Friday, September 7, 2012

This Day and Age: Cecil B. DeMille's Solution for a Broken System

This Day and Age, by Cecil B. DeMille, 1933

While best known for the historical epics that the latter part of his career focused on, Cecil B. DeMille was actually a quite versatile director. This last sentence makes me sound like an authority on Cecil B. DeMille, which I'm totally not. I haven't even seen The Ten Commandments. Cut me some slack, OK? It's four hours long. In fact, This Day and Age is the first of DeMille's films I've ever seen.

This fact is especially odd when you consider that This Day and Age is one of the director's only films not made readily available on DVD or some other format. Not 100% sure why, either due to mild racism or political wrongheadedness, you take your pick. You see, America was well into the Great Depression at the time of its release, and people were looking for solutions. This was DeMille's proposal. By the way, I'm going to be SPOILER-iffic this time around, because this is one of those movies you might not get many chances to see, and it's just too weird to not talk about.

This Day and Age is about a group of high school seniors at the top of their class, selected to take part in "Boys Week" (girls aren't qualified, I guess), where they shadow the men who hold high city positions. One boy goes with the Chief of Police, one with the District Attorney, one with the Judge. When the friendly local Jewish stereotype is gunned down by the local gangster stereotype for not paying for protection, the boys witness firsthand just how broken the system is. The gangster gets off because none of the evidence can prove conclusively that he did what they all know he did. The boys decide to investigate on their own, and the gangster ends up killing one of them and pinning it on another. Disenfranchised at the way the institution handles things, the remaining boys hatch a plan to bring this gangster to justice: mob justice!

Yes, DeMille was proposing that if the system can't do things right, let's form a mob and do it ourselves. The boys mobilize and form a secret army of all the high school boys in the entire area. They whistle Yankee Doodle Dandy as their secret code. Their plan to get the gangster alone to kidnap him, yes kidnap him, is to have one of their girlfriends seduce his righthand man, who really wants to have sex with a high school girl. Oh, and did I mention that when the boys get the gangster, they hold a trial themselves, and torture a confession out of him by lowering him into a pit of live rats? Then they carry him back to the judge and the judge commends them for doing the right thing! Yes, this movie is crazy!

I mentioned above that This Day and Age is also mildly racist. It's not really so bad. Though the Jewish characters were broad stereotypes, the movie was really standing up for them. The worst part is when the Jewish tailor's shop is blown up as a threat, and the tailor, lying in a pile of rubble, goes "Oy, this damage is going to cost me $432...", then a bit of plaster breaks over his head and he goes, "...and 64 cents!" Yeah. But there was actually a really cool line, involving a black student. The boys need a black person to pretend to be a shoeshine (yeah, I know) for the plan to work. They go up to a boy and say "hey, do you shine shoes?", and he looks at them and says "I shine my own shoes". So I don't think the racism was necessarily coming from bad intentions, just, you know, ignorance.

Despite the fact that this film is a political minefield (I heard it was banned in Holland for being too fascist!), it's actually insanely well directed. Cecil B. DeMille totally knew his stuff. The performances, cinematography and production values are exceptional. There's a fantastic sequence between the creepy second-in-command mobster and the girlfriend of the valedictorian boy. It's played entirely in closeups on their hands while they talk to each other. He's locking the hotel room door and she's sliding a knife into her purse. Really cool stuff.

As outdated and messed up as This Day and Age is, it's still an extremely watchable film. I would recommend it as both an entertaining movie and a historical curiosity. If you hear of it playing near you, or if it is made available to you somehow, you should definitely check it out.


  1. Excellent piece. I'm perversely interested in seeing this film but it seems impossible to track down. Glad to find a review of it so I know what I'm getting into!

    1. It's pretty bonkers. They screened it a few months ago at a theater here in Chicago, so there are prints of it floating around. Thanks for reading!