Cecil Blount DeMille (August 12, 1881 – January 21, 1959)
✪ Cecil Blount DeMille was an American film director, producer and actor. He is acknowledged as a founding father of American Cinema and the most commercially successful producer-director in film history. His films are distinguished by their epic scale and by his cinematic showmanship. Between 1914 and 1958, he made 70 feature length films, both silent and sound including social dramas, comedies, Westerns, farces, morality plays, and historical pageants.
Cecil Blount DeMille was born on August 12, 1881, in a boarding house on Main Street in Ashfield, Massachusetts where his parents had been vacationing for the summer. DeMille was named after his grandmothers Cecelia Wolff and Margarete Blount. He was the second of three children of Henry Churchill de Mille (September 4, 1853 – February 10, 1893) and his wife Matilda Beatrice deMille (née Samuel; January 30, 1853 – October 8, 1923), known as Beatrice. On September 1, 1881, the family returned with the newborn DeMille to their flat in New York.
DeMille believed his first creative influences to be his parents. DeMille’s parents met as members of a music and literary society in New York. Cecil B. DeMille’s mother, Beatrice was a literary agent and scriptwriter. Cecil’s father, Henry de Mille, whose ancestors were of English and Dutch-Belgian descent, was a North Carolina-born dramatist, actor, and lay reader in the Episcopal Church. DeMille’s father was also an English teacher at Columbia College (now Columbia University) where he worked as a playwright, administrator, and faculty member during the early years of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which was established in New York City in 1884.
DeMille was a brave and confident child. He gained his love of theater while watching his father rehearse his plays. As a child, DeMille created an alter-ego, Champion Driver, a Robin Hood-like character; evidence of his creativity and imagination. John Philip Sousa was a close friend of the family and DeMille recalled throwing mud balls in the air so his neighbor Annie Oakley could practice her shooting skills. DeMille’s parents also operated a private school in town and attended Christ Episcopal Church. DeMille recalled that this church was the place where he first visualized the story of his 1923 version of The Ten Commandments.
On January 8, 1893, at age 40, Henry de Mille died suddenly from typhoid fever, leaving Beatrice alone with their three children. At age 15, DeMille’s mother sent him to Pennsylvania Military College (now Widener University) in Chester, Pennsylvania. He fled the school to join the Spanish–American War, but failed to meet the minimum age requirement. DeMille attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (tuition-free due to his father’s service to the Academy) and graduated in 1900.
In 1900, Cecil B. DeMille began his career as a stage actor in the theatrical company of Charles Frohman. He debuted as an actor on February 21, 1900, in the play Hearts Are Trumps at New York’s Garden Theater. On August 16, 1902 at the age of twenty-one, Cecil married Constance Adams. At the tiime of their marriage, Adams was 29 years old and eight years older than DeMille. They originally met in a theater in Washington D.C. while they were acting together in Hearts Are Trumps.
According to DeMille, Adams was too “pure” for his liking & they were sexually incompatible. However, Adams did allow DeMille to have several long term mistresses during their marriage as an outlet, while continuing to maintain the outward appearance of a faithful marriage to the public. Despite his reputation for extramarital affairs, DeMille did not like to have affairs with his stars, as he believed it would cause him to lose control over them as a director. He related a story that he maintained his self-control when Gloria Swanson sat on his lap, refusing to touch her.
DeMille was often poor and struggled to find work. Consequently, his mother hired him for her agency The DeMille Play Company and taught him how to be an agent and a playwright. DeMille performed on stage with actors whom he would later go on to direct in his films: Charlotte Walker, Mary Pickford, and Pedro de Cordoba. DeMille also produced and directed his own plays.
However, changes taking place in the theater industry at that time rendered many of DeMille’s plays obsolete before they could be produced and true theatrical success always eluded him. Subsequently, he produced many flops & eventually lost interest in working in theatre. DeMille’s passion for film was ignited when he watched the 1912 French film Les Amours de la reine Élisabeth.
Desiring a change of scene, Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse Lasky, Sam Goldfish (later Samuel Goldwyn), and a group of East Coast businessmen created the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company in 1913 of which DeMille became the director-general. Lasky and DeMille were said to have sketched out the organization of the company on the back of a restaurant menu.
On December 12, 1913, DeMille, his cast and crew boarded a Southern Pacific train bound for Flagstaff via New Orleans. His tentative plan was to shoot a film in Arizona, but he felt that Arizona did not typify the Western look they were searching for. They also learned that other filmmakers were successfully shooting in Los Angeles, even in winter. He was eventually introduced to Oscar Apfel, a stage director who had worked as a director for the Edison Company
DeMille’s filmmaking process always began with extensive research. Next, he would work with writers to develop the story he envisioned. Next, he would help writers construct a script. Finally, he would leave the script with artists and allow them to create artistic depictions and renderings of each scene. Plot and dialogue were not a strong point of DeMille’s films. Consequently, he focused his efforts on his films’ visuals. He worked with visual technicians, editors, art directors, costume designers, cinematographers, and set carpenters in order to perfect all the visual aspects of his films.
DeMille rarely gave personal direction to actors. He preferred instead to “office-direct” where he would work with actors in his office, going over characters and reading through scripts. DeMille was particularly adept at directing and managing large crowds in his films. DeMille could take charge to direct “thousands of extras,” and many of his most well known pictures include spectacular set pieces.
DeMille was very interested in art. His favorite artist was Gustave Doré. & DeMille based some of his most well-known scenes on the work of Doré. DeMille was the first director to connect art to filmmaking. He was the one credited with creating the title of “art director” on the film set.
DeMille often edited in a manner that favored psychological space rather than physical space through his cuts. In this way, the characters’ thoughts and desires are the visual focus rather than the circumstances regarding the physical scene.
DeMille would scream, yell, or flatter; whatever it took to achieve the perfection he required in his films. DeMille was painstakingly attentive to details on set and was as critical of himself as he was of his actors & crew.
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DeMille rented a barn to function as their film studio & began filming for three weeks on December 29, 1913. Apfel filmed most of The Squaw Man due to DeMille’s inexperience; however, DeMille was a quick study and particularly adept at impromptu screenwriting as necessary. His first film ran sixty minutes; as long as a short play. The Squaw Man (1914), co-directed by Oscar Apfel, was a sensation and established the Lasky Company. This was also the very first feature-length film ever made in Hollywood. The film grossed over ten times its budget after its New York premiere in February 1914. The Squaw Man was a complete success and led to the eventual founding of Paramount Pictures and establishing Hollywood as the “film capital of the world.”
DeMille’s most successful silent film was The Cheat. DeMille’s direction of the film was widely acclaimed. In 1916, exhausted from three years of nonstop filmmaking, DeMille purchased land in the Angeles National Forest for a ranch which would later become his getaway. He called this place, “Paradise” & declared it a wildlife sanctuary.
During World War I, the Famous Players-Lasky organized a military company underneath the National Guard called the Home Guard made up of film studio employees with DeMille as captain. Eventually, the Guard was enlarged to a battalion and recruited soldiers from other film studios. They took time off weekly from film production to practice military drills.
As the film medium started to become more sophisticated, subsequent films of the Lasky Company were often criticized for primitive and unrealistic set design. Throughout his career, DeMille would frequently remake his own films. In his first instance, in 1917, he remade The Squaw Man (1918), only waiting four years from the 1914 original. Despite its quick turnaround, the film was fairly successful. However, DeMille’s second remake at MGM in 1931 would be a failure.
After five years and thirty hit films, DeMille became the American film industry’s most successful director. In 1923, DeMille released a modern melodrama The Ten Commandments which was a significant change from his previous stint of irreligious films. The film was the most expensive ever produced at Paramount on a large budget of $600,000, This concerned the executives at Paramount; however, the film turned out to be the studio’s highest-grossing film & it held that Paramount record for twenty-five years until DeMille broke the record again himself. DeMille left Paramount in 1924 despite having helped establish it.
The immense popularity of DeMille’s silent films enabled him to branch out into other areas. The Roaring Twenties were the boom years and DeMille took full advantage, opening the Mercury Aviation Company, one of America’s first commercial airlines. He also became a real estate speculator, an underwriter of political campaigns, and the vice president of Bank of America. He was additionally vice president of the Commercial National Trust and Savings Bank in Los Angeles where he approved loans for other filmmakers. In 1916, DeMille purchased a mansion in Hollywood.
When “talking pictures” were invented in 1928, Cecil B. DeMille made a successful transition, offering his own innovations to the painful process. He devised a microphone boom and a soundproof camera blimp. He also popularized industry use of the camera crane. His first three sound films were produced at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Cecil B. DeMille was outspoken about his strong Episcopalian integrity but his private life included mistresses and adultery. DeMille was a conservative Republican activist and became more conservative as he aged. He was also known as anti-union and worked to prevent the unionization of film production studios.
He supported Herbert Hoover and in 1928 made his largest campaign donation to Hoover. DeMille also liked Franklin D. Roosevelt. DeMille lent Roosevelt a car for his campaign for the 1932 United States presidential election and voted for him. However, he would never again vote for a Democratic candidate in another presidential election.
From June 1, 1936, until January 22, 1945, Cecil B. DeMille hosted and directed Lux Radio Theater, a weekly digest of current feature films broadcast on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) from 1935 to 1954. The Lux Radio Show was one of the most popular weekly shows in the history of radio. While DeMille was host, the show had forty million weekly listeners, gaining DeMille an annual salary of $100,000.
In 1949, DeMille’s film, Samson and Delilah became Paramount’s highest-grossing film up to that time. A Biblical epic with sex, it was a characteristically DeMille film. In 1952, DeMille repeated his box office success when The Greatest Show on Earth became Paramount’s highest-grossing film up to that point. Furthermore, The Greatest Show on Earth won the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Academy Award for Best Story.
In 1952, DeMille sought approval for a lavish remake of his 1923 silent film The Ten Commandments. When he went before the Paramount board of directors, the members rejected his proposal, even though his last two films, Samson and Delilah and The Greatest Show on Earth, had been record-breaking hits. However, Adolph Zukor convinced the board to change their minds on the grounds of morality. DeMille did not have an exact budget proposal for the project and it promised to be the most costly in U.S. film history. Still, the members unanimously approved it. The Ten Commandments, released in 1956, was DeMille’s final film. It was the longest (3 hours, 39 minutes) and most expensive ($13 million) film in Paramount history.
Production of The Ten Commandments began in October 1954. The Exodus scene was filmed on-site in Egypt with the use of four Technicolor-VistaVision camera filming 12,000 people. They continued filming in 1955 in Paris and Hollywood on 30 different sound stages. They were even required to expand to RKO sound studios for filming. Post-production lasted a year and the film premiered in Salt Lake City. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, it grossed over $80 million, which surpassed the gross of The Greatest Show on Earth and every other film in history, except for Gone with the Wind. As a unique practice at the time, DeMille offered ten percent of his profit to the crew.
DeMille made stars of many unknown actors: Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels, Rod La Rocque, William Boyd, Claudette Colbert, and Charlton Heston.
On November 7, 1954, while in Egypt filming the Exodus sequence for The Ten Commandments, DeMille (who was seventy-three) climbed a 107-foot (33 m) ladder to the top of the massive Per Rameses set and suffered a serious heart attack. Despite the urging of his associate producer, DeMille wanted to return to the set right away. Although DeMille completed the film, his health was diminished by several more heart attacks. His daughter Cecilia took over as director as DeMille sat behind the camera with Loyal Griggs as the cinematographer. The Ten Commandments would be his last film.
Cecil B. DeMille suffered a series of heart attacks from June 1958 to January 1959,and died on January 21, 1959, following a final attack. When he died, DeMille was also planning new film projects about the space race as well as another biblical epic about the Book of Revelation. DeMille’s autobiography was mostly completed by the time DeMille died and was published in November 1959.
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