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Sneak Previews of Forthcoming Books of Special Interest to Southern Californians : Hollywood Hedonism

August 21, 1988|ANNE EDWARDS

'DeMille's films dealt with various forms of feminine lure, set against a background of beauty and luxury.'

The following is from "The DeMilles: An American Family," to be published in October by Harry N. Abrams Inc.

JUST AFTER THE end of World War I, Cecil B. DeMille, "not entirely inexperienced and having done much reading," recognized that the time was opportune for the smart, sophisticated comedy drama that "avoided life in the raw and served it en brochette with spicy sauces." During the next four years, DeMille's films dealt with various forms of feminine lure, set against a background of visual beauty and luxury. Sex was presented seductively, with lurid implications, but never explicitly. He was accused of being a romantic evangelist. Said one critic: "Loosened marriage bonds, broken homes, financial insecurity and orphaned children were a growing threat as the 20th Century rolled in. A neurotic frenzy of 'coddled sensibilities' (Henry James' phrase) struggled to maintain the trap of conjugality by embracing the entrapment." DeMille understood how to translate this need into a commercial product. The recipe was simple: "missionary zeal mixed with generous doses of attractive hedonism--the right amount of titillating naughtiness and risque forays into the world of the delightfully amoral rich." An audience busy censoring its unconscious desires could indulge in the guiltless fulfillment of those desires mainly because of the religious overtones and the moralistic endings of his films.

"Hit sex hard," DeMille is said to have instructed his performers, and within two years, he joined Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin as one of the three greatest box office attractions in film. Except for D. W. Griffith, no other director had attained the drawing power of a real star. DeMille had started his long career of "director" pictures where his name, not those of the stars, was above the title.

He made 10 pictures between November, 1918, and November, 1922. Gloria Swanson starred in six and became the archetypical heroine of his jazz-age films. Photoplay magazine pronounced "Male and Female" "a typical DeMille production. . . . When Miss Swanson requires a bed . . . it is such a bed and such a boudoir as we have never seen before." Variety described one of her costumes in "Don't Change Your Husband" as a "gold cloth and lace negligee trimed with metallic fringe . . . so loud it should have awakened her sleeping husband." After losing her husband in "Why Change Your Wife?" Swanson orders new gowns made "sleeveless, backless, transparent, indecent." Years later film historian Sumiko Higashi commented: "DeMille's frivolous attitude toward marriage and divorce may have been titillating, but it certainly reinforced the notion that women . . . were interchangeable commodities. . . . (Wives) functioned as decorative objects or ornamentation." Several of these stories had as their theme frigidity or incompatibility, which by the end reel was solved by a wife's transformation into a "seductive, playful, fashion-plate." The majority depicted "the marital misadventures of the (childless) leisured class . . . for married couples had to be unencumbered to pursue a frivolous, irresponsible and hedonistic life style."

Gloria Swanson had come to Hollywood in 1916, shortly after she and actor Wallace Beery had married. DeMille had been watching her growth as a performer and took the opportunity to sign her as soon as she was available.

Swanson remembered of her first day of work in "Don't Change Your Husband": "When I drove up to the studio . . . one of Mr. DeMille's assistants was waiting to show me to my dressing room. . . . Vases of freshly cut flowers (from Cecil) stood on almost every flat surface. . . .

"When my hair was in place, two women brought in my costume, a beautiful white day dress, and helped Hattie (her dresser) get it on over my hair. A few minutes later, Pinkerton detectives arrived with three velvet-lined jewel chests. Everything was real, and I was supposed to pick what I wanted to go with the dress. (Later I learned) Mr. DeMille had his actresses pick out the jewelry they wore in his films so that they would act as if they owned it. I chose a delicate necklace and earrings, and an assortment of rings and bracelets. A few minutes before 10 I heard a violin start to play, and an assistant director came to lead me to the set.

"We stood off to one side as Mr. DeMille entered like Caesar, with a whole retinue of people in his wake. . . . Everyone stood in rapt silence as (his) eyes swept over the set. Looking at every detail with absolute concentration, he peeled off his field jacket and a Filipino boy behind him caught it as it left his hand. When he was ready to sit down, the Filipino boy deftly shoved a director's chair under him. . . .

"When he saw me . . . he came over, took my hand and led me toward the set. 'This is your home,' he explained. 'Take all the time you need to get acquainted with it. If anything seems wrong, we'll talk about it.'

"Working for Mr. DeMille was like playing house in the world's most expensive department store," Swanson reminisced. "Going home at night to your own house and furniture was always a bit of a letdown. I finally said to him one day, 'Mr. DeMille, you're giving me terribly expensive tastes.'

" 'There's nothing wrong with wanting the best,' he said. 'I always do.' "--

Text copyright 1988 by Anne Edwards. Reprinted by permission of Harry N. Abrams Inc.

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