Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Redhead Room, Circa 1916

In a comment to my last post about W.C. Handy, Mister Muleboy noted that he had taken advantage of my implied invitation to climb into the Monkey's head, but was disappointed to find the redhead wing of my brain closed to the public.

So, who would have been lurking in the Redhead Room, circa 1916? Here are a few possibilities, in the order I ran across them in my research:

Too many Impressionist paintings to mention. Make a trip to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Soon.

Lily Langtry, stage actress and royal mistress (who I wrote about at length here)

Sarah Bernhardt, possibly the greatest stage actress in history

Anne of Green Gables, a novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery published in 1908, with two of seven sequels published by 1916. And, yes, I've read it.

Dame Ellen Terry, British stage actress

Raggedy Ann, famous doll first introduced in 1915

Irene Franklin, vaudeville comedienne who recorded her signature song "Redhead" in 1907

Margaret Sanger, who opened the first birth control clinic in America in 1916 and who would later found Planned Parenthood

and possibly Ella Hall, a silent screen actress who made her first movie in 1912 and would play "Polly Redhead" in the film of the same name in 1917, which may or may not have meant she was a redhead.

Hope this will tide you over until the next visit to the Redhead Room.

W.C. Handy And Those "St. Louis Blues"

It's been March 1916 in my head this week and what do you listen to when it's 1916? Why, W.C. Handy, of course. Known as "The Father of the Blues," Handy turned a fairly obscure regional musical style into a national phenomenon.

Among his most popular tunes were "Memphis Blues," "Beale Street Blues" and this one, "St. Louis Blues."

It's good to be inside my head this week.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Peter Lorre's Birthday

Did you know it was Peter Lorre's birthday? Well, now you do. This is what I wrote about him previously, in my review of Fritz Lang's M.

He spent his entire professional life playing mad scientists, sinister criminals and oily little weasels, his goggle-eyes and oft-imitated raspy, accented voice became the movie personification of evil, and yet nothing in Peter Lorre's long film career quite prepares you for his chilling portrayal of movie history's first serial killer, Hans Beckert of Fritz Lang's classic psychological thriller, M.

No charming, chianti-sipping killer is Beckert—he preys on little girls, luring them with balloons and candy and kind words before leading them into the woods or an empty lot to perform his sadistic, depraved rituals. That by the end of the movie you also question the motives and methods of Beckert's would-be judges, indeed, that some in the audience even feel sympathy for him, is a testament to Lorre's talent, Lang's direction and Thea von Harbou's screenplay, and though he played the part in 1931 and literally hundreds of imitators have followed, I would argue Lorre's Beckert is the most convincing portrait of a serial killer ever essayed, one that makes more recent depictions seem like what they in fact are—cartoon monsters and manipulative contrivances.

As the movie opens, Berlin is already in turmoil as a serial killer preys with impunity on the city's children, eight so far, with the promise of more murders to come.

"Just you wait," sing the children as they play a game, "it won't be long/The man in black will soon be here/With his cleaver's blade so true/He'll make mincemeat out of you!" not quite grasping, as their panicked parents do, just how close the danger really is. And indeed, as one of the children, little Elsie Beckmann, wanders away from her playmates to bounce a ball against a poster seeking information about the killer, Peter Lorre's shadow appears in profile. His back to us, whistling a tune, he buys the girl a balloon and quietly leads her away.

And then as Elsie's mother calls for her child with greater and greater urgency, we see some of the most unforgettable images in movie history—the ball rolling out of the woods, the balloon caught in a power line—that signal that despite all the precautions, another murder has taken place. Unlike the other famous motion picture monsters of 1931, Dracula and Frankenstein, this monster has lost none of his power to shock and there's no retreating into the comforting reassurances that it's just a movie—M was inspired by real events and they are repeated today with appalling regularity.

Lorre actually spends relatively little time on screen and has only one large speaking part, hence the supporting award. In fact, M is first and foremost a police procedural, maybe the first in movie history, as well as a scathing attack on the German society then in the process of sweeping Hitler into power. But it's Lorre's performance that holds the movie together, breathes a sinister life into it, and afterwards, he's what you remember.

We glimpse his shadow, his back, briefly his face a mirror, but not until nearly fifty minutes into the movie do we see Lorre full on, buying an apple from a street vendor. And it's as he's feeding this physical hunger that he sees his next victim and another, terrible hunger hollows him out.

"I have to roam the streets endlessly," he later says, describing the moment, "always sensing that someone's following me. It's me! I'm shadowing myself! Silently, but I still hear it! Yes, sometimes I feel like I'm tracking myself down. I want to run—run away from myself! But I can't! I can't escape from myself! I must take the path that it's driving me down and run and run down endless streets! I want off! And with me run the ghosts of the mothers and children. They never go away. They're always there! Always! Always! Always! Except—when I'm doing it—when I—Then I don't remember a thing. Then I'm standing before a poster, reading what I've done. I read and read—I did that? I don't remember a thing! But who will believe me? Who knows what it's like inside me? How it screams and cries out inside me when I have to do it! Don't want to! Must! Don't want to! Must! And then a voice cries out, and I can't listen anymore! Help! I can't! I can't! I can't!"

It's Lorre's only lengthy speech of the movie, but boy, what a speech, and so convincing is his anger, fear, pleading, wheedling, all the classic stages of grief in the face of a certain death sentence, some critics and audience members forget that it's a self-serving rationalization. The very first time we see Lorre's face, in a mirror, he's pulling comical faces, "to see in himself the monster others see in him," as Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert puts it, and enjoying what he sees. He writes taunting letters to the newspapers while whistling the same tune he whistled as he killed little Elsie Beckmann. And he has the presence of mind to break off a pursuit of a new victim when there's a chance he'll get caught.

It takes a brilliant piece of acting to make you forget that this sweaty, self-loathing weasel has murdered nine children. Viewers (then and now) aren't used to this sort of complex characterization and they wait in vain for the director and the actor to tell them how to feel and what to think. Lorre and Lang were going for something deeper, more lasting. Is he insane, is he bluffing, what should the mob do with him? Here's the messy reality, the movie says, make of it what you will.

Peter Lorre was born Laszlo Lowenstein in 1904 in Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia), but ran away to Vienna at an early age where he worked as a bank clerk and (he claimed) studied briefly with Sigmund Freud before turning to acting, a profession so difficult to break into that Lorre later said, "I am the only actor, I believe, who really had scurvy." Moving to Berlin, the young actor worked with playwright Bertolt Brecht, starring in Mann ist Mann where he came to the attention of Fritz Lang. His performance in M made him an international star.

The Jewish Lorre fled Germany in 1933 soon after the Nazis came to power, eventually landing in London where he starred in Alfred Hitchcock's 1934 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. At the time of his first interview with Hitchcock, Lorre spoke little English and bluffed his way through the conversation by watching as Hitchcock told stories and then laughing uproariously whenever he thought the director had reached a punchline. Whether Lorre fooled Hitchcock, I can't say, but Lorre got the part and learned his lines phonetically.

His performance in The Man Who Knew Too Much led Lorre directly to starring roles in Hollywood, beginning with Mad Love and Crime and Punishment in 1935. He followed those with dozens of suspense and mystery movies for Warner Brothers including eight Mr. Moto movies, and in 1941 perhaps his best Hollywood role, that of Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon.

The latter movie was the first of Lorre's nine pairings with character actor Sydney Greenstreet, surely one of the most unlikely of Hollywood's successful screen teams, one tall and overweight with a bellowing English stage actor's voice, the other short and thin with a raspy German accent, neither of them remotely attractive and usually playing criminals. Outside of The Maltese Falcon and 1943's Casablanca, the best of their pairings was probably The Mask of Dimitrios, an atmospheric conspiracy thriller that has Lorre and Greenstreet backtracking the trail of the mysterious Dimitrios Makropoulos, international assassin, smuggler and spy.

Despite a career of unforgettable supporting work, Lorre was never nominated for an Oscar.

During the television era, Lorre made numerous guest appearances spoofing his own image and he was often imitated. His cartoon self frequently battled Bugs Bunny, Robin Williams imitated him in Disney's Aladdin and he was the inspiration for Ren in the animated series Ren and Stimpy. In 1997, the Brooklyn band The World/Inferno Friendship Society released an album entirely about Lorre entitled Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter Lorre's Twentieth Century. Last year BBC radio broadcast Michael Butt's play Peter Lorre v. Peter Lorre.

Lorre himself shrugged at the sincerest form of flattery. "All that anyone needs to imitate me," he said, "is two soft-boiled eggs and a bedroom voice."

Although as a performer he reached legendary status, Lorre was in his personal life lonely and depressed, addicted to morphine, bad with money. He was married three times and fathered one child, a daughter, Catherine. He worked right up until his death in 1964.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Happy Birthday, June Lockhart

Today is June Lockhart's birthday. As you may or may not know, she's a redhead and she starred on Lost in Space, which automatically puts her on some sort of short list with me.

She was also in Meet Me In St. Louis, one of the best movies of 1944, she was on Lassie, she was on Petticoat Junction, and she was in a stage production of Steel Magnolias I saw back before the movie version came along and made a mess of it.

What else do you need to know? She's the daughter of one of the all-time great character actors, Gene Lockhart, who you may remember as the idiot sheriff in His Girl Friday and the very wishy-washy judge in Miracle on 34th Street. She won a Tony Award in 1948. And most importantly in my book, she's still alive! Being alive carries a lot of weight with me.

So, happy birthday, June Lockhart!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Ten: Best Actresses Of All Time Relay

The Monkey has been tagged as the next participant in what is being called "The Ten: Best Actresses of All Time Relay Race." Also known as "the meme with an oddly-placed colon in the middle." The idea being this: that the blog master at My Film Views came up with a list of those actresses he (and/or she, I'm not sure which) feels are the ten best ever.

And then he tags some other blogger and says "take one name off the list and add one of your own and pass it on." Forever. Research reveals that this list originally started in 1927 and included such names as Sarah Bernhardt and Nefertiti.

Anyway, Natalie over at In The Mood has passed the baton on to me. Natalie, who is co-hosting the Great Recasting Blogathon on July 27-28, is currently responsible for my latest obsession, which is making posters for silent era "pre-makes" of post-1966 movies. I've done twenty-two so far, plus written a separate 1000+ word essay about a twenty-third movie.

The good news is that as a result, I've really crawled inside Photoshop Elements and learned a lot. The bad news is that the human race will one day vanish from the universe like a soap bubble and I'll have done nothing much to stop that from happening.

Oh, well.

The list is currently as follows: 1.Barbara Stanwyck 2.Ingrid Bergman 3.Isabelle Huppert 4.Joan Crawford 5.Juliette Binoche 6.Maggie Cheung 7.Katharine Hepburn 8.Meryl Streep 9.Lillian Gish 10.Olivia de Havilland.

Okay, five of those names would be on my top ten, and three more are at least vaguely defensible.

Which leaves Juliette Binoche and Maggie Cheung on my "to be booted" list. Both are fine actresses to be sure. Both have multiple international acting awards. And Binoche has won as Oscar.

But neither has had much of an impact in this country—Cheung's best known film according to is Hero, Binoche's is probably The English Patient, although she's better in Three Colors: Blue—and call me a parochial xenophobe (which I'm not, but you can call me whatever you want) (especially now that comment moderation has been activated), but I think it's hard to make a claim for the title of one of the ten best actresses in history if you've never penetrated the mainstream consciousness of the American movie-going public.

To me, best implies not just talent, but impact and longevity. Binoche and Cheung have talent, and they've been around a while, but neither has had the impact necessary to qualify as great.

On the basis of having at least won an Academy Award, I'll let Binoche skate. Thus, so long Maggie Cheung. We hardly knew you. Which is the problem.

To be replaced by Bette Davis. Two-time Oscar winner. Kicked down doors in Hollywood that lots of actresses later filed through. Not to mention a song about her eyes was once a huge hit. That's good enough for me. Can't believe she wasn't on this list to begin with.

So now I'm handing this on to the guy who invented the March Madness Best Actress Tournament and let me join in the fun this year, Monty at All Good Things. Take it away, Monty, if you feel up to it.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

New Comments Policy

Just to let you know, the blog has been getting spammed a lot recently, and not the good kind like Monty Python serves up. So I'll be approving comments in advance for a while at least.

Sorry for the inconvenience.

Love and kisses,
the Mythical Monkey

Circus Polls, Circus Bunnies, Circus Movies

The results are in from the latest Monkey poll. By a one vote margin, Charlie Chaplin's The Circus is your favorite movie set in a circus.

The Elephant Man was second, Disney's animated classic Dumbo was third, and Tod Browning's cult classic Freaks was fourth. The Greatest Show on Earth and the Marx Brother's At the Circus finished far behind.

One commenter, however, "Anonymous," aka "my little brother," argues that the best circus movie of all time wasn't even in the poll: "I have a write-in candidate for greatest circus movie - "Big Top Bunny" - starring Bugs Bunny and Bruno, the high-flying trapeze artist bear - blessed with the gift of speech (with a Russian accent no less). Now THAT's quality my friends...."

As always, we here at the Monkey encourage you to judge for yourself:

Indeed, if you really want to judge for yourself, Erik Beck (of the Boston Becks) has alerted us to Turner Classic Movie's Sunday evening schedule which is devoted to circus-related movies. TCM kicks off the proceedings with none other than the Chaplin film that won our little poll.

From TCM's website:
Sunday, July 24, 2012

8:00 PM The Circus (1928)
In this silent film, the Little Tramp joins a circus to hide from the police.
Dir: Charles Chaplin Cast: Charles Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Betty Morrissey. BW-72 mins

9:30 PM The Big Circus (1959)
A ringleader tries to keep his circus on the road despite the efforts of a saboteur.
Dir: Joseph M. Newman Cast: Victor Mature, Red Buttons, Rhonda Fleming. C-108 mins

11:30 PM The Circus Clown (1934)
A young man defies his father's wishes to join the circus.
Dir: Ray Enright Cast: Joe E. Brown, Patricia Ellis, Dorothy Burgess. BW-65 mins

12:45 AM Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)
In this silent film, a circus clown falls for a young innocent in love with another.
Dir: Herbert Brenon Cast: Lon Chaney, Bernard Siegel, Loretta Young. BW-74 mins

2:15 AM La Strada (1954)
A traveling strongman buys a peasant girl to be his wife and co-star.
Dir: Federico Fellini Cast: Anthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina, Richard Basehart. BW-108 mins

4:15 AM Merry Andrew (1958)
An archaeologist's search for Roman treasure gets him mixed up with a circus troupe.
Dir: Michael Kidd Cast: Danny Kaye, Pier Angeli, Baccaloni. C-103 mins Letterbox Format

The three I'd really encourage you to see are The Circus, Laugh, Clown, Laugh and La Strada, classics all. Hey, and now that Mad Men is done for the season, you have no excuses, right?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

That's A Clown Question, Bro

Not only is Bryce Harper quite possibly the greatest nineteen year old to ever play major league baseball (his current "On-base-plus-slugging" percentage of .938 would best Mel Ott's .921 if it holds up), but he also has gone viral with the best answer to a genuinely (and purposely provocative) stupid question in, well, a long, long time:

"That's a clown question, bro."

As they say: there are no stupid questions, only stupid people who ask questions. Which leads me to (nervously) ask, "Of these randomly selected movies set in a circus, which is your favorite?"

Your choices:
The Circus (1928)

Freaks (1932)

At The Circus (1939)

Dumbo (1941)

The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)

The Elephant Man (1980)

Yeah, yeah, I left off your favorite—Laugh, Clown, Laugh or La Strada or Big Top Pee-Wee. And I wanted to vote for Abraham Lincoln this November. Ain't gonna happen. I encourage you to vote anyway.

Pictures Of Lily

Apropos of nothing: while researching a project unrelated to this blog, I read up on Lily Langtry ("Lillie" in Britain, usually; "Lily" in America), and without giving her the full-blown Monkey treatment, here's a bit of what I learned:

Born in 1853 the daughter of a disgraced Anglican minister, Emilie Charlotte Le Breton married the wealthy Irish landowner Edward Langtry at the age of twenty and entered London society after sitting for a portrait for painter Frank Miles.

"I would rather have discovered Lillie Langtry than America," said Oscar Wilde. "I resent Mrs Langtry," added George Bernard Shaw. "She has no right to be intelligent, daring and independent, as well as lovely."

Known as "the Jersey Lily"—the official flower of her home island of Jersey—Langtry came to the attention of the Prince of Wales. "Bertie" to his friends, later King Edward VII, the Prince was overly fond of married women and made Langtry his unofficial official mistress, appearing publicly with her at Ascot and the theater, going so far as to introduce her to Queen Victoria.

Encouraged by the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, Langtry cashed in on her notoriety and launched a stage career. Although the critics were savage—"There was no denying it," wrote one, "Mrs. Langtry's legs were a total failure"—the public loved her. She toured America several times and acted more or less continuously until her retirement in 1915. Langtry made one movie, His Neighbors Wife, in 1913 (presumed lost).

Langtry was apparently so beautiful, the notorious Judge Roy Bean fell in love with a picture of her, naming his saloon the Jersey Lily. "The purtiest woman in the world," he said.

She and the Prince of Wales eventually had a falling out, according to legend because she dropped a piece of ice down the back of his shirt, but more likely because he couldn't afford her extravagant tastes. "I've spent enough on you to build a battleship," he once complained. "And you've spent enough in me," she allegedly replied, "to float one."

After that, Langtry broke a series of hearts. She became pregnant in 1880 and though it's unclear who the father was—although it certainly was not Edward Langtry—she convinced Prince Louis of Battenberg he was the father. Upon hearing the news, the queen had him assigned to the warship H.M.S. Inconstant. The royal family paid Langtry off and she moved to Paris with yet another man and gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Marie.

Langtry eventually divorced and remarried, became an American citizen, invested in race horses and wineries, and settled in Monaco, living in a house a discreet distance from her husband, Sir Hugo Gerald de Bathe.

As the man sang in the song, Lily died in 1929, but she still crops up periodically in the culture, most famously as played by Lillian Bond in the 1940 Oscar-winning film The Westerner. In addition, Ava Gardner played her in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean in 1972 and Stacy Haiduk portrayed her as the "immortal leader of a sect of vampires" in the, presumably, fictional 1996 television series, Kindred: The Embraced.

Unsubstantiated are claims that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based the character Irene Adler ("A Scandal in Bohemia") on Langtry, and that she inspired the Who's 1967 single "Pictures of Lily" about a teenage boy who, well, whatever to the pictures of Lily hanging on his bedroom wall. You can't prove it by me one way or the other. Sounds plausible, though.

Wait, what did I say about not giving her the full Monkey treatment?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Old Wives For New: Sex, Sin And Cecil B. DeMille

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."

n 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.