Dynamite (1929) Directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Conrad Nagel, Kay Johnson, Charles Bickford, Julia Faye, Joel McCrea (130 min.)

A flibbertigibbet socialite simply must be married by her 23rd birthday in order to acquire her grandfather’s millions. Her polo-playing Romeo is having trouble divorcing his wife, so she marries a death row inmate instead, to facilitate her inheritance. When he’s unexpectedly pardoned, she finds herself beholden to a coal-mining cave man.

Dynamite was DeMille’s first talking picture, and he brought all his skill to bear on this new challenge. He recruited two New York stage actors, Kay Johnson and Charles Bickford, for his leads, along with MGM matinee idol Conrad Nagel. Many early talkies are hampered by zombie-like performances, long silences and a static camera, but this film escapes many of these common pitfalls. The film is anchored by two huge set-pieces, a jazz-age orgy (of the sort of which DeMille himself was reputedly fond) and a mine-shaft disaster, as well as Mitchell Leisen’s eye-popping Art Deco sets and a scintillating wardrobe of gowns by Adrian.

Some writers will tell you that DeMille had done all his most creative work by the early 1920s. But, as his films become more conventional, his penchant for outrageous melodrama, innuendo and spectacle remained strong. Here, DeMille continues to use a moving camera during the wacky Aero Wheel Roll at the country club. He experiments with sound, most notably during the Death Row wedding, when the minister is nearly drowned out by the hammering together of the gallows and the guitar strains of a fellow convict playing the mournful theme “How Was I To Know” (lyrics by Dorothy Parker!).

DeMille liked to surround himself both on and off the set with loyalists, including his scenario writer, Jeanie Macpherson, his editor, Anna Bauchens, and actress Julia Faye, all of whom were his mistresses at one time or another. Miss Faye, who plays Marcia in Dynamite, was in every one of DeMille’s films beginning in 1917. Considered part of the family, she was paid a stipend by the DeMilles even after Cecil’s death.

“Julia Faye got her break in pictures by reason of her perfect understandings. For years, she was known as ‘The Legs of Lasky’s’ and always doubled her nether limbs for those of ladies less blessed by nature. She has always been a main stay, or main stem, of De Mille pictures, at Lasky’s, P.D.C., Pathe and now Metro Goldwyn. Julia’s a Virginia gyurl, suh!”

An autographed photo of Faye

Scenario writer Jeanie Macpherson’s collaboration with DeMille was a unique and productive one. She was born in 1897 into a well-to-do Boston family. Recalled from school in Paris because of her family’s financial problems she turned to the stage as an actress and dancer. But, motion picture work seemed more challenging, and she convinced D.W, Griffith to hire her as an actress at Biograph. Griffith apparently discussed story ideas with her, and she stayed with him until 1911. After a brief stint at the Edison Company, she moved west to Universal. There she discovered a greater need for writers than actresses. Adventurous in her own right, a pilot who dreamed of flying the Atlantic, she provided rousing outdoorsy tales. Eventually, she was asked to direct, and had her own unit where she wrote, directed and produced films for two years. But the grueling schedule proved too much, and she sought less strenuous employment. In her job interview with Cecil B. De Mille at Lasky Features Company he was condescending to her talents and demoted her to a writer only, but she must have liked something about the drama of working with him. De Mille came to rely on her taste and abilities for over 30 years.

He cast her in The Rose of the Rancho in 1914 and she has an enthusiastic hair-pulling fight with Geraldine Farrar in the 1915 Carmen. Even when no longer performing, she was always on the set making sure her scenarios were shot as written, and supervising production details. She authored or co-authored DeMille’s best films of the silent era, The Cheat, Joan the Woman, The Whispering Chorus, Male and Female, Why Change Your Wife, Don’t Change Your Husband, The Affairs of Anatol, Manslaughter, The Ten Commandments, and The King of Kings. They had adjacent suites at the studio, and when De Mille edited his own films in the earliest days, Macpherson worked by his side.

Macpherson and DeMille on location for “The Ten Commandments”

Their relationship was sexual, as well. DeMille maintained a house for his wife, Constance, and his children, and had a ranch called Paradise, where he stayed on weekends with Macpherson, and later his other mistresses. DeMille was famously autocratic, but Macpherson had strong opinions about both their work, and his affairs, which she tolerated in a much less saintly fashion than his wife. Macpherson’s final scripts were for DeMille’s The Buccaneer (1936) and Reap the Wild Wind (1942).

Richard de Mille was the adopted son of Cecil, but was the natural son of Cecil’s brother, William, from an affair with one of his scenario writers, Lorna Moon. (The DeMille circle was very complicated). Richard wrote: “Cecil B DeMille…was never touched by scandal. The mistresses he chose, not for their beauty but for their affection, trustworthiness and discretion, loved him, protected him, surrounding him in a close-knit conspiracy of propriety. In turn he didn’t cast them by like a king in Babylon but gave them enduring loyalty. In 1946 I went with him to the hospital to visit Jeanie Macpherson a few days before she died. He held her hand and told her they would surely meet in the next world. She murmured that they would.”

Cari Beauchamp wrote in her book Without Lying Down, “…there was never any inference that Jeanie was hired because of their affair and not her talent. De Mille would have many mistresses, but few scenario writers.”

The echos of the shocking social dramas that Macpherson and DeMille made in the early 1920s resound in Dynamite‘s oh-so-civilized banter between wife and mistress (Faye and Johnson) as they bargain over the amount of alimony payments from the oblivious Conrad Nagel. The wild party that repulses Cynthia’s husband of convenience is part of the hedonism audiences expected from DeMille. Cynthia’s delicious Art Deco abode was designed by Mitchell Leisen, an assistant director on this film, and later a director himself. DeMille was famous for portraying luxurious bathrooms, in a day when that room was primly utilitarian. “To a generation brought up never to mention personal sanitation, he introduced bathing as an art and disrobing as a prolonged rapture.” (Griffith). Much was made in the publicity about the glass sided bathtub in the boudoir where one could imagine the heroine washing off the dirty fingerprints of Bickford’s primal working man. Leisen said of DeMille: For the type of thing he did, he was very good. DeMille had no nuances. Everything was in neon lights six feet tall: LUST, REVENGE, SEX. You had to learn the think the way he thought, in capital letters.” (Mandelbaum and Myers).

“When Cecil B. De Mille thinks of bathtubs he thinks hard! In addition to a glass bathtub in his new Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picture, ‘Dynamite’, he presents also a ‘bath-salts fountain. Kay Johnson is illustrating the method of pouring salts into their holder.”

DeMille brought his production company to MGM with this film, including designer Gilbert Adrian. Adrian’s costumes for this film are all but unmentioned in most Hollywood costume histories, but one evening gown for Kay Johnson (tangerine silk velvet, I imagine, with gold beading) is as exquisite as any costume he ever made. His sense of humor is evident in a day dress with useless, drippy ruffles, causing the heroine comic difficulties as she attempts to cook her first meal. MGM’s Louis B. Mayer “had a quick and larcenous eye for talent. He soon spotted Adrian in the DeMille entourage and signed him to a contract.” (Riley). Soon, Adrian would begin to craft the immortal images of Garbo, Shearer and Crawford.

Faye, Johnson, Nagel and “Marco–The Sheik” Joel McCrea

The movie’s theme song, “How am I to Know?” had lyrics supplied by, of all people, Dorothy Parker. As Richard Barrios remarks in A Song in the Dark, “A more inappropriate collision of talents and personalities cannot be imagined, and it was not observed that Parker took to her job with undue gravity.” The humorless De Mille rejected her first two song suggestions, “Dynamite, I Love You” and “Dynamite, Blow My Sweetie Back to Me.” The theme was sung in the film by crooner Russ Columbo, not yet famous, and became somewhat of a standard.

Charles Bickford arrived from the New York stage to play hero Hagon Derk. He is a singularly unheroic looking fellow in Dynamite, with an unruly mop of brick red hair and a surly expression. He tells of arriving in Hollywood for a decadent New Year’s party at the DeMille ranch, a party choreographed to show the host to be a powerful and wicked pater familias. Bickford wrote: “My impression of him was that of a ruddy stallion, pawing the earth and proclaiming himself monarch of all her surveyed…my instinct warned me that DeMille and I were destined to clash.” Although the shoot commenced with bad feelings, by the end Bickford insisted, they had achieved “a genuine respect for each other’s abilities and were working smoothly together.” (Edwards) Bickford began his career playing romantic leads. In 1930, he played a rough-hewn sailor opposite Greta Garbo in her first talkie, Anna Christie, but would soon settle in as a forceful character actor. He was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award three times, for The Song of Bernadette, The Farmer’s Daughter and Johnny Belinda.

His rival, Conrad Nagel, is a more refined sort of fellow, and the two of them define changing tastes in movie heroes. The talkies would embrace a more rough and tumble type, like Gable and Cagney. Nagel had been a DeMille hero before, but his career as a heart-throb would soon be as dead as John Gilbert’s; a victim less of voice recording than of romantic styles.

Kay Johnson was also a New York stage player, and like Bickford was part of the first wave of performers who came West at the dawn of the talkies. DeMille would use her as the heroine in his first two talking pictures (also as Madam Satan) so he must have been drawn to her. DeMille had first toyed with the idea of casting newcomer Carole Lombard, but was unsure how her voice would record in a day of primitive equipment. Johnson isn’t a particularly charismatic actress, and her diction is a bit stodgy to modern ears. Once, “After a series of harsh lectures to Kay Johnson, who had flubbed her lines, the greatly distressed actress played a key scene with Bickford with unusual fire. Cecil took from his pocket two twenty dollar gold pieces and handed one to each of his stars, saying impressively, ‘Those are DeMille medals. They are only awarded for what I consider magnificent performances.” (Edwards). He had employed this benevolent dictator approach with his actors since his earliest silent days. Johnson did not make many films in her relatively brief screen career (another is American Madness). Or, as Mitchell Leisen put it, “Kay was a very talented lady from Broadway, and a lot of fun to work with, but she didn’t quite set the screen on fire.” (Chierichetti). She is, however, the mother of actor James Cromwell, best known as the farmer in Babe. This is one of the most remarkable facts ever related by Turner Classic Movies guru Robert Osbourne.

Kay makes up her mind

Recording in the early sound days was a challenge. DeMille was irritated by the shooting script, with the all-important dialogue highlighted in red. Frustrated by a camera (and cameraman) immobilized in a huge soundproof box, DeMille complained, “You could not pan the camera. You could not move the camera. You rehearsed the first act of a play, because everybody rushed to New York and bought plays…and then you turned the camera all the way through the first act. Everything that the silent screen had done to bring the entertainment and the beauty…of action, was gone.” (Eyman). DeMille demanded that the camera be taken out of the box, to the outrage of the all-powerful sound engineer. DeMille got a propman to wrap the camera in enough blankets to muffle the sound of the grinding gears during filming. Douglas Shearer, MGM’s resident sound expert, quickly fabricated a much smaller camera box that would enclose just the noisy part of the mechanism, and the cinema began to regain its freedom.

“Reading from up to down, we see Kay Johnson and Julia Faye demonstrating the new ‘aero wheels’ the very latest thing in our best sporting circles. They are used in human hoop races, if you can stand it. The girls are in Cecil DeMille’s ‘Dynamite.'”

Leisen recalled, “Working with that crude sound equipment was murder. There was no way you could dub in any sounds later, all the sound effects had to be recorded during the take. The cave-in in the coal mine was tremendously difficult to rig up. Nothing could touch the mikes or they’d go out and we wouldn’t have any sound. I set it all up so that the mikes were concealed and papier mache rocks would fall, and sound effects men banged things next to the mikes to make more noise. I made vents and put huge pieces of cardboard covered with coal dust behind them and on cue, the propman was supposed to turn on a fan onto the dust and blow it in so it would look like the dust was rising from the impact of the boulders on the ground. I gave the cue and the rocks crashed, but when I cued the propman, he turned his fan in the wrong direction and the dust blew right into C. B.’s face instead of onto the set.” Take two went perfectly and then DeMille promptly fired the propman who wasted the first shot. (Edwards).

Mitchell Leisen (on the set of The Godless Girl, 1928) “De Mille art director and the keyboard by which he controlled the various fire effects.”

Early talkies are fascinating as they reinvent the motion picture, just as the pioneers had done during the dawn of the movies. Johnson and Bickford starred in a William C. de Mille drama, The Passion Flower in 1930. It is a plodding weeper, and Johnson and Bickford are awful. Cecil clearly had a magic touch with actors, as well as mise en scene. The studio provided gorgeous sets and costumes, state of the art special effects and Jeanie Macpherson provided the thrills of wildly careening melodrama. I love the fluffed lines, the almost-swearing (the Code had not yet spelled out taboo language) the live music, even the unconvincing mine collapse sound effects. Is this any different from today’s films, where you know the actors are really reacting to a blue screen, not dinosaurs or alien worlds? Suspend disbelief, and enjoy the furs, roadsters, cocktails, boudoirs and the clash of a ritzy decadent and a blue collar Tarzan in Dynamite.

C.B. demonstrates how to repel an assault.


(Sources include The DeMilles, An American Family by Anne Edwards, Mitchell Leisen and Hollywood Costume Design, by David Chierichetti, Screen Deco by Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers, The Films of Cecil B. De Mille by Gene Ringgold and DeWitt Bodeen, Speed of Sound by Scott Eyman, Script Girls by Lizzie Francke, My Secret Mother, Lorna Moon by Richard de Mille, Without Lying Down by Cari Beauchamp, The Movies by Richard Griffith and “Adrian” by Robert Riley in American Fashion. Glamour portrait of Julia Faye and aero wheel race from the June, 1929 Photoplay magazine, Faye autograph and music from Moviediva’s collection, coal dusted Johnson and Bickford from DeMille: The Man and His Pictures by Gabe Essoe and Raymond Lee, bathroom photo from The Movies, Leisen from the July, 1928 Photoplay magazine, other photos from Ringgold and Bodeen.