Out of the Vaults: “The Ten Commandments”, 1923

by Meher Tatna November 12, 2020
Scene from “The Ten Commandments” (1923)

Scene from The Ten Commandments (1923)

In May 1923, Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount Pictures, sent director Cecil B. deMille a telegram: “You have lost your mind. Stop filming and return to Los Angeles at once.”

The director was in the middle of shooting his epic The Ten Commandments at the Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes in Central California. A gigantic set had been erected as Ramses’ city by 500 carpenters and 600 painters and decorators. It included a 120 foot-tall temple, five enormous sphinxes, a 100-foot Great Gate, statues of the Pharaoh, and a 750-foot long city wall which deMille insisted on as he wouldn’t work with painted backgrounds. Also constructed was the ‘City of deMille,’ the 24 square-mile tent city which held the cast, extras and crew of 2,500, along with 3,000 animals.

The director responded to Zukor: “I cannot and will not make pictures with a yardstick.” According to author Sumiko Higashi in her book “Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture: The Silent Era,” he said, “What do they want me to do? Stop now and release it as The Five Commandments?” There was, in fact, no stopping. Filming in this location took a breakneck three weeks. A Los Angeles Times article quoted deMille as telling his actors, “Your skin will be cooked raw. You will miss the comforts of home. You will be asked to endure perhaps the most unpleasant location in cinema history. I expect of you your supreme efforts.”

After the shoot wrapped, deMille was required to strike his set before departing. But the expense was too great. Rather than abandon it, and fearing rival filmmakers might use it to make cheap knockoffs, he dynamited the structures and bulldozed sand over them. (The set was discovered in 2004 and excavated piece by remaining piece in a number of attempts over several years.)

The Ten Commandments cost $1,475,836.93 and grossed $4,169,798.38 in unadjusted dollars in its initial release. It was Paramount’s highest-grossing film for 25 years until deMille himself broke that record. In his 1959 autobiography, deMille wrote, “The really important question to ask about a motion picture is not ‘What did it cost?’ but ‘What is it worth?’ The real worth of a picture cannot be measured in money alone. As soon as The Ten Commandments was completed, I screened it for Jesse Lasky and Sid Kent [Paramount sales department head]. The next day Kent wired Mr. Zukor: ‘The Ten Commandments is not a motion picture. It is bigger than all the motion pictures that have been made. It plays on the emotion in a manner that I have never felt or witnessed before and will do more good than all the combined pulpits of the country.’”

The reaction must have been a relief to deMille who was trying to salvage his reputation after a string of flops, the latest being Adam’s Rib, one of a series of light comedic films which underperformed at the Famous Players-Lasky studio where he was contracted before it became Paramount Pictures.

To find subject matter that directly appealed to the audience, deMille had sponsored a contest in the LA Times on October 9, 1922, soliciting suggestions from the public. The article was titled ‘Cecil de Mille Offer of $1,000 Can be Captured by Originator of Best Film Idea.’ Thousands responded. He chose the one submitted by F.C. Nelson, a Michigan man, that said, ‘You cannot break the Ten Commandments – they will break you.’

The film, written by Jeanie MacPherson, is devised in two parts. The Biblical Prologue is preceded by this intertitle to set up the film: “Our modern world defined God as a ‘religious complex’ and laughed at the Ten Commandments as OLD FASHIONED. Then, through the laughter, came the shattering thunder of the World War. And now a blood-drenched, bitter world – no longer laughing – cries for a way out.” Most of the intertitles in the prologue are Biblical quotes.

The prologue, which is about 45 minutes, is about Moses (played by Theodore Roberts) and Rameses’ (Charles de Roche) as they clash over the freeing of the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt where they are laboring under the cruel Pharaoh. A series of plagues, including the taking of every family’s first-born son, causes Ramses to allow the Exodus, after which he changes his mind and pursues the Hebrews in a spectacular chariot chase, only to lose them to the parting of the Red Sea. Moses then goes to the Mount to receive the ten commandments for 40 days and nights, only to return to the debaucheries of his people, worshipping a Golden Calf and participating in hedonistic displays. Prominent among them is the fetching Miriam (Estelle Taylor). Moses invokes the Wrath of God upon them, Miriam is afflicted by leprosy, the sinners are struck down by lightning, the film dissolves into the present day (1923) where part two, the Modern Story, begins.

Now the audience meets the MacTavishes – the fundamentalist zealot Martha (Edythe Chapman), and her sons John (Richard Dix) and Dan (Rod LaRoque). Both fall in love with the same woman, Mary (Leatrice Joy), but it’s Dan who wins her and they split from the family, disavowing the mother’s religion. Flash forward three years and now Dan is a successful building contractor, slowly breaking all ten commandments on the road to success, while the pious John has remained at home with the mother and continues his carpenter trade. In the melodrama that ensues, Dan is punished for his sins, but only after he builds a church with adulterated concrete, hires his brother to take the fall, watches his mother die when a wall collapses on her, shoots his mistress (Nita Naldi playing a stereotypical Asian whore), and drowns in a storm when he tries to escape on a speedboat. John and Mary are reunited and live happily ever after reading the Bible.

The Biblical Prologue was the kind of film that made deMille’s reputation as a director of spectacles. The impressive sets, thousands of extras, special effects like the parting of the Red Sea (water poured over Jell-O, then reversed through the camera in a double exposure) and use of occasional Technicolor for the Exodus scenes, provided the sensational displays the audiences craved. These Exodus scenes are pretty spectacular considering there was no CGI, all the extras moving en masse in the distance, the camera cutting to scenes in the foreground to show the scramble of families dragging their cattle and belongings with them.

deMille was the first director to hire an art director for Commandments and used a record six cameramen, one only for the Technicolor scenes. The church construction scenes in part 2 are also remarkable, particularly the one in which Mary uses an elevator to go to John on the rooftop, both their points of view recorded through tracking shots that include the surrounding city.

The film premiered in New York at the George M. Cohan Theatre on December 21, 1923, where the lobby was decorated Egyptian-style. In Hollywood, it premiered at the Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on December 4, preceded by a stage show entitled ‘A Night in Pharaoh’s Palace.’ It got universally good notices from the critics for the Prologue; the Modern Story was not as well-received, Variety calling it “ordinary. . . hoke.”

A touring show with a 28-piece orchestra to play the Hugo Riesenfeld score lasted for months. Eleven companies toured Europe. There were 250 screenings in London alone.

deMille, who had severed ties with Paramount in 1925 over the bitterness of the budget dispute, returned to the studio in 1932. He remade The Ten Commandments as a full-length film in 1956, which is the more famous version, with Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Pharaoh. It was once again Paramount’s most expensive picture to date.

The Ten Commandments was restored by the George Eastman House with funding provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Film Foundation, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and the George Eastman House Preservation Fund. In 2002, The George Eastman House started work on restoring the film from deMille’s personal 35mm nitrate print. deMille kept one print of every one of his features; most of his silent films were given to the George Eastman House following his death in 1959.  This was part of an ongoing initiative to restore the color back to deMille’s silent films, with tinting matched and reproduced by the Desmet process. Reel 8 of deMille’s personal copy was incomplete due to nitrate decomposition. This was replaced with material held at the Library of Congress. Tinting records were used to restore the color tints to this reel from an original screenplay held in the Cecil B. deMille Archives at Brigham Young University in Utah.