DeMille's name still carries a certain resonance even if it isn't an especially revered one in the pantheon of great film directors. His cinematic instincts were essentially those of a Victorian showman, spectacle and pageantry were his forte, there is precious little cinematic imagination or artistry.
If there is one movie in this collection that comes close to refuting my opinion it's The Sign of the Cross from 1932 (based on a late Victorian play and novel by Wilson Barrett set in Nero's Rome and with a storyline similar to Quo Vadis. ) Paramount rightly suspected that in depression America the public's taste for biblical and classical epics was on the wane and gave DeMille a relatively modest budget for this movie and the slightly later Cleopatra. Hence in The Sign of the Cross you have to wait pretty much until the end for the spectacular Roman Games sequence whilst in Cleopatra many of the most spectacular sequences were purloined by DeMille from his silent Ten Commandments. But The Sign of the Cross is otherwise a pictorial triumph of the silver screen, scene after scene beautifully lensed, and when the opening titles dissolve in clouds of smoke and you behold the great fire of Rome of AD64, or the depravities of the Roman Games are viewed through the amphitheatre's orchestra, you sense a fine cinematic imagination at work. The long Roman Games sequence is eye-popping: virgins are savaged by crocodiles and gorillas, pygmies are beheaded by Amazons or impaled on their tridents and of course finally the Christians get thrown to the lions. It all borders on very bad taste but the sequence, with its pictorial tableaux (inspired perhaps by the Victorian artist Alma-Tadema)and fluid camera work, is again a cinematic triumph. But I wonder how much was due to DeMille and how much to his photographer. The picture was made just before the Hay's Code came into force and rather daringly DeMille includes scenes with distinct gay and lesbian overtones: the empress Poppaea (played by Claudette Colbert) invites her friend to disrobe and join her in her milk bath, there is an attempted female seduction of the heroine Mercia, and Charles Laughton's implicitly gay Nero reclines at the games with a near naked youth next to him (it's a pity that Laughton's blubbery and pampered Nero doesn't get more screen time. "The wine, the music, the delicious debauchery" says he in the campest voice as he nurses a a hangover after the previous night's orgy. DeMille apparently was concerned that Laughton was playing for laughs, but he got rave reviews for what was his first big Hollywood role.) The screenplay delivers some dialogue of stagey religiosity but manages to avoid the howlers that crop up in The Crusades and Cleopatra. The Sign Of The Cross did tolerably well at the box office, but not nearly as well as Eddie Cantor's hilarious musical comedy Roman Scandals, made a year later, which features a cheeky bit of spoofery involving a drooling crocodile.
Paramount seem to have coughed up a larger budget for The Crusades (1935) but what you get, as also with Cleopatra (from 1934), is cod-history, with most of the players looking and sounding as though they've just strolled onto the sets from some Hollywood fancy dress party. No cliche is left unturned and both films have risible dialogue. "Poor Calpurnia, the wife is always the last to know" says one characater, whilst Cleo says to Mark Antony "You, with your friends, Romans and countrymen" (1600 years before Shakespeare coined the immortal phrase.) I'd like to think the laughs are tongue-in-cheek but I suspect most of the humour is unintentional. However both Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra and Loretta Young in The Crusades look absolutely scrumptious, with never so much as a false eyelash out of place. And Hans Dreier's art deco-ish sets and decor for Cleopatra are a pictorial delight. The movie also has one truly magical moment in the climax to the barge scene, with the giant oars moving in unison to the drum-beater and petals falling from aloft, it's like a tableau out of Alma-Tadema. If only DeMille had pulled this kind of rabbit out of the hat more often!
Union Pacific from 1938 is a lively western about the building of the first railroad to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It stars Barbara Stanwyck, one of Hollywood's finest actresses, although she is not well cast as a tomboyish Irish lassie (the film abounds in dodgy "oirish" accents.) The film has a fine cast and is quite spectacular although the use of back projection and model shots are rather obvious.
The oddball in this collection is Four Frightened People, a daft low budget programmer about four souls who flee a plague ship and then trek through the Malay jungle, during which ordeal they find their true selves. It manages to waste a fine cast which includes Claudette Colbert, Herbert Marshall and the splendid Mary Boland. Miss Colbert initially plays against type as a mousey, homely school teacher but suddenly blossoms mid-jungle into something pretty close to Poppaea and Cleopatra. But as with most DeMille movies there are incidental pleasures amongst the absurdities and the entertainment quotient is high.
On the whole then an enjoyable selection of prime DeMille vehicles plus an interesting oddball.There are no extras but the technical quality of this set is mostly excellent with crisp picture and good sound.
Universal's collection of several of the great showman's biggest hits is a half-hearted affair - the films are there, but the showmanship is completely missing in a lackluster presentation.
De Mille's Cleopatra is much more fun than you'd expect, played as much for deliberately camp comedy as for spectacle and a lot pacier at 104 minutes than the Elizabeth Taylor version. Warren William plays Caesar as De Mille himself, Henry Wilcoxen plays Anthony as an oaf and Claudette Colbert takes centerstage as the kind of vixen who knows which side of the Roman Empire her bread is buttered. At times De Mille's tongue is firmly in his cheek - not least a wonderfully drawn out death scene from Leonard Mudie that wouldn't look out of place in Carry On Cleo or Cleo's spectacular seduction of Tony on that fabled barge - but there's some fine filmmaking here too, not least a great battle montage padded out with footage from the silent Ten Commandments and a fine bit of censor baiting as a foreground hand ostensibly playing the harp seems to almost paw at Colbert's body. It ain't history but it is fun. Nice score from Rudolph Kopp too.
De Mille's The Crusades isn't history either, but it's certainly a lot more fun than its reputation implies. Wilcoxen reprises his macho oaf routine as Richard the Lionheart, but despite the film being best remembered for failing to make him the major star De Mille thought he could be, he's a surprisingly confident and rather likeable oaf: Wilcoxen was always a better actor than he was ever given credit for, even if his sword has a better part in the movie than he does. Loretta Young is the gushing God-botherer Berengaria and many of De Mille's regulars pop up - Ian Keith, C. Aubrey Smith, Joseph Schildkraut and John Carradine (all of whom feature in Cleopatra) - to add color to the monochrome proceedings. It's no Kingdom of Heaven, opting for simplistic melodrama at every turn, but it's done with zest and passion, not to mention some remarkably ambitious camerawork at times. And the songs are maddeningly catchy.
The Sign of the Cross was a surprise too, but not a pleasant one. Obviously intended as a pretty blatant ripoff of earlier movie versions of Quo Vadis (although the play its based on was first performed in 1895, the year Sienkewicz's novel was first published), it's hard to believe just how monotonous and relentlessly static De Mille managed to make it. Claudette Colbert and Charles Laughton are fun as Poppea and Nero, but they're hardly in the picture, far too much time being taken up with Frederic March hamming it up as Marcus Superbus (no, really) as he falls for Elissa Landi's Christian gal Mercia (no relation to the county). It's restrained to the point of being inert at times, with far too much of the dreary Christians, although it does perk up for the arena finale which features dwarfs battling Amazon women, elephants crushing Christians and gorillas menacing naked women. The last 15 minutes aside, Dreary with a capital D.
It's hard to avoid the phrase `run of De Mille' for Cecil B.'s Four Frightened People, one of his lesser efforts that sees four white folks jumping ship after an outbreak of Bubonic Plague and taking an ill-advised and badly guided trek through the Malay jungle that rips off their stereotypical civilized veneer to reveal the stereotypical clichés beneath. Claudette Colbert's Miss Jones goes from downtrodden mousy schoolmarm to red-hot, husky voiced wisegal almost as soon as she breaks her glasses, henpecked Herbert Marshall discovers his inner he-man (yes, they really do use that phrase), William Lundigan goes from self-obsessed indifference to obnoxious would-be lecher, while only Mary Boland's matron remains unchanged in her determination to bring civilization and a reduced birthrate to the islands. On the plus side, Leo Carillo is entertaining as their local guide who seems to think owning a tie makes him English and there are a few good exchanges - "It's practically virgin territory." "Perhaps that why Mr Corder doesn't like it." - and it's only 78 minutes long.
De Mille's last black and white film, Union Pacific is something of a rarity these days, rarely revived on TV and forgotten in the wake of the Biblical epics that form only a small part of his repertoire. Harking back to his earlier The Plainsman, instead of friends Gary Cooper and James Ellison fighting over Jean Arthur against the background of the Indian Wars on the Great Plains we get friends Joel McRea and Robert Preston fighting over Barbara Stanwyck against the background of the building of the first coast-to-coast railroad. McRea's the agent assigned to stop Brian Donlevy's saboteurs, with old friend Preston among their number and Stanwyck the Hollywood Irish engineer's daughter they both love. Throw in train wrecks, Injun attacks, the odd gunfight, plenty of spectacle, Akim Tamiroff and a complete disregard for history and you've got the closest thing to talkie version of John Ford's The Iron Horse going. It's not up to the 1939 gold standard, but it is entertaining hokum.
While this set does boast uncut versions of all five films, it's maddeningly devoid of any extras whatsoever - a real crime, since De Mille's overblown trailers, usually hosted by the man himself, are great value, as are the many promotional short films that were made for the films. Since all still exist and are regularly excerpted in documentaries, there's no excuse for such lazy treatment.