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HISTORY

The film begins with the following written prologue: “Our modern world defined God as a ‘religious complex’ and laughed at the Ten Commandments as OLD FASHIONED. Then, through the laughter, came the shattering thunder of the World War. And now a blood-drenched, bitter world—no longer laughing—cries for a way out. There is but one way out. It existed before it was engraven upon Tablets of Stone. It will exist when stone has crumbled. The Ten Commandments are not rules to obey as a personal favor to God. They are the fundamental principles without which mankind cannot live together. They are not laws—they are the LAW.” These titles are followed by a quotation from Exodus 1: 13–14: “And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour. And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field.”
       In Nov 1922, various contemporary sources reported that director Cecil B. DeMille planned to base his next picture on the Biblical treatise known as the Ten Commandments. A 9 Dec 1922 Exhibitors Herald column explained that the LAT had held a “scenario contest,” awarding $1,000 to the best idea expressed in “not more than three hundred words.” Impressed by what he saw as public interest in a “tremendous theme,” DeMille decided that The Ten Commandments would mark the biggest, most ambitious picture of his career. Production was scheduled to begin 1 Apr 1923.
       The film would unfold in two parts, a Biblical section and a “modern” section. According to a 6 Jan 1923 Exhibitors Herald news item, DeMille ... More Less

The film begins with the following written prologue: “Our modern world defined God as a ‘religious complex’ and laughed at the Ten Commandments as OLD FASHIONED. Then, through the laughter, came the shattering thunder of the World War. And now a blood-drenched, bitter world—no longer laughing—cries for a way out. There is but one way out. It existed before it was engraven upon Tablets of Stone. It will exist when stone has crumbled. The Ten Commandments are not rules to obey as a personal favor to God. They are the fundamental principles without which mankind cannot live together. They are not laws—they are the LAW.” These titles are followed by a quotation from Exodus 1: 13–14: “And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour. And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field.”
       In Nov 1922, various contemporary sources reported that director Cecil B. DeMille planned to base his next picture on the Biblical treatise known as the Ten Commandments. A 9 Dec 1922 Exhibitors Herald column explained that the LAT had held a “scenario contest,” awarding $1,000 to the best idea expressed in “not more than three hundred words.” Impressed by what he saw as public interest in a “tremendous theme,” DeMille decided that The Ten Commandments would mark the biggest, most ambitious picture of his career. Production was scheduled to begin 1 Apr 1923.
       The film would unfold in two parts, a Biblical section and a “modern” section. According to a 6 Jan 1923 Exhibitors Herald news item, DeMille sent costume designer Clare West to Paris to gather ideas for how to dress the cast in the modern sequences. He tasked Florence Meehan, an “authority” on ancient culture, with obtaining information about dress, artifacts, architecture, and locations. Meehan reportedly traveled to Palestine, Arabia, Egypt, India, Java, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Pakistan in search of authentic details for the production. A 3 Mar 1923 Motion Picture News item indicated that DeMille wanted to take his cast and crew and film on location in Palestine. However, by late Apr 1923, it was clear that executives at Famous Players-Lasky Corporation had decided the California desert would make a suitable stand-in for ancient Egypt.
       The 7 Apr 1923 Moving Picture World suggested that DeMille’s two top cameramen, Edward S. Curtis and Bert Glennon, would work together on the picture, and a 28 Apr 1923 Exhibitors Trade Review brief indicated that both men were scouting locations in the U.S. with the director. However, Curtis’s name ceased to appear in later sources. Glennon, on the other hand, capitalized on his much-lauded role as “head cinematographer” of the $2 million picture, as evidenced by a two-page advertisement for motion picture cameras in the Jul 1927 AmCin. The figure cited regarding the film’s budget may have been slightly exaggerated by the advertiser, as reports at the time of production put the cost at between $1.25 and $1.6 million.
       An extensive article on the making of the “big picture” appeared in the 21 Jul 1923 issue of Exhibitors Herald. Principal photography of the Biblical “prologue” took place in Guadalupe, CA, located about two hundred miles north of Los Angeles, CA, and notable for its vast expanses of sand dunes. Carpenters and craftsman began building sets, including a replica of the city of Ramses II, complete with an avenue of sphinxes, in late Apr 1923. A 7 Jun 1923 FD news item noted that DeMille had hired watercolor artist Francis McComas to work on the project, presumably to design sets and paint backgrounds.
       Filming in Guadalupe began 27 May 1923. Over 2,000 people camped in the desert for the duration of the two-week shoot, using sand sleds to traverse the twenty-four-square-mile site. Each day, a sled took the footage shot that day to a car, which transported the film to Los Angeles for development. By two p.m. the next day, the processed dailies were en route back to Guadalupe for DeMille’s review. Filming in the desert ended 10 Jun 1923.
       The modern complement to the Biblical prologue was shot primarily at the Lasky studios in Hollywood, CA. In late Jul 1923, DeMille and the cast of six principals traveled to San Francisco, CA, to film final scenes at the construction site of church. An 18 Aug 1923 Exhibitors Trade Review brief noted the company’s return to Los Angeles. Although the 21 Aug 1923 FD reported that work on the picture was “about finished,” Paramount Pictures waited until Sep 1923 to announce that DeMille had completed filming The Ten Commandments. According to the 15 Sep 1923 Exhibitors Herald, the director marked his accomplishment by setting sail on a vacation cruise.
       Throughout the months of production, various actors were listed as having been cast in the picture. The 26 May 1923 Exhibitors Trade Review stated that Lura Anson, Julie Leonard, Marcella Daly, Kate Toncray, Fred Butler, John Randolph, Valentina Zimina, and George Foote would play “prominent parts,” while a 25 Aug 1923 Motion Picture News brief noted that Charles Ogle and Roscoe Karns were late additions to the cast. However, none of these actors appeared to have received onscreen credit.
       Various news briefs, including those in the 11 Aug 1923 Motion Picture News, 21 Aug 1923 FD, and Oct 1923 Educational Screen, indicated that Cecil B. DeMille planned to edit the film himself. FD speculated that the process would take about five weeks. The director also arranged for composer Hugo Riesenfeld to prepare an original musical score, as noted by the 18 Nov 1923 FD. Although the trade journal enthused that the “world premiere” of The Ten Commandments would be held at the George M. Cohan theater in New York City on 21 Dec 1923, a brief in the 6 Dec 1923 ^FD pointed out that the film had already opened at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood on 4 Dec 1923.
       Critics were impressed with the spectacle and grandeur of the film, particularly the prologue section, which included a “sensational” sequence depicting “Moses’s” parting of the Red Sea. The 17 Nov 1923 Exhibitors Herald noted the use of color throughout the Biblical section, and other reviews concurred that the effect was inspiring and powerful. If there was one uniform criticism of the film, it was that the modern-day segment seemed “hokey” and “ordinary” in comparison to the material that preceded it.
       Cecil B. DeMille also directed the 1956 Paramount Pictures production The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston (see entry). Unlike the 1923 film, the later version was set entirely in Biblical times.
       The Ten Commandments was restored by Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation with support from the George Eastman House. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
American Cinematographer
Jul 1927
pp. 14-15.
Educational Screen
Oct 1923
p. 393.
Exhibitors Herald
9 Dec 1922
p. 49.
Exhibitors Herald
6 Jan 1923
p. 88.
Exhibitors Herald
21 Jul 1923
pp. 33-37.
Exhibitors Herald
15 Sep 1923
p. 60.
Exhibitors Herald
17 Nov 1923
p. 33.
Exhibitors Trade Review
28 Apr 1923
p. 1081.
Exhibitors Trade Review
26 May 1923.
---
Exhibitors Trade Review
23 Jun 1923
pp. 150-151.
Exhibitors Trade Review
28 Jul 1923.
---
Exhibitors Trade Review
18 Aug 1923.
---
Film Daily
20 Nov 1922
p. 1.
Film Daily
7 Jun 1923
p. 6.
Film Daily
21 Aug 1923.
---
Film Daily
18 Nov 1923
p. 1.
Film Daily
6 Dec 1923
p. 1.
Film Daily
26 Dec 1923
p. 2.
Motion Picture News
3 Mar 1923.
---
Motion Picture News
25 Aug 1923.
---
Motion Picture News
11 Aug 1923
p. 677.
Moving Picture World
7 Apr 1923
p. 610.
Moving Picture World
5 Jan 1924
p. 56.
New York Times
22 Dec 1923
p. 8.
Variety
27 Dec 1923
p. 22.
Variety
27 Dec 1923
p. 26.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky Present
Cecil B. DeMille's Production
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
PHOTOGRAPHY
Photog
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
Tech dir
FILM EDITOR
Cutter
DETAILS
Release Date:
4 December 1923
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles opening: 4 December 1923
New York opening: 21 December 1923
Production Date:
27 May--late August or early September 1923
Copyright Claimant:
Famous Players-Lasky Corp.
Copyright Date:
21 December 1923
Copyright Number:
LP19766
Physical Properties:
Silent
Black & white with color sequences
Length(in feet):
12,000
Length(in reels):
12 , 14
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

A prologue depicts Biblical stories from Exodus, including the ill-treatment of the Jews by the Egyptians; their escape across the parted water of the Red Sea; the presentation to Moses of the Ten Commandments; Moses finding the Israelites worshipping the golden calf; and his breaking of the tablets. The remainder of the film takes place in modern-day San Francisco. Two brothers, John and Dan McTavish, love Mary Leigh. She chooses Dan, who becomes a wealthy building contractor by using inferior materials and bribing the building inspector, Redding. This is the beginning of his downfall, ending in his death when he is crushed on the rocks in a motorboat accident. Before his death, Dan kills Sally Lung, his Asian mistress, while trying to obtain bribe money and then discovers that he may have contracted leprosy from her. Drunk and panic-stricken, Dan takes the fatal boat ride. Mary weds ... +


A prologue depicts Biblical stories from Exodus, including the ill-treatment of the Jews by the Egyptians; their escape across the parted water of the Red Sea; the presentation to Moses of the Ten Commandments; Moses finding the Israelites worshipping the golden calf; and his breaking of the tablets. The remainder of the film takes place in modern-day San Francisco. Two brothers, John and Dan McTavish, love Mary Leigh. She chooses Dan, who becomes a wealthy building contractor by using inferior materials and bribing the building inspector, Redding. This is the beginning of his downfall, ending in his death when he is crushed on the rocks in a motorboat accident. Before his death, Dan kills Sally Lung, his Asian mistress, while trying to obtain bribe money and then discovers that he may have contracted leprosy from her. Drunk and panic-stricken, Dan takes the fatal boat ride. Mary weds John. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.