PROVO — When “Exodus: Gods and Kings” premieres in theaters Friday, Dec. 12, there will be inevitable comparisons between Christian Bale and Charlton Heston’s portrayals of Moses and between the work of directors Ridley Scott and Hollywood legend Cecil B. DeMille.
James D’Arc will watch with particular interest. The longtime curator of the motion picture archive in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections at Brigham Young University's Harold B. Lee Library is an expert on DeMille’s life and was interviewed for a documentary on the making of DeMille’s 1956 epic, “The Ten Commandments.”
Much of D'Arc’s career has involved the acquisition, processing and publicizing of the Cecil B. DeMille papers, a massive collection of memorabilia that has filled more than 1,260 boxes with thousands of photographs, correspondence files, research files, artwork and other historical treasures in Special Collections.
One of the less publicized facts revealed in the collection is DeMille’s unique friendship with David O. McKay, the ninth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That friendship played a key role in DeMille’s decision to preview "The Ten Commandments" in Salt Lake City. It was a factor in DeMille’s receiving an honorary degree at BYU's 1957 commencement, where he proclaimed that President McKay had almost convinced him to be a Mormon.
Because his business was making religious films, it was to DeMille’s benefit to befriend leaders of major denominations around the world, D’Arc said. But he believes the friendship with President McKay was genuine.
"What I thought was unique or special about DeMille’s friendship with David O. McKay was the fact that it was so genuinely warm," D’Arc said. "Here was an affection and regard that is unusual. It was more than business. It was genuine; it was sincere; it was real."
DeMille and Utah
Born in 1881, DeMille started out as an actor in 1900 and transitioned into a film-directing colossus.
From 1913 to 1956, he directed more than 50 movies, with only five or six losing money, D’Arc said. DeMille’s films were known for their powerful stories and showmanship. They also garnered numerous honors and awards in the industry.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, everyone knew who Cecil B. DeMille was," D'Arc said. "He was Mr. Hollywood. The DeMille name was to movies like Xerox is to copies. He was a force to be reckoned with. (His name) meant the movies, something very special.”
It is unclear when DeMille first met President McKay, but D’Arc said the prophet took the filmmaker on a personal tour of the Los Angeles California Temple during the open house period prior to its dedication in March 1956. DeMille was genuinely touched by the kind gesture and even had a tear in his eye, D’Arc said.
In his autobiography, DeMille explained that he always previewed his films away from Hollywood because it was "almost impossible to get a typical audience reaction so close to the center of the motion picture industry."
"Hollywood people react as professionals, or would-be professionals, rather than just people, and I make my pictures for people," DeMille wrote.
He chose Salt Lake City for the premiere of "The Ten Commandments" despite warnings from the Paramount publicity department and most of his staff that he wouldn’t get a typical reaction there, either. He was told that "it would be too heavily weighted in favor of a religious theme because of the preponderant number of Mormons," DeMille wrote.
They could not change his mind.
"If the deeply religious, serious-minded Latter-day Saints of Salt Lake City approved of ‘The Ten Commandments,’ so would millions of others, of other faiths, throughout the world," DeMille wrote. "They did approve it, enthusiastically."
DeMille said there was another personal, almost selfish reason he picked the capital of Utah.
"It gave me a chance to spend some time with the great-hearted, lovable man who is literally a Latter-day Saint … David O. McKay," DeMille wrote. "There are men whose very presence warms the heart. President McKay is one of them."
In the fall of 1956, the old Centre Theater in Salt Lake City hosted a special preview screening of "The Ten Commandments" before its national release. Among the guests that night were President McKay and President Joseph Fielding Smith (then president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles).
A document from the DeMille papers titled "Audience Reactions at Salt Lake City Preview of ‘The Ten Commandments’” records interaction between President McKay, DeMille and his staff after the movie.
President McKay: "God has blessed you. May he continue to do so. Sublime. All I can say is, sublime. We cannot express our feelings as we realize you favored Salt Lake City … to receive the first public showing."
DeMille: "You gave me so much encouragement."
President McKay: "I believe the audience appreciated it. It came from their hearts. It was spontaneous. We will always treasure it, and it will be written in the history of the state and you will be ever here in loving remembrance. The producer of it deserves great honor. With all my heart I am just delighted. It is greater than I anticipated. … You could feel that in the hush. In every scene where the Lord appears, the audience was in silence. The music was in harmony. I will see it half a dozen times. This is only a start."
According to the biography "Joseph Fielding Smith: Gospel Scholar, Prophet of God," by Francis M. Gibbons, President Smith said, “‘The Ten Commandments’ is the most wonderful, magnificent performance I have ever seen."
After asking when Salt Lake City would get the movie again, President McKay added: "It was unbelievable, marvelous. People who see it will never forget it. … This is a greater day for Salt Lake City and Utah than anyone in Utah realizes."
1957 BYU commencement
The DeMille papers show that DeMille was invited to receive an honorary degree and speak at BYU’s 1956 commencement, but he was still in the process of finishing "The Ten Commandments" and regretfully declined.
Then-BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson was persistent and extended the same invitation for the following year. DeMille replied that ordinarily he wouldn't commit to an engagement so far in advance, but he was so honored by the invitation that he accepted.
At the 1957 commencement, President McKay said he had never felt so much joy in introducing a speaker. He referred to DeMille as "a great soul."
"Our speaker for this evening is one of those flowing light fountains in whose presence one feels inspired and uplifted," President McKay said.
"It’s not only in his ability to choose the right that I refer to him as a great man, but because of his soul, his faith in God, his confidence in his fellow man. I love him because of his nobility."
DeMille was equally complimentary as he opened his remarks.
"I have a very personal reason for being grateful for this honor, because it forms another link in the strong bond of one of the most valued friendships that I have, the friendship of a man who combines wisdom and warmth of heart, in whom fourscore years have not dampened the enthusiasm of youth, a man who can truly and literally be called a Latter-day Saint, the president of your church, David O. McKay," the filmmaker said.
DeMille went on to say he had known many Mormons, but none as exemplary or wholesome as President McKay.
“David O. McKay embodies, more than anyone that I have ever known, the virtues and the drawing power of your church,” DeMille said. “David O. McKay, almost thou persuadest me to be a Mormon!”
In his autobiography, DeMille admitted that he was not a “churchgoer” but said he had relished friendships with religious leaders like President McKay, whose "mind is busy with God’s business."
"Others like me might be more regular churchgoers if there were more McKays," DeMille wrote.
DeMille’s memoir was published posthumously, so the fact that the editor kept in his comments and a photo of the two men at the 1957 commencement is telling, D’Arc said. “I think it’s an indication of the editor’s knowledge of DeMille’s regard for President McKay,” the curator said.
DeMille suffered a heart attack while filming the Exodus scene in Egypt in 1956. He was able to complete the film, but his health was never the same. He died in 1959.
When D'Arc was hired as a curator in Special Collections in the mid-1970s, he became interested in gathering motion picture-related collections, specifically the DeMille papers. He made some inquiries and found out the DeMille collection had not been committed to any other institution. He and the late Dennis Rowley, then the head of archives and manuscripts, approached the DeMille family with a proposal.
"We went down and made a presentation on why we wanted the collection, why we thought it was significant, and how we take care of archival collections at BYU," D'Arc said. "We kept in touch for the next year."
In early 1977, Rowley received a phone call from Cecilia Harper, DeMille's daughter and head of the DeMille estate.
"She said, 'We've decided. BYU will get the collection. When can you come?'" D'Arc said.
That April, D'Arc and others drove to Hollywood with a 17-foot covered truck and spent two weeks gathering and hauling the DeMille collection back to Utah. In 1986, there was another major installment of material.
In 1991, a hardcover guide to the collection was published and presented to Cecilia Presley, DeMille's granddaughter, at a DeMille silent film festival in Italy.
Going to the DeMille mansion in the Hollywood Hills in 1977 was the experience of a lifetime, D’Arc said.
"All in all, it took us 12 years to process the entire collection. It was a monumental collection," D’Arc said. "Since that time, the DeMille papers have been the premiere archival collection in the arts and communications segment of Special Collections."
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