The Daily Mirror HQ recently acquired the October 1927 issue of Haldeman-Julius Monthly, which includes Louis Adamic’s “Cecil B. DeMille – Movie Evangelist.” Join him for the premiere of “The King of Kings” the first film shown at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, on May 18, 1927.
CECIL DEMILLE—MOVIE EVANGELIST
BY LOUIS ADAMIC
TOWARD the close of last spring a great event transpired in Hollywood-Sid Grauman opened his new two-or is it three?million-dollar Chinese Theater. Sid, according to his press agents, is “the world’s greatest showman,” and it may be that they are pretty nearly correct. Jointly with a few movie magnates, including De Mille, he owns, or has owned, about half a dozen large and successful first-run movie palaces in Los Angeles and Hollywood; and the new Chinese Theater promises to overshadow the rest.
According to the official description composed by his head publicity man, Sid’s new movie temple reflects “the most glorious period in architectural fantasy, the early Chinese dynasties, authentic in every structural detail, with all the mystery of the Orient suggested in its towering minarets of burnished copper that frown in silent grandeur. The solid facade of masonry forty feet high, surmounted by four ornate obelisks, presents the effect of a huge gate or entrance to a great Oriental garden, and two colossal fountain bowls fashioned to represent stone flowers, catch spray from bronze gargoyles high above, where full-grown palms and rare tropical trees shake their tops.” To those who like fantastic, richly and variously colored, and all around elaborate places, the theater no doubt is impressively, vividly beautiful; while to those who incline toward simplicity and harmony in things, the house, erected in the midst of a lot of American office buildings and hotels, is, to put it mildly, a queer bit of incongruity.
And the first picture to be shown in this heathenish setting is Cecil B. De Mille’s and Jeanie Macpherson’s version of the last three years of the life of the so-called Christian Savior entitled “The King of Kings!” It is almost as if the Pope of Rome would take a notion to celebrate the Holy Mass in a Turkish mosque or a Buddhist temple. But on second thought: why not? Christianity took much from Paganism.
THE Western premiere of “The King of Kings” at Sid’s new Chinese Theater! It’s a great day in Los Angeles, indeed in entire
Southern California; and before I say anything of the play itself I shall sketch briefly the excitement that the opening of one of Sid’s new movie palaces creates in Los Angeles. It will be of interest, I think, to the student of public psychology and high-powered advertising.
Now Sid is of the same shy and retiring disposition as the great Morris Gest, chief barker for that lovely piece of hokum, The Miracle. For weeks before the great event the newspapers and billboards are full of Sid and De Mille and Jesus Christ.
Sid’s first-nights are social events in Southern California. Admission, as a rule, is five dollars, but for “The King of Kings” first night Sid charges eleven dollars [$143.22 USD 2011] and sells out a week before the date. It is an occasion when oil and real estate millionaires, evangelists and the celluloid aristocracy come out in mass with all their glitter.
It’s a great night in Hollywood. The show is scheduled to begin at 8:30, but by 7 o’clock the traffic is tied up in a knot for ten blocks in all directions from the theater, although the ticket-holders are still at their dinners. Here come the common folks, office and shop workers, and the immigrants from Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska, who either could not get a ticket or cannot afford to spend eleven dollars for a movie show, but who are eager to see Doug and Mary, and Connie and Norma, and Gloria Swanson and her new blue-blood husband, and the rest of the equally famous movie people whom Sid has announced through the newspapers to have purchased opening-night tickets. Police reserves and boy-scouts are out to handle the crowds. They stretch ropes to keep the mob from rushing the limousine of some movie darling.
Overhead thousands of Chinese lanterns dangle from wires stretched from building to building for several blocks. Powerful searchlights dance silently in the nearby hills and in the sky. Scores of Kleigs glare. It is 8 o’clock and past the entrance to the theater court there begins to roll a stream of shiny Pierce-Arrows, Cunninghams, and various foreign cars with blinding headlights. The celebrities! The princes and princesses of our “democratic” America! The darlings of Fortune! And the crowd, their faces sick-white in the light of glaring Kleigs, jammed against tight ropes, with a policeman or boy scout every ten feet, stare and gape, now and then letting out an eager cheer as they recognize some well-known star. “Oh, there’s Clara Bow! We seen ‘er last night in Rough-House Rosie. Sure was good.” But Miss Bow is as yet one of the lesser planets in the Hollywood constellation. “Oh, there’s So-and-So.” The famous Miss So-and-So, it seems, is made happy by the applause from the sidewalk; she leans slightly out of the window of her French car, driven by a chauffeur disguised as a Cossack, smiles one of her sweetest screen smiles and waves her tiny lace handkerchief imported from Czechoslovakia. The crowd. is happy: the famous Miss So-and-So has smiled and waved her lace handkerchief to them; and tomorrow scores of letters shall go to Iowa and Ohio and Arkansas informing the cousins back there that Miss So and-So is just too sweet for anything.
Miss So-and-So’s French car draws up in front of the theater court. One of the attendants, a youthful Chinaman dressed in a mandarin coat and hat, opens the doors of her limousine and presently Miss So-and-So steps out, exposing herself to the glaring Kleigs and grinding cameras.
“Now entering the court is Miss So-and-So with her husband, the Marquis _____,” which is radio-broadcast as well as amplified for the crowds five and ten blocks away. (Applause from the sidewalks up and down Hollywood Boulevard.) And while Miss So-and So and her Marquis cross the court, the crowds and Radioland are informed that the lady is wearing such-and-such a gown and such-and-such jewels, all of which is noted by society reporters and next morning printed in the newspapers. Every celebrity, from Czar Will Hays and Cecil DeMille all the way down to the least of last year’s crop of baby stars, and each name sends a thrill through the crowds on the sidewalks.
Once the celebrities are safely inside and the show begins, the crowds are permitted to enter the court. They gape at the “celestial magnificence” of the exterior, but before long they spot the blocks of concrete in the middle of the court where Gloria Swanson, Connie and Norma Talmadge and Mary and Doug have their signatures and foot- and hand-prints graven under such testimonials as “Love Always to Sid!” or “Sid dear: My wish is for your success” or “Good luck, Sid”-which, of course, is far more interesting and important to the average movie fan than all Chinese architecture put together. The folks are thrilled by the smallness of Gloria’s step and they laugh at the large foot of Douglas Fairbanks. They try to fit their own feet into the impressions and laugh and giggle. Who cares about the architectural authenticity of the new theater or its towering minarets of burnished copper which, it is claimed, frown in silent grandeur, when here are the foot- and hand-prints of living objects of admiration. Oh, Sid is a most clever young man: if the folks are unable to discuss the five Chinese periods of architectural art represented in his new movie temple, he will have them talk and write back home about Gloria’s and Connie’s and Norma’s and Doug’s and Mary’s feet and hands!
The interior is dazzling, barbaric. Ushers in Chinese costumes, with fantastic headgear, take one to the seat. Huge columns, suggestions of temples and imperial palaces, a confusion of gold and light. Dazzling …..
* * * * * *
THE motion picture is preceded by a prologue: scenes from the Scriptures–“dance of the palms,” chant of Israelite high priests, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, the Star of Bethlehem, the Nativity, the flight from Egypt, and so on, each scene a living reproduction of some famous painting. Then, at last, “The King of Kings,” the movie gospel according to Cecil B. De Mille, the director, and Jeanie Macpherson, the scenarist. One of the first subtitles informs the audience that the picture was produced in compliance with the oft-expressed wish of Jesus Christ that his Message be carried all over the world. Cecil De Mille -evangelist !
De Mille is a shrewd director, but he is an even greater businessman, and he knows that evengelism pays high in these Christian States. His first sermon-movie, “The Ten Commandments,” yielded him a huge financial success, but “The King of Kings,” judging from the start that it has, will be at least twice as successful. For every pulpiteer in the country turns into a barker for the show as soon as it hits town. For four Sundays after the play opened at Hollywood the preachers in Southern California preached about it from their pulpits; and even now, two months after the opening, with no additional advertising on the part of Sid, one has difficulty securing a good seat unless reserved days ahead.
Photo: Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdalene in a two-strip color sequence in “The King of Kings.”
Personally, I went to see the picture with a prejudiced mind. Most of the evils of the past and the present, and most of the unhappiness on earth I trace to religions centered in some personality such as Jesus; and of all religions the Christian hokum seems to me the most awful in its effects upon its followers and upon mankind in general. If I could I would not hesitate a moment to wipe Christianity out of existence; and so when along comes a man like Cecil B. DeMille, a great film director, who commands a powerful means of education and, instead of using it for that purpose, perverts it, for the sake of making a few million dollars, into a medium of religious propaganda ten times as effective as all pulpit sermons in the country, it is natural for me to resent the fact. He gives the world, already saturated in bunk, a pictorially and technically almost perfect episodic depiction of the last three years of Christ’s life as it is written in the four Gospels, which have repeatedly been shown up by reputed and disinterested scholars as largely if not wholly fictitious without hinting with so much as a word that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, his biographers, were in what anthropologists call the mythological stage of intellectual development, and that, therefore, the story may be little more than a legend pure and simple, not unlike the story of Buddha and scores of other saviors, Christian and pagan.
On the whole DeMille’s Jesus, as vague as he is, is a distinct improvement upon the crazy personality of the four Gospels; and on that account, perhaps, the more effective. De Mille eliminates most of the “miracles” mentioned in the New Testament; there is, for instance, no feeding of the multitude with a few fishes and a few loaves of bread, nor walking upon the surface of water, nor turning water into wine (though I suppose that this was omitted for fear of offending the prohibitionists). There is considerable healing of the sick and afflicted, and in one instance Jesus sends Peter fishing and the latter hooks a fish with a large Roman coin in its mouth, sufficient to pay taxes to Caesar. DeMille’s Jesus pulls a good many charlatanic tricks; but, on the other hand, the Sermon on the Mount is almost completely forgotten, and so are the parables. It seems that Director De Mille and his scenarist strove to appeal to the simplest of minds; there is nothing in his Christ to appeal to the really intelligent, thinking man or to the man of imagination.
DeMille’s Christ is a god created in the image of the average present-day Christian believer-unheroic, anemic. If the average moviegoer could think, or had some information on the basis of which he could do some straight thinking, I would have no quarrel with “The King of Kings.” For unwittingly DeMille has created a Christ devoid of dynamic reality. It would be interesting to get the view of the picture of some intelligent heathen who has never read the New Testament or Papini’s Life or gone to Sunday school. I wager that he would be greatly puzzled by DeMille’s Jesus. The “miracles” that he performs on the screen just happen, that is. all. The people just follow him, and one is unable to perceive why. He “cures” people, but unlike Aimee Semple McPherson, who while at the business displays a certain dynamic force, he just “cures” them, that is all. He chases the money-changers out of the temple, but as they run before him one wonders why they are running. He is unreal. That may not be the fault of H.B. Warner, the actor who plays the part, but DeMille’s, who strove to make a Christ that would offend no Christian and as a result succeeded in making a good portrait of a myth. But, of course, the average movie-goer is a yokel, his cranium already crammed with the four Gospels, and this film, which his pastor will urge him to see, will serve to give movement to his ideas previously vitalized by dynamic pulpit-thumpers.
Photo: Christ (H.B. Warner) emerges from the tomb in a two-strip color sequence in “The King of Kings.”
The picture is effective, even beautiful in spots; there is a good deal of excellent acting. Ernest Torrence as Peter and the man who plays Pontius Pilate are excellent; Judas is very good, and so is Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdalene in the first few scenes.
Cecil DeMille recently expressed his pride in the alleged fact that the luxurious bathroom scenes in his films in the past have served to accelerate the evolution of American bathroom plumbing. American bathroom plumbing is not perfect yet; I wish he would resume producing films with elegant bathtubs and, so long as he fears to offend the preachers, leave the Bible alone.