Dec 9, 2014

Book Review/ Image Preview-- Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic

Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic
Cecilia de Mille Presley and Mark A. Vieira
Running Press, 2014

Put him opposite two actors in an intimate scene, and Cecil B. DeMille didn't know what to do. Give him a cast of thousands on a magnificent set, and he had mastery of every detail, from the tallest statue to an extra griping about lunch in the back of the room. DeMille was the Hollywood epic. That is evident in this book of rich images, well-researched text by Mark Vieira, and first-hand reminisces from the director's granddaughter Cecilia de Mille Presley and many of the people he worked with over the years.

DeMille amassed an enormous archive of materials throughout his career, from carefully composed stills, to costume sketches and concept art. These are the focus of the book, and ample proof that there truly was an art to launching a film epic. The concept art in particular is so detailed that it could hang in a museum. They are not just simple sketches and paintings, but fully-realized settings which were often transposed almost exactly to the screen. Still, while each of these artists had a unique style, in the end the vision would be pure DeMille.

The book also includes Vieira's photos of some of the props and costumes used in DeMille's films, including jewelry, crowns and swords that were all crafted in studio workshops. While all of the costumes are impressive in their way, I was especially stunned by a dress Hedy Lamarr wore in Samson and Delilah (1949), which was covered with hundreds of peacock feathers, each of which was collected from several molting birds who wandered about DeMille's country estate.

I always appreciate the care Vieira takes with his text. While no one can visually display the splendor of classic Hollywood as beautifully he does, he never skimps on the research, always telling a story that could stand on its own.

Image Credit:Cecil B. Demille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic (Running Press) 
Here he reveals a complex man. DeMille was famous for his onset tirades, often bringing actors to tears or angering technicians so they would storm off the set. It was his way of maintaining control of productions that cost thousands of dollars a minute. He needed absolute obedience.

Still, DeMille had a soft side, and while he devoted most of his time to work, he was appreciative of all life had to offer. Here this is most clearly seen in the memories his granddaughter shares about him, which show the depth of their relationship. There was also a touching story from screenwriter Lenore Coffee, who had just told the director of her pregnancy. In the midst of a grueling production schedule, the delighted director pulled her aside to share words of encouragement with her.  She was deeply touched, and remembered it as one of the kindest things anyone had ever said to her.

DeMille was known for his loyalty. When approached for work by former coworkers, he would always find a place for them. He would also do the same with favorite performers and crew. However, were this generosity not accepted, the director would become enraged and often cut off all contact, as actor Henry Wilcoxen  and director Mitchell Leisen learned firsthand. His anger would not endure though, DeMille would not hold a grudge for long and he was consistently kind to those who had wronged him.
Image Credit:Cecil B. Demille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic (Running Press)

The director was generally kind at heart, and possessed a lack of prejudice that was remarkable for the time. He had no qualms about the race, sex or sexual orientation of others. DeMille was generous to women, giving them positions in areas that were, and still are, the domain of men in Hollywood. He was especially loyal to writer Jeanie Macpherson, who would work with him until the end of her life, and editor Anne Bauchens, whom he insisted on hiring for all his films, even when he came upon resistance.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about DeMille was that he never faded away. He filmed the first feature in Hollywood and, unlike his contemporaries, at the end of his life he was launching some of the most magnificent productions the town had ever known. His was a career of unmatched popular success, and if the critics didn't always appreciate his style, he would sometimes manage to win them over as well.

The Art of the Hollywood Epic captures this career, and the fascinating man behind it in deeply satisfying detail. The book is stunning to look at, but it also has soul.

Image Credit:Cecil B. Demille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic (Running Press)

Many thanks to Running Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

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