Cecil B. DeMille in 1915: Gypsies, Censors and Thieves

We left off with Mr. DeMille embracing the social film with his tenement weeper, Kindling. As 1915 drew to a close, DeMille released five movies, two pot-boilers, one comedy, one modern fairy tale and one virtuous melodrama. Three of these films are recognized classics. We begin with the title that was one of his biggest hits and certainly one of his most skillfully-made pictures.

Carmen

The silent opera!
The silent opera!

U.S. Premier Date: October 31

At last! A 1915 DeMille film I have seen! And is it ever a doozy.

Can you handle it?
Can you handle it? (Oh, and it was made by Lasky)

I protective of this film. You see, I have read one too many jokes about the concept of a silent opera. First of all, Carmen the opera is based on a novella. How do you like that, smartypants? Further, the story is full of love, betrayal, jealousy and murder. How could it not make an exciting motion picture?

Casting Wallace Reid always helps.
Casting Wallace Reid always helps.

Carmen was yet another case of a stage star being imported over to the silent screen. Geraldine Farrar was a world-renowned operatic soprano who needed to rest her vocal chords. The silent cinema and the sunny climes of California seemed ideal.

Farrar was already a celebrity.
Farrar was already a celebrity.

Farrar plays Carmen, a gypsy woman who seduces a naive soldier, Don Jose (Wallace Reid), in order to smuggle goods over the city wall. When Carmen gets arrested for assaulting a fellow worker at a cigarette factory, Don Jose sacrifices his rank and position to save her. He thinks he deserves Carmen as a reward. Carmen has other ideas. She hooks up with a handsome bullfighter, leaving the outlawed Don Jose in the dust. Driven mad by rage and jealousy, Don Jose tracks down Carmen and stabs her to death during a bullfight. Well, I guess he showed her.

Reviews were stellar.
Reviews were stellar. (click to enlarge)

Both Farrar and Reid are excellent in their roles. Farrar had played Carmen on the stage, of course, but she instinctively understood that she needed to tone down her movements for the motion picture screen. Her performance is operatic but believable.

Perhaps too believable. Censors clutched their pearls when confronted with the catfight in the cigarette factory (between Farrar and DeMille scenarist Jeanie Macpherson) and it had to be cut down for release in certain states.

Pennsylvania objects!
Pennsylvania objects!
Ohio wasn't so keen on it either.
Ohio wasn’t so keen on it either.
The scene that caused all the trouble. After repeated viewings, the censor boards declared it very, very naughty. Then they watched it again just to make sure.
The scene that caused all the trouble. After repeated viewings, the censor boards declared it very, very naughty. Then they watched it again just to make sure.

Wallace Reid is a real revelation. He specialized in outdoorsy, all-American boy parts but he handled Don Jose’s descent into violence with enormous skill.

While The Cheat gets most of the attention, Carmen is my favorite DeMille film of 1915. It’s sassy, fast-paced, well-acted and it skillfully adapts its source material. Carmen dances on the edge of camp, even dips its toes in it, but never falls in. It’s fabulous fun.

That's $34 for the more expensive seats in modern money.
That’s $34 for the more expensive seats in modern money.

There was a rival version of Carmen starring Theda Bara in the title role, Einar Linden as Don Jose and directed by Raoul Walsh. Like so many of Bara’s films, Carmen is considered lost.

It was an enormous hit.
It was an enormous hit.

What did we learn about 1915? State censor boards wielded an enormous amount of power and it was not always easy to predict what they would object to. The white hot career of Geraldine Farrar shows that signing stage and opera stars could sometimes pay off lavishly.

Survival Status: Prints held by the George Eastman House and others. Carmen has been released on DVD. You can read my full-length review of the film here.

Chimmie Fadden Out West

Chimmie is back!
Chimmie is back!

U.S. Premier Date: November 21

Now we have that rarest of creatures in DeMille’s body of work: a direct sequel. He would make follow-ups (Why Change Your Wife? followed Don’t Change Your Husband) but he rarely made films that continued the adventures of the same character.

The gang is back together.
The gang is back together.

Silent films in general were not given to making direct sequels and when they did, the sequel often followed the adventures of the descendants of the previous hero (albeit often played by the same actor). Performers like Charlie Chaplin and Mack Swain would play characters who showed up again and again under the same name or description but every film was a clean slate; the characters had no recollection of their previous adventures. The most famous true silent sequel is probably The Iron Mask, Douglas Fairbanks’ farewell to the art form.

You can take the boy out of New York...
You can take the boy out of New York…

In Chimmie’s case, he heads out to Nevada but soon finds that he must save innocent citizens from getting scammed with a fake gold mine. As you can see, Chimmie Fadden Out West follows the classic sequel pattern of turning a popular hero into a fish out of water. Sometimes it works but it is just as often a spectacular failure. After all, what we love about the character may be too deeply tied to their locale. This time, however, this tactic seems to have been a smashing success.

The reviews were excellent.
The reviews were excellent.

And in a humorous instance of life imitating art, citizens of the area where the picture was made thought they had another gold strike on their hands when they discovered some of the prop gold that was left behind after shooting.

chimmie-fadden-out-west-04

What did we learn about 1915? Direct sequels were rare at this time but not unheard-of. Cecil B. DeMille seems to be far more adept at directing comedy than most give him credit for, considering that he managed not one but two acclaimed Chimmie films. The western setting is a can’t-miss proposition in 1915.

Survival Status: Print held by the George Eastman House. This title has not yet been released on home video.

The Cheat

Fannie Ward is the star! Really!
Fannie Ward is the star! Really!

U.S. Premier Date: December 13

Here’s the big one. Probably the most famous silent DeMille film and certainly his most famous title of 1915. The Cheat has it all. It’s scandalous as anything and it features a breakout performance from Sessue Hayakawa. It’s the guilty pleasure of a whole lot of silent film fans.

Mr. Hayakawa made his mark in more ways than one.
Mr. Hayakawa made his mark in more ways than one.

The Cheat was originally announced as a vehicle for Blanche Sweet. How I wish it had stayed that way! Fannie Ward is pretty much everything that I do not like to see in a silent performer: Flailing arms, overwrought hysterics and weird expressions. She was meant to be the star of the picture and was billed accordingly but Sessue Hayakawa neatly stole the picture right out from under her. Admittedly, Ward’s character is rather unlikable but I think Sweet would have at least had a fighting chance at sympathy.

The original announcement with Blanche Sweet's name.
The original announcement with Blanche Sweet’s name.

The plot of The Cheat is quite lurid and there are no heroes. Fannie Ward plays a socialite whose husband cannot buy her the designer dress of her dreams as his funds are temporarily tied up. (Miss Ward was noted for her ageless appearance. I was unimpressed.) Not one to take “no” lying down, Fannie embezzles from the Red Cross, loses it all on a risky investment and now must replace the money or face prison. Enter Sessue Hayakawa. He’s had a crush on her for just ages and will give her the money… if she pay the price. (Nudge nudge, wink wink.) Fannie is desperate and agrees.

The Cheat (1915) Starring Sessue Hayakawa, directed by Cecil B DeMille
So maybe they went a little overboard.

Well, Fannie’s husband has money at last! His investments have come through and Fannie can have all the lettuce she needs. Off she goes with a check to pay off Hayakawa. He is not amused. A deal is a deal, after all. So they fight and he brands her shoulder and she shoots him and he collapses and her husband shows up and takes the blame and it’s all just a dreadful mess.

The Cheat (1915) Starring Sessue Hayakawa, directed by Cecil B DeMille
Gorgeous lighting throughout.

The Cheat is not everyone’s cup of tea, I get that. Its lurid subject matter and frank racism can be difficult to take. Two things ensure its place in movie history: DeMille’s direction and Hayakawa’s performance. DeMille’s moody lighting and fun with blood stains make this quite a darkly beautiful piece. Hayakawa, meanwhile, gave a subtle and brilliant performance that inspired other actors to try dialing things back a bit.

Hayakawa’s fine acting is particularly noticeable next to Fannie Wards flailing and wailing. He manages more with one twitch of his eyelid than she does in ten minutes of arm thrashing.

The Cheat (1915) Starring Sessue Hayakawa, directed by Cecil B DeMille
The undisputed acting champ of THE CHEAT.

Many members of the Japanese community objected to The Cheat. They feared that the behavior of Hayakawa’s character (e.g. branding society matrons in fits of rage) would ratchet up racial tensions, a legitimate fear. In order the eliminate criticism, Hayakawa’s character is changed to Burmese in the intertitles.

My, my, my, SOMEONE is defensive here.
My, my, my, SOMEONE is defensive here.

In spite of this, The Cheat was an enormous hit. So big, in fact, that Lasky offered to pay the fines of theater owners cited for overcrowding. As publicity stunts go, that’s a pretty good one.

Way to capitalize on publicity!
Way to capitalize on publicity!

What did we learn about 1915? DeMille confidently tapped into the darkest fantasies of his audience and reaped a box office bonanza as a result. Racial sensitivity was not yet a priority in the motion picture game.

Survival Status: Prints held by the George Eastman House and the Film Preservation Associates. This title has been released on DVD. You can read my full-length review here.

The Golden Chance

Next up...
Next up…

U.S. Premier Date: December 30

A preview
A preview

After the darkness of The Cheat, it’s refreshing to have some lighter fare and The Golden Chance is about as light as you can get.

More DeMille is coming!
More DeMille is coming!

Jeanie Macpherson’s story borrows liberally from Chimmie Fadden and Cinderella. Cleo Ridgely is a formerly-wealthy young woman who married a thief and a drunkard. Things look up for her when her employer hires her to be window dressing at their party. Wallace Reid is the young businessman who falls for Cleo, not knowing her past or marital status. Meanwhile, Cleo’s husband plots to rob the mansion…

Praise for the film
Praise for the film

The whole thing is kind of silly and falls apart near the end but it is still a beautiful film with good performances from Reid and Ridgely. Further, DeMille’s lighting experiments are getting bolder and bolder.

The Golden Chance (1915) Wallace Reid, Cecil B DeMille, a silent movie review
Much brooding and smoking.

The Golden Chance is best enjoyed for what it is: A well-produced bit of fluff guaranteed to help you while away an afternoon.

What did we learn about 1915? Viewers still liked their Cinderella stories (we’ve never grown out of that) and if they were spiced up with armed robbery, so much the better. DeMille’s lighting and atmosphere continued to impress.

Survival Status: Print held by the George Eastman House. This title has been released on DVD. You can read my full-length review here.

Temptation

Farrar is back!
Farrar is back!

U.S. Premier Date: December 30

DeMille’s final offering for 1915 was the follow-up to Carmen. The film had been a smash hit and star Geraldine Farrar was rushed into another film.

Farrar is back!
Farrar is back!

The story is a bit hackneyed. Geraldine played an opera singer (a shocker, that) who rejects the advances of a boorish admirer, Otto (Theodore Roberts). Geraldine loves the penniless Julian (Cuban-American actor Pedro de Cordoba, who had played Escamillo in Carmen), who is trying to get his first opera produced. Blackballed by the powerful Otto, the couple is reduced to poverty. Then Otto comes up with a deal: He will produce Julian’s opera if Geraldine pays the price. (Again, nudge nudge, wink wink.) Geraldine emotes a bit but agrees and thus the opera is produced. However, before Geraldine has to pay the nudge nudge, wink wink price, Otto is conveniently murdered by the girl he dumped in favor of Geraldine. Thank heaven for insane exes with firearms!

Farrar was praised.
Farrar was praised.

Possibly due to the reaction to Carmen and The Cheat, DeMille seems to have toned down his lurid tastes for this film. There are no catfights, no brandings, and I see no evidence of exquisitely lit bloodstains. Nope. Just a fragile flower battered by the cruel winds of Otto.

A not-so-lurid tale.
A not-so-lurid tale.

Theodore Roberts, who plays the villainous Otto, received praise but the critics were rapturous about Farrar. Her animated manner and expressive face were made for the silent screen. In general, the story was labeled as threadbare, though DeMille’s mythological symbolism (virgin sacrificing self) was praised. Of course, we all know that old Cecil would take that idea and run with it for most of his career.

A synopsis.
A synopsis. (click to enlarge)

What did we learn about 1915? Geraldine Farrar was on fire at the box office. Hiring her was a great business decision for the fledgling Paramount. “Behind the scenes” movies about showbiz were were quite popular, especially if they contained the right combination of titillation and moralizing.

Another review (click to enlarge)
Another review (click to enlarge)

Survival Status: Missing and presumed lost. Check that closet!

Conclusion

After researching these titles, I am hoping against hope that someone will put together a high quality early DeMille box set. Kindling, The Captive and Chimmie Fadden Out West are at the top of my wishlist.

What a year!

DeMille found his voice in 1915. With eccentric costume films like The Captive, the high class sleaze of Carmen and the unabashed tackiness of The Cheat, DeMille discovered the keys to making crowd-pleasers. His battles with censor boards also prepared him for later skirmishes when he would be able to defeat his foes by taking refuge behind the Bible.

The year also saw the beginning of DeMille’s fruitful collaboration with Jeanie Macpherson, whose oddball writing talents would continue to shape his films for decades.

DeMille’s 1915 Numbers

Titles Directed: 14

Released on Home Video: 3

Presumed Lost: 5

Held in Archives: 6

Cecil B. DeMille in 1915: Hot Sands, Hotter Love, Tenements and Wild Geese

Last time, we learned that Cecil B. DeMille started 1915 with a shaky mix of established stage stars, popular plays and his own original material. We ended with The Captive, an original story created by DeMille and his collaborator Jeanie Macpherson. The tale was likely designed to get one more use out of the Montenegrin costumes left over from The Unafraid but it proved to be a popular film in its own right.
For his next release, DeMille returned to the safety of his brother’s writing.

The Wild Goose Chase

Ina Claire! Ina Claire! Ina Claire!
Ina Claire! Ina Claire! Ina Claire!

U.S. Premier Date: May 27

William deMille’s play is a story of arranged marriages, young love and the theater. Two elderly French friends wish their American grandchildren to marry but both boy and girl object to this and separately join the same theatrical troupe. Of course, the wayward pair falls in love, both unaware of the other’s true identity.

Signing Ina Claire was quite the coup.
Signing Ina Claire was quite the coup.

Broadway comedienne Ina Claire plays the girl and Tom Forman plays the boy. Ina spent much of her career on the stage (her most famous movie role is probably Swana from Ninotchka), making just one more motion picture in 1915. For those of you keeping track, Ina was the third Mrs. John Gilbert and he was the second Mr. Ina Claire.

Tom Forman was a juvenile lead before turning to directing.
Tom Forman was a juvenile lead before turning to directing.

Forman moved from acting to directing features in the 1920’s (he directed Lon Chaney in Shadows) but his career was cut short when he committed suicide in 1926. (Rumors that Forman killed himself because he was not okayed for sound are quite unfounded. In the first place, he was a director. In the second place, he killed himself a full year before the talkie revolution.)

Light fun had by all.
Light fun had by all.

All in all, this sounds like a very cute little light comedy. It has a similar plot to the 1926 Charley Chase comedy Crazy Like a Fox, which I enjoyed immensely. However, the film does not seem to have been an enormous success as it was dropped from the Paramount advertising lineup almost immediately.

A contract for Ina. She only made one more film in 1915.
A contract for Ina. She only made one more film in 1915.

What did we learn about 1915? Generational conflict and Old World vs. New World manners were considered ripe topics for comedy. Broadway stars were still trying to make their mark on the silent screen, though precious few succeeded.

Can Ina do it?
Can Ina do it?

Wild Goose Chase

Survival Status: Missing and presumed lost. Check with your wealthy French grandfathers.

The Arab

Pre-sheiking The Sheik.
Pre-sheiking The Sheik.

U.S. Premier Date: June 14

You just knew we would have to have one of these sooner or later, didn’t you? Hot Love on the Desert Sands was popular even before The Sheik made it a phenomenon.

Hot sands and hotter romance.
Hot sands and hotter romance.

In this case, Jamil is an Arab prince whose horse has been sold by his father as punishment for his naughty ways. Determined to get it back, Jamil tracks the horse to its new owner, an American missionary named Mary. Horse thieving and the expected romance ensue. However, since this is 1915, Mary and Jamil cannot stay together and part at the end. (Most Sheik films handled the matter of interracial marriage by making their denizens of the Middle East Europeans in disguise. In fact, if Hollywood is to be believed, Northern Africa and the Middle East were populated, not by Syrians, Persians, Moroccans or Egyptians, but by French, Spanish and English nobility who just got mislaid on their way to the safari.)

His character is the real deal.
His character is the real deal.

The scenery was praised but the scenario was described as ending with a whimper rather than a bang. Edgar Selwyn, who wrote the play upon which the film was based, was praised for his performance as the hot-headed Jamil. (Samuel Goldfish partnered with Selwyn and his brother to form a company dubbed “Goldwyn.” Goldwyn later became the “G” in MGM and Mr. Goldfish took the surname as his own.) Gertrude Robinson (a Biograph veteran) is Mary the little missionary.

Half of Mr. Selwyn's name still graces motion picture posters.
Half of Mr. Selwyn’s name still graces motion picture posters.

The Arab was remade in 1924 with Ramon Novarro and Alice Terry in the leads and directed by Rex Ingram. Thought lost for decades, this version was rediscovered in Russia and is now held by the Library of Congress.

A hit!
A hit!

The last remake was the sleazy 1933 bodice-ripper, The Barbarian. It starred Ramon Novarro (again!) and a very annoyed-looking Myrna Loy. Miss Loy was obliged to bathe wearing strategic rose petals and a smile. Mr. Novarro was obliged to smolder and act the beautiful brute. It’s quite dreadful

The film was praised upon release.
The film was praised upon release.

What did we learn about 1915? The sheik film genre was around considerably earlier than most people realize. The issue of interracial marriage was often brought up in films but usually sidestepped with narrative tricks.

Jamil looks to be a bit of a goof.
Jamil looks to be a bit of a goof.

Survival Status: Missing and presumed lost. All prints were likely destroyed to avoid competition with the Rex Ingram version, which was common practice when films were remade in the silent era. Check with your friendly local Russian archive!

More praise for The Arab.
More praise for The Arab.

Chimmie Fadden

We're in for a wacky time, it seems!
We’re in for a wacky time, it seems!

U.S. Premier Date: June 28

Another film, another vehicle to introduce a stage star to motion pictures. This time it was Victor Moore, noted for playing good-natured roughnecks. Moore had one film under his belt, Snobs, and Chimmie Fadden was ideally suited to his talents. What makes him significant is that he managed to stay in the movies, getting steady work in character parts until a few years before his death. (His last part was a small role in The Seven Year Itch)

Chimmie Fadden started as a series of newspaper sketches. These were turned into a book, which was then turned into a play. (You can read E.W. Towsend’s Chimmie stories freely online as they are in the public domain.) They concerned the adventures of Chimmie, an Irish-American tough with a heart of gold.

In the film, Chimmie rescues a rich do-gooder from a Bowery masher and is engaged as a footman in her house. However, Chimmie’s brother has conspired with another servant to relieve the rich lady of her silver. Chimmie must save his brother– and himself when he is accused of the robbery!

A hit!
A hit!

DeMille and Moore made sure that Chimmie was funny but not slapstick. You may not realize it from the inept comic relief in his later films but DeMille was actually quite adept at directing humorous scenes. He demonstrated this forte again and again in his marital comedies of the ‘teens and twenties. Chimmie Fadden received excellent reviews, with Moore in particular receiving praise for his funny and touching performance.

chimmie-fadden-04

In her book Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture: The Silent Era, film historian Sumiko Higashi writes that the Chimmie Fadden film “functions as sentimental melodrama in that romance mitigates social tensions.” This theme would be introduced again in DeMille’s 1926 Russian Revolution romance, The Volga Boatman. (In that film, DeMille seems to suggest that the whole revolution could have been halted if both sides had just been more open to inter-class dating.)

A feature on the popular Victor Moore.
A feature on the popular Victor Moore.

In addition to Moore, DeMille regular Raymond Hatton is on hand to play the brother. Hatton’s movie career spanned an astonishing 58 years starting in 1909. His final role was a bit part in the 1967 film In Cold Blood.

The plot of the film.
The plot of the film.

What did we learn about 1915? DeMille could direct comedy when he wanted to. It was possible for stage stars to make a successful jump to the screen if they had the right character. The lovable tough was just as popular then as it is today.

Survival Status: Missing and presumed lost. Look in the attic of your tenement flat.

We're number one! We're number one!
We’re number one! We’re number one!

Kindling

The one who works! So dramatic!
The one who works! So dramatic!

U.S. Premier Date: July 12

Social films were stylish in the ‘teens and DeMille never met a trend he couldn’t latch onto. Social topics included drug addiction, labor laws, the plight of immigrants, prostitution, interracial marriage, single mothers, abortion, birth control… It seems that nothing was taboo. For his stab at the genre, DeMille again concerned himself with poverty and tenement dwellers. Unlike Chimmie Fadden, however, this film is quite serious.

Life isn't easy in the slums (via classicmoviefavorites.com)
Life isn’t easy in the slums (via classicmoviefavorites.com)

It is the tale of an impoverished husband and wife. They have agreed not to have children because they are too poor to give a child a decent life. The wife finds herself pregnant but keeps it from her husband. Desperate to raise money to move out of the slums, she becomes involved with a ring of thieves.

Praise for DeMille's direction and lighting.
Praise for DeMille’s direction and lighting.

This was the first time that DeMille worked with Thomas Meighan as his leading man. Meighan would go on to star in two of DeMille’s biggest successes, Male and Female and Why Change Your Wife? However, DeMille found Meighan to be difficult and preferred the talents of Elliott Dexter.

Oh no! Will Thomas be arrested?
Oh no! Will Thomas be arrested?

Contemporary critics praised Charlotte Walker’s acting but most modern reviews have described her performance as simpering and hammy. Meighan, on the other hand, is praised for his restraint.

Thomas Meighan stole the show.
Thomas Meighan stole the show.

What did we learn about 1915? Even glitzy DeMille was not adverse to dipping his toe into the social film genre and, by all accounts, he acquits himself quite credibly.

Walker's contract was renewed.
Walker’s contract was renewed.

Survival Status: A print exists in the George Eastman House. The title has not been released on home video.

The ladies of Paramount!
The ladies of Paramount!

DeMille made five more films in 1915. Three of them are considered classics, one is still in the vaults and the fifth is missing and presumed lost. Next time, we will look at Carmen, Sessue Hayakawa and Cinderella + Burglars.

Cecil B. DeMille in 1915: Civil Wars! Stage Coaches! The Stock Exchange! Montenegro?

cecil-b-demille

Welcome to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon! Be sure to read the other wonderful posts covering every year from 1915 to 1950. This is my contribution, the first in a three-part series.

1915 changed the face of motion pictures in a way that would not be seen again until the coming of sound. The definition of “a night at the movies” had, up to this point, consisted of a collection of short one and two-reel (about ten to twenty-five minute) films. Feature-length movies had existed before 1915 but this was their first year of domination.

Cecil B. DeMille is best remembered today for his biblical sound epics but in 1915, he was in his second year as a motion picture director. He had scored a hit with The Squaw Man, generally agreed to be the first feature film made in Hollywood, and he followed it up with dozens of popular films. 1915 was DeMille’s most prolific year by far: he directed an astonishing fourteen feature-length motion pictures.

We are going to take a tour through his fourteen films, every last one, and we will see what we can learn about our movie-watching counterparts of 1915.

(Movie credit definitions were not quite settled in 1915, which meant that the producer may really be the director and various cast and crew would go uncredited. I decided to use IMDB’s listings as my guide for this series.)

DeMille at work, the very model of a Hollywood director.
DeMille at work, the very model of a Hollywood director.

From the very beginning, DeMille showed a deep understanding of what movie audiences wanted. His lurid melodramas, marital comedies and grand epics continued to please movie-goers for another forty years. This natural ability to finesse the sensational and salacious into censor-proof packages ensured that he would catapult to the top ranks of the Hollywood elite.

This ability is the precise reason I chose to focus on Cecil B. DeMille. You want a peek at the hopes dreams and fantasies of the population of 1915? DeMille is your man! Many of his movies are cinematic junk food. We consume them, we love them but we know they are not particularly good for us. The inevitable tummy ache is worth it. However, there are still many worthy artistic endeavors in the mix.

DeMille was born to be an entertainer. His father was a playwright, his mother a theatrical manager. His older brother, William, was a successful writer and director himself. Cecil jumped into the movies at just the right moment, at the very dawn of the feature film era.

He also has the rare distinction of being one of the few talents of the silent era with a relatively small percentage of lost films. He knew that any preserving that was going to be done would have to be done by him. (DeMille was familiar enough about the business end of movies to realize what happened to most films once their usefulness had expired.)

DeMille played with the bigwigs from the beginning.
DeMille played with the bigwigs from the beginning.

And preserve he did. He maintained a personal archive that protected most of his silent work for posterity.

DeMille had the presence of mind to ask for personal copies of his early movies from Paramount when he parted ways in 1925 to form his own production company. At that time, seven out of the forty-eight films were already lost. Think about it. Lost a decade after they were made. Frightening.

But enough of that! I now present you with 1915 through the eyes of Hollywood’s greatest showman.

The Girl of the Golden West

Magazine ad. Notice the relative placement of the DeMille and Belasco names.
Magazine ad. Notice the relative placement of the DeMille and Belasco names.

U.S. Premier Date: January 4

DeMille’s breakneck pace had been set in 1914. An early plug for The Girl of the Golden West can be found in this ad for The Ghost Breaker, his release for December of 1914.

No mention of the director or cast, just the film's stage pedigree.
No mention of the director or cast, just the film’s stage pedigree.

In keeping with the Lasky motto “famous players in famous plays,” many of DeMille’s features were based on popular stage properties. In this case, The Girl of the Golden West was an adaptation of a 1905 David Belasco play. (The tale was a popular one. Puccini turned it into the opera La Fanciulla del West in 1910, novelized by Belasco in 1911, DeMille himself cannibalized it for his 1917 Mary Pickford collaboration entitled A Romance of the Redwoods, made into a J. Warren Kerrigan vehicle in 1923, and adapted into a Nelson Eddy-Jeanette McDonald musical in 1938.)

Off to New York!
Off to New York!

The story is a Robin Hood tale of the old west with a bandit (charmingly called a road-agent) who is saved by the love and wit of a good women. Mabel Van Buren is the heroine and House Peters in the bandit Ramerrez. Jeanie McPherson, who would be one of DeMille’s favored script writers, has a supporting role.

The film was praised as a skillful adaptation of the stage material and was yet another feather in Lasky’s cap.

The scenery is praised above all else.
The scenery is praised above all else.

What did we learn about 1915? Plays were still seen as first-class film sources, though DeMille’s cinematic flourishes were starting to be respected. The western was still a hot genre (its popularity would ebb and flow throughout the years) and DeMille’s sin-to-redemption themes were firmly in place. The Girl of the Golden West cost $15,000 ($353,000 in modern money) to make and earned $102,000 (or $2.4 million) at the box office, proof positive that DeMille knew what he was doing.

Survival Status: Prints exist in the collections of the Library of Congress and the Film Preservation Associates. It has not yet been released on home video.

After Five

U.S. Premier Date: January 28

after-five-03

This is another film based on a play, this time written by DeMille and his older brother, William. The plot of After Five is one that remains popular to this day: A man in personal and financial trouble decides that the best way out of his problems is to arrange his own death. His dependents will then receive his life insurance and be taken care of. He contracts the killing but then experiences an unexpected financial windfall. But can he call off his own murder in time?

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The plot was considered too fantastic in 1915 (and the play upon which the film was based closed after just 13 performances) but I dare say it could be made tomorrow with very few alterations. The dark concept is timeless. In fact, Douglas Fairbanks pulled off a picture with a very similar plot just one year later.

One amusing anecdote: The hero of the picture, Edward Abeles, apparently got stuck in the mud at one point during filming. No word as to whether this left in the picture. I really hope it was. Note also the last sentence. Who is Oscar Apfel and where is Mr. DeMille?

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The real treat of the film (at least for modern audiences) is the presence of Sessue Hayakawa in a supporting role. Hayakawa would have an even bigger part later in the year but he was already receiving positive reviews for his work. (Though they do misspell his given name as “Succo”) Of course, Abeles plays the hapless hero. He was pass away just four years later.

This film also marks the last time that DeMille would be credited as a with co-director Oscar Apfel. When he began in motion pictures, DeMille was enthusiastic but inexperienced and Apfel was brought in as a three-year directing veteran to show the kid the ropes. DeMille continued to speak warmly of Apfel but his first year in the movies had been enough to prove that he no longer needed a mentor. (Apfel is considered to be the true director of this film but rules are rules and IMDB lists this as a directing credit for DeMille.)

What did we learn about 1915? Dark comedies could succeed but they had to be presented just right. DeMille’s cinematography and handling of actors continued to be praised but he was not infallible in his reading of public taste.

Survival Status: Missing and presumed lost. More’s the pity. Check those attics!

The Warrens of Virginia

Yes, but whose play is it? Could it be... Belasco?
Yes, but whose play is it? Could it be… Belasco?

U.S. Premier Date: February 15

DeMille tackled a costume picture for his third feature of the year. The Civil War had ended just fifty years before and it was an extremely popular setting for films, especially in the anniversary year of 1915. The Warrens of Virginia was yet another Belasco play. DeMille had played a supporting role in the stage version, along with a very young Mary Pickford.

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Blanche Sweet, a former Griffith leading lady, plays the heroine of the film, an aristocratic southern maiden in love with a Union soldier. She must choose between love of her country and love of House Peters. She bets on the House. (Sorry, could not resist.)

The ad campaign for Warrens emphasized the film as a Belasco-Lasky collaboration. A legitimate theater pedigree was still a way to woo paying audiences.

Modest, aren't they?
The most important subjects in photodrama history, eh? Modest, aren’t they?

The Warrens of Virginia is also significant because of date upon which it was released. It opened just one week after the premier of another Civil War drama, D.W. Griffith’s KKK-glamorizing epic, The Birth of a Nation. Birth caused national controversy and protest due to its hateful content but it cemented the feature-length picture as the mode of dramatic cinema.

On a tragic note, the 1924 remake of Warrens cost actress Martha Mansfield her life. Her antebellum dress was ignited by a carelessly discarded match and she died from her injuries.

What did we learn about 1915? The anniversary of the end of the Civil War was still very much on the minds of American audiences. (“Old soldiers” were specially invited to attend screenings of the picture.) Plays were still considered to be classier entertainment than the flickers.

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Survival Status: A print survives in the George Eastman House. The film has not yet been released on home video.

The Unafraid

I want to be positively accepted as the supreme symbol of artistic progress.
I want to be positively accepted as the supreme symbol of artistic progress.

U.S. Premier Date: April 1

A Montenegrin romance was the next project for DeMille. Famous Players-Lasky had obtained the services of Rita Jolivet, a noted stage actress and socialite, and was eager to showcase her talents. The European love story is rife with conspiracy, gambling, patriotism… all set in Montenegro as visualized by a California studio.

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The plot involves two Montenegerin aristocrats, a good brother and a treacherous one. The bad brother plans to trick an American heiress named Delight (really!) into marriage in order to use her money for treasonous purposes. Well, we can’t have that! The good brother (House Peters) kidnaps Delight as she travels to her would-be groom. Since he will be alone with her in his, er, house, House proposes that they enter into a contract marriage, to be annulled when his brother is brought to justice. Of course, we all know how contract marriages turn out in movies… In any case, there are counter-kidnappings and a bit of torture thrown into the bargain. It all sounds very, very… 1915. (“You fiend!” she panted, her bosom galloping.)

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The film’s atmosphere was applauded but the plot dismissed as silly. Fair enough. Miss Jolivet is also criticized for being too dern French to play an American heiress. Picky, picky, picky! House Peters and Page Peters were both praised for their work as the two brothers (they were not related in real life), though it was acknowledge that poor House had his work cut out for him. Oh, and a young Marjorie Daw has a supporting role in the picture.

Too French?
Too French?

The original 1915 novel by Eleanor M. Ingram is in the public domain and may be downloaded freely

Just a month after the release of The Unafraid, Jolivet booked passage to England aboard the Lusitania. She survived the ship’s sinking but her brother-in-law did not. Her sister, Inez (a renowned violinist), was bereft at the loss of her husband and committed suicide in July of the same year. DeMille would stage his own version of the Lusitania tragedy in his nasty 1917 propaganda flick The Little American.

House Peters and Rita Jovilet in happier times.
House Peters and Rita Jovilet in happier times.

What did we learn about 1915? DeMille was starting to reveal his predilection for sin and romance novels were considered legitimate sources for major motion pictures. The tragedy of the Jolivet sisters shows that no one, no matter how rich and famous, was immune to the terrible effects of the Great War.

Survival Status: Print survives at the George Eastman House. This title has not been released on home video.

The Captive

Blanche Sweet was the big draw for The Captive.
Blanche Sweet was the big draw for The Captive.

U.S. Premier Date: April 22

Blanche Sweet and House Peters reunited as the leads in this Balkan romance. He plays an aristocratic Turkish POW who is turned over to a Montenegrin peasant woman to help her work her farm. The two enemies gradually warm up to one another and the inevitable romance occurs. (This plot would be used successfully in the Pola Negri vehicle Barbed Wire.)

The plot!
The plot!

When Turkish forces attack the little village, House defends Blanche and is branded a traitor. With the war over, it looks like all hope is lost for the lovers– they are of totally different stations. But hark! House’s worldly goods have been seized by the Turkish government as punishment for his disloyalty. Now Blanche and House are equally broke and free to walk off into the sunset. (No word on how they resolve the religious differences inherent to their respective nations. Best not to ask too many questions.)

A bit thin in plot. Best to add a few Babylonian flashbacks.
A bit thin in plot. Best to add a few Babylonian flashbacks.

This film marks the first time that Cecil B. DeMille collaborated with Jeanie Macpherson on a scenario. (Macpherson also had a supporting role in the film.) This creative partnership would be long and fruitful and would include some of DeMille’s finest films: The Affairs of Anatol, Joan the Woman, The Whispering Chorus, Male and Female and The Ten Commandments. It also included some so-bad-they’re-good features like The Road to Yesterday and Madam Satan.

Yes, they went out and got authentic clothing and did not at all use leftover costumes from The Unafraid. No siree!
Yes, they went out and got authentic clothing and did not at all use leftover costumes from The Unafraid. No siree!

The Captive received much more positive reviews than The Unafraid. It’s easy to see why. The stuffy romance of The Unafraid was replaced by a working collaboration between two talented performers. However, the plot was deemed too thin to carry all five reels of the picture. DeMille would later solve such problems with flashbacks to Babylonian and Roman orgies.

A much-hyped film.
A much-hyped film.

The battle scenes proved to be all too realistic. By accident or design, live ammunition was loaded instead of blanks and an extra was shot and killed. His widow remained on the payroll for years after but the matter was otherwise dropped.

House Peters was becoming known for the whole Montenegro thing.
House Peters was becoming known for the whole Montenegro thing.

What did we learn about 1915? It’s a dangerous time to be a movie extra. Hazardous activities were not limited to stuntmen. Original stories are slowly but surely becoming viable for feature films, though plays, books, poems and other sources are still tapped.

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Survival Status: A print exists in the Library of Congress film archive. This title has not been released on home video.

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Oh, and a tip of the hat to that most-famous fictional Montenegrin, Mr. Nero Wolfe!

But now it is time to leave the Balkans behind and return to New York. Three of the next four films will take place in the Big Apple, with the notable exception set in the hot Arabian sands. Look for part 2 tomorrow!