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The Cecil B. DeMille Collection (Cleopatra/ The Crusades/ Four Frightened People/ Sign of the Cross/ Union Pacific) (1935)
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Legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille earned a place in cinematic history when he helped create Hollywoods first feature-length film, an event that established Hollywood as the motion picture capital of the world. A master of spectacular epics, his films garnered unparalled acclaim for their scope and grandeur. Now, for the first time ever, five of his most popular films are available in one premium DVD collection. Experience the breathtaking dangers and delights of ancient Rome in The Sign of the Cross; trek through a perilous jungle with Four Frightened People; thrill to the passion, suspense and intrigue of Cleopatra; journey back in time with the glorious story of The Crusades; and see how the West was really won in the explosive Union Pacific. With a glamorous roster of screen legends, including Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton, Barbara Stanwyck, Anthony Quinn and many more, this 5-disc collection is a phenomenal reminder of the innovator who made moviemaking what it is today.
One of Hollywood's greatest showmen gets a worthy showcase in The Cecil B. De Mille Collection, consisting of five of the legendary producer-director's most characteristic films. As noted by David Thomson in his influential book A Biographical Dictionary of Film, "De Mille's movies are barnstormers, rooted in Victorian theatre, shamelessly stereotyped and sentimental, but eagerly courting 20th-century permissiveness, if only solemnly to condemn it." That's an apt description of the films included in this nicely packaged box set, which offers no extras beyond the films themselves. Thomson is equally accurate in calling De Mille's films "simple, raw, pious, and jingoistic," but as these five well-preserved films make abundantly clear, De Mille was always a consummate entertainer. One of Hollywood's foremost pioneers, De Mille cut an iconic figure, single-handedly defining the archetypal image of the dictatorial director, complete with boots, jodhpurs and an ever-present riding crop to enforce his domineering authority. After failed attempts to work independently and, later, for MGM, De Mille found a permanent home at Paramount in 1932, and it's there that he made these five films (now owned by Universal as part of their pre-1948 Paramount library), which represent the glorious clash of Christian virtues, epic-scale production values, lurid sexuality, and self-important grandiosity that make De Mille's films so curiously (and in many cases hypocritically) enthralling.
The Sign of the Cross (1932) is quintessential De Mille, now famous for its pre-Code (i.e. pre-censorship) scene of peep-show nudity as Claudette Colbert (playing Poppaea, wife of Charles Laughton's Roman emperor Nero) takes a tantalizing bath in goat's milk, daring DVD viewers to freeze-frame "the naughty bits" while Roman prefect Marcus (Frederic March) struggles to reconcile his loyalty to Rome with his forbidden love for the Christian maiden Mercia (Elissa Landi), who's destined for the lion's den. Full of outrageous spectacle (including dwarves in the Roman arena), this blood-and-guts epic is pure De Mille compared to the more conventionally formulaic adventure of Four Frightened People (1934), also starring Colbert as one of the four titular characters shipwrecked on a remote Malay island (filmed at Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, in Hawaii) and forced to fend for themselves. It's a stodgy but frequently amusing adventure, with Colbert's uptight schoolmarm growing sexier and less inhibited with each passing scene. Colbert returns (De Mille obviously adored her) in the title role of Cleopatra (1934), easily seducing Marc Antony (played by De Mille favorite Henry Wilcoxon) in a film as lavishly appointed as it is melodramatically extreme. Wilcoxon pairs with Loretta Young in The Crusades (1935) with De Mille once again mixing piety with prurience in a religious epic that promises plenty of sex but, in classic De Mille fashion, remains steadfastly chaste. Union Pacific (from Hollywood's golden year of 1939) is a grandly entertaining Western that mangles history (specifically, events surrounding construction of the transcontinental railroad) while casting gunslingers Joel McCrea and Robert Preston in a contest for Barbara Stanwyck's affections.
Choosing a favorite among these five films is purely a matter of personal taste, but for all of his weaknesses as a director (not the least being a condescending and self-righteous arrogance toward his audience), De Mille was never, ever boring. These films helped to make Paramount the most profitable studio of the 1930s, and they hold up remarkably well. Despite the complete absence of bonus features (Universal once again taking the low-cost option with no-frills packaging), each film is presented in pristine or near-pristine condition, ripe for first-time viewing or nostalgic rediscovery by vintage film buffs everywhere.--Jeff Shannon
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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.
De Mille was a larger than life figure and he was drawn to showing larger than life figures Colbert plays both Cleopatra and Nero's amoral wife covorting in mikl baths with passers by in "Sign of the Cross." The Crusades, while not historically accurate has hosts of memorable scenes. Union Pacific features Barbara Stanwyck in an adventerous role.
This is an excellent collection of De Mille's films and I am looking forward to others being released on DVD in the future
For me the highlight of the collection is Claudette Colbert. She is so much fun to watch in both CLEOPATRA and SIGN OF THE CROSS. She is truly magnficent!!! And you can see why she was such a popular star. She may have won her Oscar for IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, but her all-knowing performance as Cleopatra probably help cinch the award for her.
De Mille's Cleopatra is much more fun than you'd expect, played as much for deliberately camp comedy as for spectacle and a lot pacier at 104 minutes than the Elizabeth Taylor version. Warren William plays Caesar as De Mille himself, Henry Wilcoxen plays Anthony as an oaf and Claudette Colbert takes centerstage as the kind of vixen who knows which side of the Roman Empire her bread is buttered. At times De Mille's tongue is firmly in his cheek - not least a wonderfully drawn out death scene from Leonard Mudie that wouldn't look out of place in Carry On Cleo or Cleo's spectacular seduction of Tony on that fabled barge - but there's some fine filmmaking here too, not least a great battle montage padded out with footage from the silent Ten Commandments and a fine bit of censor baiting as a foreground hand ostensibly playing the harp seems to almost paw at Colbert's body. It ain't history but it is fun. Nice score from Rudolph Kopp too.
De Mille's The Crusades isn't history either, but it's certainly a lot more fun than its reputation implies. Wilcoxen reprises his macho oaf routine as Richard the Lionheart, but despite the film being best remembered for failing to make him the major star De Mille thought he could be, he's a surprisingly confident and rather likeable oaf: Wilcoxen was always a better actor than he was ever given credit for, even if his sword has a better part in the movie than he does. Loretta Young is the gushing God-botherer Berengaria and many of De Mille's regulars pop up - Ian Keith, C. Aubrey Smith, Joseph Schildkraut and John Carradine (all of whom feature in Cleopatra) - to add color to the monochrome proceedings. It's no Kingdom of Heaven, opting for simplistic melodrama at every turn, but it's done with zest and passion, not to mention some remarkably ambitious camerawork at times. And the songs are maddeningly catchy.
The Sign of the Cross was a surprise too, but not a pleasant one. Obviously intended as a pretty blatant ripoff of earlier movie versions of Quo Vadis (although the play its based on was first performed in 1895, the year Sienkewicz's novel was first published), it's hard to believe just how monotonous and relentlessly static De Mille managed to make it. Claudette Colbert and Charles Laughton are fun as Poppea and Nero, but they're hardly in the picture, far too much time being taken up with Frederic March hamming it up as Marcus Superbus (no, really) as he falls for Elissa Landi's Christian gal Mercia (no relation to the county). It's restrained to the point of being inert at times, with far too much of the dreary Christians, although it does perk up for the arena finale which features dwarfs battling Amazon women, elephants crushing Christians and gorillas menacing naked women. The last 15 minutes aside, Dreary with a capital D.
It's hard to avoid the phrase `run of De Mille' for Cecil B.'s Four Frightened People, one of his lesser efforts that sees four white folks jumping ship after an outbreak of Bubonic Plague and taking an ill-advised and badly guided trek through the Malay jungle that rips off their stereotypical civilized veneer to reveal the stereotypical clichés beneath. Claudette Colbert's Miss Jones goes from downtrodden mousy schoolmarm to red-hot, husky voiced wisegal almost as soon as she breaks her glasses, henpecked Herbert Marshall discovers his inner he-man (yes, they really do use that phrase), William Lundigan goes from self-obsessed indifference to obnoxious would-be lecher, while only Mary Boland's matron remains unchanged in her determination to bring civilization and a reduced birthrate to the islands. On the plus side, Leo Carillo is entertaining as their local guide who seems to think owning a tie makes him English and there are a few good exchanges - "It's practically virgin territory." "Perhaps that why Mr Corder doesn't like it." - and it's only 78 minutes long.
De Mille's last black and white film, Union Pacific is something of a rarity these days, rarely revived on TV and forgotten in the wake of the Biblical epics that form only a small part of his repertoire. Harking back to his earlier The Plainsman, instead of friends Gary Cooper and James Ellison fighting over Jean Arthur against the background of the Indian Wars on the Great Plains we get friends Joel McRea and Robert Preston fighting over Barbara Stanwyck against the background of the building of the first coast-to-coast railroad. McRea's the agent assigned to stop Brian Donlevy's saboteurs, with old friend Preston among their number and Stanwyck the Hollywood Irish engineer's daughter they both love. Throw in train wrecks, Injun attacks, the odd gunfight, plenty of spectacle, Akim Tamiroff and a complete disregard for history and you've got the closest thing to talkie version of John Ford's The Iron Horse going. It's not up to the 1939 gold standard, but it is entertaining hokum.
While this set does boast uncut versions of all five films, it's maddeningly devoid of any extras whatsoever - a real crime, since De Mille's overblown trailers, usually hosted by the man himself, are great value, as are the many promotional short films that were made for the films. Since all still exist and are regularly excerpted in documentaries, there's no excuse for such lazy treatment.
Sales figures show that classic titles sell surprisingly well when they are accompanied by background documentaries and commentary tracks. DeMille isn't exactly a household name nowadays, and this series cries out for a better release. Shame on Universal!
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