Silence is golden for Cecil B. DeMille at USC

Officials at USC's School of Cinematic Arts have warmly embraced the digital era in filmmaking, but they also realize that silent movies are golden.

On Monday evening, the school held a dedication for the Cecil B. DeMille Endowed Chair in Silent Film. Cecilia DeMille Presley, granddaughter of the man who made 1952's Oscar-winner "The Greatest Show on Earth" and 1956's "The Ten Commandments," was on hand to talk to USC cinema students about DeMille and to screen his erotic 1915 melodrama "The Cheat."

A box-office sensation 96 years ago, the drama features Fannie Ward as a high-society wife who embezzles money and makes a big mistake when she turns to a handsome Japanese ivory dealer (Sessue Hayakawa) for help. The film made Hayakawa ("The Bridge on the River Kwai") a star, and DeMille's use of Rembrandt-style lighting influenced filmmakers for years to come.

Though he's best known for his sound films, DeMille, who died in 1959 at age 77, "was the most successful maker of silent films," said his granddaughter. "He made some pretty good movies."

In fact, he made the first U.S. feature film, 1914's "The Squaw Man," several comedies and such biblical epics as 1923's "The Ten Commandments" and 1927's "The King of Kings."

Presley, who was raised by DeMille, runs the Cecil B. DeMille Foundation and oversees the estate's collection of film, film art and memorabilia. Besides funding the new chair at USC, she also sits on many boards, including those of the American Film Institute, Chapman University and the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

Though USC probably won't announce the DeMille professor until next year, Presley said that part of the silent film curriculum will be studying her grandfather's work. "They have to see silent films and see the techniques [that were used]," she said.

The film school's lobby gallery is also the home of an exhibit that will continue through the year of items from DeMille's collection, including the typewriter used to write the script for "Squaw Man" and Kay Johnson's ornate coat from 1930's "Madam Satan."

susan.king@latimes.com

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