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Cecil B. Demille: A Life in Art

Cecil B. Demille: A Life in Art

by Simon Louvish

Cecil B. DeMille is Hollywood’s most enduring legend, remembered, and often reviled, for his grandiose biblical sagas, such as Samson and Delilah and his 1956 version of The Ten Commandments, with its cast of tens of thousands before computer graphics made the modern epic mundane. Many judged DeMille a dinosaur both for his movies and his


Cecil B. DeMille is Hollywood’s most enduring legend, remembered, and often reviled, for his grandiose biblical sagas, such as Samson and Delilah and his 1956 version of The Ten Commandments, with its cast of tens of thousands before computer graphics made the modern epic mundane. Many judged DeMille a dinosaur both for his movies and his ultraconservative politics. But in his vision of the Bible as an American frontier narrative he recast this old trend in American culture as a cinematic precursor of the “neoconservatism” of our own times.

The paradox of DeMille goes deeper, as despite his fame, most of his seventy films, of which fifty were silent pictures, remain unknown even to avid film fans, though his first 1923 version of The Ten Commandments and his 1927 tale of Jesus Christ, King of Kings, linger in the imagination. A founder-pioneer of Hollywood as an industry, DeMille was an unsung auteur, a master of increasingly bizarre narratives, with tales of adultery and divorce, hedonism and sin, in an age in which modernity, the consumer society, and the pursuit of money made America a battlefield of clashing values and temptations.

Simon Louvish tells the tale of Cecil B. DeMille through his work: a major reexamination of Hollywood’s most monumental founder. Savant or sinner, artist or hack, defender of freedom or a hypocritical opportunist who embraced the golden calf of sheer commercialism, DeMille is a pervasive puzzle—-a mirror of the larger puzzle and contradictions of America itself.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Simon Louvish

“Louvish is a biographer who leaves few stones unturned.”—-Los Angeles Times on Mae West

“Meticulously researched.” —-USA Today on Mae West

“Louvish’s painstakingly researched and shrewd biography tells all about Mae—-body, libido, and, perhaps most surprisingly and fascinatingly, mind.”—The Atlantic on Mae West

“Louvish is at his best in discussing how Laurel and Hardy, unlike most of the great silent-film comedians, had no trouble making the transition to sound.”—-The New York Times on Stan and Ollie

“Thanks to a lively, affectionate writer, we can glimpse the great clowns at work.”

—-The Dallas Morning News on Stan and Ollie

“Louvish’s wide-eyed love for his subjects’ simple, forthright, and hardworking desire to please will bring down the house.”—-Kirkus Reviews (starred review) on Stan and Ollie

“Mr. Louvish has written a well-researched and playful version of this hysterical history.”—-Orlando Sentinel on Monkey Business

“Louvish is a . . . committed researcher.” —-The New York Times Book Review on Monkey Business

“Told with tremendous style and sparkle, Louvish’s composite portrait of the Marx Brothers offers an indispensable overview of the actors’ saga.”—-Publishers Weekly on Monkey Business

Andrew Sarris
To his credit, Louvish does not gloss over DeMille's deficiencies and excesses; rather, he very scrupulously records them as crucial clues in a genuinely complex story rich in contradictions and paradoxes…for all its length and copious detail, Louvish's biography is a great read and, incidentally, a fascinating history of a life lived to the hilt through a long, turbulent segment of our time.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

London-based novelist Louvish (The Cosmic Follies) is a former documentary filmmaker who has written biographies of W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Mae West. Shifting from comedy to drama, he surveys the career of pioneering director DeMille in this well-researched, unauthorized biography. When the DeMille estate offered no assistance, Louvish was forced "to relate DeMille's saga largely through his films," so the reader gets only occasional brief glimpses of the director's "harem" of mistresses and similar intimate items of his private life. DeMille is mainly remembered today as the creator of lavish Hollywood epics such as Samson and Delilah(1949) and The Ten Commandments(1956), but the flamboyant biblical spectacles were only a fraction of DeMille's 80 films. His 1930s films focused on frontier America, and during that same period he became a familiar voice in American households, reaching 40 million weekly listeners as the host of the popular Lux Radio Theater. Louvish highlights the hokum and hype, but he also offers his insightful analyses of the films, capturing the "pictorial beauty" and apocalyptic aspects along with DeMille's working methods and industry innovations. 58 b&w illus. (Mar. 4)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

Louvish (Mae West; Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy), known for his meticulous biographical research, offers the first major biography of legendary Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille in over a quarter of a century, following a current trend of reexamining DeMille's film career and his place in film history. Louvish explains that DeMille does not deserve to be marginalized as the innovator of the biblical epic; of DeMille's 70 films, Louvish writes, "only eight of these could be called 'epics'...only four were 'Biblical' films." With careful research and a nuanced consideration of his subject, Louvish explores DeMille's special niche in film, that of "sex and God." He also reconsiders his role as a film pioneer and one of the founders of the "celluloid cathedral" that is Hollywood to this day. Louvish's biography will stand as an invaluable contribution to the understanding of DeMille and his place in film history. Highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries.
—Teri Shiel

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Reviews
A biography as sprawling as one of the director's epics. Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959) often asked the multitudes of actors gathered on the set of one of his biblical tales to pause for a moment of prayer. Later, on some nights, DeMille invited members of the company back to his estate for a bacchanal to which some, rumors have it, brought their own whips. This was DeMille in life and on film: angelic choruses and hoochy-coochy girls. Film historian Louvish (Mae West: It Ain't No Sin, 2006, etc.) reaches one obvious conclusion: DeMille was "a hypocrite." But rather than dig through DeMille's laundry, Louvish concentrates on the 70 films the director lensed in nearly 50 years. The author devotes more than half of the book to DeMille's silent films, many of which, he contends, are overlooked gems. Overshadowing these early, gentle works-light comedies and domestic dramas-are the thumping spectacles from DeMille's sound period: The Greatest Show on Earth, Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments. Louvish packs in detail the way the director packed extras into the scene of the Israelites departing for the Promised Land in The Ten Commandments. A half page, for example, is devoted to W.W. Hodkinson, who revolutionized the way movies were produced and distributed. Despite the detail, Louvish comes up with muddled, equivocal answers to many fundamental questions: Who and what defined the DeMille style, if indeed one existed? Was DeMille an artist or, as many argue, a shameless huckster? Why did his spectacle films, however leaden, clean up at the box office? Were audiences enraptured with the often fundamentalist religious zeal the films bespoke? What in DeMille's life presaged his lifelonganti-communist, anti-union fervor?A diffuse, blurry portrait of an American icon.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Second Edition
Product dimensions:
6.76(w) x 9.09(h) x 1.80(d)

Meet the Author

Simon Louvish has written eleven works of fiction and five previous movie biographies of Hollywood’s classic stars: Mae West, W. C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and Mack Sennett. He lives in London, England, but wanders as far afield as China and California on occasion.

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