The "New Woman" in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Cheat"

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Cecil B. DeMille is regarded by many to be the founder of Hollywood, given that his 1914 film, The Squaw Man, was the first important full-length motion picture made in Hollywood. As Joel W. Finler considers, the film "accelerated the trend toward establishing California as the new home of movie-making" . However, it is in his depiction of the `new woman' that the director is both celebrated and derided. In many of his films, DeMille illustrates the rise of consumer culture that had begun in the latter half of the nineteenth century. During its escalation, goods took on a symbolic life while middle-class women attained the characteristics of commodities as they moved into the public sphere. Their movement can be put down to their "refusal to stay at home or even remain in [the] local high street" which "threatened her own reputation and her family's social position" and "excited those who could profit from, control, or at the very least direct her movements" . This is brought out most notably in The Cheat, where the female protagonist disrupts the established order, the traditional notion of womanhood being inverted. Robert Birchard considers that "Cecil B. DeMille's early critical reputation is based almost entirely on The Cheat [being] the only one of DeMille's early films generally available for reappraisal" . This may be down to his fearless treatment of the "lurid" subject matter which offers up "blatant racism" but perhaps more so due to his subtle analysis of the new female role in society. This analysis is brought out in the main through his use of revolutionary lighting techniques and the interrelationship of elements of mise-en-scène, significantly setting and use of space. Sumiko Higashi contends th... ... middle of paper ... ...h clashes with the darkness of the background and indeed Tori's bronzed, Asian skin. DeMille's classic has become a much loved treasure of early American cinema because of its treatment of the daring subject matter. Rather than being condemnatory towards the `new woman', the film exposes the possible dangers that could befall such a character. Janet Staiger sums up the film accurately when she considers that, Edith may have nearly been a bad woman...she exemplifies the changing images of a good woman's behaviour She is to follow her own intuitions, becoming an intelligent, independent, mildly aggressive, and appropriately moderate desiring woman. Considered in this light, The Cheat's provision of a transformational arc for Edith supplies viewers with a reified view of the `new woman', on a voyage of mere discovery rather than reckless social transition.

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