Friday, October 15, 2010

Book: Empire of Dreams, by Scott Eyman (2010)

Scott Eyman opens his suitably epic biography of filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille on the set of Sunset Blvd. Which only makes sense, because DeMille’s cameo in Billy Wilder’s film captures the essence of the man. Yes, he’s a forbidding figure in complete control of his set. But he’s also the only person who shows Norma Desmond any real compassion.

That dichotomy ran throughout DeMille’s life. His films flaunted spectacle and sensation only to come down squarely in favor of the homeliest eternal truths. He was a stern taskmaster who was loyal and generous to those in his employ. Conservative in politics and demeanor, he had a harem of women devoted to him.

Eyman captures all of DeMille’s complexity in his meticulously researched book. He’s forthright when it comes to the films themselves, highlighting the dynamism of DeMille’s silent film work, criticizing his tin ear for dialogue and reliance on simplistic storytelling. The Ten Commandments is “old theater, but great old theater, sometimes ridiculous, always impressive.” The strongest chapter recounts DeMille’s ill-fated 1950 push to impose a loyalty oath on the Directors Guild. Eyman has turned up the minutes of a landmark Guild meeting in a private archive that clear DeMille of scurrilous charges that have been leveled against him for decades, but confirm other sins. Eyman’s unparalleled scholarship has produced one of the best film books in years.

It led me to watch Why Change Your Wife?, one of DeMille’s silents. I can’t call it a marital comedy as Eyman does; DeMille places too much emphasis on the melodramatic and, simply put, never had a sense of humor. It’s an interesting artifact nonetheless that survives because of DeMille’s prescient attitude toward film preservation. The fact that I streamed it directly to my TV via Netflix would have warmed old C.B.’s heart. He was always a forward-thinking man.

Here I watch DeMille’s only Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show on Earth.