If Hollywood was en empire in the literal sense of the word, then Cecil B. DeMille would be its eternal emperor, a role that the director more often remembered for his larger-than-life Old Testament epics incarnated to perfection, blessed as he was with a bald head that evoked the busts of those power-mad ancient rulers. DeMille is more than a film history character but rather an emblem of an age, and one he was well aware of when he played himself in the first Hollywood-on-Hollywood picture, the Noir classic Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950). DeMille appears in the film as the incarnation of Hollywood’s own Ancien Régime. He was it.

Simon Louvish’s extensive, grand biography of the director’s life, Cecil B. DeMille and The Golden Calf, presents every detail of his biographical trajectory, which began on 12 August 1881. We learn about the death of his father when he was barely 12, his mother Beatrice’s Pamlico school for girls near New York City, her encouragement of Cecil and brother Henry to continue on their late father’s artistic path. We then learn about his first forays into theatre before he moved into movieland, an art form of which he was a pioneer as far as spectacle and mass entertainment goes. He made the first blockbusters.

The first phase of DeMille’s career was actually quite different from the overblown sandal-and-toga extravagances his name evokes. His first films were often centred on the new American couple of the Jazz Age until The King of Kings (1927)inaugurated his Bible phase. With titles like Don’t Change Your Wife?(1920) and Male and Female (1919), DeMille illustrated the changing dynamics of American marriage.

To promote the films, he often spoke about the relationship with his own wife Constance who, to the end, remained in the background while DeMille kept on grooming his gigantic ego and collected a few mistresses on the side (despite his traditionalism, the book implies he had lovers and cites rumours of a foot fetish). In that sense, he was a man of his time, morally paradoxal and, as Louvish points out, a predecessor of contemporary Neo-Conservatism in America.

Louvish is also keenly aware of the more unsavoury aspects of DeMille’s personality, such as his anti-union campaigning in the 1950s (in contrast with a more socialist political frame of mind in his youth), his confusion between film and reality, the omission of his Jewish heritage on the maternal side and bad track record on racial issues, to name but a few.

But DeMille these days is comfortably placed in the realm of legend and folklore, one of commercial cinema’s greats, a butch ruler whose legacy is sheer camp. Cecil B. DeMille and The Golden Calf is a well-researched piece on Hollywood vintage that brings to life the black and white Art Deco decadence of the more liberal 1920s as well as the Technicolor conservatism that painted 1950s America, all of them commonly informed by DeMille’s life-long prediletion for hokum. An informative and entertaining read for fans of film history.

Cecil B. DeMille and The Golden Calf is published by Faber and Faber. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.