Saturday, March 19, 2011

DeMille's Modern Ten Commandments

"Mom sent over a picture of herself for your new place."

"Where will you hang it up?"

Cecil B. DeMille was not particularly known for comedy but I think the best bits of his silent version of The Ten Commandments, including the above moment between laughing sinners Danny (Rod La Rocque) and Mary (Leatrice Joy), is the comedic interplay between these two actors and Danny's "good" brother John (Richard Dix). DeMille has a surprising knack with actors in his over-the-top silent melodramas that you never saw in the larger-than-life historical epics he was more widely associated with. He gets a lot more out of the excessive stylization of his actors in films such as The Cheat or The Godless Girl than he ever got out of Charlton Heston pretending he's Moses in his later version of The Ten Commandments. The silent version of The Ten Commandments is the perfect opportunity to see this difference as the film is split into two sections, one set in Biblical times and the other in "modern" (1920's) times. The Prologue depicts Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt and the accompanying hedonism that leads God to strike down his Ten Commandments. There's really nothing surprising about this section of the film. Everything from the wide shots capturing every last bit of the massive set to the vague, "let me just waive my arms wildly in the air and that will get any point across" style of acting the actor who portrays Moses decided to use was old hat when Griffith employed that style in Intolerance seven years previously. The modern half, which tells the story of a devoutly religious mother and her two sons--one a believer, the other not so much, is where DeMille really gets a chance to do something interesting with the material. For what is more or less a morality play, this section is surprisingly tongue-in-cheek, mostly due to La Rocque and Joy's performances. What is perhaps even more surprising is the fact that a story which involves leprosy, a church that falls on top of someone and kills them and an exotic and alluring half-Chinese woman who precipitates La Rocque's major downfall can be so dramatically hefty. It's laughable but it also works and that's a combination only DeMille could get away with. First Half: C-, Second Half: B+

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