- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2006

Not content to let well enough alone, ABC Television seems to have offended a consensus of reviewers and spectators by commissioning a new edition of “The Ten Commandments” for the recent Easter and Passover holidays. The traditional telecast of Cecil B. DeMille’s durably portentous and diverting spectacle of 1956 hadn’t been canceled, but the duplication caused some trepidation about its status.

ABC televised the DeMille classic the night before Easter Sunday, a week after unveiling the made-for-TV remake. Since the latter had laid a two-part egg, the return of the standard version looked a bit like a prompt public apology. But in all likelihood, a great deal of self-delusion and false optimism led to the decision that it would be desirable to possess a duplicate “Commandments” at the network during this 50th anniversary year of the DeMille picture.

The movie premiered in November 1956, so it’s still not too late for Paramount to mount a proper anniversary set of revivals for the theatrical version, which possessed stilted but undeniable scenic grandeur in its original SuperVistaVision engagements.

I suggest the Uptown, the American Film Institute Silver Theatre or one of the large auditoriums at the new AMC Tysons Corner for a proper commemoration in this market.

Since it’s probably foolish to trust to that eventuality, admirers might as well invest in the 50th anniversary DVD edition. This three-disc set from Paramount Home Entertainment supplements the movie with a handful of shorts that recall its production, a commentary track from a DeMille scholar named Katherine Orrison and a copy of the silent prototype, the 1923 version of “The Ten Commandments,” which anticipated the filmmaker’s attraction to biblical spectacle in decades to come.

As Miss Orrison usefully reminds us, the first “Commandments” was a fleeting Biblical melodrama. Only the prologue harked back to the story of Moses and the Israelite exodus from Egypt. This project did begin Mr. DeMille’s exploitation of biblical subject matter. He had made 45 movies in the previous decade, starting with Westerns and ultimately specializing in high society romances that helped define the hedonism of the Roaring ‘20s.

Of the 25 features left in his directing career, which concluded with the second “Ten Commandments,” only half a dozen had biblical settings. Nevertheless, Mr. DeMille, who died in 1959 at age 77, remains more closely identified with biblical sagas than any other film genre, largely because his valedictory “Commandments” was a huge success and definitive stylistic throwback.

The most appealing single testament of the director’s devotion to the remake is the “Making of…” trailer he filmed to advance the release. Mr. DeMille, who survived a heart attack while the movie was in production in Egypt in 1954, emphasizes the historical and artistic sources that influenced the screenplay.

This presentation, which surrounds him with props and displays in an office setting, is more effective than his later prologue for the movie, where he repeats much of the same text while posed stiffly in front of a large theater curtain. The personal note was sustained on the soundtrack of the film: The director remained the narrator and prevailing voice of authority for a running time of 220 minutes.

Miss Orrison identifies the actor Henry Wilcoxon and his wife Joan Woodberry as her principal sources. A leading man in DeMille films of the 1930s, Mr. Wilcoxon became his associate producer and factotum during the final years of their collaboration. He can be seen most frequently in “The Ten Commandments” at the right hand of Yul Brynner’s Rameses.

Miss Orrison brings a pleasant voice and an abundance of facts and anecdotal material to her commentary. Every so often she needs to explain herself a bit more precisely — for example, does she believe that Mr. Brynner or his 1923 predecessor, Charles de Roche, is a more authentic lookalike for Rameses?

Only once during the first half of the movie does she slip into a repeated anecdote, and she proves an amusing tour guide to all sorts of trivia. We’re reminded that William Boyd and William Holden were once envisioned for the roles of Moses and Rameses, respectively.

Thanks to the Wilcoxons, one gathers, she’s privy to the conspiracy that protected Debra Paget from exposing her feet to the director’s scrutiny. Evidently, Mr. DeMille would have found them too large for an exquisite second lead.

It’s intriguing to learn that Egyptian handmaidens used to light their way through the palaces at night by mounting candles on their heads. Alas, Hollywood remained unable to duplicate this light source in the movie, since it would have required extras dauntless enough to permit candle wax to drip painfully from head to shoulder to torso.

Miss Orrison is quick to point out the anachronistic safety pin on the diaper of Fraser Heston, the infant son of Charlton Heston. Cast as the baby Moses, the newborn Fraser was recruited to anticipate his father’s entrance as the grown prince of Egypt.

Plenty of room for improvement remains in future anniversary editions. The supplementary material is rather paltry considering the volume of television interviews that Cecil B. DeMille and the principal cast members must have given prior to the opening of “The Ten Commandments.”

In his journals, Mr. Heston recalls an extended session with Arlene Francis on her “Home” series, the mid-1950s precursor of the “Oprah Winfrey Show.” In fact, there was an entire television special devoted to the movie; excerpts from this promotional gala enhanced Kevin Brownlow’s 2004 documentary for Turner Classic Movies, “Cecil B. DeMille: An American Epic.” That entire chronicle needs to be part of an optimum “Ten Commandments” DVD package sooner or later.

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