In his 1959 autobiography, legendary movie director Cecil Blount DeMille wrote: “If 1,000 years from now, archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe, I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization, far from being confined to the Valley of the Nile, extended all the way to the Pacific Ocean of North America.” What did C.B. mean by this cryptic statement? (It sounds as if there should be a music sting accompanying it…)
It’s a reference to the “City of the Pharaoh” set that was constructed for his 1923 production of The Ten Commandments, an enormous undertaking that was at that time the largest set in motion picture history. After DeMille and Company called it a wrap on the picture…the set mysteriously disappeared.
Wha’ hoppened? The legend went that DeMille buried the Commandments set in some sand dunes near Guadalupe, CA (he was concerned some rival film company would take advantage of the standing set and lens their own cheapie knockoff) and it was this tale that director-producer Peter Brosnan listened to with rapt attention as he chatted with his friend Bruce Cardozo in a bar in 1982. With the curiosity that’s been known to snuff out the nine lives of felines, Brosnan began a quixotic quest to see if there was anything to the story…and thus, the first small step began on what was ultimately a journey that took place over thirty years.
The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille (2016) is a documentary that tells the tale of Brosnan’s determined mission to preserve important Hollywood history, and has just been made available for digital and VOD. I received an e-mail from Rick Rhoades at Random Media Distribution alerting me to Lost City’s October 3rd release; Rick has apparently heard the rumors that this ‘umble scrap of the blogosphere talks about classic movies, TV, and old-time radio from time to time. I didn’t have to read too far into the e-mail to realize that this was a documentary right in Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s bailiwick.
What makes The Lost City of Cecil DeMille such a splendid watch is that in the style of director David Wark Griffith, it crisscrosses back-and-forth between two compelling narratives. The first is the story of Cecil B. DeMille himself; while we could have a lively argument as to whether or not his religious faith was a lot of self-promoting piety (despite his fifty-six-year marriage to wife Constance, C.B. had adulterous affairs with both longtime scenarist Jeanie Macpherson and actress Julie Faye), there’s no getting around the fact that the director put behinds in theatre seat with such successful “sin and salvation” epics as The King of Kings (1927), The Sign of the Cross (1932), and The Crusades (1935). The 1923 version of The Ten Commandments was his first film with a religious theme and one of the most successful; even though it made back three times its cost in box office receipts, C.B.’s boss at Paramount, Adolph Zukor, never forgave the director for what he believed to be financial profligacy and DeMille ended up starting his own studio that went belly up due to the Wall Street Crash of 1929. After a brief stint at MGM, DeMille returned to the Paramount fold and enjoyed great success with films like Union Pacific (1939), Samson and Delilah (1949), and the Best Picture winner The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)—his directorial swan song, a 1956 remake of Commandments, also became a smash hit (and a TV tradition on Easter).
Lost City features interviews with survivors who worked on both the 1923 and 1956 versions of Commandments, and there are fascinating tidbits about the making of those movies. (I did not know, for example, the secret behind the “parting of the Red Sea” in the 1923 film.) For those individuals who might get bored with the minutia of moviemaking, the narrative shifts at just the right time to chronicle why it took Brosnan so long to conduct an archaeological peek into the dunes to see if the stories about DeMille’s “lost city” were true. Peter got an assist from archaeologist Dr. John Parker, who demonstrated in 1990 with ground-penetrating radar that there was something underneath all that sand. Ultimately, a combination of frustrating factors including stonewalling bureaucrats, competing interests, and the constant need to raise money became so discouraging to Parker that he quit the dig and to this day refuses to discuss the project. (I hesitate to say that this was one of my “favorite” parts of Lost City…but I smiled and nodded at a quote from a Paramount spokesperson who can’t quite fathom why there’s interest in digging up such valuable cinema artifacts—“after all, that was 75 years ago.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose when it comes to preserving film history.)
The presentation of The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille is reminiscent of one of those History Channel documentaries my father likes to watch (he was a fan of that Curse of Oak Island program up to the point where even he realized it was getting monotonous), but what makes it so exceptional is the classic movie angle—my fellow movie mavens are sure to enjoy it as much as I did. “A rare combination of film and cultural history,” observes Leonard Maltin of Lost City, and I second that emotion in urging you to seek out this first-rate documentary at your earliest opportunity. (Thanks again to Rick for the screener!)