The Westerns of Cecil B DeMille
Cecil B DeMille was in many ways the Hollywood director. It was he who introduced the notion of the all-powerful jodhpur-wearing lord of the set with a megaphone, to order about the host of extras on his spectacular pictures. From his youth directing silent Westerns in the 1910s he was always an innovator, seeking out new techniques, experimenting with lighting, and so on, and when sound came in, then color, he embraced them fully, not reluctantly, seeing the huge potential immediately. So he was in some ways the godfather of the Western movie.
In some ways. You could also argue that he didn’t truly understand the genre. Some of his ‘Westerns’ were hardly that at all, being gentrified pictures. And others went for spectacle and scale at the expense of authenticity or true Western character. He actually claimed to care much about authenticity, but really that was a joke. If you take a famous DeMille Western such as The Plainsman, the portrayal of Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane was frankly absurd.
Much better known for his Biblical and historical epics, DeMille didn’t in fact make that many Westerns over his long career. Of the seventy-odd films he directed, only thirteen were Westerns, not a great number for the day, and three of those were the same picture remade (The Squaw Man).
He started in the genre, though. The Squaw Man was his very first motion picture. It was said to be the first full-length feature film shot in Hollywood. Jesse Lasky and Sam Goldfish (later Goldwyn), DeMille’s partners, assigned experienced Oscar Apfel to work with him, fearing that as a young man and on his debut DeMille needed a steady hand on the set to show him the ropes. In fact to date DeMille’s filming experience consisted of one day observing shooting at Edison's in the Bronx. So DeMille and Apfel both directed and ‘picturized’ the story (in effect, wrote it).
But DeMille certainly did not lack confidence. On his first day at the office of the new Lasky-Goldwyn-DeMille company he hired a cowpoke named Hal Roach, an oilfield hand named Bill Boyd (later to become Hopalong Cassidy) and a teenager by the name of Gloria Swanson. On the set he was effective from the outset, utilizing his experience back East as stage actor and playwright. The idea being to attract high-class audiences to their films, DeMille, Lasky and Goldwyn sought to produce pictures from literary works. They bought the rights to the successful stage play The Squaw Man by Edwin Milton Royle and cast well-known Dustin Farnum in the lead role. Much of the movie is hardly a Western at all, being set in England and telling the story of how and why the hero came to the USA, so it is a tale of European aristocrats, but it does get more ‘Western’ in the middle reels (there were seven). There were even Arizona and Wyoming locations for some of the shots. But the hero doesn’t even arrive in the USA till 21 minutes in and later the film goes back to Europe for the death scene of the cad, in a fall while mountaineering in the Alps, so it isn’t as Western as all that.
Even the title these days leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth but in fact this film is interesting as being not anti-Indian, really. It is guilty of being patronizing to Native Americans but it isn’t offensive. The hero marries a Ute woman and although at first the justice of the peace refuses to carry out such a ceremony, the hero’s friends oblige him to. The couple have a young son who is clearly loved by all – by both parents, the ranch hands and the townsfolk. Many early Hollywood movies were much less anti-Indian than one might imagine. The Indian maid in the story was also played by an American Indian, which was good – and unusual.
The acting is very ham for our day and, because of the English scenes especially, resembles an Edwardian melodrama of a rather corny kind. However, the photography (Alfred Gandolfi) is rather advanced for the time. There are a couple of close-ups and even some 1914 trick photography, for example as Jim reads a magazine and the illustration of a woman in it morphs into the lovely Lady Diana.
It was a big hit at the box office: it cost $45,000 to make and grossed $245,000 in the first month. This helped producer Jesse Lasky and DeMille go in with Adolph Zukor and the Frohmans in the early days of the great Paramount.
De Mille loved this picture so much that he remade it, twice. First in 1918 (unusual to remake a movie only four years after the original) starring Elliott Dexter this time, with (non-American Indian) Ann Little as the Ute ‘princess’ Naturich. It’s also notable for featuring Noah Beery (Sr, obviously) in an early part. The film was a reel shorter than the 1914 one but in some ways more sophisticated; it was remarkable how quickly motion pictures were developing. It was written by Beulah Marie Dix, who in a short time had become one of the most sought-after screenwriters. Photoplay said that “the picture marks Cecil B DeMille at his best.”
Then, at a time when his career was not on quite such a high after a couple of less than commercially successful pictures, DeMille made the film yet again, as a talkie, in 1931. This one featured big star Warner Baxter and the glam Lupe Velez as Naturich. Western fans can enjoy also spotting Charles Bickford, Raymond Hatton, J Farrell MacDonald and Chris-Pin Martin in the cast. At twelve reels and 107 minutes, it was a big picture. However, this one got less a less favorable reception, and DeMille’s enthusiasm for remaking the picture suddenly waned.
But back in the silent days, later the same year as the first The Squaw Man, DeMille directed Farnum again, this time in the first screen treatment of Owen Wister’s great seminal Western novel The Virginian, which had been published in 1902 and was a huge best-seller. Wister in fact took an interest in the ‘picturization’ of his book. There have been several subsequent versions, another silent movie in 1923, an early talkie with Gary Cooper in 1929 – still today perhaps the best treatment – and then a post-WWII color version starring Joel McCrea in 1946. There have also been two made-for-TV ones, in 2000 and 2014. But DeMille started it all. His picture, a five-reeler, is more notable for what it left out than how it portrayed the book, and it is really just a few scenes from the novel, but there is some good photography. The modern print is good; it must have been remastered. Many of these early silent films (including The Squaw Man) are crackly, dark and they jump; they are today only really of historical interest. But The Virginian can still be viewed as a proper movie. The lynching is done with grimacing reaction shots, then shadows of hanged men, quite tough for the time. At any rate, it was another hit for DeMille.
Also in 1914, a busy year for Cecil, he made the five-reel Rose of the Rancho, based on a David Belasco play. A wicked California land grabber (Dick La Reno) has his sights set on the Castro ranch, owned by the fair Juanita, ‘The Rose of the Rancho’ (Bessie Barriscale). A noble US government agent (Jack W Johnston) holds him off till the cavalry shows up at the last moment (already a trope in Westerns) and he can declare his love for the belle. Melodramatic stuff but it went down well in the nickelodeons. The critical reception was less than enthusiastic, though. In its column ‘Best Reels of the Week’, Variety said the picture had “some pretty scenic effects” (some of the footage was shot out on location) but added that “Quite some portion of the picture is of the studio, and the interiors are not overwell done.” And they summed it up with the remark that the “picture will pass nicely as a Lasky release, but will not start anything. To the casual observer it appears [that] it isn’t what the picture has, it’s what the picture could have had, and missed.” DeMille can’t have been too pleased with that.
In 1915 there were two Westerns, or pictures which might be called Westerns. In January Lasky released a DeMille-directed film version of another David Belasco play, The Girl of the Golden West, which had also been presented as an opera by Puccini at the Metropolitan in New York in 1910 – and there would be another silent version in 1923 and two talkie (or sing-ie) versions in the 1930s, but once again DeMille was there first. It starred Mabel van Buren as The Girl and Theodore Roberts as Jack Rance. It’s another melodramatic story of love and skullduggery, set in the California gold rush. Later in the year the public was treated to a comedy, Chimmie Fadden Out West, starring Victor Moore, who had played the character on the stage, as Chimmie, who is sent out to California to pretend he has found gold so that a railroad might be built. Ray Hatton was promoted to third in the billing, with a big part. This time the critics were happier. The New York Times called it “an exceptionally fine production”. The reviewer wrote, “The fact that Chimmie Fadden Out West is a comedy picture does not detract from its pictorial beauty. It is full of scenes from the big outdoors, and some of these that disclose long rolling stretches of sage-brush covered terrain with figures of horsemen growing from specks on the horizon to life size proportions are notably fine.”
In 1916 DeMille wrote but did not direct The Love Mask, a drama/romance again only defined as a Western by a stretch but another California gold rush claim-jumping tale. The following year, however, DeMille did direct, and also wrote, another comedy, this time starring the hottest property in town, Mary Pickford, A Romance of the Redwoods. Elliott Dexter was back, as 'Black Brown, Road Agent’, Tully Marshall got third billing as Sam Sparks, the bad guy, and Ray Hatton returned as Dick Roland. According to the 20/20 Movie Review website, “Mary Pickford was such an important star in the teen years of the 20th century that she wielded enough power to have Cecil B. DeMille fired from The Poor Little Rich Girl when she preferred the directing duties to be handled by Maurice Tourneur. Unfortunately for Pickford, the executives at Artcraft Pictures were so convinced that The Poor Little Rich Girl, in which the 24-year-old actress played a 10-year-old, was going to be a dud that they sent her off into the wilderness of Boulder Creek for her next picture for some team-building location work with Mr DeMille. We can only imagine what the atmosphere was like on that particular shoot.”
In 1917 DeMille was credited as ‘Director General’ on A Mormon Maid, which he neither wrote nor directed, and he was co-director (with George Melford) on Nan of Music Mountain. In Nan Henry de Spain (Wallace Reid) is made general manager of the Thief River Stage Line because he has nerve and can shoot. It is understood that he is to clean up the gang of outlaws in Morgan Gap, led by Duke Morgan (Theodore Roberts again). Duke’s niece Nan (Ann Little again) falls for Henry. It was written by Beulah Marie Dix once more, jointly with Frank Spearman.
Apart from DeMille’s two remakes of The Squaw Man mentioned above, there would be no more Westerns for DeMille as director for twenty years. He would concentrate on big pictures in other genres, such as Male and Female, the silent version of The Ten Commandments, The Volga Boatman and The King of Kings. He ‘presented’ Braveheart in 1925, directed by Alan Hale, and he was the producer of the silent Whispering Smith in 1926 (directed by George Melford again), with HB Warner in the title part. He also produced White Gold in 1927, a tale of a Mexican lass and an Arizona sheep herder. But it seemed he had lost interest in directing Westerns, though he would come back to the genre in the mid-30s.
There had been epic silent Westerns in the 1920s – we think especially of The Covered Wagon (1923) and The Iron Horse (1924), as well as William S Hart’s swansong Tumbleweeds (1925) – but when the Great Depression hit these hugely expensive pictures died a death. The Big Trail (1930) nearly sank Fox financially and Westerns were relegated to second features and low-budget program fillers, often for juveniles, for most of the 1930s. In the mid-30s, though, Paramount did toy with the idea of producing a big ‘adult’ Western again. In 1937 they would put Joel McCrea and his wife Frances Dee in the ‘nation-building’ epic Wells Fargo, but before that, in 1936, DeMille returned to the saddle and sagebrush with the big-budget The Plainsman.
Preposterous as they are, The Plainsman and the later Union Pacific (1939) are still far and away Cecil B DeMille’s best Westerns. In the case of The Plainsman this was largely because of its lead, Gary Cooper, possibly the greatest Western actor of them all. He is magisterial as Wild Bill, with twin pistols stuck in the belt of his frock coat, and his performance dominates the whole film. Jean Arthur, a very talented actor, is also excellent as Calamity Jane – though of course her Calamity and Coop’s Hickok are miles away from any historical reality. Arthur went right back to a small part as a reporter on The Iron Horse but will be eternally remembered for her Marian Starrett in Shane (1953). Also top-notch was her Phoebe Titus in Arizona (1940), and it was refreshing to see an actress taking the lead in a Western. DeMille was not exactly a feminist, to put it mildly, and the script has Calamity betray the secret of where the rifles are to the Indians because she’s “only a woman”. But there we are. James Ellison, much better known as Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick, was bland as Buffalo Bill, but this character was deliberately downplayed to benefit Coop’s. He is little more than a nonentity (the same fate was to await Forrest Tucker’s Buffalo Bill, in thrall to Charlton Heston’s Wild Bill, in the ultra-clunky Pony Express in 1953).
The Plainsman, a sort of How the West Was Won ante diem, attempts to telescope the whole history of the West from Abraham Lincoln onwards (Frank McGlynn Sr very good as Abe, in fact) into two hours. Never one to let actual history get in the way of spectacle, DeMille throws everything in, railroads, Indian wars, Custer, as well as Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok, and it ends with Wild Bill’s death in Deadwood in 1876. So it goes from one American hero shot from behind to another. Despite the quite ridiculous distortions, it is in fact rather better written than usual and quite amusing in parts (as with many DeMille pictures, there was a whole team of writers).
As for the Indians, they are bad guys and/or stupid and there’s nothing wrong with government policy, no treaty breaking or military incursions. It’s all the fault of the wicked gun runners, led by a rather hammy but villainous Charles Bickford. There’s an amusing story told that Anthony Quinn (later to become DeMille’s son-in-law), who was championed by Coop, blarneyed his way onto the cast by telling DeMille that he spoke fluent Cheyenne. Quinn's description of Little Big Horn is gibberish, but DeMille was impressed, and his belief in his own authenticity was flattered, so he hired him.
Far too much was done in-studio, on colossal sound stages constructed for the purpose, even the climactic battle scenes with the Indians. DeMille seems to have lost his taste for location shooting, and he had the clout (= power + budget) to have enormous sets built, as for his historical and Biblical epics – and in a way this picture was a historical epic of sorts.
To be fair, while being deep down rather silly, The Plainsman is a lot of fun. It’s fatuous, occasionally unpleasant and ponderous (it was a DeMille picture) yet it is still watchable today, provided you fix your wry smile on before the titles. It was enormously popular. Variety called it “a big and good Western … cowboys and Indians on a broad, sweeping scale.” Even The Times of London praised “Mr. Cooper and Miss Arthur, with the lavish assistance of Mr. Cecil B DeMille”.
Suddenly, big ‘adult’ Westerns were in again. In 1939 Fox put its megastar Tyrone Power in the Technicolor Jesse James, directed by Henry King and released in January ‘39; John Ford did Stagecoach, released by United Artists in March; in April Warners paired Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland in Dodge City (Michael Curtiz), also in color; and Universal harnessed James Stewart with Marlene Dietrich in the George Marshall-directed Destry Rides Again, released for the Christmas holidays. Not to be outdone – they had really pioneered the return of the A-picture oater – Paramount decided to do another ‘manifest destiny’ picture with Joel McCrea, this time with Barbara Stanwyck as female lead, and DeMille helmed the big-budget Union Pacific. In fact McCrea was rather in awe of Hollywood bigwig DeMille; as a boy, Joel had delivered newspapers to DeMille and been given a silver dollar by the great man, and later he dated Cecilia DeMille a couple of times.Though not released until April ’39 (a massive publicity stunt in Omaha, Nebraska that drew 250,000 people, doubling the population of the city and requiring the National Guard to help keep order) Union Pacific should really have beaten the other studios to the draw because shooting started in October ’38, but it took a long time in the editing stage.
Once again it was largely studio-bound. The interior ‘exteriors’ were impressive feats but still always look phony. As a glitzy color talkie remake of The Iron Horse, in a way, and with the budget it had, it should have had sweeping panoramas and breathtaking vistas of prairies and such, and to be fair there were some location shots (Kanab, Utah) but much, too much, was done on sound stages.
Both The Plainsman and Union Pacific showed DeMille’s “penchant for leaden exposition and turgid melodramatics,” as Brian Garfield put it, but you can’t help but be impressed at the spectacle. Robert Preston, a DeMille regular, disliked the director and thought he was inept at directing actors. The scene in Union Pacific where he, Stanwyck and McCrea are trapped in the boxcar took two weeks to film and, according to Preston, DeMille had nothing but "Action!" "Cut!" and "Print!" to say. He didn't seem to care about scenes that did not include action or spectacle. Later, Preston turned down offers to appear in other DeMille films and avoided any relationship or contact with him. In fact during Union Pacific DeMille, now pushing sixty, may have not been well. According to a news item in The Hollywood Reporter, he directed much of the film from a stretcher, because of an operation he had months earlier. Studio records indicate DeMille collapsed from the strain of directing three units simultaneously, and used a stretcher for about two weeks.
But once again it was a huge hit. The flag-waving went down well in 1939, of course, but it was the spectacle and scale that was most praised.
Between these two big Westerns, in 1938, DeMille had another project with Western tinges, The Buccaneer, but it was more a costume drama set in the time of the 1812 war than a true Western. He produced and directed it. It was the usual DeMille-style ‘historical’ farrago, said to have featured 10,000 people between cast, extras and crew. It was alright if you like that kind of thing. Many people did. The première in New Orleans drew 15,000 people. Traffic was so congested that pleas were made on the radio to avoid the downtown area for the second showing. Anthony Quinn appears in it, and he would direct a color remake in 1958, when DeMille himself was too ill to do so.
But it would be back to the Western for DeMille in 1940. Gary Cooper, though, not Joel McCrea, would return for this one, and for DeMille’s last Western also. North West Mounted Police was notionally a Western because a Texas Ranger (Coop) goes north to Canada in pursuit of fugitive. As Brian Garfield said, “Beyond that the plot is impossible to summarize because it is impossible to follow.” There was huge PR hype for the picture, including a competition, entered by 12,000 women, to escort Coop to the première. But nothing could save this bloated movie. The much bally-hooed Technicolor is bright, Victor Young’s score is fine, and there is all the usual DeMille scale and spectacle, but it also showed the worst of DeMille: vast and utterly unconvincing indoor sets to represent Canada, Paulette Goddard wasted in a silly part, being spanked (and DeMille forced her to wear high heels in the forest), and it was the usual historical hooey. Furthermore, at well over two hours it sometimes seems interminable.
Film historian William Everson said it was DeMille’s slowest and dullest Western, and in A Pictorial History of Westerns, Michael Parkinson and Clyde Jeavons called it “a crashingly dull picture with minimal action.” The New York Times review at the time commented, “as usual in Mr. De Mille's pictures, the story is a heavy accumulation of dramatic clichés.”
It has been said, though I have no verification of this, that DeMille had a cruel way with horses, willing to countenance the death of any number to get just the shot he wanted. If true, that is enough on its own to disbar him from the ranks of good Western directors. We know that standards of animal welfare were lamentable for much of Hollywood history but this is beyond the pale.
In 1942 DeMille produced and directed (and his voice also introduced, in a prologue) Reap the Wild Wind, a picture with more verve than usual, which in its use of John Wayne and its lawman vs. outlaws plot was a kind of maritime Western. But we have to call this an action/adventure rather than an oater.
In 1947 DeMille went back to an earlier period than Stetsons and six-guns for his final Western, Unconquered, a tale of pre-Revolutionary days. Goddard has another silly role, this time as a slave girl (“exhibited in numerous situations, from a bathtub to an Indian torture stake”, as The New York Times said) who is rescued by stalwart frontiersman Cooper from the lecherous clutches of Howard Da Silva. There is more color photography (Ray Rennahan) and another florid Victor Young score, but again there is too much plot and not enough purpose. It’s big and spectacular, of course, with a $4m budget and a huge cast, but it’s old-fashioned (it has nothing to say to the new kind of post-war Western), and what you might call 1930s run-of-DeMille.
There was a definite arch-Conservative and pro-McCarthyite agenda, typical of DeMille. Cooper’s all-American hero saves the nation from the reds (redskins/Communists) and as Michael Coyne has pointed out in his book The Crowded Prairie, Colonial-era Westerns, such as Drums Along the Mohawk, Northwest Passage and Unconquered, are more virulently anti-Indian than ones set at the time of the later Indian wars. One of the characters in Unconquered kills a Native American and remarks, “That’s one good Indian”, this in a story set a hundred years before Sherman is said to have made (though he denied it) the famous remark. The good guy in the movie, Cooper, was a friendly witness to HUAC, while the bad guy, Da Silva, was a vociferous opponent and blacklisted.
Once again too long, at nearly two-and-a-half hours, it was not overwhelmed with fulsome praise by the critics but still did extremely well at the box-office. Variety referred to its “meller-dramatics and the frequently inept script” but added that “for all the vacuousness and shortcomings, [it] has its gripping moments”. The New York Times said “here is adventure drama of the sort that we got in silent films—except that it's done in Technicolor—and dialogue such as that we used to read. Here is unblushing employment of the oldest dime-novel clichés.” So it was damned with faint praise, and indeed it is ponderous and stodgy. Yet it was the second-most profitable Western of the decade (after Duel in the Sun) and inflation adjusted has been reckoned the fifth-biggest money-spinner in the genre, so DeMille was doing something right.
Even those who do not hold to the auteur theory that a film is the creative work of a director in the same way that a novel or play might be of its author, and do not agree with Truffaut that Alfred Hitchcock’s or Howard Hawks’s movies were a coherent body of work for which they, almost uniquely, were responsible, may still see the ‘stamp’ of a certain director on many movies. Some of the more famous directors were quite powerful, exercising control over casting, script and cinematography, for example, and it is reasonable to talk about, say, “John Ford’s My Darling Clementine”, “Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur” or “Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch”. It would be hard to imagine that these films would have been the same with another director. DeMille’s ‘stamp’ was bigness. Huge specially-constructed studio sets, often with back-projection shot by assistant directors, hordes of extras, patriotic fervor and historical sweep mark out many of his pictures, as well as lavish costumes (especially low-cut bodices), vile villains, innuendo and vehement scripts. You might say dime novels on a huge budget. Some of this makes the movies look pretty cheesy to us today, or even sometimes downright bad, but you have to admit they had something, a ‘DeMilleness’ that set them apart. They nearly all make a colorful Hollywood spectacle.