Classical Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille, subject of a recent retrospective at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, is charged in pages upon pages of film history and criticism with codifying modern Hollywood spectacle, often through the lens of Old Testament biblical narrative. However, bookended by his prolific (and oft revered) silent work, and his late career showmanship are a string of virtually un-regarded films that push the director’s ideology into something bordering Naturalism. Specifically, This Day and Age (1933), Four Frightened People (1934), and Reap the Wild Wind (1942) are wholly uninterested in the Christian mythology that defines his more canonical work (The Ten Commandments, 1923 and 1956, King of Kings , Sign on the Cross , etc.); instead they exploit DeMille's scale and sense of melodrama in order to attempt the rather lofty task of explaining the role of man in the context of the natural world. Unique is their fixation on the terrestrial. Here in this grouping of 'naturalist' films DeMille contradicts his familiar motifs and in so doing exposes an unfamiliar binary: that between the laws of man and those of nature, as opposed to those of man and god. Through a close reading of these films we will see the subtle variants in DeMille's framing of nature; oscillating between moral and indifferent. This is a paradox he is only able to reconcile in brief moments, and in purely cinematic terms—through dissolve.
Reap the Wild Wind opens in 1846 off the coast of the newly annexed Florida Keys, and DeMille introduces this world with an opening frame that places us adrift in open water. The green ripples and empty horizon then fade to another shot of the same vast, unoccupied desolation. This is a calculation on his part that serves as a sort of cinematic tabla rosa, or perhaps an Eden before the creation of man. Pure nature free from everything but the camera's gaze. Three more similar transitions bring our view to the tumult of rolling waves crashing against a craggy shore. In this brief bit of montage we are given the full spectrum of the natural world ranging from the calm and majestic to the indifferent and raging. All this without the influence or truly even the presence of “civilization.” DeMille wishes us to first understand the world in which his characters exist, because it is this world that ultimately decides their fate. From this untouched and erratic demonstration we cut into the world of men—men on the deck of a cargo ship as it is tossed towards the shore before finally running aground on a jagged reef. Salvage ships then swarm to the wreckage like vultures to pick the cargo clean and bring the crew ashore. It is this dynamic that forms the central ideas behind Reap the Wild Wind: the earth moves as it will and men and women harvest the profits, and suffer the defeats of its whims, because for all their best (or worst) intentions, the desires of humans are first subject to the desires of nature.
1934’s Four Frightened People begins similarly (though in modern time) on a series of untouched vistas, which transition to yet another ship—this one in the throes of a plague epidemic. We cut to a small life boat on which (you guessed it) four passengers attempt to flee disease for the safety of a nearby Malayan island. The four, Judy (Claudette Colbert), Arnold (Herbert Marshall), Mrs. Mardick (Mary Boland) and Stewart (William Gargan) enter the natural world as caricatures each representing the superficial extremes of human behavior (i.e. meek, masculine, stubborn, etc.). They seek out nature as refuge from the frailties of the human body (the plague). This view of nature sharply contrasts that of Reap the Wild Wind. Here the characters seek comfort in the wild rather than run from it in a salvage ship.
Aboard one of those competing salvage ships in the 1942 picture is Loxi Claiborne (Paulette Goddard), a tom-boyish young woman who comes to find herself the object of desire for two men, the salty Jack Stewart (John Wayne) and the foppish Steve Tolliver (Ray Milland). The two men serve as archetypical opposites—the duality of the human experience from which Loxi has the freedom to decide. Her freedom, however, is a deception, because though Reap the Wild Wind posits itself as the story of a strong female protagonist struggling for happiness in a southeastern United States still clinging to the notion of the submissive Southern Belle, the reality of DeMille's intentions work to subvert the humanity of his characters. The director’s treatment of love, for instance, both here and in Four Frightened People, comes across as an exercise in “form follows function.” His characters fall in love because they need to for the story to continue moving. DeMille expects us to accept his contrivances because this film is not concerned with the interactions between people, but rather here people are analogs meant simply to drive the narrative towards much larger concepts. The refinery of the developing world and the brutality of the old are represented in the rivalry between Jack and Steve, and yet as the opening montage reminds us, their desires are irrelevant to the indifferent rage of natural world. Love exists in Four Frightened People as a way of justifying the acts of nature, and it is in this point that DeMille begins to suggest a moral center in the governance of natural law. Arnold and Judy are able to be together because their time spent in the wild strips them of their societal pretenses, and instils in them the courage to pursue their desires. This, though not entirely explicit, suggests that the role of nature is to service human actualization. It implies a world that is sympathetic to the desires of humanity, and it is here that we can see the first large divergence between these two films.
Roughly two thirds into Reap the Wild Wind the drama shifts in a metaphorical sense from the body to the mind as DeMille transitions from the perils of the sea to the court of law. It is here that Jack, removed from his usual surroundings, begins to lose ground in his battle for Loxi's affections. Jack has found himself accused of intentionally running his ship aground, and through some manipulation of narrative convolution, also of the unintentional murder of Loxi's cousin, Drusilla (who was stowed away in the ship's hull during the wreck). As a result, both Jack and Steve are forced to dive to the bottom of the ocean to retrieve proof of Drusilla's death, and it is when the camera becomes submerged that the control over the fates of these two men is returned to nature. While exploring the wreckage the pair are attacked by a giant squid. The moment is meant to be tense, but it is hard to ascribe any sense of malice to the squid. It is merely seizing an opportunity without any prior knowledge of Jack and Steve as they exist on the surface world. It is the squid that alludes back to nature's lack of sympathy towards humanity. The fact that it is Steve and not Jack who survives the attack comes across as entirely arbitrary. Steve's triumph could be seen as an easy parallel for the triumph of a new, more civilized way of living, yet in this context it is a triumph by way of compromise (the sacrifice of Jack). Civilization lives alongside nature as a series of concessions.
An example can be found in the final scene in which Loxi has shed her sweater and sailor's beanie for a hoop skirt and parasol. With this, she is permitted to float lazily down the river with (her now husband) Steve. The same is true in Four Frightened People, although the concession is more an assimilation. It is only when the four lose their clothes and learn to hunt that they are afforded comfort. Even when they return to civilization, they are only able to find happiness when they permit themselves to act on impulse. Indeed, that film ends with Arnold abruptly leaving his wife to pursue Judy. With these conclusions DeMille manufactures logic that in both of these films reminds us that for all of our perceived conquest over the natural world, we are merely existing because nature has allowed it.
The third film following this theme, the earlier This Day and Age is where the divergence seen in Four Frightened People begins to clarify itself. Notable is that this film is set solely in an urban environment with no literal interaction with the natural world. The story is a crime drama in which a gang of high school students enact vigilante justice against gangster Louis Garrett (Charles Bickford) for the murder of a fellow student by holding a kangaroo court in an abandoned brickyard. This act is born out of necessity due to the failure of the traditional court system to convict. The students operate outside of the principles of societal law and as such serve as an analog for the laws of the nature. Furthermore, they are attempting to enact justice based on simple principles of right and wrong, and thus they are without question an entity guided by a moral center. This Day and Age isDeMille's full subversion of the naturalism found later in Reap the Wild Wind, but it is not a subversion through negation. Rather, This Day and Age imbues nature with a sense of duality in which both versions can coexist on the same cinematic landscape. Humanity is then contextualized in this landscape as the other half of a binary, never in harmonic symbiosis; as exemplified in the final scene of This Day and Age in which two teenagers, after being celebrated for their heroics, are approached by a police officer about a car they stole in order to bring Garrett to justice.
The final portion of this criticism is a visual text in which DeMille succeeds in reconciling his binary. With his use of dissolves in these films the director places us, if only for a moment, between two planes of existence, and it is here that the paradox rectifies itself by allowing the images to be accepted astride the natural and the human, divorced of ideology.