“Union Pacific” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, March 22, 2014 in the Durwood Film Vault of the Kansas City Central Library, 14W. 10th St. Admission is free. It’s part of the year-long film series Hollywood’s Greatest Year, featuring movies released in 1939.
Cecile 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.