Tumbling, tumbling, the man falls further and further into destitution and failure. It started with a game of cards: win a few hands, get enough money to buy the wife that black dress she’d always wanted. But the cards went sour and soon a pen scratched figures off the boss’ accounts. How could he ever miss a few bucks? But sins pile on sins and soon a graft investigation forces John Tremble on the run with a new identity and a police warrant for his own murder. By film’s end John will be electrocuted by an uncaring system. In his hand, a flower from the wife who doesn’t remember him, now happily re-married to the state’s governor.
One could be excused for assuming that such a dour tale of doomed, inescapable fate came courtesy of the German Expressionists—Robert Wiene or Fritz Lang, perhaps. But no, 1918’s The Whispering Chorus was the brainchild of the man associated worldwide with popcorn spectacle, historical epics, and melodramatic moralizing: none other than Cecil B. DeMille.
The Whispering Chorus is an odd film for early twentieth century Hollywood cinema; even more so considering it was made by a non-émigré; even more so by the fact that it was made by DeMille, the home-grown ringmaster of unapologetic Americana and proto-blockbusters. Wise cineastes know that contrary to his lasting public persona, DeMille was more than just a skilled creator of epics. In fact, he spent much of the late 1910s and 1920s helming modern comedies and dramas about rich couples falling into, out of, or into-and-out-of-and-back-into love like Don’t Change Your Husband (1919) and Why Change Your Wife? (1920). But The Whispering Chorus is not a comedy or a simple drama. It doesn’t frame its story with grandiose flashbacks to ancient times like Manslaughter (1922) or The Ten Commandments (1923). There is no promise of religious or divine redemption: John’s only means of righting his wrongs is in self-sacrifice to the electric chair for his own murder.
DeMille will probably never get the proper credit he deserves as a pioneer of cinematic techniques (see the chiaroscuro lighting in The Cheat  that mesmerized French audiences and filmmakers) and narrative language. But in The Whispering Chorus, audiences can witness first-hand DeMille’s experimental touch. His predominate technique here is superimposing heads that talk, warn, and misguide John—the eponymous whispering chorus.
It’s an odd method of externalizing his internal, psychological struggles. And while it doesn’t exactly work in and of itself, it compliments the film’s underlying spiritual element best personified by John’s mother who periodically experiences psychic visions of his plight. DeMille, a fervent believer in reincarnation despite his Christian faith, is therefore able to inject his beliefs concerning the malleability of souls and spirits without compromising the story’s integrity.
Though the cinematography may not match the same stylistic extremes of German Expressionism, the fatalism, dread, and paranoia experienced by the protagonist seem custom-designed for a Europe rebuilding after the holocaust of World War One. The Whispering Chorus may not be an essential piece of DeMille’s filmography, but it is a fascinating one.