‘The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille’: Film Review | DWF 2017

The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Circus Road Films
A labor of love and obsession, cinephile-style.

Filmmaker Peter Brosnan traces his 30-year mission to excavate the largest movie set built during Hollywood’s silent era from the dunes of a California beach.

The movie showman Cecil B. DeMille, whose epic productions included The King of Kings and The Greatest Show on Earth, might balk at the intimate scale of Peter Brosnan’s documentary about him. But he’d understand the perseverance and vision behind it: Through three decades of funding struggles and bureaucratic red tape, Brosnan spearheaded efforts to unearth from the sandy coast of Central California the remains of one of DeMille’s most monumental undertakings: the Egyptian city constructed for his first biblical spectacle, 1923’s The Ten Commandments.

For anyone who cares about Hollywood history — or, for that matter, California history — The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille is an irresistible detective story, told with a sense of wonder, a sense of humor and a mild exasperation over the “permit people,” as Brosnan wryly calls them. With its astute capsule biography of DeMille and firsthand accounts from people who worked with him, the film pays tribute to one of Hollywood’s most innovative and commercially successful founding fathers. While continued fest interest is assured for the doc, which recently screened at Dances With Films, arts-oriented cable programmers should take note.

It was in 1982 that Brosnan first heard of DeMille’s City of the Pharaoh, a ginormous set built on the southern end of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. A Hollywood fantasy of antiquity designed by renowned illustrator Paul Iribe, it encompassed 20 sphinxes and four 35-ton statues of Ramses. Rumors were that everything built for the Egyptian set had been buried on-site rather than removed. Fascinated by this bit of movie lore, Brosnan and a couple of film-school friends, Bruce Cardozo, Richard Eberhardt, set out to make a documentary about “the last of the great sets.” Piece of cake, he thought; just find an archaeologist and dig it up.

From the get-go, the project’s every breakthrough was met with a setback over legalities or money. But Brosnan looked beyond the hoped-for archaeological dig to another kind of exploration, and made wise use of downtime on the dunes. He set about compiling an oral history, interviewing people who were involved in the 1923 production, and who were all by then elderly: extras, livestock wranglers, spectators and the prolific silent-era actress Leatrice Joy, who spoke with the filmmaker just days before her death. (The filmmaker’s granddaughter Cecilia DeMille Presley, who has a “presented by” credit, is also interviewed, as is his niece Agnes DeMille, who died in 1993.)

Whether they’re offering tidbits of memory or revelatory anecdotes, the interviewees enrich the film with their intimate recollections of a colossal work in progress. A chyron below one man's name drolly identifies him as someone who “Saw the Jell-O” — as a kid he snuck into the set where DeMille & Co. were parting the Red Sea through bravura work with gelatin.

The dunes, too, offer glimpses of the Prohibition-era film shoot; along with sought-after pieces of a sphinx or a bas-relief, recovered fragments include the corroded remains of an Eastman film canister and pieces of a medicine bottle that might have been a crew member’s handy container for contraband alcohol (DeMille ran a tight, Prohibition-compliant ship).

As writer-director-producer-narrator and occasional onscreen figure, Brosnan interweaves movie history with footage from the on-again, off-again digs in Guadalupe. Packed with information, the film’s early sections can sometimes feel breakneck or cursory. But his narration is sharply written, and his decision — prompted by yet another stall in the excavation — to explore the 1956 remake of Commandments, DeMille’s final film, deepens the portrait of the Hollywood legend. One of that film’s screenwriters, Jesse Lasky Jr., offers a concise explanation for DeMille’s decision to bury the earlier film’s Egyptian set, while assistant director Francisco “Chico” Day comments on his predilection for sweeping productions: “We didn’t hire extras; we hired villages.”

Among other things, Lost City is a chronicle of an initially well-publicized story that wouldn’t die, even when Brosnan was ready to leave it behind. Again and again over the years, in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, he chooses to focus his attention elsewhere. But the media keep chasing him down. All the headlines don’t quite translate into funds for the project, with the most telling holdout being Hollywood itself. At one point, the National Endowment for the Humanities wonders why the deep-pocketed film industry isn’t footing the project’s bill. Given that industry’s short memory, it’s a good thing people like Brosnan come along to search for movie treasure.

Venue: Dances With Films
Production company: Lost City Productions

Director: Peter Brosnan
Screenwriter: Peter Brosnan
Producers: Peter Brosnan, Daniel J. Coplan
Executive producer: Francesca Judge Silva
Director of photography: Alessandro Gentile
Editor: George Artope
Composer: Steve Bauman
Sales: Circus Road Films

88 minutes