Kevin Brownlow on Cecil B DeMille: ‘controversial, innovative and funny’

This is a guest post for Silent London by Kevin Brownlow, the Oscar-winning film historian, filmmaker and author. On 16 November 2019 the Kennington Bioscope is holding a Cecil B DeMille Day at the Cinema Museum in London, in honour of the great director who started out in the silent era. The programme for the day has been curated by Brownlow and includes prints from his own 16mm collection. All the silent films will have live piano accompaniment. Here Brownlow introduces his highlights of the day and DeMille himself.

When did you last notice anyone screening a Cecil B DeMille Retrospective? He is the most neglected of the Great Pioneers – DW Griffith, Thomas Ince and  Mack Sennett – and yet he could be as controversial as Griffith, as innovative as Ince and as funny as Sennett.

The DeMille Day opens with Cecil B DeMille: American Epic, an hour-long documentary (from Photoplay) about DeMille’s silent career, with interview subjects including DeMille himself, Gloria Swanson, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Elmer Bernstein who wrote the music for this documentary as well as for The Ten Commandments.

The following films will be screened from not-to-be-missed 16mm prints, which are all good quality.

The Little American (1917). With DeMille’s good luck, this propaganda film was ready for production just as the United States entered the war. DeMille cast Mary Pickford, the best-loved woman in the world, and showed her torpedoed aboard a Lusitania-style liner. The British government sent to Hollywood an Intelligence Officer, (the author Ian Hay) to ensure that the British outlook towards the Germans was adhered to. Amazingly, the European episodes became a template for the Rudolph Valentino epic, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).

The Little American (Cecil B  DeMille, 1917)
The Little American (Cecil B DeMille, 1917)

The Cheat (1915): In an era when Japan was our ally, Sessue Hayakawa was a major star in America and in Europe. The French were so impressed by this film they remade it twice, and turned it into an opera. This beautiful tinted print, made from DeMille’s personal nitrate, once and for all dispels the myths about silent films being jerky, flickery and quaint.

The Whispering Chorus (1918) is one of the most remarkable – and overlooked – dramas of the ‘teens, about a man facing the electric chair for his own murder.

Why Change Your Wife? (1920)

Why Change Your Wife? (1920) is a delicious comedy with Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels and Thomas Meighan. A modern story, bang up-to-date despite the fact that it was made one year short of a century ago. DeMille’s inspired detail-direction ensures that audiences can see as if by Time Machine just what it was like to be young in 1920.

By Kevin Brownlow


10.00 Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic (2004)
Television documentary directed by Kevin Brownlow and produced by Patrick Stanbury.

11.15 The Cheat (1915)
Piano accompaniment by Lillian Henley.

12.20 LUNCH

13.15 The Little American (1917)
Piano accompaniment by John Sweeney.

14.40 The Whispering Chorus (1918)
Piano accompaniment by Lillian Henley.

16.25 Male and Female (1919)
Piano accompaniment by Colin Sell.

18.30 DINNER

19.45 DeMille Accident Reel – a collection of ‘bloopers’, including Fannie Ward falling off the little bridge while walking towards Sessue Hayakawa’s house in The Cheat.
Why Change Your Wife? (1920)
Piano accompaniment by Colin Sell.

2 thoughts on “Kevin Brownlow on Cecil B DeMille: ‘controversial, innovative and funny’”

  1. What a great day, I wish I could attend. I rewatched American Epic recently-ish, it’s a great doco. Thank you, Kevin!
    (Also, I’m delighted that you linked to my post on Sessue Hayakawa’s His Birthright!)

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