A Newfound Appreciation for Cecil B. DeMille

In my research and readings over the past month, the name Cecil B. DeMille has popped up several times. DeMille was an important part of the film industry from the early Hollywood era until the 1950s when he died. DeMille’s type of conventionally crafted, star-studded filmmaking with a pinch of melodrama seems ill-suited to the tastes of contemporary viewers who equate his name with “old-fashioned” moviemaking—if they know his name at all. But, contemporary audiences are quite different than they were in DeMille’s day. Few movies today please that mainstream audience C.B. was such an expert at courting; instead, the major Hollywood studios chase after adolescent boys with explosions and bad editing, or they target children with the latest entry in a lucrative franchise, hoping that 3-D will cover up a dumbed-down script. Older audiences who prefer indie films– with their unhappy endings, nonlinear structures, provocative content, and performances by actors instead of stars–are probably uninterested in DeMille’s glossy, glamorous spectacles.

C.B. LOOKING THE PART OF THE GREAT DIRECTOR

DeMille’s reputation has diminished over the past few decades, though Robert Birchard’s Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood is a much-needed contemporary view of the director. Film histories seldom devote much space to C.B.’s directorial preferences and style, and they tend to overlook his contributions to Hollywood with a capital “H,” particularly the systems he helped develop, his unflagging support of the industry, and the careers he helped to launch. Somehow this doesn’t seem quite right to me, though I have to admit I was not a major fan of DeMille until recently. Having been subjected to endless broadcasts of the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments, I avoided seeing his other films. My attitude toward DeMille changed when I had the opportunity to catch his silent movies on the big screen through the programming of the Silent Film Society of Chicago. Watching films such as Male and Female (1919), the original Ten Commandments (1923), and The King of Kings (1927) gave me an appreciation for his command of large-scale action, his ability to structure crowd scenes, his mastery of the classic narrative style, and his preference for big stars with larger-than-life images. My new-found appreciation led me to discover one of my favorite films—DeMille’s adventure drama Reap the Wild Wind.

THE CAST: MILLAND, GODDARD, WAYNE, & A YOUNG SUSAN HAYWARD

One of the reasons that I like the film so much is its subject matter, which derives from a little-known part of American history. Reap the Wild Wind is a rip-roaring action adventure centered around the salvage industry of the 1840s. The film stars John Wayne as Jack Stuart, a hale and hearty sea captain for Commodore Devereaux’s shipping line. Captain Stuart works out of Key West, sailing the route between Cuba and the Keys. Jack’s job is dangerous because of the treacherous reefs along the Straits of Florida, where many a ship has wrecked and gone down. When one of Stuart’s ships is purposefully scuttled by his first mate so that its cargo can be salvaged by unscrupulous wreckers, Devereaux representative Stephen Tolliver, played by a cultured and refined Ray Milland, is sent to Key West to keep a watchful eye on Jack. Once in hot and humid Key West, Tolliver finds he can’t keep those eyes off Jack’s beautiful fiancee, Loxi Claiborne, played by sassy Paulette Goddard.

THE FILM WAS A HIT, LAUNCHING MUCH MERCHANDISING, INCLUDING PAPER DOLLS, A 78 RPM RECORDING OF A KEY SCENE, AND PHOTOS OF THE STARS ON ICE CREAM WRAPPERS.

DeMille had originally wanted Errol Flynn in the role of Jack Stuart, but that did not work out. He offered the part to Wayne, who had had an unpleasant encounter with DeMille earlier in his career. He reluctantly accepted the offer based on C.B.’s explanation of what the role meant to the overall narrative. DeMille rarely let his prospective stars read the scripts; instead he offered a role by describing it and its relationship to the storyline. When Wayne received the script, he was disappointed in the blandness of Jack Stuart and the way that Milland’s character—something of a fop in the film—bested Stuart in many scenes. Some Wayne biographers make a issue out of the actor’s initial problems with the character, suggesting he was unhappy with DeMille and the film. However, in Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, Brichard puts this story in proper perspective. In a letter to his agent, Wayne contended, “I think there is the possibility of developing him into a great character without distracting from Steve or Loxi . . . This can be done by simply making him an individualist played boldly and impulsively . . . .” DeMille believed that casting was essential in the creation of a character, and his faith in Wayne was justified in the actor’s understanding of how to make the role come alive without upstaging Milland or Goddard.

A behind-the-scenes look at the making of this 1942 blockbuster is an illustration of how the studios operated during the Golden Age. In visualizing the tale of Key West’s sea trade and salvage operators, DeMille gave his audiences romance, high-seas adventure, thrills, history, and spectacle. Helping him achieve his vision on such a grand scale were all of Paramount Pictures’ resources, from the expert camera crew to the clever prop masters. For the big-budget spectacles that DeMille was famous for, each department—costumes, makeup, props, special effects, set design, cinematography—was called upon to provide their expertise to contribute to the whole. It was a kind of skillful collaboration that could recreate any part of the world in any historical era with style and imagination. And one of DeMille’s strengths as a director was the way he used these resources to his best advantage.

THE SQUID GETS TOLLIVER (PLAYED BY MILLAND).

The climactic scene in Reap the Wild Wind finds Captain Jack Stuart and Stephen Tolliver investigating a wreck at the bottom of the sea. The two make their way to the floor of the ocean by using deep-sea diving gear, which was a new and dangerous technology in the 1840s, when the story takes place. There, they discover evidence that the cousin of love interest Loxi Claiborne was drowned when the ship sank, and if that is not dramatic enough, a huge squid emerges from the wreckage and reaches for the two men with its creeping tentacles. Tolliver cannot escape the grasp of the squid, but Stuart attacks one of the beast’s huge tentacles with a knife.

According to DeMille in his autobiography, the squid sequence was one reason for the film’s popularity with the public, partly because it was exciting and partly because most people were unfamiliar with the monsters of the deep, or so C.B. claimed. Paramount’s prop department was responsible for coming up with a realistic-looking squid that could move and attack underwater. The burnt-red monster was made of sponge rubber and brought to life by an electric motor, which was operated by a 24-button control panel atop the huge tank of water where the sequence was filmed. The squid’s tentacles were 14-feet long and capable of wrapping themselves around a human. According to biographer Charles Higham, DeMille originally wanted a real squid to attack Milland as Tolliver, and he also wanted to include a real whale in his ocean sequences, but I don’t always trust Higham’s biographies. I doubt the veracity of those stories and wonder if Higham was exaggerating or misinterpreting to paint C.B. as the egomaniacal director he is often made out to be.

FIGHT TO THE FINISH WITH THE SQUID

While underwater in diving gear, Wayne and Milland took direction from DeMille through telephone wires rigged into their diving helmets by the capable Paramount crew. The wreckage of the 19th-century cargo ship had been built underwater in the studio’s water tank, where the scenes for many a sea adventure had been shot. The tank was about the size of a football field and was 25-feet deep. Designed by Hans Dreier and Roland Anderson, the underwater set also featured a mass of ship’s cables and cargo baskets that floated in and out of frame, creating a sense of potential danger. Part of the ship’s wreckage contained brightly silk cloth that drifted eerily about the wreckage. Unfortunately, the colored silk lost its pigment in the salt water of the tank, but the problem was handled by the costume department who re-dyed the silk at the end of each day.

Another challenge for DeMille and his team was the storm at sea sequence. Depicting a shipwreck during a storm tested the skills of Paramount’s cinematography department, but they did not disappoint. Capturing the shipwreck, the roiling sea, and the stormy sky in the same frame was accomplished by shooting each segment separately, then projecting each segment via a separate projector through quartz lenses. The images were projected onto a neutral background where the movement was synchronized into one image, then reshot.

PARAMOUNT'S RESEARCH DEPT. RESEARCHED EVERYTHING FROM COSTUMES TO KEY WEST, c. 1840s, TO SALVAGE TRIALS (above).

The special underwater photography was accomplished by cinematographer Dewey Wrigley, while Gordon Jennings was in charge of the special effects, which included everything from creating the illusion of a giant wave pummeling a ship to constructing a beautiful Key West sunset in the studio. The only “staff” that did not cooperate with DeMille was the school of fish in the water tank that would never stay in camera range. As DeMille quipped in his autobiography, “Rehearsal did not do them much good.”

ALL THE STARS ARE ON THE POSTER, INCLUDING THE SQUID

Though not a very exciting department compared to set design, special effects, or cinematography, Paramount’s research department did a stellar job on Reap the Wild Wind. They not only provided the prop masters with information on giant squids, they researched sea slang of the 1840s, the dangers of ocean storms, and the date when stick matches were first available to the public.

They also provided details about Key West as the capital of salvage operators and wreckers in the early nineteenth century—something I knew nothing about until I saw this movie. Yet, at one time, wrecking was one of the most lucrative industries in the United States. Wreckers, or salvage operators, were men who sailed to the sites of wrecked ships in small vessels to rescue the crew and then retrieved the cargo as salvage to be sold at auction. The coral reefs in the Florida Straits along the south side of the Keys were dangerous to navigate, and cargo ships going to and from New Orleans, Cuba, or Jamaica faced great peril as they passed through the Straits. The wreckers of the Keys were famous for their daring sailing of small crafts during treacherous storm waters to reach imperiled ships. While many wreckers saved the lives of passengers and crew members, the occupation also attracted brigands and pirates who lit false lights to lure ships to their destruction on the reefs in order to plunder them for profit. Fights broke out frequently among competing salvage crews, and murder was not an uncommon occurrence. In the late 1820s, the wreckers in the Florida Keys prospered, and Key West rapidly grew into the capital city of salvage. The wrecks brought in as much as $100,000 every year, and by the 1830s, it was the wealthiest city in the United States, per capita. Key West grew around the salvage operations: Several lawyers set up practices in town, and they argued nothing but salvage cases; finery from around the world salvaged from wrecks was available to the residents of the Keys; custom officials collected taxes on all the goods; shipyards were bustling with activity; shopkeepers prospered by selling wrecked goods; and saloons and grog shops opened to entertain the sailors. Reap the Wild Wind illuminates this brief but colorful period of American history at the same time it romanticizes it.

The heroism and romance of this nineteenth-century salvage industry inspired Cecil B. DeMille to take a short story from the Saturday Evening Post and spin a thrilling yarn with a host of heroic characters against a sweeping ocean backdrop. Reap the Wild Wind provides a tribute to the wreckers of the Keys, who, not unlike DeMille, have been left out of the history books.

Birchard, Robert. Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood. University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

DeMille, Cecil B. The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille. Edited by Donald Hayne. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1959.

Doll, Susan and David Morrow. Florida on Film. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007.

Higham, Charles. Cecil B. DeMille. New York: Scribner, 1973.

14 Responses A Newfound Appreciation for Cecil B. DeMille
Posted By Jeff Heise : March 23, 2010 4:54 am

Very nice analysis of this somewhat overlooked DeMille film. My friend Scott Eyman, author of such books as THE SPEED OF SOUND, PRINT THE LEGEND (John Ford) and LION OF HOLLYWOOD (Louis B. Mayer) has a book on DeMille coming out this fall that has the cooperation of the DeMille family, so it will be interesting to read what new information he has uncovered about probably the most popular filmmaker of the first half of the 20th century and one that I agree has really not been given his due in the pantheon of great directors.

My personal favorite of his films is the ’56 remake of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, but I have a soft spot in my heart for films like DYNAMITE (a rare instance of Mayer and Thalberg allowing another name on an MGM film-the end title card actually adds “A Cecil B. DeMille Production”-I think this is the only instance in which a director at MGM had this kind of special treatment), THE SIGN OF THE CROSS, CLEOPATRA, FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE and SAMSON & DELILAH, with THE KING OF KINGS still one of the best cinematic tellings of Christ’s last weeks.

A friend of mine said he admired DeMille because he “never got any better,” and I always wondered what he meant by that, and I have come to the conclusion that he meant that DeMille never got any better because there was no other director better than he was at getting spectacle on the screen, and while some dialogue in his films might make one wince at times (a female character remarks to Gary Cooper in NORTHWEST MOUNTED POLICE: “Oh, Dusty, you’re an angel in leather!”), it is so difficult to think of Bible history and not see it through this man’s eyes and how he presented it. My grandmother was in her 80′s when Zefferelli did his Moses film with Burt Lancaster, and even though it was shot on authentic locations, when she saw it she was moved by the story and the performances, but she also felt that the way that DeMille showed it was far more entertaining and perhaps even a bit fun, and it is that last thing that I think separates DeMille from other epic filmmakers-the sense of fun that permeates his films. William Wyler made an incredble epic out of BEN-HUR, but it is missing that little touch of fun that a DeMille film always had that kept the film moving at just the right pace to let you know you were watching a serious drama, but not make you look forward to the intermission (best example-Yul Brynner in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS; he is definitely slicing the ham very thick in his portrayal of Rameses, but he is also so charismatic that he blows almost everyone off the screen. I actually enjoy more in this than THE KING AND I.).

Posted By Jeff Heise : March 23, 2010 4:54 am

Very nice analysis of this somewhat overlooked DeMille film. My friend Scott Eyman, author of such books as THE SPEED OF SOUND, PRINT THE LEGEND (John Ford) and LION OF HOLLYWOOD (Louis B. Mayer) has a book on DeMille coming out this fall that has the cooperation of the DeMille family, so it will be interesting to read what new information he has uncovered about probably the most popular filmmaker of the first half of the 20th century and one that I agree has really not been given his due in the pantheon of great directors.

My personal favorite of his films is the ’56 remake of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, but I have a soft spot in my heart for films like DYNAMITE (a rare instance of Mayer and Thalberg allowing another name on an MGM film-the end title card actually adds “A Cecil B. DeMille Production”-I think this is the only instance in which a director at MGM had this kind of special treatment), THE SIGN OF THE CROSS, CLEOPATRA, FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE and SAMSON & DELILAH, with THE KING OF KINGS still one of the best cinematic tellings of Christ’s last weeks.

A friend of mine said he admired DeMille because he “never got any better,” and I always wondered what he meant by that, and I have come to the conclusion that he meant that DeMille never got any better because there was no other director better than he was at getting spectacle on the screen, and while some dialogue in his films might make one wince at times (a female character remarks to Gary Cooper in NORTHWEST MOUNTED POLICE: “Oh, Dusty, you’re an angel in leather!”), it is so difficult to think of Bible history and not see it through this man’s eyes and how he presented it. My grandmother was in her 80′s when Zefferelli did his Moses film with Burt Lancaster, and even though it was shot on authentic locations, when she saw it she was moved by the story and the performances, but she also felt that the way that DeMille showed it was far more entertaining and perhaps even a bit fun, and it is that last thing that I think separates DeMille from other epic filmmakers-the sense of fun that permeates his films. William Wyler made an incredble epic out of BEN-HUR, but it is missing that little touch of fun that a DeMille film always had that kept the film moving at just the right pace to let you know you were watching a serious drama, but not make you look forward to the intermission (best example-Yul Brynner in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS; he is definitely slicing the ham very thick in his portrayal of Rameses, but he is also so charismatic that he blows almost everyone off the screen. I actually enjoy more in this than THE KING AND I.).

Posted By Brad King : March 23, 2010 8:06 am

Thank you for the background on Reap the Wild Wind. I found this movie years ago after having enjoyed a later movie, Wake of the Red Witch (1948). The later movie also starred John Wayne and also involved ship wrecks and salvage, with a deadly climax aboard a wreck, and a threatening octopus. I don’t think you could call it a remake, but there are too many similarities to be coincidental.

SPOILER ALERTS

These movies bring up an interesting subgenre, those movies in which John Wayne’s character is killed. When I was a child, I was told that the Duke never died in a movie. Of course that is false, but there are only a small number of his movies that fit the category. Maybe that would make an interesting Morlock article.

Posted By Brad King : March 23, 2010 8:06 am

Thank you for the background on Reap the Wild Wind. I found this movie years ago after having enjoyed a later movie, Wake of the Red Witch (1948). The later movie also starred John Wayne and also involved ship wrecks and salvage, with a deadly climax aboard a wreck, and a threatening octopus. I don’t think you could call it a remake, but there are too many similarities to be coincidental.

SPOILER ALERTS

These movies bring up an interesting subgenre, those movies in which John Wayne’s character is killed. When I was a child, I was told that the Duke never died in a movie. Of course that is false, but there are only a small number of his movies that fit the category. Maybe that would make an interesting Morlock article.

Posted By Medusa : March 23, 2010 8:58 am

Suzi, what a treat to read your post here about one of my favorites movies!

I’ve loved “Reap the Wild Wind” for years and years. Exciting, two great male star performances — also good ones from Raymond Massey and the always great-to-see Robert Preston, Goddard’s strong but very alluring feminine presence, Susan Hayward’s less demanding but equally charming role, and that squid — and Ray Milland’s little “talking” dog. What a movie!

I always loved Loxi’s sea chanty that scandalized the party –

“Oh, you’re just another packet rat, aboard the Nellie B…”

We had this at KTLA when I was programming the station and after it would no longer cut the mustard in primetime, it was a stalwart of our overnight movie slots.

What an entertaining post about a tremendously entertaining movie that makes history come vividly alive. DeMille knew how to get it on the screen! I haven’t seen RTWW in a while and now I really need to search it out. I miss it!

Posted By Medusa : March 23, 2010 8:58 am

Suzi, what a treat to read your post here about one of my favorites movies!

I’ve loved “Reap the Wild Wind” for years and years. Exciting, two great male star performances — also good ones from Raymond Massey and the always great-to-see Robert Preston, Goddard’s strong but very alluring feminine presence, Susan Hayward’s less demanding but equally charming role, and that squid — and Ray Milland’s little “talking” dog. What a movie!

I always loved Loxi’s sea chanty that scandalized the party –

“Oh, you’re just another packet rat, aboard the Nellie B…”

We had this at KTLA when I was programming the station and after it would no longer cut the mustard in primetime, it was a stalwart of our overnight movie slots.

What an entertaining post about a tremendously entertaining movie that makes history come vividly alive. DeMille knew how to get it on the screen! I haven’t seen RTWW in a while and now I really need to search it out. I miss it!

Posted By debbe : March 23, 2010 1:26 pm

really a great post suzidoll. Love how the script was developed from such an interesting story- the salvage history. also like how you reexamine de mille because so many moviegoers today dont know who he is or what he did. they think you mean cruella deville. and the whole notion of spectacle that doesnt involve 3d, or cg, or machines….. is great.

Posted By debbe : March 23, 2010 1:26 pm

really a great post suzidoll. Love how the script was developed from such an interesting story- the salvage history. also like how you reexamine de mille because so many moviegoers today dont know who he is or what he did. they think you mean cruella deville. and the whole notion of spectacle that doesnt involve 3d, or cg, or machines….. is great.

Posted By kingrat : March 23, 2010 3:45 pm

Suzi, loved your article. REAP THE WILD WIND is a version of GWTW, with Paulette Goddard as Scarlett, Ray Milland as Ashley, and John Wayne as Rhett. Here Ashley proves he’s just as much as man as Rhett. Paulette Goddard was one of the finalists to play Scarlett in GWTW, so I’m glad she got to play Loxi. Love her song about the Nellie B. that scandalized Hedda Hopper and the other ladies.

Posted By kingrat : March 23, 2010 3:45 pm

Suzi, loved your article. REAP THE WILD WIND is a version of GWTW, with Paulette Goddard as Scarlett, Ray Milland as Ashley, and John Wayne as Rhett. Here Ashley proves he’s just as much as man as Rhett. Paulette Goddard was one of the finalists to play Scarlett in GWTW, so I’m glad she got to play Loxi. Love her song about the Nellie B. that scandalized Hedda Hopper and the other ladies.

Posted By smitty1931 : March 23, 2010 4:53 pm

DeMille had a foot fetish and Goddard made sure she displayed her feet when she went in for her interview and wound up with Reap and Northwest Mounted Police. She would have made a fine Scarlett and Milland would have been a good Ashley (more masculine than Howard).

Posted By smitty1931 : March 23, 2010 4:53 pm

DeMille had a foot fetish and Goddard made sure she displayed her feet when she went in for her interview and wound up with Reap and Northwest Mounted Police. She would have made a fine Scarlett and Milland would have been a good Ashley (more masculine than Howard).

Posted By Suzi : March 23, 2010 5:51 pm

I am so happy that others like this movie. I almost decided against writing about it, because I thought no one would be interested but me. Then I remembered that I got a good response to GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, and I thought I would give this topic a shot. I find the comparisons to GONE WITH THE WIND interesting, especially the idea that Milland would have made a better Ashley Wilkes.

Posted By Suzi : March 23, 2010 5:51 pm

I am so happy that others like this movie. I almost decided against writing about it, because I thought no one would be interested but me. Then I remembered that I got a good response to GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, and I thought I would give this topic a shot. I find the comparisons to GONE WITH THE WIND interesting, especially the idea that Milland would have made a better Ashley Wilkes.

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