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Jack Smith

'Ready! Camera! Action!': Fantasies, nostalgia and the legendary De Mille

March 25, 1986|JACK SMITH

My wife and I met at noon in Century City the other day to see the De Mille Dynasty Exhibition, celebrating the life and times of the legendary De Mille family of theater, screen and dance.

Anyone who has ever seen a Cecil B. De Mille movie epic or a Broadway musical choreographed by his niece, Agnes De Mille, will be swept away in nostalgic enchantment by this multimedia collection of posters, graphics, film, sound, costumes, props and photographs in Century City's new Americana Museum. (Open through April.)

We entered the labyrinthine museum through a dark tunnel under a galaxy of stars. Cecil B. De Mille's father, the Broadway playwright Henry De Mille, and his older brother, William C. De Mille, who directed such stars as Warner Baxter, Richard Dix, Mary Astor, Bebe Daniels, Adolphe Menjou and Ruth Chatterton in a series of early movies, are both given their due.

Several rooms are devoted to the career of Agnes De Mille--costumes, handbills, photographs, stage designs and film clips from such hits as "Rodeo," "Oklahoma!" "Bloomer Girl," "Brigadoon" and "Carousel"--but oddly there is no film of Agnes performing. Her father and her uncle disapproved of her career in dance. ("There aren't any films," she said before the opening. "Between my father and uncle there were lots of cameras, and a lot of film was exposed. But not a yard was given to little Aggie.")

Cecil B. De Mille, as usual, dominates the show.

We moved through a series of chambers devoted to his work, while his voice, slightly high-pitched and faintly pedagogical, seemed to fall on us from on high.

"Quiet, please! Ready! Camera! Action!"

We were prepared for his transcendental presence by an Arnold Friberg painting of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments in a burst of heavenly light ("The Ten Commandments," 1956). Another shows the Pharoah's daughter finding the baby Moses in the bulrushes.

A young Charlton Heston is shown in uniform as a prince of the royal Egyptian house, before the Exodus; Yul Brynner is fiercely handsome as Rameses II, with a leopard's head at his belt. In yet another painting a pillar of fire holds back the Pharoah's chariot.

The bejeweled scimitar of Saladin, the indomitable Muslim chief, glitters in a showcase beside the battle helmet worn by Henry Wilcoxon as Richard the Lion-Hearted in "The Crusades."

A blue velvet cape covered with peacock tail feathers--worn by Hedy Lamarr in "Samson and Delilah"--is modeled near a painting of a chained Victor Mature, as Samson, straining against the temple's pillars.

What memories of adolescent fantasies were stirred by a still of Claudette Colbert as Nero's wife, Poppaea, in "The Sign of the Cross" (1932), bathing nude in a pool of asses' milk, attended by her handmaidens.

Gloria Swanson is also seen in her bathtub in "Male and Female" (1915), her naked shoulders emerging provocatively from the suds.

De Mille loved women in tubs. A studio artist's sketch of yet another scene, for "The Ten Commandments," shows a bevy of Egyptian maidens, barely covered by transparent scraps, bathing in the pool of an outdoor pavilion. Whether it got into the movie I don't remember.

We were enveloped in memorabilia from that second version of "The Ten Commandments," in which, as everyone now knows, God parted the Red Sea for Charlton Heston.

As we studied the scenes of religious exaltation and base carnality, the voice of Cecil B. De Mille admonished us:

"Don't think that just because this is a biblical picture, a so-called religious picture, you are going to see a sanctimonious picture. Believe me, you are not. This is the greatest dramatic adventure story there is in the world. It is man and woman; good and bad. It is man's relationship with God. It is the greatest story I have ever held in my hands."

Henry Wilcoxon, who was De Mille's associate producer for "The Ten Commandments," once revealed that De Mille's own voice was the voice of God in the film. For many of his vassals in Hollywood, it must have seemed to be.

In the room devoted to "The Crusades," De Mille is heard exhorting a horde of extras playing townspeople who are supposed to be watching the Crusaders march out on their way to the Holy Land.

"You extras over there! Those men marching out are your fathers, husbands, brothers! Let me see that in your faces! Don't be extras! Be a nation with your manhood marching out on a great cause! Give me everything you've got!

"Quiet, please! Ready! Camera! Action!"

The music came up. We could imagine the cheering of the populace, their faces graven with emotion, and the sound of creaking leather, clinking armor and hoofbeats as the Crusaders rode out on their vainglorious mission.

When the sounds of action faded I half expected to hear that famous tardy line, "Ready when you are, C. B.!"

But maybe it was only apocryphal.

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