Cecil B DeMille Thinks Your Bathroom Needs a Makeover
I’ll bet you enjoyed your bath this morning! Maids discreetly holding your elaborate robe up as a curtain behind you while, like a temple goddess, you slipped into the perfectly heated water of your sunken tub. Oh. Not a bath person, you say? Well, then, surely you delighted in that separate nozzle in your shower? (No, not that one). The one through which rosewater comes pouring out, coating your skin in liquid petals. What? Your bathroom doesn’t have either of those things? Well, that’s a damn shame. And it isn’t just me who thinks so, but Cecil B. DeMille does too! He believes in the art of bathing so fervently, he interrupted the narrative pace of his film, Male and Female, to bring you this public service announcement starring Gloria Swanson and featuring Bebe Daniels:
Well, at least it felt like a commercial. I admit, I love watching DeMille’s over-the-top “modern” morality stories. Especially as a contrast with Griffith’s films of the same period and their insistence of pure-hearted heroines and virtuous ideals. When Carl H. Pierce of Famous Players-Lasky Studios suggested to DeMille that he put his efforts toward films featuring, “…plenty of clothes, rich sets and action,” DeMille not only delivered by making pictures that filled theater seats,he changed contemporary culture by giving the public what they didn’t even yet know they wanted.
DeMille redefined for audiences not only what it meant to be a modern husband and wife, he redefined their (and by extension, our) living spaces. No longer the prim, nurturing holdover from Victorian times, the modern wife was glamorous, knew how to be her husband’s playmate as well as his wife or suffered the consequences of losing him to a more worldly woman. Men too, were shown that their slovenly ways had no place in his ideal. In DeMille’s world, home interiors were no longer fussy, but lavish in their attention to detail. Nothing illustrates this point as much as his insistence on making the bathroom a central part of the films he was making during this period and his insistence that filmgoers rethink their views on this room in their own homes.
In the first of these films, Old Wives for New (1918), there is a scene early on that takes place in a bathroom. No big deal to you or me today. However, DeMille was breaking new ground. Because, after all, the bathroom is a space in which we take care of those necessary, but indelicate, functions. It’s also where we clean our bodies and essentially are our least “presentable.” None of this, it was believed, had a place on film. Up until this time, even for the wealthy, bathrooms were considered utilitarian and were not spaces that one spent much time decorating. DeMille’s vision took hold of the cultural imagination and changed the way we think about that space and its purpose in our home. But bathrooms served another purpose for DeMille. He felt it was also the prefect place to show the discord in a relationship For example, in Old Wives for New, the messy bathroom is used to reveal the wife’s character. She’s gotten lazy in her care of the home and herself as evidenced by the hair left in the sink and the comb, the toiletry bottles strewn about. DeMille would continue to make bathrooms important in other films of this type— Why Change Your Wife (1920), the previously mentioned, Male and Female (1919) and The Affairs of Anatol (1921). As his granddaughter, Cecilia DeMille Presley put it, “DeMille made the bathroom an ideal. He showed America how a room that had been overlooked could be transformed into something special, with beautiful mirrors, soaps, marble, and even perfumed water. He used the bathroom as a metaphor for the state of the marriage.”
But not everyone found his attention to the bathroom to be so necessary. A writer in Filmplay Journal had this to say: “We really do not understand why Mr. DeMille wastes his talents as a motion picture director when a bathroom fixture company could engage him as an Extraordinary Advisor.” Boo to the naysayers! Next time you light that scented candle next to your bathtub, before you reach for that sugar scrub or wrap yourself in one of those Egyptian cotton bath towels you paid too much for, make sure you give a little nod to Cecil B. DeMille, the man who thought you were worth all of this special attention.
Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic by Cecilia DeMille Presley and Mark A. Vieira– a beautiful book, provided some details for this post.