With American Movie Classics having jettisoned that confining brand name in favor of the liberating small-letter designation “amc,” Turner Classic Movies increasingly stands apart as a cultural treasure — a mantle the ad-free channel carries well with this fascinating documentary about one of the cinema’s highest-profile filmmakers. Generously mixing clips with observations from Cecil B. DeMille’s family, collaborators and historians plus directors Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, “American Epic” is ready for its closeup, sprinkling juicy tidbits while encapsulating a half-century of film history.
As usual, the docu is essentially a savvy come-on to attract critics’ attention, serving as the original garnish to a movie feast that includes the DeMille silents “King of Kings” and “The Cheat” as well as epics from various directors.
Still, it’s an enticing production, rightfully devoting more than a quarter of its second hour to 1956 pic “The Ten Commandments” (DeMille also made a silent version in 1923.) A clear highlight, that portion explores the film’s anti-communist underpinnings, the heart attack the 73-year-old DeMille suffered during production and the 20,000 extras amassed to cross the parted Red Sea — a sequence Spielberg dubs “the greatest special effect in film history.”
The first part focuses principally on DeMille’s life and silent films, which helped put Paramount and, indeed, all of Hollywood on the map. (One killer image shows what a cow town the place was when he arrived and how it appeared at the time of his death, 50 years later.)
Having feuded with studio mogul Adolph Zukor, DeMille went through a series of flops in the 1920s before his Phoenix-like resurgence thanks to a series of epics, cloaking sex and violence in the shielding light of the Bible and history.
Most remarkable, though, is how DeMille himself became a recognizable brand, hosting the “Lux Radio Theatre” and barking orders to cast “like a great battlefield commander,” as Spielberg puts it — Patton in a three-piece suit, perched on a crane above them.
Mostly flattering, the production isn’t always, detailing DeMille’s efforts to replace Joseph Mankiewicz as president of the Directors Guild for resisting “loyalty oaths” and informing on communist sympathizers — an episode that makes the current WGA shenanigans seem relatively sanguine. Art director A. Arnold Gillespie observes the director was “detested by everyone who ever worked for him, until they got to know him.”
On a lighter note, there are stories about DeMille’s staff blithely following him waist-deep into water as he contemplated a shot, and “Samson and Delilah” star Victor Mature being “terrified of the lion” he was supposed to bravely vanquish.
Given the box office bounty for “The Passion of the Christ,” the DeMille saga feels especially timely, down to charges of anti-Semitism that briefly dogged his 1927 silent “King of Kings.”
“American Epic” premieres a day after ABC’s annual showing of “The Ten Commandments” — still gloriously chewing up scenery now 45 years after the director’s death. In fact, there’s a great college drinking game in taking a swig every time someone says “Oh Moses, Moses.”
A slightly older demo, meanwhile, should drink a toast to TCM, which still dares to provide a glimpse of the film world in black and white.