Cecil Blount De Mille has been one of the most outstanding film directors since he came into the business from the stage (where he was an actor, play-write, and manager all in turn) way back in 1913. In that year he joined another movie pioneer, Jesse L. Lasky, and formed the company which was soon to become famous, Famous-Lasky, later to develop into Paramount Pictures.
De Mille’s first picture was “The Squaw man,” since when he must of turned out nearly one hundred movies. He has always been known for the lavishness of his productions and is the screen’s acknowledged Master of Spectacle. Some of his more famous pictures are: The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Sign of the Cross, The Plainsman, Union Pacific, North West Mounted Police and Reap the Wild Wind.
In the impossibly brief period of thirty years, the art of the screen has grown up. Here is a creature of many blandishments, which daily hold the attention of millions in all parts of the globe. Its influences are beyond calculation. The benefits it yields are too many and too diverse for any human to catalogue. There is no medium like the motion picture in the ability to reach the hearts and minds of a tremendous segment of the world’s population. If its influences are great, so is the responsibility of those who preside over it. The motion picture industry enjoys a sort of public character. I have heard it said its leaders should, like a judge putting on judicial robes for the first time, take a vow of public trust. While this may never come to pass, there is a great deal behind the thought. I am thinking far beyond censorship reins. While the motion picture has developed quickly in a particular field, its overall potentialities are untapped. Evan now it is mushrooming in several directions. Young faces and new fields are typical of these movements. Some are boom efforts that will play themselves out, but the others are certain to leave their impress on the industry. This is all to the good because they provide the ingredients that keep the industry alert and vigorous.
But this is an industry totally unlike any other. I think the motion picture as a public trust is a concept that is real and logical, not only because of the influences it can have upon our own peoples, particularly the young, but also upon the people of other nations who know little about our way of life. The task of making pictures that keep faith with the public is important, and that task, it appears to me, is largely a matter of professional conscience influenced by what the individual knows to be true or his research has caused him to be true.
Take, for example, the problem we faced in making The King of Kings. It was said the venture was certain to end in failure if for no other reason than that there were a hundred versions of the life of Christ, and any single adaptation would be unacceptable to millions of persons. Moreover, at that particular time there came upon the market a rash of popularized versions of Christ’s life by authors desiring to make a mark as original researchists. Opposition came also from organized atheists. The alternative was quite obvious – a screen story of the Savior that was real and familiar in the mind of the average Christian. To bring this about required months of effort and a great deal of money, but those efforts were rewarded by the judgment that The Kings of Kings could not have embodied a story more acceptable to the generality of Christendom.
In connection with The King of Kings, my attention was directed to the review of a woman critic condemning me for depicting a scene in which gold was taken from the mouth of a fish. She described the incident as “utterly ridiculous.” Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to witness her reaction when advised by a number of readers that the scene was from the New Testament (Matthew 17:27)
I have also encountered the astonishing situation of a censor objecting to a certain prayer spoken by Joan of Arc in an early motion picture Joan the Woman. In her cell on the night before she was burned at the stake, Joan prayed, “O Lord, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me!” The censor declared the line must come out because it charged God with forsaking someone. She would not retreat from her position until informed by a minister who was present that the line was not conceived by a De Mille writer, but that originally the words were spoken by Christ on the Cross.
These examples are meaningless if one does not read into them responsibly on the part of the producer, whatever his creed or philosophy, to make each picture an instrument for human progress or a medium for a worthwhile message. Call this element the Mind of a picture, just as its emotional appeal may be said to be its Heart. Films that are all emotion – fluff and tinsel – have no durability and certainly no meaning. One does not wish with a single stroke to banish light fare from screen, such as farces and musical comedies, which serve the purpose of relaxation and laughter and have their own important part in the industry.
However, present-day audience response indicates there is a desire for a new sort of balanced movie – combing both meaning and entertainment. The remarkable success of Going My Way, Keys of the Kingdom and, in its own way, The Lost Weekend, demonstrate this renewed public desire for pictures that say something.
A producer does not have to be a social historian to observe there are changes in the air, but he would have to be a very good historian indeed to be able to tell which way those changes are going. The film industry can have not part in political “trends” unless it desires to become a standard bearer for a particular line of thought. In these days, when the angry cries of theorists and politicians mingle with the red yelps of insurgents, I think the time is ripe to dip into the pages of history, at least into those chapters that tell how and why such monuments as America and England were conceived.
To eyes that can see it, the past has always provided a significant moral for the present, whether it is found in the toil of men building a railroad across the face of a primitive continent or pushing towards a human right heretofore denied them. There appears to be a need now for some of the old virtues, the kind that will help us retain our perspective and keep our feet on the ground. Around a theme as simple as the word liberty, we have in preparation a picture of a truly brilliant but little known chapter in early America. It is to be called Unconquered and we hope to give it the “feel” of men seeking to express what is in their soul in an era when virtue and courage meant only one thing – liberty is as important as life because it is life itself.
To bring together the word and the scene in the consciousness of its power to influence; to instill drama into shinning moral; to give everyday life the kind of meaning that effects both the heart and mind, and makes laughter and tears run together – that is the challenge to the motion picture industry. It will not be easy. In the words of Mr. Dooley’s friend, Hennessy, “Tis a dom hard way.”