I may be pushing an inside joke too far with this, but: It’s worth sitting through the fleeting commercial to read this Salon piece on my favorite cinematic guilty pleasure, “The Ten Commandments,” scheduled for its annual airing this Sunday.
Back in the Fort, back in the day, I and my friends Adrianne and David, when this special time of year rolled around, liked to make dinner and then sit down to watch as much of Cecil B. DeMille’s four-hour epic as we could stand. “Has he turned the river red yet?” I asked one year, coming in late.
“No, first he has to meet Yvonne DeCarlo and raise her sheep,” David said. “Meet Yvonne DeCarlo and raise her sheep” — now there’s a catch phrase three adults can play with for years.
Anyway, it’s a great party movie, a feeling that’s shared by… dozens, anyway. “I have been to the mountaintop. I saw God. I got a permanent” — this is how my frum friend Eileen describes her own guilty-pleasure viewing.
The Salon story is a stitch, describing its pleasures at some length:
The film still generally wins the night’s top ratings; last year it won both the adult and kid markets, with an average of 10.6 million viewers. And its influence stretches further than anything Nielsen can measure, though especially to modern eyes it’s little more than a load of camp, with outrageous costumes and overacting, which is never more apparent than in the bedroom scenes between Moses and Egyptian Queen Nefertiti. “Oh Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool,” she tells the prophet, who has spent the afternoon making bricks with his enslaved Jewish brethren. “You can worship any God you like, as long as I can worship you.” TV Guide dubs the movie “a great big wallow, sublime hootchy-kootchy hokum.” …Sex was DeMille’s way of roping in wider audiences. “Hit sex hard!” was his frequent order to screenwriters. He dubbed the Golden Calf scene of “The Ten Commandments” — a sultry bump and grind of sweaty Israelites — “an orgy Sunday-school children can watch.” But his critics were unable to reconcile the professed piousness of DeMille’s vision with his vulgar showmanship and savvy. They constantly sought to expose his claim to a “unique ministry” of film as self-aggrandizing sham. To others, his films were “a fraud that enabled immorality to hide behind the protection of the Holy Book.”
Here’s where the interesting part comes in: “The Ten Commandments” was the driving force behind “the Eagle monoliths,” stone reproductions of the decalogue distributed throughout the Bible belt as a film promotion:
In addition to the famous case of Judge Roy Moore’s Alabama courtroom, there have been numerous recent battles over granite replicas of the Ten Commandments displayed on public property — in Indiana, Wisconsin, Colorado, Texas, New York, and other states. In December 2002, Slate reported that nearly half of the monoliths being disputed by the ACLU were from a set of 4,000, donated in the late 1950s by a peculiar partnership: the nonsectarian charitable organization the Fraternal Order of Eagles, and the film director Cecil B. DeMille, who “wanted to promote his movie.” A great many articles written about the contested Eagle monoliths implied or stated outright that DeMille’s involvement was strictly promotional. As proof, they noted that actor Yul Brynner (Pharoah Ramses in the film) had spoken at the very first monolith’s dedication ceremony, in Milwaukee in 1955. Charlton Heston dedicated another in North Dakota.
That number (4,000) is disputed, but not the fact one of the last standing sets did so in far-from-Hollywood Elkhart, Indiana.