Cecil B. DeMille’s final motion picture credit was as producer for this film’s 1958 remake, directed by his son-in-law Anthony Quinn. The film was not a success; worse, it largely put the original production out of sight. You could find it in various poor editions, but nothing like the newly released, sharp looking Olive-DVD edition taken from a pristine print. It even includes a brief color-tinted sequence probably made for early RoadShow engagements. And, wouldn’t you just know, this lesser-known DeMille turns out to be the yeastiest, meatiest, least studio-bound, most energetic work he made in the ‘30s. Possibly, the only DeMille since the early ‘20s that adds to his filmmaking capital rather than living off the dwindling interest. And the ‘real life’ story even has a bit of history grounding it. Jean Lafitte (vigorously played by Fredric March with zee French accenté) really was a privateer who ran the swamp-lands near New Orleans and he really did give assist to Andrew Jackson in defending the city in the War of 1812 against the Brits. Take the rest with a grain of salt. Paramount had a new feisty foreign femme under contract, but DeMille lets Franciska Gaal push too hard as the lovestruck stowaway and she only made two more Hollywood pics. (But check out her cute little doggy. It’s Toto!) The rest of the cast is just about perfect, walking a line between corny & memorable in the best DeMille fashion. But the filmmaking is so unexpectedly dynamic. There’s a thrust, a beauty (super lensing from Victor Milner & excellent trick work) and a refreshed DeMille style that’s lighter than expected. There’s even good comic relief not only from expected sources like Akim Tamiroff (with a magnificent nose), Walter Brennan (sans shoes), an hilarious Spring Byington as Dolly Madison rushing a White House dinner as the British Are Coming, but also, for a change, from a heroic character in Hugh Sothern’s Andrew Jackson. Even DeMille detractors (and they are legion) give him credit for his use of mass movement & spectacle, and they’re right to do so. But DeMille’s true gift, the one that never left him no matter how stiff & silly his films became, was his story sense. He always knew what we wanted and needed to see next . . . and he delivered. Here, the story construction gives him two reels to fill after the big climactic battle. It’s a problem that has defeated many a better filmmaker. But watch how DeMille paces the final scenes leading up to the victory ball, with its escalating public & private revelations of love, honor, regret & responsibility. Then ending his film with the quietest diminuendo of his career.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: Mentioned before, but worth another plug is Scott Eyman’s fine 2010 DeMille bio EMPIRE OF DREAMS.