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Book review: ‘Empire of Dreams’ by Scott Eyman

You don’t have to be much of a film buff to know you’re in for a particular treat when you open Scott Eyman’s remarkable new biography of the American cinema’s iconic director and find a prologue that opens: “On the morning of May 23, 1949, at the Paramount studio on Marathon Street in the heart of Hollywood, Cecil B. DeMille was busily engaged in polishing Billy Wilder’s dialogue.”

Eyman, books editor of the Palm Beach Post, is the author of numerous books on film, including widely admired biographies of John Ford and Louis B. Mayer. “Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille” is the first account of the pioneering filmmaker’s life based on his own correspondence and papers, and Eyman has parlayed his unprecedented access into both a judiciously balanced portrait of a complex, contradictory subject, but also a wonderfully readable Hollywood history. Simon Louvish’s 2008 biography, “Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art,” also is an intelligent, thorough account of the director’s life, but Eyman’s more detailed account manages to be exhaustive without being exhausting — a notable feat in a book of this length.

Take, for example, that opening sequence, which of course took place on the set of “Sunset Boulevard” in which DeMille played himself against the fictional Norma Desmond, portrayed by Gloria Swanson, one of the many stars DeMille, in fact, had discovered. As Eyman writes:

“Wilder’s films were noted for their pungent dialogue and merciless examination of human cupidity, while of late DeMille’s had been noted for the splendid vastness of their images and the frequently silly lines his actors were paid to speak.

“But if there was anything Cecil B. DeMille knew it was how Cecil B. DeMille should sound.

“His first scripted line was ‘It must be about that appalling script of hers. What can I say to her? What can I say?’ In his rushed but legible handwriting, he changed ‘appalling’ to ‘impossible’ and gave the second sentence a more rhythmic quality: ‘What can I tell her? What can I say?’ ”

DeMille moved through the scene, rewriting dialogue and inserting stage instructions absent from Wilder’s original script. “Throughout his revision,” Eyman writes, “DeMille’s polish lessens the staccato rhythm of Wilder’s dialogue into something more conversational, more graceful, with special attention paid to cadence.” For his part, Wilder was pleased with what now ranks as one of the most famous scenes in what may be the only truly serious picture Hollywood ever made about itself — and with the older director’s performance. “ ‘DeMille was very good,’ Billy Wilder remembered with satisfaction. ‘Much better than a lot of the actors in his pictures. He took direction terrifically. He loved it, he understood it. He was very subtle.’ ”

As someone who knew Wilder as a friendly acquaintance in his later years and who specifically discussed dialogue with him on a couple of occasions, I can’t believe Wilder, an uncontestable master in his own right, ever would have acquiesced to changes he didn’t believe improved the scene, no matter the source. I also can say with certainty that, in Wilder’s lexicon, “subtle” was a profound compliment.

That Eyman repeats it at his book’s outset points to one of his underlying themes — his belief that DeMille the outsized character and pioneer is underappreciated as an artist and, in memory at least, caricatured as a man. He makes a fairly compelling case for the former, grounding it in the influential, though insufficiently recognized, body of work DeMille amassed and in his success as one of few directors to move from the silent era into sound. There are wonderful vignettes sprinkled throughout that illustrate his skill as a director. On the massive set of the silent version of “The Ten Commandments,” for instance, he was unhappy when the huge cast expressed insufficient “awe” and reverence in one scene. Later, he assembled the entire group, read them a telegram on the death of a nonexistent fellow cast member who supposedly had left his widow with eight fatherless children. DeMille asked for a moment of silence in his memory and — as the cameras secretly rolled — got his “awe.”

Eyman also convincingly locates the director’s aesthetic in the influence of his theatrical family and, particularly, the influence of his playwright father’s great friend, the legendary Broadway impresario, David Belasco. “The old Belasco plays are like religious plays. The story is nothing; it’s what you breathe into it,” DeMille once said. This biographer’s thesis is that DeMille breathed into his own work the tensions of an astonishingly contradictory personality — a gentleman of strict Edwardian propriety who remained devoted to a single wife for his entire life, while never having fewer than three mistresses; an autocrat known for his kindness; a director of legendary profligacy, who drove bargains for his own compensation that would have satisfied a Philadelphia banker; an instinctual libertarian and opponent of censorship, who nonetheless was able to use the Hays office for his own purposes and, later, helped usher in the McCarthy era Red scare with its blacklist and loyalty oaths.

Eyman’s reconstruction of DeMille’s now notorious attempt to unseat Joseph L. Mankiewicz from the presidency of the Directors Guild in the struggle over loyalty oaths is thorough, sober, fair-minded and alone is worth the price of the book. Suffice to say, that nobody but Ford — a conservative who wanted no part of McCarthy or the blacklist — comes out looking better than anyone else involved.

“One thing is inarguable,” the author writes, “there was never a career like DeMille’s before, and there has been none like it since [his death in 1959]. DeMille’s importance transcends his individual films, and even transcends his achievements, because he embodies the story of the American feature motion picture and its rise to world preeminence.”

“Empire of Dreams” makes as good and as enjoyable a case for that appraisal as you’re likely to read.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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