As has been the case with nearly every technical innovation in the visual arts since the first man painted pictures on a cave wall, sex proved to be a key selling point in the marketing of the new motion picture technology to curious audiences. In 1896, just six years after Thomas Edison began his experiments with film, William Heise recorded May Irwin and John C. Rice recreating the kiss from their Broadway hit, The Widow Jones.
The resulting twenty second clip—called, appropriately enough, The Kiss—was the first such act ever recorded on film. The moralizing classes reacted with outraged spluttering; the paying public made it Edison's top grossing film of the year.
Other filmmakers quickly scrambled to sell their own take on this most important of human endeavors, as the resulting efforts serve as something of a Rorschach test for directors, writers, actors and the audiences themselves. Georges Méliès, for example, chose to titillate his audiences with suggestions of nudity. Russian, Italian, Swedish and Dutch directors offered up sex as a source of tragedy and misery. America's greatest director, D.W. Griffith, moralized, while his comic counterpart, Mack Sennett, guffawed. That Theda Bara—whose name was famously billed as an anagram of "Arab Death"—wound up representing both the allure and the danger of sex in the late 1910s tells you all you need to know about the state of the American psyche during the first world war.
But sex as something adults engage in without shame or embarrassment—well, not so much. We tend to assume, when think of it at all, that sophisticated sex in the cinema must have been the invention of Ernst Lubitsch. And while it's true Lubitsch was a master of the light touch when it came to the subject, he didn't really acquire that touch until 1924, with The Marriage Circle. Before that, he tended toward heavy costume dramas and broad farces.
Instead, the sophisticated sex movie was a creation from the most unlikely of sources—cinema's most famous purveyor of Bible epics and historical dramas, Cecil Blount DeMille.
Some of my readers—those reared on The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Show On Earth—might guffaw to read his name in the same sentence with "sophisticated" and "sex," but the fact is, beginning in 1918 with Old Wives For New, DeMille reeled off a series of "nervously brilliant, intimate melodramas" and "sly marital comedies" (Scott Eyman, Empire of Dreams) centering on the notion that grown ups engage in sexual relations and are glad that they do.
The son of a playwright and an acting teacher, DeMille began acting in New York at the age of nineteen and in little more than a decade became a successful Broadway director and producer. He also wrote several one-act operettas for producer Jesse L. Lasky and it was this association that led him into motion pictures. Lasky aspired to combine what he saw as the "high art" of theater with the money-making potential of mass-produced movies, and with the reluctant financial backing of his brother-in-law, Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn), Lasky teamed up with DeMille to found the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Film Company.
It was a grandiose gesture considering that neither man had ever made so much as a one-reel short before, but the two set off for the western United States to film a feature-length version of The Squaw Man, a popular stage play of the era. The two stopped first in Flagstaff, Arizona, but DeMille pictured wide open spaces rather than mountains for the wild west storyline, so they continued west until they settled in a sleepy village north of Los Angeles called "Hollywood."
Legend has it that they set up shop in a barn, but legend neglects to mention that L.L. Burns and Harry Reiver, a couple of established filmmakers with American Gaumont, had converted the barn into a studio nine months earlier. No matter. The Squaw Man was the first feature film ever made in Hollywood, and when it grossed $244,000 on an investment of $15,000, DeMille's future was assured.
Although DeMille's education as a film director consisted of a day spent at the Edison studios to see how the cameras worked, and watching Oscar Apfel "co"-direct The Squaw Man, he quickly demonstrated a grasp of the film medium superior to all but a few of his peers. In his biography Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood, Robert S. Birchard notes that within a half-dozen movies of his first one, DeMille had moved the camera closer to his actors, "showing a greater reliance on personality and subtlety of performance," had picked up the pace of both individual scenes and his films as a whole, and, by using light and shadow in a groundbreaking way to accent (or obscure) aspects of the production, "set a much-imitated standard for visual excellence."
In all, DeMille directed thirty-seven movies between 1914 and early 1918, dipping into a variety of genres including Westerns, costume dramas and even a pair of Mary Pickford movies. The best of these early films was The Cheat, made in 1915 and featuring Sessue Hayakawa in a star-making role as an unscrupulous businessman who barters money for sex from a spoiled housewife and then brands her with an iron when she reneges on the deal.
As Simon Louvish notes in his biography Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art, The Cheat "electrified audiences, who were not accustomed to this degree of emotion in a tale dealing with rampant sexual desire ...."
These early films demonstrated DeMille's interest in melodrama, spectacle and lurid romance, which perhaps explains his interest in the subject of his thirty-eighth film, a popular novel called Old Wives For New (available free online here). Business partner Jesse Lasky pushed this story of a marriage that disintegrates in boredom, adultery and divorce to get DeMille "away from the spectacle stuff for one or two pictures and try to do modern stories of great human interest."
And since Lasky was the one footing the bill, DeMille chose to follow his advice. The studio bought the film rights for $6,500.
Although the novel's author, David Graham Phillips, was a pretty interesting character in his own right—a muckraking journalist who exposed the nexus between corporate money and the U.S. Senate, he was murdered by a man who believed Phillips had libeled his family—the novel itself was 495 pages of "clover" and "heaving bosoms," turning a tale that included adultery, murder, blackmail and skullduggery into something earnest and flowery and dull.
To adapt the novel, DeMille turned to his favorite writer—and favorite mistress—Jeanie Macpherson. During their long sexual and professional relationship, MacPherson worked on forty screenplays for DeMille, including such silent classics as The Cheat, Joan the Woman, Male and Female, The Affairs of Anatol, The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings.
To condense the sprawling tale, Macpherson reduced an episodic narrative spread out over decades into three tight acts with a single flashback to explain how the bored husband had ever fallen for his plump, drab, dowdy wife in the first place. She also added witty intertitles that transformed the melodrama into a sharp satire of upper-class manners.
As the film begins, oil baron Charles Murdock (Elliott Dexter) is on the verge of what we now call a mid-life crisis. While he's respected as a "genius" in the world of business, at home he's little more than a cipher—a human ATM machine to his kids, a nursemaid to his hypochondriac wife. He sits alone in his study, dejected, depressed, with only his dog for companionship.
Next, DeMille introduces us in shotgun fashion to the five supporting characters who will combine to remake Murdock's life—Sylvia Ashton as his not-so-pleasingly plump wife; Marcia Manon as a "painted lady;" Florence Vidor as Juliette Raeburn, a successful New York dressmaker, who, according to the intertitles, "was finally to cut the thread of his fate;" and two of the finest character actors of the silent era, Gustav von Seyffertitz as his "crafty" secretary; and Theodore Roberts as Murdock's dissolute business partner.
In each of these vignettes, DeMille shows a close-up of the character's hands—the wife picking through bon bons, the courtesan reaching for rouge—as if to say that a person is what he does not what he says, and no matter what he believes about himself or wants you to believe about him, his actions will always reveal his true character.
After following Murdock through his frustrating morning routine, DeMille treats us to the most cleverly edited sequence of the film, a flashback to Murdock's initial courtship of his wife that cuts back and forth between the young couple and his present-day wife bursting in on her husband's reverie, as if she's catching them in flagrante delicto—a remarkable show of faith on DeMille's part that, even though the classical Hollywood "style" had only become the industry standard the year before, his audience would understand what's going on.
Similarly, DeMille later uses lap dissolves and iris-shots-within-iris-shots to convey the content of Murdock's daydreams, trusting his audience to understand what he saying without spelling it out in clumsy intertitles or belabored scenes, a testament both to how quickly film had progressed in five years and how cutting edge DeMille really was. As a result, he's able to maintain a sprightly pace—and sweep past some of the story's more improbable twists.
Technical innovations aside, though, it was the substance of Old Wives For New that made the film so groundbreaking.
The married Murdock meets Juliette, fools her into believing he's a much younger—and unattached—man, and falls in love with her. Attempting to drown both the memory of Juliette and the misery of his domestic situation, Murdock follows his business partner into the champagne-soaked fleshpots of New York City, an excursion that leads to murder, scandal and divorce (a sequence of events that must have reminded audiences in 1918 of Stanford White's murder during a musical revue on the roof of Madison Square Garden).
In turning this set-up into a happy ending, DeMille essentially made a pre-Code film before there was a Code to subvert, dispensing with karma and moral judgment, and putting the fun back into sex, sin and every kind of bad behavior. People drink, lie, carouse and generally defy social mores, and not only suffer no consequences, they prosper. Murder goes unpunished, adultery is rewarded and divorce is presented as a sane and sophisticated solution to an unhappy marriage.
"In scene after scene," Birchard wrote, "Old Wives for New must have been startling for 1918 audiences." Photoplay condemned the film's "disgusting debauchery" and clucked that "Cecil B. DeMille, director, seemed to revel in the most immoral episodes."
Adolph Zukor was so shocked by the film's suggestion that divorce might be the appropriate end for some marriages that he held up its distribution, only relenting after positive reactions during audience testing.
Old Wives For New premiered on May 19, 1918, and Photoplay's sputtering outrage aside, the reviews were generally positive. "There are somewhat risqué situations in the story," The Motion Picture News wrote, "but these have been handled delicately. It is not a story that children will understand, and it is one that the prudes will consider a reflection on themselves. All in all, it is one of the most satisfactory pictures that has been shown on Broadway in months."
Variety praised DeMille's direction as "expert."
Financially, the picture did well, grossing nearly $300,000 on a budget of $66,000, but its impact on the culture was even greater, ushering in an era of adult-themed movies, including not only DeMille's own risque classics Male and Female and The Affairs of Anatol (adding Gloria Swanson to the mix), but also Chaplin's A Woman of Paris, Murnau's Sunrise and pretty much Lubitsch's entire oeuvre.
"Those who find it fashionable to denigrate [DeMille]," wrote Gene Ringgold and DeWitt Boden in The Films of Cecil B. DeMille, "ignore the high regard in which his work as a director was held by critics and film historians during those first years ... Among directors, only his name and those of D.W. Griffith and Alfred Hitchcock were really sufficient in themselves to attract top box-office trade."
Maybe in the long run, DeMille's primary contribution was in figuring out how to sell sex to American audiences that were both curious and squeamish. Here, he hit it directly; later he dressed it up in historical and Biblical epics that allowed his audiences to piously condemned the sin while lingering over every salacious detail. He let the public have its cake and eat it too, and was rewarded with forty-two years of unbroken commercial success—one of the longest and most profitable careers in Hollywood history.
His kind of films long ago went out of fashion, but don't kid yourself: DeMille was as instrumental during the silent era as Griffith and Chaplin in selling the habit of movie-going to American audiences, no small accomplishment.