded The King of Kings as “the greatest picture ever produced” and predicted it would become the top-grossing movie of all time. Jewish leaders were less enthusiastic however, and advised DeMille to change references to Jews that might foster anti-Semitism. The religious consultants failed to prevent controversy and criticism, and with a lagging box office dampened future prospects for collaborating on Bible-themed movies.

Scene from Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, Photographs of the filming of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, PC-RM-Curtis, courtesy, California Historical Society, PC-RM-Curtis_416. Fair use via Wikimedia Commons.
Scene from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, Photographs of the filming of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, PC-RM-Curtis, courtesy, California Historical Society, PC-RM-Curtis_416. Fair use via Wikimedia Commons.

DeMille returned to high society dramas like The Godless Girl (1929) and Madam Satan (1930), before making The Sign of the Cross (1932), a love story set against the backdrop of Roman Emperor Nero sentencing Christians to their death in the coliseum. This time DeMille ignored religious guidance. The film featured a wild Roman orgy replete with a provocative “lesbian dance,” and contained scenes so violent that women reportedly fainted during the New York premiere, according to film historian Gregory Black. Variety warned that the film contained some of the “boldest censor-bait ever attempted” and was sure this Biblical spectacle would “make the church element dizzy trying to figure which way to turn.” Indeed, a prominent bishop cited The Sign of the Cross as evidence of the need for Catholic action to eliminate the “vile and nauseating” movies produced by Hollywood studios.

The course of movie regulation is intertwined to some extent with DeMille’s Bible-based trilogy. The Ten Commandments sparked expectations among religious leaders for extensive cooperation with Hollywood in producing entertainment that would promote the message and work of the church. Instead, The King of Kings was at the center of a confluence of events that resulted in a breach in Protestant-Hollywood relations and set the stage for the 1930 Production Code. The studio alliance with Catholics occurred as a direct result of a failure of confidence in the film industry’s Protestant leadership, and disagreement among Protestants over goals and priorities. The Sign of the Cross controversy was among the factors that led to the formation of the Catholic Legion of Decency; its purpose was to put consumer pressure on the studios in order to shore up their adherence to the Production Code. This action would eventually lead to the empowerment of Catholics in a prior censorship of movies that lasted until the 1960s, the decade that marks the end of the biblical spectacles.

Controversies surrounding Bible-themed movies still erupt periodically in what seem like arbitrary and unprecedented crises that get sensationalized by the film industry and religious groups alike. In retrospect, the trend includes a number of key movies that serve as flashpoints in American film history by signaling shifts in the persistent role of religious groups as both moral arbiter and market force in their engagement with the Hollywood.

William Romanowski is Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Calvin College. His books include Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (a 2002 ECPA Gold Medallion Award Winner), Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in America Life, and Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies.

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