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Documentary Digs Up Hollywood History in California Dunes

3 Oct, 2017 By: Stephanie Prange

1923's 'The Ten Commandments'

It is a decades-long saga worthy of the efforts and energy of its subject, a legendary film director.

The Lost City of Cecil B. Demille — 30 years in the making — is finally available Oct. 3 on digital and DVD from Random Media. It’s a story of filmmaking persistence, archeological discovery, early Hollywood and an iconic man who helped start an American industry and made some of the classic epic films of the 20th century. One of those epics was 1923’s The Ten Commandments, which featured a spectacular city-of-the-pharaoh set left buried in the sands of Central California purportedly because DeMille didn’t want other filmmakers using it.

It was that tantalizing idea of the hidden set from the early days of Hollywood that started director Peter Brosnan and his team on their filmmaking journey.

“We really believed this was a natural for a movie,” Brosnan recalled Sept. 23 at a screening fittingly held at the Egyptian Theatre, where the film premiered. “We found an ancient Egyptian city in the middle of California. Wow. This is going to get made in a few years, right?”

Little did he know that, due to funding and permit issues, he would spend decades repeatedly returning to the project — that he would even abandon the film industry for another career — before he completed the film.

What kept director Brosnan and his team going?

“First and foremost, I think it’s obvious that we believe in this project,” he said. “We believe that there is a historical treasure buried in the Guadalupe Dunes. It’s fast disappearing, and we need to save it.”

In fact, Brosnan, with the help of several archeologists, has recovered several artifacts from the site, some of which — a plaster nose, a part of a film canister and other items — traveled to Hollywood for the screening.

Another thing that kept Brosnan going was the fun of it all.

“We’re digging up an ancient Egyptian city in California,” he said. “How can that not be fun? … I got to run up and down the dunes with archeologists and live out my Indiana Jones fantasy.”

Making the film was also a quest to save the history of actors and observers from old Hollywood.

“We realized that a lot of these old timers were not going to be around much longer so on our own time and our own dime we began filming as many interviews as we could, and I’m glad we did because we got interviews with people who are long gone,” he said.

He recalled filming Agnes DeMille, who at the time was recovering from a stroke.

“I watched this old woman wither under the lights,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to kill Agnes DeMille.’ But when the cameraman said action, I don’t know where she got it, but she summoned up this energy and she was on. She was like a bull. And it gave me a little bit of insight into that DeMille energy, into what her uncle must have been like on the set.”

Others on the panel after the screening also shared memories of the director, who had a soft side that belied his demanding reputation.

Lisa Mitchell, who at 15 got her big break in DeMille’s 1956 remake of The Ten Commandments, recalled, “He was one of the most unforgettable people I have ever met.”

She grew up down the hill from his house.

“I used to have this fantasy that some day that king of the mountain would come down and change my life and that’s what happened,” she said, adding that in her audition DeMille asked her, “If I give you the part, will you let me yell at you?”

“He was like an uncle to me,” she said.

Peter Bernstein, son of composer Elmer Bernstein (who also worked on the 1950s epic), noted that DeMille saved his father’s career after he was blacklisted, helping to get the government to clear him.

“DeMille was the No. 1 anti-communist in Hollywood at the time,” he said. “But DeMille liked my father. He liked the kid.”

He also related a joke that his father used to tell about the filming of the Exodus of the Jews. Many of the extras were Egyptian soldiers, and DeMille had asked the composer to write some music that sounded like “Onward Christian Soldiers” for the scene.

“As my father would say, you had departing Jews played by the Egyptian army accompanied by ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’” Bernstein said.

Archeologist Colleen Hamilton told the screening crowd about many of the finds on the dig that illuminated the workings of early Hollywood. “Trying to find the [plaster] sphinx was really challenging, but it was the pieces that we picked up daily that really told the story to us,” she said.

“I think the diversity of the people that worked on this site was incredible,” she added. “We found an area off set that was clearly an area where supplies were stacked and makeup tins were there and paint cans and we found, interestingly enough, porcelain rice bowls, so clearly some of the people working at the set were of Asian descent.”

Finding a piece of an old film canister “was really cool,” she said.

They also found plenty of tobacco tins (smoking was considered healthful at the time) and cough syrup bottles that may have held something other than cough syrup during prohibition.

“Apparently that smoking led to a lot of coughing,” Brosnan said. “Human nature hasn’t really changed.”

Filmmakers hope The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille will spur interest in preserving these pieces of film history that wind and water may someday obliterate.

“What happened here in Hollywood a hundred and some odd years ago was the beginning of a new industry, a new art form that went on to become the great art form of the 20th Century,” Brosnan said. “It brought a positive image of America and American culture to the entire world … and yet from the early days of that industry we have saved almost nothing. Ninety-five percent of the silent films don’t exist anymore. Imagine if we had lost 95% of Hemmingway. That would be a huge cultural loss. And as for artifacts from those early days, we’ve saved almost nothing.”

“The most important set, the first big epic set, is right there — The Ten Commandments in Guadalupe,” added Dr. Paul Chase, an archeologist who consulted on the project. “It should become a world heritage site.”

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