Essays

Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927)

by John I. Johnson

Page numbers in parentheses refer to Cecil B. DeMille, Autobiography (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1959). Edited by Donald Hayne.

MOST OF US remember how Mel Gibson’s film on the crucifixion had Jewry, as usual, sputtering with rage and clamoring for censorship, and Judeo-Christians bravely running interference for the world’s most privileged, brutal and censorial ruling group. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops even rushed into print a booklet expressing the now-familiar cringing Catholic servility to Jews, which it mailed to parishes throughout the land. The self-righteous bishops, anointed by God, evidently view rank-and-file Catholics as latent anti-Semites liable to rush out of the theater and stage one of Abraham Foxman’s imaginary pogroms. That furor is reminiscent of the long-forgotten Jewish attempts to censor legendary director Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film classic on the same subject, The King of Kings (1927)

DeMille

DeMille (1881-1959), an enigmatic figure, is typically misperceived as a Christian conservative. As recently as 1990 Kevin Starr incorrectly wrote in Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990): “Producer Cecil B. DeMille, an Episcopalian of Anglo-Dutch descent in an industry dominated by Eastern European Jewish immigrants, came as close as anybody to bridging WASP Los Angeles and Jewish Hollywood . . . [T]he oligarchy allowed De Mille through the barriers that had kept (and were still keeping) other Hollywood magnates from social acceptance. His daughter Cecilia, an ardent equestrienne, became prominent in the Junior League of Los Angeles, and De Mille received invitations to the better clubs.”

Even in his own day it was not widely known that DeMille (and his brother, William Churchill DeMille, a successful playwright and Hollywood director/producer) was in fact half-Jewish genetically and fully Jewish by traditional Jewish standards.

DeMille’s father, Henry Churchill DeMille, was an Episcopalian clergyman of Dutch descent who wrote several successful Broadway plays in collaboration with Jewish playwright (later producer) David Belasco. Belasco was described as follows in Henry Ford’s classic The International Jew (1921): “Belasco’s theatricalism helped to this end. He is an actor off, as well as on the stage. He affects the pose of a benevolent priest, and dresses the part, wearing a priestly collar, with clerical vest and coat. Although of Portuguese-Hebraic origin, Belasco dresses after this manner to honor, as he says, a tutor of his early days. [Henry DeMille? — J.I.J.] Anyway, the costume is very effective, especially with the ladies. He has a tremulous, shy way about him, and he sits in his sanctum with the lights so arranged that his priestly face and splendid shock of silver hair seem to rise out of an encompassing and shadowy mystery. It is very effective — very effective. One woman declared, after being admitted to the presence and gazing on the face that rose out of the shadows into the light — ‘I have a better understanding of the divine humility of Jesus Christ since I have been privileged to meet Mr. Belasco.’”

DeMille’s mother, however, was a well-to-do Jew from England named Matilda Beatrice Samuel. In his 465-page Autobiography (1959), DeMille goes into minute detail about his paternal Dutch ancestors, but maintains complete silence about his maternal ancestors, never even identifying his mother as Jewish. (Describing his parents’ marriage, he in fact calls “Tillie” Samuel a “slim, bewitching English girl,” “dark-eyed, vivacious, different somehow from . . . American girls.” He also notes that his mother’s — not his father’s — family opposed the marriage.)

DeMille seems to have had more affection for his White father than his Jewish mother, and adopted his watered-down Episcopalian religiosity from him. He was certainly casual about his marriage: “DeMille maintained a house for his wife, Constance [nee Adams — the daughter of an American judge], and his children, and had a ranch called Paradise, where he stayed on weekends with [his White screenwriter Jeanie] Macpherson, and later his other mistresses.” Jeanie Macpherson wrote the screenplay for The King of Kings. DeMille’s adopted son, Richard de Mille (the natural son of Cecil’s brother William from an affair with one of his own scriptwriters, Lorna Moon), wrote, “In 1946 I went with him to the hospital to visit Jeanie Macpherson a few days before she died. He held her hand and told her they would surely meet in the next world. She murmured that they would.” http://www.moviediva.com/MD_root/reviewpages/MDDynamite.htm

Cecil B. DeMille said, “I am an Episcopalian” (p. 299), and he had an Episcopalian funeral. The director’s “Episcopalianism,” however, closely resembled Unitarianism. It was ecumenical, universalist, trans-denominational, trans-racial, and characterized by cloying philo-Semitism: “. . . Rabbi Abraham Shusterman of Baltimore, whose prayer at a luncheon made the Divine Presence almost tangible in the room. . . .” (p. 434) He invoked Protestantism, Judaism, and Catholicism as if they were three aspects of a single faith. He spoke highly of Mormonism, but warmly embraced exotic foreign religions as well. “[A movie] I wanted very much to make, and still do, was a story around the theme of unity, the unity of all mankind and the unity of man with nature and with God. I have never found a suitable story that would portray this theme.” (p. 263)

Again: “I am not a regular church-goer. . . . To me, prayer is contact of the human mind with the Divine Mind, and that is possible anywhere, perhaps more possible in solitude than in a crowd. As I conceive of God, He is that Mind behind the universe we see, of which our minds are like small reflecting sparks struck off; and that Mind is always there, ready for us to touch and draw upon and reflect in our own minds more and more.” (pp. 433-4)

Such casual “Christianity” carried over into The King of Kings, which nonetheless threw organized Jewry into a frothing fit. Shooting opened with a short prayer service in which representatives of more than thirty religious sects and beliefs participated, including Protestants, Catholics, and Jews — in the America of 1927! (p. 279)

At the time, DeMille wrote: “Not only all the religions believed in by European peoples and Americans were represented, but also the Buddhist and Mohammedan faiths. . . . [T]he motion-picture medium possessed the power to carry the story of Jesus to millions who might not otherwise be sympathetic to it, or who would find difficulty in grasping it because of racial or linguistic reasons.” “I am not referring only to those who are termed Christians. The fundamental truths brought out through the ministry of Jesus cannot be confined to belief, race, nationality or social position. . . . His ideals apply to all of us. Thus it is our earliest desire to offend no one’s religious beliefs, but to benefit uncounted millions of the world’s population by telling of the Ministry, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus — the greatest story ever told.” Cecil B. DeMille, “The Screen as a Religious Teacher: How the Much-Discussed Filming of The King of Kings, the New Religious Drama, Was Produced with Reverence and Accuracy,” Theatre, June 1927, pages 45, 76.

No matter: “In 1927, Cecil B. DeMille was editing King of Kings, his drama about the life of Christ. He’d gone to extraordinary measures to satisfy many points of view, including having Catholic priests and Protestant ministers on set at all times. But Jewish groups such as B’nai B’rith were upset by the crucifixion scene, which they believed was depicted inaccurately and insensitively, in a manner that would inflame anti-Semitism. In response to their criticism, a defiant DeMille responded, ‘Those Jews who are raising these rather violent [emphasis added] objections would crucify Christ a second time if they had an opportunity.’ The Hays Office stepped in and, with the power of the industry’s Production Code behind it, negotiated minor cuts in the film. As released, King of Kings incited little Jewish protest, nor the expected anti-Semitic riots in Eastern Europe.” http://www.boxoff.com/issues/jun00/books.html

Jewish author Felicia Herman writes, “In the late 1920s several Jewish organizations and communal leaders criticized Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), a filmed passion play, for what they believed was the film’s antisemitic caricatures of the Jewish high priest, the Pharisees, and Judas Iscariot, as well as the film’s presentation of the Jewish role in the crucifixion — all common elements of passion plays that Jewish leaders believed were even more dangerous when they appeared in a high-profile, big-budget motion picture. In response, the MPPDA [the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association — the Hays office] asked B’nai B’rith, whom it perceived as the representative of American Jewry, to become the official Jewish consultant to the industry. B’nai B’rith turned this duty over to the ADL.” Felicia Herman, “American Jews and the Effort to Reform Motion Pictures, 1933 – 1935,” 55 American Jewish Archives Journal, pp. 11-44 at 34 n.5.

A scene from The King of Kings

In reality, of course, the Jewish attack was vicious and unrelenting, as always. DeMille, never honest on the subject of Jews, mentions that H. B. Warner, the actor who starred as Jesus, was shadowed in his off-hours during the film’s production and post-production period. The obvious implication is that organized Jewry hired private detectives to dig up dirt on “Jesus” that could be used, via the media, to discredit the film in the public mind.

In his Autobiography, DeMille goes to absurd lengths to demonstrate the purity of his motives. He cites a rabbi who gave sanction to the film. He writes that father and son actors Rudolph and Joseph Schildkraut “were Jewish. They suffered for playing the roles of Caiaphas and Judas in The King of Kings. They had taken the roles as artists, with no thought of credal prejudice. Then they were caught in the wash of opposition to the film, and condemned by some of their fellow Jews as traitors.” (pp. 282-83) (Just think if Jews had to suffer real traitors like George Bush, John Ashcroft, and Bill Clinton — literally millions of them, big and small, at that!)

Though he was half-White, it was the Jew in DeMille that won out. He tells of a German Lutheran who saw The King of Kings in 1928 and was so moved by it that he became a pastor. The man eventually had a parish in Prague, and in his congregation was a Jewish convert to Christianity, a doctor, “who was promptly thrown into a concentration camp” when Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia. The Jew’s courage so enraged Gestapo officers that they beat him with an iron rod so that his arm had to be amputated. Then one Gestapo officer beat the Jew’s head against a stone wall “until the blood was streaming down his face,” held a mirror in front of him, and said, “Take a look at yourself. Now you look like your Jewish Christ.” The noble Jew “raised up the one hand he had left and with his last dying breath said, ‘Lord, never in my life have I received such an honor — to resemble You.’” The Gestapo officer, struck dumb by such saintliness, was so wracked by guilt that he thereafter secretly assisted the escape of hundreds of Jews. But for The King of Kings, “350 Jewish children would have died in the ditches.” (pp. 283-84)

Which reminds me — have you heard the one about the Jewish bars of soap?

Despite such nonsense, it is clear that even after three decades the Jewish hatred he had had to endure still rankled: “What was harder to comprehend and cope with was the organized opposition [emphasis added] of certain Jewish groups to the filmed history of the greatest Jew who ever lived. Certainly one can understand and sympathize with the sensitivity of Jews to the lie that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for the death of Jesus. Well aware of that, and of the awful consequences which have followed historically from the propagation of that lie, we went to great lengths in The King of Kings to show that the Jewish people of Jesus’ time followed and heard Him gladly, that His death came at the hands of a few unrepresentative, corrupt [Jewish] religious leaders and the cowardly and callous Roman government. Still, the opposition to the picture mounted, in some places to disheartening and alarming proportions. I am not going into a detailed account of how the story of Jesus of Nazareth was banned [by organized Jewry] from the screens of certain American cities. The painful documentation is in my files. Some day, when men learn to discuss religious prejudice dispassionately [meaning Jewish prejudice included], some historian of motion pictures or of American folkways may publish it. I will not.” (p. 282)

So the filthy story of Jewish skullduggery and brutality surrounding the making and exhibition of The King of Kings remains a closely guarded secret to this day.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Further Reading

Felicia Herman, “‘The Most Dangerous Anti-Semitic Photoplay in Filmdom’: American Jews and The King of Kings (DeMille, 1927),” Velvet Light Trap 46 (Winter 2000): 12-25.

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Source: Author

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