Program Notes: Union Pacific (1939)
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Cecil B. DeMille didn’t do anything halfway.
To three generations of Americans his name was synonymous with big-screen epics, from his fabulously lurid depiction of the Roman games in Sign of the Cross (1932) to his crowning glory, The Ten Commandments (1956).
And his taste for excess didn’t end when his movies were completed. DeMille was a master publicist who, like a very few other directors of his day (D.W. Griffith and Alfred Hitchcock, come to mind), was considered as important a selling point as the plots and stars of his productions.
Consider the hoopla orchestrated for the premiere of his 1939 film Union Pacific, a big Western about the race to complete the first trans-continental railroad.
DeMille and his Paramount team centered the events not in Hollywood but in Omaha, Nebraska, the point from which the Union Pacific railroad began laying tracks westward in the years after the Civil War.
The film company unveiled the movie simultaneously at three different Omaha theaters on April 28, 1939, within days of the 70th anniversary of the driving of real golden spike which joined the rails of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific in Utah in 1869.
It was all part of a four-day event called the Golden Spike Days Celebration. A quarter of a million visitors flooded Omaha for the various activities. The town’s population doubled overnight; the National Guard was called out to maintain order.
A special train brought DeMille and stars Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea from Hollywood. It was a three-day trip with stops planned several times each day to allow the stars to address the gathered locals.
The celebration in Omaha began when President Franklin Roosevelt pushed a telegraph key at the White House, thus opening the city’s civic auditorium. There were parades, radio broadcasts, banquets.
It was described as the biggest movie premiere in history.
Did Union Pacific live up to the hype?
In its day, yes. Audiences loved the DeMille touch.
The problem for modern viewers is that DeMille was pitching his historic epics to a fairly unsophisticated mass audience.
This was the era before television, and DeMille movies were the sort that even attracted audiences that didn’t watch that many films. He saw himself not just as a master showman, but as an educator.
As a result DeMille’s films tended to be dramatically simplistic (don’t go looking for psychological realism). His actors, even the good ones, found themselves locked into a stuffy, declamatory style (the result of the pompous writing the director embraced).
But after a DeMille flick, audiences felt they had been both entertained and informed – which is rather amusing given the liberties DeMille’s melodramas took with historic accuracy.
DeMille also embraced a piety and moralistic approach that rubbed many observers the wrong way. He was called “a sanctimonious manipulator” by critic Pauline Kael, one who satisfied “the voyeuristic needs of the God-abiding by showing them what they were missing by being good, and then soothed them by showing them the terrible punishments they escaped by being good.”
What makes this particularly ironic is that many of DeMille’s films from the late ‘20s and early ‘30s were considered risqué, and often cited for the sorts of excesses that led to the implementation of the Hollywood Production Code which ushered in nearly 30 years of industry-mandated censorship.
But with the arrival of sound, DeMille cleaned up his act and polished his halo, proving his heavenly credentials with films like The Crusades, Samson and Delilah and, of course, The Ten Commandments. And of course he made Westerns throughout his career. In addition to Union Pacific there was The Squaw Man, The Plainsman, and North West Mounted Police.
While The Ten Commandments was his biggest hit, his most honored film was the circus melodrama The Greatest Show on Earth, which won the Oscar for best picture of 1952. I’ve tried to watch it on numerous occasions, but can never get through it all.
Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Westerns”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- March 1: Dodge City (1939) Not Rated
- March 8: Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) Not Rated
- March 15: Jesse James (1939) Not Rated
- March 22: Union Pacific (1939) Not Rated
- March 29: Destry Rides Again (1939) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.