Posted by Susan Doll on March 22, 2010
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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