BERT - the autobiography of Egbert Pettey

selection from Chapter 7: Cecil B. DeMille's first TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923)

I started working on The Ten Commandments two years before we ever put a camera on the picture. There was much research to be done, and Mr. DeMille hired Eastern experts who advised on technical matters including the costumes. They brought in replicas of Biblical costumes, various properties, and scores of artifacts. Exquisite things were collected in preparation for the filming. Mr. DeMille spared no expense. One woman who searched for properties in the Holy Land, sent back a casket encrusted with turquoise about fifteen inches long, nine inches wide, and four inches deep. I admired it greatly, and when the picture was over Mr. DeMille gave it to me. Unfortunately, it was destroyed years later with other precious things in a fire in New York City.

It was fascinating challenging work being involved with The Ten Commandments or any of the other DeMille films. As a costume designer, it meant I had to read and assimilate the script, visualize the characters, and design proper costumes. Since silent movie had to rely exclusively on visuals to tell the story, costumes were more important then than today. The costumes I created for Mr. DeMille ran the full gamut from exotic creations with fancy headdresses to the tattered clothes of the shipwrecked and the poor.

Whatever the task, my approach was similar. I'd do the drawings or had one of the draftsmen do them. Once a suitable sketch was obtained, I'd take it to the front office, and show it to Mr. DeMille for his approval. That's how it went when I was assigned to work on a specific movie. More often than not, I was hardly aware of the title of the film I was working on. I acted as a troubleshooter and spent most of my time modifying or correcting all sorts of costumes for any number of film projects.

One day while I was working on some ordinary Biblical costumes for The Ten Commandments, Jeannie came by my studio and announced:
"The boss wants to see you."

I didn't need a second invitation. When I walked into Mr. DeMille's office, he said:
"Pete, I'll need a high priest's costume. Do you have any ideas?"
"No, not offhand, but I'll research it, and get back to you."
I went back to my studio, and did just that. When I got a few ideas together, I returned to Mr. DeMille's office, and explained what I had in mind.
"All right. Draw it up. I want to see it."

So I drafted the plan and thought:
"I'll do him one better. I'll have it made up."
I turned the drawing over to my costume mistress who instructed the dressmakers how it should be done. The finished costume, made of the finest hand loomed white wool with an elaborate jewel encrusted black embroidered front, turned out beautifully. A studio model was called in and I fitted the costume. After wrapping a turban round his head, I marched him down to Mr. DeMille's office.

As we entered, I said triumphantly:
"Sir, this is an authentic high priest's costume."
Mr. DeMille took a long, critical look and started shooting a string of questions at me:
"What about that thing on the front of it? Is that authentic?"
"Yes, those are the jewels acquired by the priesthood.

The discussion went on and on. Some things, he liked. Some things, he didn't like. I stood my ground:
"We can't change it. That's the way it should be."
We talked some more. So, after he had exhausted all objections, he said: "Pete, I love it. I think it's a very good costume. Give me twelve of them."

I protested:
"Mr. DeMille, you can't have twelve high priests anymore than you could have twelve popes. There's only one."

"I don't care. It's a beautiful costume, and were going to have twelve."

There was no use arguing with DeMille once he had made up his mind. So if you ever get a chance to see the original The Ten Commandments, look for the march of the twelve high priests.

After those costume were decided on, I turned my attention to creating pharaoh's robe to be worn by Charles De Roche. This was by far the most magnificent garment created for this epic film. The large oval shaped robe measured a full ten yards in length. The basic design was of a sun with rays: from a circular back piece, attached around the shoulders, emanated rays of alternating bands of black velvet and gold lamee. These bands two or three inches wide at the shoulder, progressively widened to the full width of the fabric at the very end of the train. The robe was double faced in reverse with the black velvet stitched to an underside of gold lamee and the gold lamee stitched to an underside of black velvet.

Everything was going fine during the shooting of the Exodus until Charlie De Roche, who was playing Rameses, got into his chariot and tried to race across Muroc Dry Lake while wearing the magnificent robe I had created. When he flicked his reigns and the team of horses galloped off, the wind caught in the folds of his robe--thirty feet of heavy double-faced fabric--and pulled him ass-over-tea-kettle out of the chariot which continued on it's way without him.

You never heard such language. This pharaoh had been stopped dead in his tracks in front of the entire crew. I'm sure he swore in three or four languages. I never saw a more angry Frenchman in all my life than Charles De Roche after he hit the ground. Fortunately, the loose sand of the Mojave Desert cushioned his fall and he wasn't hurt in the incident. But, was he ever mad and did I ever get balled out.

I admit, it was a little assinine not to have realized that a man in a chariot pulled by four fast-paced horses, shouldn't be wearing a robe dragging twenty feet on the ground behind him. It was partly my fault for not having foreseen the predicament I put him in. He had good reason to be angry. My imagination had gotten the best of me. We wanted to make an epic movie so I had spent on this garment alone three to four thousand dollars which was an enormous sum in those days. The upshot of it all was that the robe was cut back to about twelve feet and the retake came out satisfactorily.

I got word around eleven o'clock one evening while still on location in the dessert that Mr. DeMille wanted two-hundred children's costumes for a nine o'clock shooting on the following morning. I had taken four of my sewing machines and a truckload of fabric for just such an eventuality. At midnight, I gathered my staff, and the sewing machines started humming. I suppose Mr. DeMille thought I couldn't do it, but with the help of the dedicated sewing women; it got done on time. That one time he wrote me a thank you note and I framed it.

Theodore Roberts played Moses. He was an irascible, difficult old man who knew what he wanted, and he would have it or else. One day, he came to my studio with his costume sandals and said to me:
"These sandals are God damned uncomfortable. I can't wear them."

I told Roberts:
"I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do because if I change their appearance they'll be all wrong for the costume."

He insisted:
"I don't give a damn about the costume. I want my feet comfortable, and I'm going to have it. Do you want to do this or not? If you don't, I'll go to Mr. DeMille."

I objected:
"If I do it for you, Mr. Roberts, I'll get the blame for it.

He persisted:
"You won't get blamed for anything, I will."
"What you want is all wrong."

He wanted me to put a couple of lifts on his heels to throw his body forward. It was a good idea except for the fact that Moses never in his life would have worn sandals with heels. We had quite a tussle over the matter. Mr. DeMille was very unhappy about it, but sent me word to pacify the old actor. I was unhappy because Mr. DeMille was unhappy. And Theodore Roberts was unhappy because of the sandals I had designed. Since Roberts was an important actor, it was part of my job to put up with whatever he wanted. Consequently, the lifts he so ardently wanted were added to his sandals. It took a few days to change them just the way he wanted, but it got done to his eventual satisfaction.

He could be so difficult. Everything was wrong with his costume at any and all times. He may have been a good actor, but he was a mean old man who took it out on everyone around him.

Mr. DeMille was a wonderful man. He never got his rewards until he was almost an old man. People in Hollywood were envious. They were jealous. Don't tell me that his first Ten Commandments weren't a milestone in the development of the motion picture. It was, I don't care what anybody says. Yet, he was never honored for it. But, some fly-by-night poverty picture would be awarded the prize as best of its kind when it couldn't compare with Mr. DeMille's poorest picture. They were afraid of DeMille. He took nothing from anyone. He was my friend, thank God. I was very proud of that friendship. I had nothing but admiration for that gentleman. Nonetheless, he acquired a very bad reputation. People said the cruelest things about him that simply weren't true.

For instance, I was in the main office once when Jeannie MacPherson came in and said: "A gentleman out here wants to see you Mr. DeMille."
He had him sent in. In those days; you could get to Mr. DeMille. It wasn't a matter of going through half a dozen secretaries, and half a dozen doors. You went into his office, and talked to him. So this chap came in, and he introduced himself. He told Mr. DeMille that he wanted to work as a stunt man, and explained what he had done.

So Mr. DeMille said: "Your credentials seem all right from what you've told me. You've done this and that."
"That's right, Sir. I have."
"I can use you. Are you at liberty now?"
"Yes, I'm looking for work."
"Why don't you report for work tomorrow morning."
"Well, can you give me a couple of days?"
"Very well, be here Thursday morning. Try being here at eight."
"Yes, Sir. I'll be here." And he was.

A few weeks later, we were out on location in the desert shooting The Ten Commandments when at one point in the shooting Mr. DeMille realized he needed a special effect, and said:
"That's where I can use our new man."
So he called him over, and explained what he wanted him to do.

The chap hesitated, and said: "I don't know if I can do that?

"Mr. DeMille was visibly angry, and shot back: "You told me in my office you could. That you had experience in just this sort of thing."

"Well, I...."

DeMille interrupted: "In other words, you lied to me, didn't you? Am I paying you three hundred fifty dollars a week to be lied to?"

And with that DeMille opened up. He called him everything he could lay his tongue to, and there wasn't one flattering thing said.

The man had no experience. Mr. DeMille had taken him at his word that he had done the things he said he had done. He had lied to DeMille to get on the payroll. But, the sad part of this story is that I know this disreputable character went all over town saying that DeMille was a shit ass. Do you understand how DeMille got his bad reputation? He had integrity, and demanded it of the people around him.

I never found anything about Mr. DeMille I couldn't admire. He was a great employer. He never asked me to do anything he thought I couldn't do. And in this business this isn't always so. If he asked me to do something I didn't know how to do, I worked on it until I did. My ambition wasn't to become a famous actor. I simply wanted to do a job, but do it well. I was fascinated with pictures from the technical standpoint. I wanted to do my part to make the best pictures possible. Other people didn't necessarily feel that way. Many just wanted the glamour of saying that they worked in the movies. That's so asinine. I've no patience with those people. We were doing a job, and we were making history. We did make movie history. People with a sense of history look back on those old pictures and acknowledge our contribution.

Although Mr. DeMille would remake The Ten Commandments in 1956, this second and more technically advanced film lacked one important element found in the original The Ten Commandments ­ the hundred dedicated Jewish refugees who appeared as extras. News spread of a ship load of Jewish refugees out on the high seas that no country wanted to accept as we were preparing to make the film. When DeMille heard that the ship was anchored off the coast of California, he decided to sponsor all the immigrants on board by offering them jobs as movie extras in The Ten Commandments .

They gladly accepted his offer and to accommodate their strict Orthodox Jewish customs, he built a separate Kosher commissary. It was part of the gigantic tent city that he had set up in the dessert. Each day before DeMille began shouting the film, these new immigrants would gather in front of their tents with their rabbis and pray. Participating in the picture wasn't work to them, it was a holy privilege. They were portraying the Biblical characters of their own People. Because their most recent experience, could anyone else have been better suited to understand the significance of the Exodus? There's a truth etched in the faces you see on the screen that's impossible to duplicate. If you ever see the film look for it.

BERT-- the autobiography of Egbert Pettey, from Chapter 7 "Hollywood." No part of this text may be reproduced without prior written permission. 1995 © by Lionel A. Biron. All Rights Reserved.

To read about
Bert's early days in North Dakota where he met the leading actors on the road at the turn of the century, click chapter 2: "Jamestown, ND: The Opera House"