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‘The Ten Commandments’ Turns 80

Upon its debut 80 years ago, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” was hailed by The New York Times as the most “wonderful spectacle ever put before the public.” The silent film’s first half recounted the events that led up to Mount Sinai; its second melodramatically recounted what happened when ordinary men and women lost sight of these religious and moral precepts. The idea for the film resulted from an essay contest sponsored by DeMille in which he asked contestants to suggest the “most vital modern problem suitable for picturizing.”

Moviegoers, thrilled by what they witnessed on the silver screen, were lifted from their seats as 600 charioteers drove their steeds in hot pursuit of the fleeing Israelites and when the Red Sea, thanks to the latest special effects, parted before their very eyes. As for the climactic scene itself, the giving of the Ten Commandments, “there has been nothing on film so utterly impressive as the thundering and belching forth of one commandment after another,” one film critic indelicately put it, describing how this cinematic moment shook audiences to their core.

The film’s live musical accompaniment, the handiwork of Hugo Riesenfeld (with some help from Anton Bruckner and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov), was equally grandiloquent, so much so that the musicians in the pit — all 40 of them — were unable to work more than a couple of hours at a time, so great was the “strain” on their talents and emotions.

To duplicate the “quivering, crashing and resounding” sounds of the Red Sea as it split in two or the giving of the Ten Commandments, the score employed the usual complement of strings and wind instruments along with an enormous kettle drum, five “specially constructed” organ pipes and an iron cauldron filled with birdseed to replicate the “swish of the waves.”

Advertising for “The Ten Commandments” also broke new ground, ushering in a new era of outsized promotion. The billboard for the film, one of the largest ever erected on Broadway, ran the entire length of the street between 43rd and 44th. It depicted an enormous Moses receiving a “gigantically” scaled Ten Commandments, as upward of 200 arc lights and thousands of incandescent bulbs glowed in the dark.

To see Moses on Broadway, backlit against the sky, must have been a truly wondrous sight.

With so much hoopla, it’s no wonder the American Jewish community took to “The Ten Commandments” with great relish and embraced it as its own. The Yiddish- and English-language Jewish press carried advertisements about the film (aseres hadebros, they called it, drawing on the traditional designation), saying it was “made to order” for the Jewish people. “From Moses’ time to our own,” trilled the Jewish Daily Forward.

Audiences were encouraged to buy tickets in advance, so they’d be sure to see it — especially in New York, where the film played at the George M. Cohan Theater at Broadway and 42nd Street, and in Los Angeles, where its debut, appropriately enough, inaugurated Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre.

Like their congregants, America’s rabbis were also lavish in their praise. It is the “best sermon in a century,” said one. Said another, “It’s great in every way, from its wonderful scenery to the way it strengthens one’s belief in reward and punishment.” Said a third, who had the good fortune to be on the set, “never have I been so profoundly impressed as during the hours when I was privileged to see the reproduction of this great code in terms of living and breathing humans.”

Many, clearly, were taken by the film’s wizardry. But much of its appeal, I suspect, also had to do with the way it put paid to Henry Ford’s denunciations of the Jews, then in high swing. At a time when America’s leading manufacturer and other cultural authorities insisted on characterizing the Jews as a corrupt, loose people, “The Ten Commandments” depicted them on high moral ground. A form of validation, the Hollywood film reassured audiences everywhere that the Jews had a great deal to offer the world.

It also underscored the drama implicit in the Jews’ ongoing encounter with history. Rightly or wrongly, DeMille believed that, from Moses’ time through the 1920s, Jewish history — and the people who lived it — was of a piece. To the Jews, the movie was not “merely make believe,” the Hollywood director once said, “it was a natural expression of race memory.”

The 1923 film was eventually supplanted by DeMille’s even more lavish production of 1956. But at the time of its release and for years thereafter, Hollywood’s first take on the “The Ten Commandments” was recalled with great fondness by America’s Jews. As one immigrant-turned-movie-extra put it, speaking for thousands of his co-religionists, ours is also a “liberation, with America as the Promised Land.”

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