Producer-director Cecil B. DeMille was one of Hollywood's great storytellers. His movies are sometimes derided as hokum, as with the magnificent remake of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956 that shows on TV every Easter season. But give the man credit for truly believing in the plots he was telling and for hiring the finest people on both sides of the camera. Decades later, his films are still being watched and greatly enjoyed.
Universal's THE CECIL B. DeMILLE COLLECTION contains no less than four grandly entertaining and gorgeously photographed masterworks--THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932, Paramount), CLEOPATRA (1934, Paramount), THE CRUSADES (1935, Paramount), and his masterpiece UNION PACIFIC (1939, Paramount). Only the badly written and ludicrously acted FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE (1934, Universal) is a dud. DeMille's actors in SIGN OF THE CROSS include Claudette Colbert as an evil empress, Charles Laughton as Nero, Fredric March as a Roman officer, and Elissa Landi as the Christian girl whom March will sacrifice his life for. Watch for Colbert bathing in asses' milk, which two kittens lick. This is the uncut roadshow version.
Two years later, Colbert is Cleopatra and her leading men are Warren William and Henry Wilcoxon. I can never remember which is Julius Caesar and which is Marc Antony. This visual feast won a Cinematography Oscar for Victor Milner, who would work frequently with Mr. DeMille. The Interior Decoration should have won also. This 1934 production, running a tight 102 minutes, is light years more entertaining than the four hour 1963 epic.
THE CRUSADES has Henry Wilcoxon again, this time as Richard the Lionhearted. We are in 1200 A.D., where the Christians are fighting for control of Jerusalem. Joseph Schildkraut has a great supporting role as a power-mad soldier or general, C. Aubrey Smith is deeply moving as the Christian wise man willing to give up his life for Christianity, and Loretta Young is at her loveliest as Verangaria, who is willing to marry Richard so that his army has enough food and drink for a trek across the Middle East. THE CRUSADES is one of my favorite movies as a Christian about people willing to die for the power of Christianity. And, once again, Victor Milner makes it look absolutely gorgeous.
My favorite in this first-class boxed set is UNION PACIFIC, a thrilling 139 minute saga about the building the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860's. The cast is magnificent--Barbara Stanwyck (with Irish brogue) as an engineer's daughter torn between marshall Joel McCrea and train robber Robert Preston. The chief bad guy is always dependably evil Brian Donlevy, while Akim Tamiroff and Lynne Overman are McCrea's aides, always ready with pistol and whip. Boy, I love this movie, which has impeccable sets and photography. I know movies were frequently made on studio back lots, with a lot of rear projection. But UNION PACIFIC really looks as if it were shot out in the desert and with real trains. It may be fiction, but it makes me feel like a kid again, watching all twelve chapters of a cliffhanger serial at one sitting. It is one of Mr. DeMille's crowning achievements for me.
These prints are shimmering knockouts, seemingly all from the UCLA Film and TV Archives. They are great fun, but also tell intelligent stories and have passionate triangle romances. If only Universal Home Video had included some serious bonuses and individual cardboard cases for each movie, like the incomparable Warner Home Video does. Because of that lack, I am giving this set a 5 star rating for four of the movies, but knocking it down 1 star for the packaging with the disks loose, two on top of each other on open up cardboard. Heed this, Colleen Benn. The lack of bonuses and protective casing on the movies is especially galling on a set selling for $60 ($52 from Amazon), the same price as the Warner Home Video deluxe sets. No, it is actually MORE expensive than Warners, and for LESS bonuses. I only paid $42 for a six film Clark Gable collection from Warners with a ton of bonuses and each movie in protective casing. One of these days, Universal will get the lesson.