16 July 2010 | bkoganbing
Break The Ten Commandments And They'll Break You
Going on 90 years since it was first released, the original The Ten Commandments can still overawe you with the spectacle of both the biblical prologue and the modern story. Modern in the sense that it was set during the Jazz Age Roaring Twenties, the 1923 when Paramount released what would become that studio's biggest moneymaker up to that time.
You'll recognize the biblical prologue if you've seen the 1956 remake, it is almost a 45 minute scene for scene remake of the time that Charlton Heston and John Carradine arrive at the Egyptian court until the destruction of the Golden calf. They weren't giving Oscars back in 1923, but the parting of the Red Sea was incredible for its time and would have given Cecil B. DeMille yet another Oscar for the same event.
You won't recognize a lot of the biblical prologue cast, but they were part and parcel of a DeMille stock company that he developed during silent era and continued to a lesser degree after the coming of sound. Best known probably was Estelle Taylor who was married to Jack Dempsey at the time as Miriam, the sister of Moses.
The bulk of the film is the modern story which has the theme break the Ten Commandments and they'll break you. The stars are Richard Dix and Rod LaRocque a pair of brothers, one good and one bad, sons of a most pious mother Edythe Chapman. Dix is a good, honest, and steady carpenter by trade and LaRocque through his ruthlessness and who winds up breaking all the Commandments becomes the richest contractor in the state.
LaRocque is pretty ruthless in his private affairs, he breaks the Commandments regarding those as well. He marries Leatrice Joy who Dix likes as well, but then gets a fetching Eurasian mistress in Nita Naldi. Nita is in the slinky and sexy tradition of all DeMille's bad girls.
It all ends really bad for LaRocque as his sins catch up with him.
During the modern story DeMille hand with spectacle is a good one in the scene of the church collapse and later on during the climatic escape LaRocque is attempting to make with a speedboat on a stormy night at sea.
The influence of DeMille's educator father Henry and his friend David Belasco are strong here as they are in all DeMille work. The modern story is the kind of morality play that Belasco would produce and write for the stage for years. It's from the Victorian era, but the Roaring Twenties audience wanted something that reflected traditional values occasionally as if nervously waiting for its excesses to catch up. It's partly the reason why they could find comfort in a Congregationalist president of the USA in Calvin Coolidge.
Though the story is unbelievably dated, DeMille's cinematic techniques are hardly that. The original Ten Commandments in many ways will tell you about its creator warts and all.