By Pat Saperstein, Deputy Editor, Variety
It’s not ancient history, but the Egyptian-style artifacts from Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” continue to be unearthed in the Guadalupe-Nipomo sand dunes on the central California coast.
The most recent discovery is an intact 300 lb. plaster sphinx head, which was unearthed in early November by archaeologists excavating the 95-year old movie set.
“The piece is unlike anything found on previous digs,” Doug Jenzen, executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, said in a statement. “The majority of it is preserved by sand with the original paint still intact.”
Jenzen noted that though the 1923 film was in black and white, the set, designed by Peter Iribe, was nonetheless painted in vibrant colors. DeMille had an extensive set constructed among the vast dunes that included pharoahs, sphinxes and colossal temple gates.
Along with liquor bottles and tobacco tins, excavators have unearthed several sphinxes out of the 21 that were built for the set. Director Peter Brosnan set out to find the ruins in the 1980s, though excavation didn’t begin until several years later.
Brosnan’s 2017 documentary “The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille” tells the story of the project, including interviews with residents who witnessed the filming in 1923.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. is among the organizations helping fund the costly excavation activities. The artifacts can be viewed at the Dunes Center museum in Guadalupe, where the latest sphinx head will go on display in summer, 2018.
The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille, a documentary by Peter L. Brosnan and Daniel Coplan, has won the Best Film Award at the 2017 Archaeology Channel International Film Festival.
The festival, which took place at at the Shedd Institute in Eugene, Oregon, featured films on archaeology and cultural heritage. The Best Film by Jury award went to The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille.
Peter Brosnan’s film shows his thirty-year struggle to prove the existence of a “Lost City,” beneath the sands of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes in Central California. Did Cecil B. DeMille really bury the movie set he’d built in 1923 for his silent version of The Ten Commandments? Thus, a tall tale overheard in a California canteen leads to the first archaeological excavation of a movie set in history.
The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille is presented by Cecilia de Mille Presley. It was directed by Peter L. Brosnan; executive produced by Francesca Silva; and it was co-produced and distributed by Peter L. Brosnan and Daniel J. Coplan.
Kevin Brianton, Ph.D.
La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
Author of Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist
The University Press of Kentucky, 2016
Cecil B. DeMille’s role at the Screen Directors Guild (SDG) meeting on 22 October 1950 has been a controversial one for the director. In the Red Scare period, DeMille and his conservative followers—who formed a majority of the SDG board—pushed for the removal of its president, Joseph Mankiewicz. He had supposedly opposed a mandatory loyalty oath for SDG members. To get rid of Mankiewicz, the DeMille group sent out a ballot asking for Mankiewicz to be recalled, which gave SDG members only one option: to vote him out.
In response, Mankiewicz rallied his supporters, called a general meeting to discuss the issue, and gained a court injunction against the ballot. In the run-up to the meeting, it became clear that DeMille had acted in great haste, and Mankiewicz had no plans to oppose the board. Mankiewicz regained full support of the board and the membership, but the meeting went ahead.
At the meeting, DeMille moved that the ballots be destroyed, but the mood of the directors was strongly against DeMille. The meeting formally stopped Mankiewicz’s recall and the board—including DeMille—was compelled to resign. Even so, a voluntary loyalty oath was introduced three days after the meeting. It became mandatory in 1951, following a vote of the entire membership.
Many false stories have circulated about the SDG meeting.
The first is that DeMille spoke with a derogatory Eastern European or Jewish accent, which has prompted accusations of anti-Semitism. A court transcript of the meeting clearly shows that this incident did not happen, but even so it entered Hollywood folklore. The story was possibly confused with a similar incident at an isolationist rally involving Senator Gerald Nye in 1940.1
This story was first told by Billy Wilder in 1972, who was probably not at the meeting. It was repeated by Mankiewicz in a filmed interview in the 1980s, and by others after that.2
Another story is that at the end of the meeting, John Ford is reported to have attacked DeMille and then demanded his resignation. The court transcript shows that Ford defended DeMille and told his fellow directors that they were being “Un-American” in their accusations.3
DeMille’s attempt to recall Mankiewicz was widely criticized. As a face saving gesture to his friend DeMille, Ford called for the entire board to resign. This saved DeMille the disgrace of being individually dragged from office. After the meeting, Ford sent DeMille a letter of condolence and then followed up with a phone call of support.
1 Propaganda in Motion Pictures—Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate Commerce, United States Senate, Seventy-Seventh Congress, First Session on S. Res. 152. September 9–26, 1941. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942.
2 Sikov, E. On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. New York: Hyperion,199, 322.
3 SDG Minutes, 22 October 1950, 122.