Towards A Pure Fiction: Cecil B. DeMille

Critic and filmmaker Luc Moullet on Cecil B. DeMille and _The Road to Yesterday_, one of the box office king's most audacious undertakings.
Luc Moullet

Like Night of the Hunter, Tod Browning’s Freaks or Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers, The Road to Yesterday can be ranked among the UFOs of cinema. It’s place in the heart of Cecil B. DeMille’s work proves to be in itself very distinctive. We know that, during his entire life, DeMille had virtually only one producer—Paramount (the former Famous Players Lasky)—just like Minnelli was MGM’s man and Corman American International’s. Sixty-three of his films (out of seventy) were produced at Paramount. And, oddly enough, it is among the seven outsiders, situated within a brief period from 1925 to 1931, that his best activity is to be found (I’m thinking of Madam Satan, The Godless Girl, and The Road to Yesterday)–his most audacious undertakings. To top it off, for this uncontested king of the box office, his best films were his biggest commercial failures.

The Road to Yesterday, shot between June 22 and August 19, 1925, is the first of these outcasts, after forty-eight films shot for the parent company. Don’t think that DeMille left Paramount in order to be able to make The Road to Yesterday. His reasons for leaving seem more general: in his autobiography, DeMille blames his boss at Paramount, Zukor’s desire to discuss “a possible readjustment of my contract, substituting as my share from my pictures 50 per cent of the profit, if any, instead of the existing sliding scale of percentages based on the gross receipts,”1 not a very advantageous proposal for a filmmaker in the sense that the deduction of the distribution costs, which allows the net earnings to be established, is very subjective. Zukor was also opposed to the director’s usual practice of “keeping competent players under contract and an efficient production staff together between pictures.”2 In his book Cecil B. DeMille,3 Charles Higham argues that the rupture came from the fact that Zukor had refused to give DeMille the project he was most attached to, The Sorrows of Satan by Maria Corelli (in a way, by its oddness, the twin to The Road to Yesterday), which Zukor had his biggest rival, Griffith, direct. Zukor was hoping to confine DeMille to popular films, inexpensive comedies and melodramas (less than $300,000) that automatically did good business, whereas DeMille preferred much bigger budgets and far more ambitious scripts, increasing the financial risk and provoking the ire of critics for their extravagance. DeMille, then, burned his bridges and started his own company, the Producers Distributing Corporation (PDC) with the help of a very wealthy man, Jeremiah Milbank.

One of the first impressions we get of The Road to Yesterday is not to the film’s credit. The actors’ performances are excessive and dated: at the very beginning, when Jetta Goudal seems frightened of whom she has just married, Joseph Schildkraut, and when he proves to be in anguish from the persistent pain in his left shoulder, they roll their eyes a bit too much and make big gestures with their arms. What was tolerable at the beginning of the silent era is no longer bearable in 1925, thirty years after the Lumière brothers (and even less in 2000). In this first part, the jokes about Aunt Harriet’s weight are appallingly cheap and a lot of things become caricatured, notably the opposition between Atheists and Christians. And this in a film that never claims to be slapstick.

Among the set designers, there was a Central European, Anton Grot, clearly imported to give the film an expressionistic touch. It’s not easy to talk of plagiarism of European cinema. There is a whole series of references in both directions: German Expressionism undoubtedly owes something to the low-key lighting that made The Cheat famous (shot by DeMille in 1915); The Marriage Circle (Lubitsch, 1922) reuses the shaving scene from Why Change Your Wife? (DeMille, 1919). The DeMilles from 1918-1919 (Old Wives for New, Don’t Change Your Husband, Male and Female) seem to have directly influenced the [Mauritz] Stiller of Erotikon (1920), while the sets of The Loves of Pharaoh (Lubitsch, 1921) must have given DeMille the idea for The Ten Commandments (1923) and, moreover, the Battle of Actium in Cleopatra (1934) is clearly stolen from Eisenstein. The marks of Expressionism remain flagrant here and are surprising: the beginning presents American Indians performing in gigantic sets with very high ceilings and remarkable arches, just like the major German films of the 1920s. This mixture is somewhat strange, especially since the action takes place close to the Grand Canyon in Colorado (DeMille’s favorite place, which he had already shown for no logical reason at the beginning of Male and Female). When I went there, I immediately looked for similar interiors—in vain. I was assured that there had never been architecture like that in Arizona. The play with shadows also seems very forced: how can we believe for a single second that the giant, threatening shadow that rises behind Joseph Schildkraut is—as the character he is playing affirms—his own shadow, while he isn’t even moving?

There is nothing exceptionally interesting about the atmosphere of the first hour. There’s a certain anemic quality to it, due to its inbetween quality that oscillates between the contrived drama born out of the hero’s suffering (and confirmed by the overblown quality of the intertitles and the Christian ghost that opens and punctuates the film) and a certain comedic tone that doesn’t dare announce itself—a no man’s land that is already found in DeMille’s work in Something to Think About (1920). Add to this the fact that the conflict (in the polite society of 1920) between Atheists and believers has become somewhat passé and we must admit that we have a rickety film, with rather mediocre performances and a borrowed, and misused, pictorial aesthetic that doesn’t manage to find its place among very diverse demands and a story that soon turns out to be completely unbelievable. It is perhaps the most unbelievable film of the century. What is most surprising is that, in spite of these rather negative characteristics—I’ll admit—we are dealing here with one of the most exciting, most memorable, and most stupefying films in the history of cinema. A quarter of a century went by between my first and second viewing of the film and yet, just before this fresh reassessment, I had kept a surprisingly clear and precise memory of The Road to Yesterday, so much had the film pervaded me. I believe I can honestly say that it is because of the shortcomings of its first hour that the film gains its force.

The Road to Yesterday poses a Cornelian dilemma for me. As with Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, it’s impossible to talk about the film without spoiling it. The work’s power lies, first, in the audacity of its switch, its metamorphosis, and I’m afraid that in evoking it I’ll destroy the magic it can have for you. I’m certain that if I was so taken by the film the first time I saw it it’s because I didn’t know anything about it beforehand. I had come on the director’s name alone. I had perfect viewing conditions—based on my total innocence—that few viewers today could enjoy before a film. I didn’t even know the film’s length, which would have made it seem to last an eternity to me. After two and a half hours, I came out of the Chaillot Cinématheque staggering in a daze under the crepuscular sun—still strong that summer—wondering where I was coming from, where I was, and even more stunned to hear Lotte H. Eisner near me vociferating about her natal cinema being ripped off.

But, on the other hand, to not talk about the film would also stop it from being brought back to life since, after all, only some specialists know it and the history books ignore it. Only Rivette—rather allergic to DeMille, in fact—mentions it in his list of the ten most poorly appreciated films of the American cinema. In my defense, I’ll say that even if I deprive the spectator of the most colossal surprise of his cinephilic life, I think that he’ll feel the same strong jolt that I currently feel with each viewing.

The film plays upon alternating scenes of two couples: in Arizona, in 1925, Malena (Jetta Goudal) suddenly feels an inexplicable disgust for Ken (Joseph Schildkraut), who she has just married. For inexplicable reasons, Ken’s left shoulder hurts. For the wedding party, they invite, notably, a free-spirited girl, Bess (Vera Reynolds), who is about to get engaged with a little stylish intellectual, Rady (Casson Ferguson). At the party, Bess runs into the handsome Jack (William Boyd), for whom, a few hours earlier, she fell in love at first sight (it’s mutual). But, seeing the outfit he’s put on for the party, she realizes that Jack is a Protestant priest. Horrified by this, this very modern young woman, for lack of a better choice, accepts Rady’s offer to marry her the next day in San Francisco where they’re going on the midnight express. Jack, who has become very jealous, is also on the train, as well as Malena who, disgusted, is running away from Ken and—surprise—Ken, who left at the last minute in preparation for a surgical procedure on his shoulder. We’ve made it to the fifty-ninth minute of the film.

Train accident! All five of them get trapped in the wreckage. Bess then has a shock that makes her relive all that she experienced in England in 1625: she was, at the time, hunted by Ken, a ruined knight, who was looking to marry Bess, a rich heiress, by any means possible. With the help of her lover, the peasant Jack, she tries to escape from Ken. Malena, who was a gypsy, helps them too: she believes she is the knight Ken's legitimate spouse from the fact that he had offered her a beautiful necklace. Ken catches the lovers and blackmails Bess: either I kill Jack or you marry me. Bess gives in. But, as soon as the marriage is celebrated, Ken has Malena burned alive for sorcery and his rival Jack whipped to death. Jack, in pain, still finds the strength to stab Ken in the left shoulder with his knife, a wound that proves fatal. Two hours into the film, we return to 1925. Ken saves Malena from the train wreckage and rejoins the couple of Bess and Jack, all four now reunited by a common love for God the Almighty.

With this simplified summation—the plot is more complex—you can see that the basic effect is obviously created by the abrupt passage from the present to the past, a plot development that nothing hints at. There are a few pieces of evidence—intertitles evoking the past, the recourse to elements in the 1925 section that feel historical (the arrow, the armor with the sword in the hallway), and then the film is called The Road to Yesterday. But I myself, a bit seasoned to the cinematic spectacle, didn’t guess anything. What is especially surprising in this fresco somewhere between Hugo and Feuillade is that the change comes an hour into the film, while we’re fully settled into the contemporary setting, and its overall rather slow pace: nothing happens in the first part—no deaths, no murders, no births, no stunts, no fights, no real violence. The past we’ll be shown, much to the contrary (and this is ultimately the most surprising thing), will serve us this whole panoply in abundance. The Road to Yesterday is a bit like if Umberto D. transformed midway through into Titanic (I think I’m exaggerating a little) or, instead, as if My Night at Maud’s metamorphosized into The Nibelungen Saga. The eyes of the audience widen at the beginning of the second part: we’re in the Elizabethan Era (the heroine isn’t called Bess for nothing) and we’ll remain here definitively, it very well seems. To top it off, the intertitles also adapt to the situation with their gothic lettering and archaic language.

Before Les Carabiniers, it is the first holocaustal film, successful precisely because it irritates viewers or displeases them: in its first part, the film sacrifices quality in order to be able to then attain something superior. It’s because the first hour is mediocre, or bland, that the second part stands out so much. We can see here a final race towards something better, of a higher quality, starting rather low. At the lowest, in fact. As if—and this is extraordinarily optimistic—human life only found its greatness with the last breath. This is a position that, obviously, I find touching at my age, but to which I had already been sensitive thirty years ago. We can connect The Road to Yesterday to super productions that are especially worthwhile for their final reel, like Duel in the Sun. We can recognize here Griffith’s old principle (Orphans of the Storm) which consisted in presenting the action in a very nonchalant manner during the first hour to make the frenzy of the final spectacle more believable. But there had never been such a difference in tone and quality between the beginning and the end. We’d be right to bet on DeMille’s unconsciousness, he probably never realized how sentimental the first part is.

In their L’Atelier de scénario (Screenwriting Workshop), Anne Roche and Marie-Claude Taranger mention, not without reason, the pact (except in parody films) between the screenwriter and the audience: “From the first images, they know if it is a Western, an epic or a crime film.”4 Well, here this law is manifestly violated, like in L’Age d’or, Contempt, The Shooting, A Tale of Winter, and Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but in a much more aggressive manner: not only do the first five minutes not establish a clear picture of the film, the first hour gives an impression that is absolutely contrary to reality. I don’t think anyone has gone further against the rules and it is this that gives the film its force.

Such a development is typical of DeMille. Most of the time, he sets up a new beginning two-fifths of the way through his films: it’s at this moment that the bookkeeper in The Whispering Chorus leaves his family and his work to take refuge on an island, that the worldy heroes of Male and Female leave their living room to go sink with their boat, that Robert Gordon (Why Change Your Wife?) abandons the family home for his mistress, that the action of Fool’s Paradise moves—in three seconds, without warning—from Dallas to Siam, that we move from Earth to Heaven (Feet of Clay), that Moses gives way to the hot dog vendors (The Ten Commandments, silent), and that Madam Satan forgets the boudoir vaudeville to join the crowd of a zeppelin in trouble. All the possibilities of one place have been exhausted and a strange change of direction is needed to regain the audience’s attention.

Note, however, the points in common between the two periods. I already spoke of the arrows, the sword and the armor at the beginning of the film, but the old knife that the scout chief uses and the weapon of the historical revenge must also be mentioned (a knife that also has a rose on it, a subtle reference to the War of the Roses), as well as the front of the locomotive with the numbers 1355 on it (a very Middle Ages date), the movements of the characters’ arms in the past that are linked, in a splendid cross-dissolve, to the almost identical ones of the heroes in 1925, the fire in the train (a very modern element in 1925) that is superimposed over the burning logs (a very archaic element), the mule in the Grand Canyon that is a twin of the donkey ridden by the traitor to get to the castle. The Expressionist sets that seemed gratuitous in the modern part become meaningful in the part set in the past, German Expressionism being above all the expression of historical time periods (Destiny, Die Nibelungen, Nosferatu, and Faust, Anne Boleyn and Madam Dubarry, Waxworks) and a European atmosphere (the Olde England of The Road to Yesterday being confused by Americans with the Germany of the past). The locomotive’s rounded front is linked to the rounded beer barrel in the Elizabethan tavern and the curved shape of the background of the set of the big room in the castle. We arrive at an almost total confusion between periods in the shot where the wounded people from the train are brought inside a great Gothic hall with staircases very much like those in the castle (Ken drives his wife there in the present and the past). This confusion prefigures the multi-temporal and multi-spatial fogging in Resnais’ films (see Last Year at Marienbad, in particular). The remarkable work on the image5 seems to maintain the identity of the different periods while finding itself, on the other hand, demented by the message that modern savagery results, as in Intolerance, from historical violence.

The effect of the film’s bifurcation is to totally immerse us in the first narration which is familiar to us—by the characters depicted, the everyday banality of the events, and by the pace—and to bring us, without warning—after this calm preparation and necessary grounding—towards an ever increasing madness and daring rhythm. The advantage over, for example, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is that here we have an hour to prepare ourselves, to get accustomed to the characters, whereas in the Spielberg, we’re given a cold welcome from the first image by a series of fast-paced actions with a protagonist we barely know and who, consequently, barely engages us. In DeMille’s film we cannot reject the action that is going to take place because we have known the characters for a long time, we know that there is nothing exceptional about them that could repel us and we are too occupied by the action’s complexity (Who is who? That is the question we ask ourselves with the splitting of each character). We work too hard in order to try to find our bearings—there is even a flashback within the flashback—and we don’t have time to question or criticize what we’re seeing. Additionally, the film can, up to the end, follow a more and more unbridled tempo and can flaunt a more and more deranged unrealism. And we sit there with our mouths wide open before the sudden developments, the disguises, the duels, the coincidences, the conspiracies, the depravity, the torture, the sinister taste, before hourglasses and secret doors, hangings, pyres, and flagellations. The Road to Yesterday contains an accelerated, centrifugal force (somewhat evoking the end of Kriemhilde’s Revenge, made by Lang the year before), a kind of infernal machine that is unstoppable and based on actions alone since, if there are characters, we are obviously well beyond psychological realism, which the doublings and dreamlike quality of the situations forbid. We might say that this fiction machine, which veers towards abstraction, is practically without equal in the history of cinema. It is a “pure fiction” and nothing else. The only comparable film that is successful would be the last Perils of Pauline (Herbert B. Leonard and Joshua Shelley, 1967). We often think of abstraction in regards to personal films, intellectual or auteur cinema, but here it’s abstraction through the overabundance of action.

The trick, to clue us in, is to make Bess a character who guides the viewer a little, since, when she finds herself in the past, she comments on it—at least at first—from the point of view of someone living in 1925, whereas all the other characters remain completely stuck in the past. A certain irony comes out of this, creating a useful support for us: Bess mocks Aunt Harriet who is a simple innkeeper, a feminine Falstaff, while, in America, she compared herself to Marie Stuart. One could always say that it is illogical for Bess to be conscious of being in two time periods and for the other characters to not have this power. But logic has no place here because it is just as illogical for a person to be reincarnated. At this stage, at the point in time we are, it would be incongruous to reproach DeMille for having had six characters reincarnated and, by an extreme bit of luck, still find themselves together three centuries later and with practically no intervention from any other humans (at the same time that they find an old knife in Arizona that they used a lot in England in 1625). We are in the logic of madness alone. It’d be just as worthwhile to criticize a cartoon for its unbelievability and negation of psychology.

What makes viewers work most (and overturns their critical power) is the criss-crossing of the two women: Malena (Jetta Goudal)–the modern spouse who is afraid of her husband, Ken–finds her equivalent not in the historical Malena, but in Bess (Vera Reynolds), the fiancée in 1625 who must marry Ken under coercion. Meanwhile, Bess, the flapper, the modern young woman free from the system,6 is morally replaced by another outsider, Malena, the gypsy, in 1625. Malena is, then, the in character in the present (the spouse) and the out character in the past (the gypsy), and vice versa for Bess. In the present, Bess is only in a relationship with Jack, not with Ken, whereas in the past she is still in a relationship with Jack, but is married to Ken. This is a kind of subtlety that we don’t find in the most recent incarnations of bitemporal cinema, or between dream and reality, which are ultimately more clear cut.

Ken, on the other hand, acts as a reference point. Except for at the very end, he is the insider, the affluent person, the bad guy, the figure of authority. Jack is always the outsider and—ironically—the Robin Hood who becomes the priest in the present in the Grand Canyon (seemingly allowing a message of the filmmaker’s creep in). Rady is also a revelatory character. We might recall that Radinoff was already the name of the boring, intellectual musician in Why Change Your Wife?. Here, Rady is a kind of pretentious and snobbish coward who is also anticlerical, a very original character for the cinema of the time (we might say a premonition of Tennessee Williams) on whom DeMille seems to be venting a vengeful contempt: the highbrow Atheist in the present was in fact once a scrawny servant and deceitful traiter.

After an hour in the present and an hour in the past, the return to the present is baffling: we were almost used to this seemingly historical film. This modern ending seems dictated by a Christian proselytism, already sketched out a bit in the first reels. Ken, who had a stiff arm, represses his inherited Atheism and prays to God to help him save Malena, trapped under the wreckage of the train, from the flames. His arm suddenly stops being stiff: it’s a miracle! Ken thanks God, whom he praises over the final images of crosses that announce the future ending of Diary of a Country Priest. Christian filmmakers who depict miracles, however, always arrange it so that the miracle (which will necessarily annoy non-believers, and not only them) is somewhat plausible, indeed realistic. Here, the miracle proves to be as implausible and ridiculous as possible: it comes out of nowhere. His arm was in a cast, and then it’s no longer in a cast. And he changes his beliefs entirely. What more, this train crash and this miracle come along after six reincarnations—no less—that happen thanks to the most unbelievable coincidences. We’re already at the peak of rampant filmic unbelievability and the miracle takes the cake. It’s obvious that, if Ken is suddenly persuaded of the existence of a God who he now venerates, no sensible spectator can follow him on this course. The miracle and the zealous banter that follow it sink into a ridiculousness unforeseen by DeMille. But, without knowing it, DeMille went so far out—further than even Abel Gance and his Blind Venus or Sirk and his Magnificent Obsession—that we instantly forget about how ridiculous it is and remain stunned, mouths agape, before the nerve of this cavalier filmmaker who becomes, himself (much more than the miracle), an object of admiration and makes us believers. We’re sailing in the highest spheres of delirium: “I’ll love you to the end of the road, and beyond,” Malena vows to Ken. As their impeded love has lasted for more than three hundred years, we have a right to wonder what this “beyond” could be.

But this still isn’t the apotheosis. To close this sublime, intemporal and metaphysical world, we get this amazing shot where, on the roof of the burning train car (!), behind the two lovers, Bess and Jack, we see, in the left background, Rady—the ridiculous, rejected suitor combing his hair, looking at the couple with sad eyes—lower his arms—the sign of a sickened renunciation—and brood in his corner. This is something straight out of a comedy, followed by a very spontaneous gesture from the future wife, inviting, it seems, Rady to be a witness to their lovemaking. This final intrusion of humor and spontaneity into a scene that has already gone beyond all permissible limits of metaphysical escalation brings out a new dimension—this must be the sixth or seventh dimension—additional structures and multiple layers that have not been equaled since. Seeing The Road to Yesterday, we must admit how regressive contemporary cinema has been with regard to the cinema of 1920-1930.

According to Gloria Swanson, DeMille actually believed in reincarnation and resurrection, which are also found in Feet of Clay and, less blatently, in The Whispering Chorus, For Better, For Worse, The Plainsman, Unconquered, and The Story of Dr. Wassell. It’s also one of Hollywood’s major themes, seen in Borzage’s films (Seventh Heaven, Liliom, Three Comrades, Smilin’ Through) and in [F.W.] Murnau’s Sunrise, [James] Cameron’s The Abyss, [Joseph] Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, [Alan] Rudolph’s Made in Heaven, as well as Peter Ibettson, Laura, Gloria, and One Way Passage. The class of Americans who were making films, and often those who were going to see them, was the richest in the world. All economic problems solved for good, there was only one enemy to overcome: death (or at least fatal illness, a favorite theme in soap operas). Having become very rich at the age of thirty-four, this was DeMille’s only major problem. For him, resurrection was the solution.

The Road to Yesterday is certainly the DeMille in which the past-present relationship is the most evident. We might ask: is it the past that interests him, with its spectacular riches, its cultural cache, its aura of prestige? We have a right to think so since he classes Cabiria and Ben-Hur (as well his Ten Commandments, his Samson and Delilah, his King of Kings, and his Sign of the Cross) among the top ten films of all times, Cabiria coming in first. Or, is what really counts the present-past relationship (which will exist later, principally in Resnais and Godard’s films)? Most of his films set in the present from 1919 to 1923 contain an interlude set in the past. The silent Ten Commandments and The Road to Yesterday alternate between the two periods more or less equally. We might consider the rather short parts set in the past to be a gift from Paramount to keep him happy. One sequence set in the past always costs less than a whole costume film. This system allowed him to bring in two audiences: a typically older crowd, lovers of the big frescoes of the past, and a young one who recognized itself especially in the scenes of everyday life. What’s ideal is to do in one film, let’s say, Going Places and Joan of Arc. The comparison of the two periods also corresponded, for DeMille, with a desire that is evident in The Ten Commandments in 1923 and that makes itself more clearly felt after the change in the universe that ensued after World War I (1918 being the century’s true date of birth): in what way can the moral values of the past apply to a 20th century world that seems so foreign to it?

The Road to Yesterday would have looked particularly like a response to Intolerance, of which DeMille was evidently jealous even though he claimed Intolerance had been a mistake: “...audiences left the theater simply bewildered by his attempt to tell all at once four separate stories, from four widely distant periods of history...which it took some mental effort to keep in mind... [T]he one secret of success in picture making is sound dramatic construction; and Intolerance showed that Griffith did not have that gift.”7 This is a funny comment if we think of how The Road to Yesterday, with its movements back and forth between two time periods, is more complicated to follow than Intolerance. In fact, everyone was jealous of Intolerance and its multi-temporality. Not only DeMille, but also Murnau (Satanas, 1919), Dreyer (Leaves From Satan’s Book, 1920), Lang (Destiny, 1921), Leni (Waxworks, 1923), and even Curtiz (Noah’s Ark, 1928), not to mention Resnais (Life is a Bed of Roses, 1983) and Ulmer (The Eternal Woman, 1954).8

To be fair, if The Road to Yesterday was influenced by Intolerance, we should be clear that Griffith’s film is directly influenced by the famous play The Road to Yesterday (1906) that both he and DeMille had been thinking of adapting for many years. Their ambitions, however, seem to have been thwarted by trials for plagiarism brought by the authors of the play, Evelyn Greenleaf Sutherland and Beulah Marie Dix. I’ve often wondered what could have happened in the play, out of which was made this film with a train crash. In fact, in Sutherland and Dix’s work, there isn’t the slightest trace of a train, nor of religion. This confirms that the two R’s—Rail and Religion—were introduced, not only because DeMille liked them (we find the same kind of collision twenty-five years later in The Greatest Show on Earth and also in Union Pacific in 1938, the railroad vein no doubt being initiated by John Ford’s The Iron Horse in 1924), but also and especially because the co-producer Milbank was a religious zealot and a rail magnet. There is, then, a huge difference between the play and the film. We can assume that this betrayal was a kind one because Beulah Marie Dix was—along with DeMille’s eternal collaborator Jeanie Macpherson—the film’s co-screenwriter and she had already begun doing things this way to her advantage with her adaptation of The Affairs of Anatol (DeMille, 1921) which retains almost nothing from Schnitzler’s book.

Three important characters in the play were cut out (the sister-in-law and Malena’s living husband as well as an old gypsy) whose character traits were given to the remaining characters. There are, then, six characters who reincarnate in the film, instead of ten in the play, making the story easier to follow. There are no scouts or Grand Canyon in the original, the modern episode being set inside a living room in London. DeMille thus returned to the England-USA opposition that had made The Squaw Man a success; two time periods but also two very different nations.

The return to the past is not brought on by the trauma following a catastrophe, but by a nightmare and a simple penchant for dreaming in Bess and big Aunt Harriet. Rady turns out to be a bit less of a caricature: he is a painter and not completely lazy like in the film. The gypsy is not burned alive. The knight orders her to be thrown in the swamp—the trial by water (offstage) replacing the trial by fire—and she survives. There is, then, less violence. The scene where Ken uses his sword to force open the door of the bedroom his wife is locked in on their wedding night does not exist in the original play. It’s hard to not connect this sequence to the fact that DeMille’s wife, after the birth of their daughter in 1908, couldn’t have any more children and had “withdrawn primarily from the marriage bed,”9 according to Charles Higham, a situation that continued for the filmmaker until his death fifty-one years later.10

The play, subtitled “a comedy of fantasy,” has a more overt comic sensibility—aside from the two murders—and the reality of the violent past is constantly being put into question by Bess, softening a lot of things. DeMille, however, dramatises things very quickly, starting with the contemporary introduction, with the pain in Ken’s shoulder and Bess’ Cornelian conflict—either refuse to marry the priest she loves or become the laughing stock of her Atheist entourage. Hawks claims to have tried to alter it radically: he always insisted that he saved The Road to Yesterday by rewriting the intertitles. According to Hawks, “the director approached the story ‘very heavy handedly,’”11 and the result was not very satisfying. “I made, not a comedy out if it, but at least in a lighter vein...I changed the whole tenor of the story. So it didn’t take itself seriously, it took itself in a semi-humorous way. He took it and previewed it and he was very pleased with himself that he’d gotten laughs and he decided he was going to make comedies.”12 I think that Hawks, as usual, was bluffing a bit too much, so much so that, after this film, DeMille, who had ten comedies under his belt—most successful (Don’t Change Your Husband, Old Wives For New, etc.)—would make no more, with the exception of the very beginning of Madam Satan. The comic intertitles almost all correspond to visibly funny scenes (in the tavern sequence, the shot where Rady disguises himself as a priest by putting his jacket on backwards).

Like Intolerance—and more so than Intolerance, which wasn’t that unsuccessful, contrary to rumors circulating since 1915—The Road to Yesterday was a commercial failure. Audiences only accept multi-temporality if it is really funny, which gives an excuse to the unbelievability. DeMille estimated the revenue like this: $522,000 for a $447,000 budget (already rather impressive for the period: more than $4 million today), or a 9% gross, an even break that puts the film, as far as box office grosses go, in sixty-fifth place in regards to its author’s seventy other films. Again, we can’t trust Cecil DeMille. For example, he estimated the net earnings for the silent Ten Commandments at $4,177,000, while Variety, who produces very serious estimates, does not place it on the list of films costing more than $4 million. Maybe it’s a matter of the total gross (before the deduction of the exhibitor and distribution costs), leading one to think DeMille optimised the score a little.

Whatever it is, the commercial failure is clear and can’t benefit from external excuses like his other less successful films (The Godless Girl was a silent released during the first days of the talkies, Madam Satan and the remake of The Squaw Man came out just after the crash of 1929). As Mordaunt Hall wrote in the New York Times in 1925, a bit excessively, “All this is very well done, but through the length of the film and the observance of film work in lieu of a narrative the chapters do not hitch up propertly, and consequently the story lacks necessary clarity” (New York Times, December 1, 1925). DeMille seems to have been a poor sport because, in a telegram dated December 27, 1925, he blames the projection problems of a theater in Los Angeles: “FIRST EIGHT REELS...SO BAD THAT IT DEFINITELY INJURES THE PICTURES/THERE IS FAR TOO MUCH LIGHT FORCED THROUGH THE FILM WHICH IS COMPLETELY DESTROYING ALL THE BEAUTY OF THE PHOTOGRAPHY AND COLOR/IN CHANGING FROM ONE MACHINE TO ANOTHER THE OPERATORS ARE CUTTING OUT FROM ONE TO THREE SCENES” He blames a “CRIMINALLY CARELESS OPERATOR OR AN EQUALLY CRIMINALLY IGNORANT ONE,” adding “WE SPEND SO MANY THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS TO GET THESE EFFECTS ON ACCOUNT OF THE PSYCHOLOGY THAT IT CREATES IN AN AUDIENCE.”13 A rare example of an American filmmaker accusing the projectionist when his film doesn’t work. Generally, with flops, Hollywood directors recognize they are wrong, respecting the adage, “The public knows best” and thus obtaining a pardon from the system, at the very least when it is a matter of an occasional failure. In fact, DeMille recognized, implicitly, having been wrong in terms of the relationship to the public since he never again made an openly bifurcated film, contenting himself with a brief contemporary-set introduction in the re-edited version of Sign of the Cross in 1945 and in Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments in 1956. In Madam Satan (1930), more subtly, he mixes the present (a modern, fully-costumed vaudeville show) and the past (a masked ball). In this way we see, without a break in temporal continuity, Henry VIII parachute to the ground close to a lion’s den at the zoo!

With time, DeMille seems to have forgotten this not very lucrative episode of his past. In his autobiography, all that he can find to say about this exceptional film is that Jetta Goudal—Malena in the film—criticized him for not having recast her in his other films, but that they had reconciled since she came to the filmmaker’s golden wedding anniversary in 1952. And he seems to have forgotten everything about his film since he sums up the action as “a comical aunt whose constant talk about reincarnation laid the groundwork for an historical flashback.”14 This is correct if we’re summing up the play, but not at all if we’re recounting the film. It’s true that the DeMille of 1957-1958 (the time of the writing of his autobiography) had become—as could be seen during his trip to Paris for the release of The Ten Commandments—a very tired old man.

Today I must contradict DeMille: The Road to Yesterday is a wonderful, very modern, innovative film, infinitely more so than The Ten Commandments with which it has been confused. The film is maybe the only one by its author, with The Golden Bed which comes immediately before it chronologically, to have juxtaposed the filmmaker’s two best qualities: a consummate art of storytelling, founded on an ample rhythm that is, paradoxically, rather slow and more perceptible at the beginning of his career (the art of The Golden Chance, The Heart of Nora Flynn, and The Whispering Chorus), and the more punctual art of bravura sequences that characterize the end of his career—the parachute drops in Madam Satan, the ballet of the sirens in Cleopatra, the destruction of the temple in Samson and Delilah, the crossing of the Red Sea, etc. The scene rather than the film. Here, the bravura sequence is situated in the frenzy of the final minutes. But, while you can fully appreciate DeMille’s other climaxes without losing much if you don’t see the whole film (it’s fine to only see the last eight minutes of Samson and Delilah, and the ballet mécanique in Madam Satan could have fit in somewhere else, in The Affairs of Anatol, for example), it is absolutely impossible to take the grand finale of The Road to Yesterday out of context, for each part of the puzzle proves necessary. A transitional film in between the years of youth and the years of the end of his career—the whole and the part, respiration and raptus, tempo and flash finally work together. An art of both duration and discrete moments.



1. DeMille, Cecil B., The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, (New York: Prentice Hall, 1959), 264.

2. Ibid.

3. Higham, Charles, Cecil B. DeMille, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1980).

4.  Roche, Anne & Taranger, Marie-Claude, L’Atelier de scénario: Eléments d’analyse filmique, (Paris: Dunod, 1999), 27. My translation.

5. What brilliant panache: I’ve never understood how, right in the middle of a mock-up of the castle on a hill, soldiers could advance on paths on the edge. Were those marionettes?

6. Rather close to Tilly in Adam’s Rib (1923) and a witness of the general evolution of the feminine ideal. The svelte quality of Vera Reynolds (already the protagonist of the filmmaker’s last two films) is substituted for Gloria Swanson’s stoutness in earlier DeMilles.

7.DeMille, Autobiography, 125-126.

8.With its characters oscillating between different centuries and by bringing comedy into the multitemporality, The Road to Yesterday influenced two films with Eddie Cantor in the 1930s (Roman Scandals and Ali Baba Goes to Town) as well as Christian-Jacque’s François The First (1937). It would also later be taken up again in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead III and also inspired films that alternate between dreams and reality, with the same characters changing their appearance (The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang), Beauties of the Night (René Clair), Our Story (Bertrand Blier), Long Live Life (Claude Lelouch), etc.).

9. Higham, DeMille, 35.

10. Of the same order, note the train’s frontal penetration into the train it crashes into, with the debris falling everywhere in the foreground, an effect we see later in Male and Female, Madam Satan, Cleopatra, and The Greatest Show on Earth.

11. McCarthey, Todd, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, (New York: Grove Press, 1997), 59-60.

12. Ibid.

13. Higham, DeMille, 152-153.

14. DeMille, Autobiography, 268.

Originally published in Trafic no. 36, Winter 2000. Translated from the revised version in Piges choisies (Capricci, 2009). Translation by Ted Fendt.


TranslationsLuc MoulletCecil B. DeMilleLong Reads
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