Paramount Reissuing Blu-ray of DeMille’s ‘Ten Commandments’

Paramount Home Entertainment is re-releasing its Blu-ray Disc editions of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 and 1956 versions of The Ten Commandments in digibook packaging March 10.

The new collector’s edition will include a 16-page booklet with photos and background information about both films.

The three-disc set contains the same bonus materials from the studio’s initial Blu-ray edition of the films in 2011: the 73-minute documentary “The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles”; a commentary on the 1956 film by Katherine Orrison, author of a book about the making of the film; newsreel footage of the film’s New York premiere; theatrical trailers; hand-tinted footage of the Exodus and Parting of the Red Sea sequence from the 1923 version; a two-color Technicolor segment; and photo galleries.

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DeMille’s initial 1923 version was a silent film divided into two parts: the first a re-creation of the biblical story of Moses leading the Israelite exodus out of Egypt, the second a modern tale of two brothers and how the 10 Commandments affects their lives.

His nearly four-hour 1956 remake focuses entirely on the story of Moses, from his early life to the Exodus as detailed in the Bible. The final film directed by DeMille, the 1956 version stars Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as the Pharaoh. It was a massive box office success in its day and has become an Easter tradition on television.

In the 2011 configuration, the 1923 film was presented as a bonus feature alongside the making-of documentary on the third disc of a limited-edition boxed set of the 1956 film.

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Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ and ‘Reap the Wild Wind’

The Heroes of Telemark

Sony Pictures, Drama, $24.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris, Ulla Jacobsson, Michael Redgrave.
1966.
This movie about resistance fighters in Norway plotting to destroy the Nazi program to develop heavy water for an atomic bomb plays out in ways that one pretty well expects, and the result is a respectable (but that’s all) finale to Anthony Mann’s career that’s ultimately less distinguished than its great skiing scenes.
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Reap the Wild Wind (Les Naufrageurs des mers du sud)

All-Region Import
Elephant Films, Adventure, $45 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Ray Milland, John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, Raymond Massey, Susan Hayward, Robert Preston.
1942.
A seafaring blockbuster with an occasional julep twist, Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind has a fabulous cast delivering in the goods via (in some cases) admittedly 19th-century theatrical acting styles — and this is before we even get to the best giant squid the studio could cough up for the industry’s No. 1 cash-cow director.
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Reap the Wild Wind (Les Naufrageurs des mers du sud)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region Import;
Elephant Films;
Adventure;
$45 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, Raymond Massey, Susan Hayward, Robert Preston.

My most educated guess is that Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind may have been Paramount’s third-highest grosser of Hollywood’s entire World War II era, given that the starry mountain’s productions of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and Going My Way (1944) were close to the top performers released by any studio in those two respective years (with a nod to Warner’s This Is the Army). But with more assurance, I can tell you that for pushing 60 years now, Reap has been my favorite DeMille movie except for his The Ten Commandments swan song — which, after all, does boasts Edward G. Robinson’s gonzo Dathan and the chance to see hot couple John Derek and Debra Paget falling under the Golden Calf’s pernicious influence and upping their boogie quotient. Plus, one must concede, the artful constipation Charlton Heston brought to every role he played, and in this case, beneficially.

On the other hand, 1942’s Reap has a fabulous cast delivering in the goods via (in some cases) admittedly 19th-century theatrical acting styles — and this is before we even get to the best giant squid the studio could cough up for the industry’s No. 1 cash-cow director. I do wish that this seafaring blockbuster with an occasional julep twist didn’t overextend the footage allotted to an un-blamable Louise Beavers in another of those “wasn’t slavery fun?” roles — but this was an inevitable by-product of the 1840’s Dixie setting (by way of the Florida Keys) and Paramount’s desire to fashion Reap as its answer to the Margaret Mitchell/Selznick/MGM Gone With the Wind. At least Beavers, a la Wind’s Hattie McDaniel, gets to make with the sass while futilely trying to turn the sometimes tomboy-ish babe of the house (here, it’s Paulette Godard, who’d been a finalist for the Scarlett O’Hara role) into a lady. And for that matter, you know going in (or should) that DeMille wasn’t, just on general principles, the most racially sensitive filmmaker who ever lived, though I have always dug the showmanship chutzpah he exhibited by casting Boris Karloff as a Seneca chief in Unconquered.

You also know (or should surmise) that John Wayne had to be hitting the top of the Big-Time when the movies’ most successful director (DeMille’s name on a marquee was more potent than that of most stars) in one of his most lavish productions just three years after the Duke’s breakthrough in Stagecoach. As it turned out, the picture gave Wayne one of the most interesting roles of his career (though maybe not as interesting as his Genghis Khan camp-fest turn in The Conqueror) in that it was the closest time that he ever came to playing a villain. In the truth, the picture kind of splits the difference: Though Wayne plays a wronged sea captain successfully tempted by circumstances to perform a dastardly act, he remains a sympathetic figure and certainly a co-equal to dandy lawyer Ray Milland for the hand of Goddard, who impetuously plays one against the other with a level of guile that’s never totally clear (which makes it interesting).

We open in the Keys with Wayne knocked cold under the orchestration of his first mate — a covert lackey, turns out, of Raymond Massey’s crooked lawyer (think a more WASP-ish version of Roy Cohn in the pre-Civil War South) who’s gotten financially fat from a ship-salvaging business whose services include wrecking the vessels in the first place. The busted-up ship currently in question is owned by Goddard, who’s inherited the business and immediately falls hard for Wayne after rescuing him amid his on-board stupor and protestations that he hasn’t a clue what happened. This is all true enough, and Wayne’s perfidy comes later — but not until after he gets embroiled in said love triangle after Goddard subsequently visits her aunt in Charleston and meets company attorney Milland, whom she initially despises because he’s understandably casting a wary eye at Wayne’s sailing prowess. The two men have some history.

The movie positions Milland as the lace-favoring type who’s good at tony social affairs where sopranos entertain but is actually a pretty accessible guy. In fact, when he throws the movie’s first punch (of many), he actually decks Wayne. The two make fairly civil adversaries, and it’s fun to watch them, as is enjoying a remarkable supporting cast (Lynne Overman in whiskers, not long before his death?), round out the package. In one of those remarkable casting breaks that can add to a movie’s currency with passing years, two of the key subordinate roles go to actors who later became very big stars: Susan Hayward and Robert Preston. This packaging of this All-Region disc, which is among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen of a vintage Technicolor movie, reflects the changing fortunes of its actors, billing Wayne, Hayward, Milland and Goddard in that order. It’s the same order they appeared in when Reap was re-issued in (pretty sure) 1954, and I marveled at the ads in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, when I would have been 6 or an early 7. This is a movie I wanted to see very early on, and it did not let me down (even in black-and-white) when I saw its local TV premiere on a late, late show in 1960.

The climactic squid mayhem probably ensured the smash box office, though if ’54 was indeed the re-issue year, I wonder how Walt Disney felt about its impact on that coming Christmas’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — whether, that is, it would diminish the newer picture’s key selling point or whet audiences appetites to see additional name actors battling those tentacles. Like Jaws the shark, DeMille’s creature looks mechanical yet cool all the same — and, in fact, Reap was kind of the Jaws of its day. Though even before this “money” climax, there’s a long and outlandish late-movie trial scene which, by comparison, makes the jurisprudence in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance look as dignified and legally stable as, say, the white-wig stuff in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case or Robert Donat in The Winslow Boy.

As mentioned, this is one beautiful print, and I say this as one who saw UCLA’s 35mm archival copy of Reap maybe three times as programmer for the AFI Theater and a couple times via a collector’ friend’s 16mm IB holding. At long last, though not yet in the U.S, some of these Universal-controlled DeMille Paramounts are making their way to Blu-ray, albeit just in time for most of the director’s biggest fans to be dead. Reap distributor Elephant Films has itself recently brought out the uncut Sign of the Cross and Technicolor Unconquered, the latter featuring the sight of Goddard tumbling down a monster waterfall in a canoe with Gary Cooper. A Big Drink tumble, a squid, the Golden Calf, a lion’s lunch of Nero-offending Christians: in his day — which I concede isn’t always to-day — DeMille knew what audiences craved even more than their Milk Duds and the theater’s free air-conditioning.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ and ‘Reap the Wild Wind’

Cleopatra (1934)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Universal;
Drama;
$19.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Henry Wilcoxon, Joseph Schildkraut, C. Aubrey Smith. 

I can remember back in early 1963, when everyone was wondering if the still not released Taylor-Burton Cleopatra would do to 20th Century-Fox what Heaven’s Gate later did to United Artists (which, by way, it almost did). This would have been a serious matter — for one thing, had Fox gone under, we wouldn’t have had the 1970 movie version of Myra Breckinridge — so everyone was grasping for any news. At this point, I fell into Red Buttons doing a standup routine on some variety show, at which point he announced that he had seen the picture. And then he added after the pause for effect: “Claudette Colbert was great.”

By this point, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 version had been on TV for four or five years depending on the whims, taste and pocketbook of your local market’s buyer. And having positively eaten up, in theaters, Anne Baxter all but lusting to rip off and then catnap with Chuck Heston’s loincloth in the VistaVision/Technicolor remake of The Ten Commandments, I naturally took to this example of more vintage DeMille and still do. Universal’s new Blu-ray of the Colbert take on the legend — Eureka!’s “Masters of Cinema” collection has already issued the spectacle in a Region ‘B’ version — is one of the most immaculate presentations of a vintage black-and-white movie that I’ve ever seen. So if you whip through its hundred minutes and still find it too pandering to the yahoo masses who made DeMille the most commercially successful director of day (actually, many days), it won’t be the physical quality of this Blu-ray that causes your eyeballs to roll back into your head.

The rap on DeMille’s quarter-century of Paramount talkies — and Cleopatra is another Paramount picture that Universal has owned more for than half-a-century — is a) they’re not especially cinematic and b) that their dialogue is often too tin-eared to serve even a kazoo band. The first is generally true (more on the second later), yet the pacing of even his increasingly long-ish projects is still surprisingly peppy in certain, though not all, cases — and he got attractive performances out of some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, though his casting instincts started going the gonzo route as he got older. Just as we speak, I’m salivating to get a look at the just-out and on-order Region ‘B’ import of DeMille’s 1947 Unconquered, a mid-18th-century epic I seem to recall reading that Martin Scorsese made the cast and crew look at when they were making The Age of Innocence. It’s not every movie where you get to see a Technicolored Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard as an attractive 1753-or-so couple — in a canoe over one of the Fort Pitt vicinity’s most treacherous waterfalls, albeit with a rear-projection assist.)

Anyway. Offbeat water transport figures prominently in Cleopatra as well, even if Egyptian Cleo’s barge-binge seduction of Rome’s Mark Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) is jumping the narrative gun here because, for one thing, Julius Caesar has to die before this happens. Her second consecutive sexually oriented power grab goes a little beyond the usual boilerplate wiles-and-guiles stuff — complete with marauding tigers on deck who are probably wondering what kind of gig this is, flaming hoops, frolicking virgins (maybe) from central casting and a bunch of minimum-wage types doing the galley-slave rowing bit and wondering if someone will even toss them a fig. According to the pro-job commentary here by writer/historian/F.X. Sweeney, this was the last film released before much-tightened Production Code took effect in mid-1934, so C.B. was just able to take advantage of the No. 1 way to take patrons’ minds off the Depression. Or at least suggest it. Low (or no) moviegoer incomes or not, the movie defied economics to become a monster hit.

Though an easier feat to pull off at 101 minutes vs. the Taylor-Burton’s give-take 250, it’s a credit to the ’34 Cleopatra that it doesn’t lose too much gas with the death of Caesar the way the ’63 version does when Rex Harrison takes all those blades. In both cases, the actor playing Caesar is the movie’s best, and here it’s Warren William — though Sweeney takes note of DeMille’s stated disappointment that the actor’s performance was underrated by critics, even though it’s fully credible and absent of any camp dimension. I also like Henry Wilcoxon as a not overly bright Antony — which leaves Claudette Colbert’s mixed bag and notably American performance in the title role. I just can’t accept Colbert as any kind of seductress, even though she’s a personal favorite who appeared in three best picture Oscar nominees in ’34: this, Imitation of Life and It Happened One Night, which won her the best actress award just before Cleopatra began shooting. But she has the spunk, command and frame-friendly presence that puts over one of the movie’s key points: that Cleo has more on the ball than her bedmates. What’s more, you can’t say she doesn’t know how to put over the Travis Banton costumes, which are among the most iconographic (earning the right to that overused term) of Banton’s great career.

The other rap on DeMille is, getting back to Colbert and a previously mentioned point, is the down-home dialogue and deliveries of even his historical epics set in other lands — as in the way that John Derek and Debra Paget of The Ten Commandments suggest two teens who simply want to make it in the back seat at some mid-’50s drive-in during a showing of, say, Queen Bee. Or, to come in from other direction, Pauline Kael wasn’t wrong when she compared Cleopatra’s dialogue to people talking over the backyard fence or clothesline. But like it or not (and no one says you have to), DeMille did this intentionally to make his movies more accessible to the masses — and, more arguably, even better paced for the great unwashed who shelled out for decades to see them.

Thus, not only does William utter, “You, too, Brutus?” when Caesar’s payoff moment comes — but we actually hear a gossiping partygoer utter, “The wife is always the last to know” when discussing Caesar’s infidelity behind wife Calpurnia’s back. Cast as in the latter role is Gertrude Michael — who, in a bit of unintentionally amazing casting from the same year that only history appreciates, also sang “Sweet Marijuana” with a bunch of sweaty chorus boys in Mitchell Leisen’s Murder at the Vanities. It reminds me that Greer Garson had the Calpurnia role in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1953 Julius Caesar, and does the mind ever go into overdrive over the concept of Garson taking a flier with the Lessen production number over at MGM in Mrs. Miniver Goes Doobie.

The narrative is tight and keenly modulated between lickety-splitting chariots, political chicanery and effectively languid romancing, though were it not for the movie’s production values/décor so remarkably preserved on this release, I wouldn’t be making as big a deal here, at least for predisposed non-enthusiasts. I haven’t even mentioned that Victor Milner won the cinematography Oscar here against a weak nominee field — not that it couldn’t hold its own against a big-gun lineup — though you have to wonder how Bert Glennon’s work on Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (soon to be on Criterion’s Dietrich-Sternberg Blu-ray box) ended up being overlooked. I know the picture was a flop at the time, but come on, people.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Cleopatra’ (1934) and ‘A Lady Takes a Chance’

Mike’s Picks: ‘Cleopatra’ (1934) and ‘A Lady Takes a Chance’

Cleopatra (1934)

Universal, Drama, $19.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Henry Wilcoxon, Joseph Schildkraut, C. Aubrey Smith.
1934. Universal’s new Blu-ray of the Cecil B. DeMille’s take on the legend, with Claudette Colbert in the title role, is one of the most immaculate presentations of a vintage black-and-white movie that I’ve ever seen.
Extras: Includes a good commentary by writer/historian/F.X. Sweeney.
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A Lady Takes a Chance

Kino Lorber, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Jean Arthur, John Wayne, Charles Winninger.
1943. A Lady Takes a Chance is almost all actor charm taking us from the leads’ dramatic meet-up to he point where it’s easy enough to figure out where Jean Arthur and John Wayne are predestined to land.
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