One of my favorite storytellers is the great movie director Cecil B. DeMille. The first movie I ever saw (according to my parents) was his 1956 version of The Ten Commandments. To this day it is my favorite movie. A few treasures come close, but none have that DeMille majesty, that amazing ability to manipulate a literal "cast of thousands" into amazing scenes, and that vision to part the Red Sea.
Check out the scene where Moses (Charlton Heston) leads the Hebrews out of Egypt. No CGI, folks. No mechanical dummies like they used in Gone With the Wind. Those are real people under the direction of a master, more than five thousand.
Listen to the brilliant voiceovers DeMille himself contributes and how they help the movie flow.
Watch the parting of the Red Sea.
I confess that you'll have to overlook the melodramatic script and acting style. A marvelous example of both features the great Yul Brenner as Rameses II.
"Come to me no more, Moses. For on the day you see my face again, you will surely die."
But he also delivers the simple, direct line that summarizes all that preceded it and never fails to chill my blood.
"His God ... is God."
Melodrama only fails when artists take the material too seriously, or not seriously enough. The tone in this one is perfect, so these trifles are easy to navigate if you allow yourself to be transported. Just hop on the chariot and take the four-hour ride. I've traveled that road more times than I can count beginning in the large movie houses of my youth, those opulent venues that had balconies and seated three thousand people.
In those cinemas, movies were events.
I miss that.
In the decades before cable, network television would air The Ten Commandments once every year or so. It has in recent years become a Passover/Easter television tradition but then we had to check the TV Guide to see if it came on that week. When it did, my father would make luscious, wonderful popcorn (the only food item the man could really cook) and the whole family sat around the television with the lights out and indulged.
Those were great times growing up.
I miss them.
In 1981 I came down with pneumonia. Though I had an apartment my mother, being a mother, insisted that I stay with her as my sister, too, was ill.
Mom had recently bought one of those new-fangled videotape machines that could record television shows and play those even more new-fangled videotapes with pre-recorded movies. One of those movies was The Ten Commandments on a two-tape set.
Twice each day for seven days, my sister and I watched it.
We quoted lines back and forth until she died in 2006.
I miss her.
DeMille never won a best directing Oscar, perhaps because his movies were too popular.
"Directorially, I think his pictures were the most horrible things I've ever seen in my life," the great director William Wellman once said. "But he put on pictures that made a fortune. In that respect, he was better than any of us."
Of old Hollywood, DeMille was far and away the best storyteller.