1) I Am Thy Cecil B De Mille. Thou Shalt Have No Other Director But Me.
Where’s the papyrus font when you need it?
Overtures were a thing, way back when. They were the ‘turn off your mobile’ ad of their day but it was the 50s so it was more ‘Time to wind up your conversation, return to your seat, and light up a cigarette, Sir’. They also had the whiff of high art about them- symphonies, opera and musical theatre had overtures, so if your picture was on the highbrow end you needed one.
You can stare at the picture below,
Press play on this thing:
And get the whole experience of the overture of The Ten Commandments. The experience ain’t much. It does not come in swinging. It’s this broad, generically sweeping thing, that could be about to open a film set anywhere from Elizabethan England to the mid 18th Century Rocky Mountains. It lacks oomph, it lacks direction, it lacks all the bass notes. It gets a bit loud in the middle as if to say: “Okay Larry, it’s now really time to stop taking to Ted about automatic transmissions. Smarten up that tie, get back in your seat, take a belt from your hipflask and bond with those in-laws will you?” but that’s about all it really commits to.
There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s supposed to be Elmer (West) Bernstein. I expected about half a ton more than I got from it. It closes out with a slow repeated phrase that’s kind of compelling and it’s only a minute and a half long so, fine, I’m ready for the film.
The film opens on a French Grey curtain with a poorly fitted fringe and a microphone in front of it.
At 1:18 we hear footsteps and finally, at 1:22, a time by which I’m more used to sitting shotgun in the middle of the first car/lightbike chase, 1950s cinema reveals…
Cecil B De Mille, in all his glory. He says:
“Ladies and Gentlemen. Young and Old. This may seem an unusual procedure, speaking to you before the picture begins…”
Oh, it seems insane to me Uncle Cecil, but I’m just a semi-woke slacker from the information age and there appears to be absolutely no stopping you. So…go on.
Uncle Cecil is here to do a couple of things. He’s here to defend the veracity of the movie’s storylines. He does this by pointing out that where the Bible leaves things out that they leaned on ancient historians like Philo and Josephus. He wants to remind us that these ancient historians “Had access to documents long since destroyed-
Want to know what the theme is? Oh, don’t bother it figuring it out for yourself. Uncle Cecil will tell you what the theme is.
And with the hands of a man who has determinedly practiced the shit out of this, he finds the middle of the curtains first time and walks away.
Okay now the film begins.
Except Titles First
Oh Good Lord for there is nothing new under the sun and film history really didn’t start with the opening titles of The Matrix in 1999 – They Sinai’ed the Paramount logo back in 1956.
Five minutes of titles. Five minutes. Whatever else 1950s filmakers had to fear apparently losing the audience was not among them. But the theme is right. I am feeling the old-school epic, I am feeling the Bernstein.
They may only have title cards to show you but they are the brightest jewel tones, with evocative patterns.
At 7.23 this winner of the title cards appears-
So, at this point it might be useful to touch on who Cecil B De Mille was at the time of this film. De Mille in 1956 was basically Spielberg in 2018, but bigger. Everyone suffers in comparison to De Mille, because De Mille was first. His first movie “The Squaw Man“(amazingly enough a pro racially mixed marriage movie) was the first movie ever made in Hollywood. He started as one of those guys filming in a barn and went on to make every kind of film, his successes started genres, his (few) failures made subjects untouchable for a decade or more, because if Cecil couldn’t make it work, who could?. He was an industry titan and one the founders of his studio (Paramount). That image you have of an old time director with jodhpurs and a megaphone, that’s from him because it’s what he used to wear in the early days.
And he had remarkably survived decades as an artist, with the public still enjoying his work when swathes of the industry had been cast aside in one tumultuous change or another. Tastes and technologies changed the movie landscape but Cecil remained, churning out one commercial success after another. He had appeared to have finally passed his golden age in the 40s, but The Greatest Show on Earth (1952 – also starring Heston) was the forerunner of a late career renaissance for him. (C’mon Steven, you can do better than Ready Player One)
Cecil B De Mille still got an overture if he wanted one, an introduction if he wanted one, a five minute title sequence if that is what he felt the movie deserved. Because he had always made demands for, and fought for his movies, and he had almost always been right.
So finally, at a point when most 21st century cinema is just getting rid of the first fake-out bad guy and getting ready for the actual bad guy reveal…The Ten Commandments finishes its titles and begins.
With narration of the opening lines of Genesis.
The narrator… is Uncle Cecil.
Jesus Christ, Uncle Cecil how many fingers do we have to break to get you back behind the camera? But he moves the thing along (relatively speaking) and gets us to Egyptian slavery of the Israelites in a paragraph or two. The visuals start with generic clouds and end on a striking composite image as Cecil gets to the ‘serving with rigour’ bit. And we are told that to Amram and Yochabel a son was born.
He is played by Fraser Heston, who got the part by being born (Uncle Cecil telegraphed Charlton Heston with ‘Congratulations! He’s got the part!” on Fraser’s birth) because that baby’s jawline does not photograph well. He looks like a 35 year old disappointed by a failing to get a promotion at his bank. The girl playing his sister is at least, tanned, but Yochabel is clearly from the tribe of Levites that came out of Ohio.
Tough Gig, Babies
In the hall of Pharaoh, everyone has incredible posture.
When leopard-skin priest guy explains that their astrologers are saying ‘Bad times coming’ Pharaoh wants to know if this means war. Chief General mocks such a suggestion:
“From the frontiers of Sinai and Libya to the cataracts of the Nile, what nation would dare draw the sword against us?”(And that’s a pretty good marker for the level of dialogue. It’s not a smooth ride, but it’s kind of gloriously bumpy.)
But as soon as he hears that this prophecy is about a ‘Deliverer for the Hebrew slaves in Goshen’ suddenly he’s desperate about killing all the slaves because Goshen is their ‘Eastern gate’ apparently – to all those nations that wouldn’t dare raise a sword against us? Oh, none of this matters anymore – just kill all the slaves, already. Then leopard print priest guy comes up with the sensible compromise everyone can agree on.
And then Chief General is off to hunt The World’s Least Dangerous Game.
Also – only the male children? That’s sexist, but I don’t think we’ll protest that one. Given this God’s track record you probably will need a dick in order to be the deliverer.
We see the aftermath of this order – and it’s cleverly done for something you cannot show both for censorship and for fear of repulsing your audience. De Mille makes it all about this woman’s reaction. She doesn’t move, people pass by and things happen around her and there are screams and drama off camera, but it’s all about her inconsolable face.
Because you know she was a frenzy of emotion right up until her child was dead and now there’s just nothing there.
Outside the city (let’s not worry about how they managed to get there) we see Yochabel and Miriam both waist deep in the Nile with a basket. What’s inside this actual basket on top of actual deep water?
In fairness the basket in the shots with young Fraser Heston in them is a lot more solid and immobile than the basket we see in the shots without him, so there’s a trick here. Still, it was the 50s so how safe could it be? I mean, he had to get carried out there, right?
Young Fraser Heston is surrounded by chest deep water and you do go from “Huh, Nepotism” to “Wow, Tough first gig, Fraser”.
Yochabel prays for the God of Abraham to ‘take my child into thy hands, that he may live to thy service’. Young Miriam says that they have not given him a name, and when Yochabel (played by Martha Scott ) says-
And fastens down the basket there’s some real mountain woman edge to her. Don’t be asking Momma questions now, Miriam, she’s getting ready to do some really crazy shit that could oh so very easily go badly wrong in a last ditch attempt to save your brother.
And with that she just lets that basket go – into a massive moving body of water notorious for containing crocodiles and hippos, and flooding, and God knows what else. She still has that hard crazy edge when she sends Miriam off to watch it from the reeds to ‘See where the Lord will lead him.’ because her safety procedure here is basically a shitload of prayer and having no other choice.
Egyptoamerican Resort World
Meanwhile, in a recreational estate somewhere near the slave city Princess Bithiah (Nina Foch) and her crowd of mid 1950s, clearly American, male ideas of women are hanging out. They talk about men incessantly, except when they talk about diets. They are outrageously amused by the dumbest play objects (a gourd, a flower) and many of them are ponytailed. They giggle a lot.
And then there’s Memnet. Played by Judith Anderson, who entered pop culture and cinema history as the definitive Mrs Danvers in the 1940 version of Rebecca. And she’s basically been asked to play the exact same role here, right down to a hint of repressed lesbianism, except with a headdress.
The girls get on to the question “Gold or a man?” and conclude that “Gold will never fill an empty heart” that lands a little close to home for Princess Bithiah, who is fabulously wealthy and a recent widow. Bithia goes a bit quiet and further out into the Nile and Memnet gets to chide them for thoughtlessness.
Looking out into the Nile, Bithia finds a basket. She pulls it is an finds a remarkable survivor.
She tells Memnet to send the girls away and Memnet is sodding delighted at the chance for another chiding and the chance to become Princess Bithiah’s entire support network.
Miriam, Moses’ Bio-sister, watches from the reeds as Bithiah brings Moses back to land. The Nile God sending you a baby is an accepted method of procreation, apparently because Memnet is momentarily as delighted with finding Moses as Princess Bithiah clearly is. But then Memnet notices the cloth the baby is wrapped in.
Apparently it is recognisable as made by Hebrew slaves and is specifically identifiable as Levite. Memnet manages to figure out exactly where this baby is from and why it was put on the water just from the cloth.
Frankly it goes to prove that deep religious faith can be a detriment to planning capabilities. All male newborn of the Jewish faith must die, so you sent off your baby in a basket on a highly dangerous river attached to a piece of cloth that specifically marks him out as Jewish. You’re lucky you’ve got a God, Yochabel, because your baby escape plan sucked on multiple levels.
Memnet is unhappy, to say the least. Like a lot of humans that get trapped in a social caste system, she accepts her subservience to those above her and depends on her superiority over those below her. “You want me to expend my life serving the social order? Fine, but you don’t get to upend that order just because you feel like it.”
To see a Hebrew slave raised far above her, and whom she must serve is a bitter, bitter pill. But Princess Bithiah’s instant bond with the baby is absolute and she is taking no backtalk from Memnet about not serving him.
She tells Memnet to sink the basket, which she does but the suddenly doubting servant also shoves the cloth into her robe. Not sure what she hopes to achieve, it’s just a piece of cloth with an easily deniable origin story. Still, Memnet better watch out with that, because Princess Bithiah is suddenly a mother tiger.
I like to imagine a montage where Bithiah and Memnet tour Egypt killing off the Bathing Egypterenes one at a time to keep secret the fact that Bithiah hasn’t been pregnant recently. Whatever they did do Pharaoh bought it, because we cut to many years later – Bithiah’s brother Seti is now Pharaoh and Moses is all grown up.
A Tale of Three Hairlines
Rameses is the son of current Pharaoh Seti, played by Cedric Hardwicke. Rameses, spurred by Moses’ success, is constantly trying to shut down the succession question in his favour. Pharaoh Seti doggedly insists it is open. Seti refers to Moses as Rameses’ brother – Rameses calls Moses a ‘pretended brother’. Rameses openly wonders who else could succeed Seti but the son of his body? Seti insists that the man best able to rule Egypt succeed him –
Seti may be a little arch, but he is as kindly, wise and urbanely witty an absolute monarch and owner of a slave nation as you could hope to meet.
Seti and Rameses also discuss the throne princess Nefretiri, who must marry the next pharaoh, all while delicately sidestepping the fact that in this time period she would also likely be Rameses’ sister, for reasons of 1956 morals and public sensibility. Whereas we can be reasonably sure that a 2018 version of the same story would be leaning the hell in to that.
The Fresh Princess of Bel Air
We finally meet the Princess Nefretiri, lit for Los Angeles.
Nefretiri eyes the city below hungrily, desperate for a glimpse of the object of her absolute desire, Moses. Horny is an understatement, this woman’s entire existence is bound up in desire for this guy.
Nefretiri is played by Anne Baxter. Baxter’s performance is what the director wanted, in fact specifically requested. There was a lot of competition for the part, Baxter was originally being considered for Sephorah, but once Nefretiri came up:
“DeMille asked me to come in. His office at Paramount was bursting with books, props, rolls of linens. I told him I’d have to wear an Egyptian false nose and he pounded the table. “No. Baxter, your Irish nose stays in this picture.” He acted out my part and I kept nodding, and I walked out with the part. The sound stage sets were magnificent. It was all corny, sure, but DeMille knew it was corny—that’s what he wanted, what he loved. I loved slinking around— really, this was silent film acting but with dialogue.”
From (Conversations with Classic Film Stars:Interviews from Hollywoods Golden Era – James Bawden and Rob Miller)
Your attention never flags while this vibrating phial of estrogen is on screen. This character rips up the paper the Bechdel test is written on because it doesn’t have anything about Moses on it. And if you do somehow become bored …you can always picture how Uncle Cecil must have looked acting out the part for her.