DeMille, Cecil B.
DeMille, Cecil B.
Motion Picture Producer
Cecil B. DeMille, along with Jesse L. Lasky and Samuel Goldwyn, made Hollywood into the world's movie-making capital. DeMille was the groundbreaking producer and director who is credited with many technologies and practices every filmmaker today takes for granted. Out of a barn in the quiet Los Angeles suburb of Hollywood in 1913, the future of movies began when DeMille made his first movie, "The Squaw Man." His epic dramas include two versions, silent and sound, of "The Ten Commandments," as well as "Samson and Delilah" and "The Greatest Show on Earth." These films gave him his place in Hollywood history as one of the most flamboyant directors of all time.
Cecil Blount DeMille was born on August 12, 1881 in Ashfield, Massachusetts when his parents were on theatre tour, performing one of their own plays. His parents are Henry C. and Mathilde (Samuel) DeMille. The DeMille family was of Dutch ancestry and had been in America since 1658. Mathilde was born in England. The DeMilles were both employed as teachers at John Lockwood's Academy in Brooklyn, New York, at the time of Cecil's birth. Henry DeMille had intended to become an Episcopalian minister. However, as DeMille told in a story about his parents shortly before his death " . . . . My father studied to be an Episcopalian minister—then he met my mother who was a teacher of English at Lockwood's Academy. She told him he would have a much larger congregation in the theatre than he would in the pulpit. In the pulpit he would have a few thousand people, and in the theatre he would have hundreds of thousands. He accepted her advice and became a playwright, and a good one."
Cecil had one older brother, William, and a younger sister, Agnes, who died as a baby. Much of DeMille's boyhood was spent at homes in New Jersey. The first home was in Echo Lake. The second was built by DeMille's father in Pompton Lake in 1892. Henry DeMille spent every evening reading to his sons from the Bible. He would read one story from the Old Testament and one story from the New. This early acquaintance with the drama of the Bible affected DeMille throughout his life and his work.
DeMille's father died suddenly from typhus in 1893. Only two months later, Mrs. DeMille opened the Henry C. DeMille School in their home. She raised her sons on her own, adapting to the kindly but stern standard her husband had begun with them. When he was 15, DeMille entered the Pennsylvania Military College in Chester, Pennsylvania. He enjoyed this harsh education, complete with early morning drills, cold baths, and a strict religious tone.
At the beginning of the Spanish-American War, DeMille tried to run off and volunteer, but he was too young to be accepted. So instead of going to Spain, he began studying for a career in acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. He made his acting debut in 1901. On August 16, 1902, DeMille married Constance Adams, an actress with whom he was touring. They had four children: Cecilia, Katherine, John Blount, and Richard. DeMille, even at the peak of his Hollywood career, preferred quiet family evenings at home to glamorous parties.
When DeMille was almost 30 years-old, in 1911, he gave up acting. He joined his mother and launched a theatrical agency. With that crucial move, DeMille's personal life and career would barely be separated again. While filming "The Ten Commandments" in 1956, DeMille suffered his first heart attack. That one did not slow him down for long, but a second heart attack that he suffered in his Hollywood home proved fatal. DeMille died on January 21, 1959.
DeMille was working as general manager of his mother's theatrical agency when he met Jesse L. Lasky and Lasky's brother-in-law, Samuel Goldfish, who later changed his name to Goldwyn. The three men formed a partnership in 1912, known as the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co., with $20,000 in capital. After only one day of learning the basics in the Thomas Edison studios in New York, DeMille headed west to shoot his first movie. "Squaw Man" had been a successful Broadway play, a melodrama set in Wyoming. He intended to shoot the picture in Flagstaff, Arizona. When the train stopped there, however, it was bleak and rainy, so he decided to stay on the train all the way to Los Angeles. The sunny skies were perfect for lighting. The long season without rain was ideal for working outside, even when shooting indoor scenes. DeMille set up his first studio in a barn at the corner of Vine and Selma. The studio later moved to Marathon Street. It eventually evolved into Paramount Studios, and remained at that location.
DeMille was not the first producer to work in Hollywood. Yet the fact that he decided to stay there and continue to create movies made all the difference to the future of movies. His first movie had a budget of $15,000. It ended up earning a remarkable $225,000. With that success, he bought out his partners Lasky and Goldwyn. After two more successful DeMille films, Lasky moved his entire operation to California in 1914. He worked with Alvin Wyckoff, one of early Hollywood's most important cameramen. Wyckoff's invention of new camera lenses that aided shooting under difficult conditions furthered DeMille's early work.
DeMille quickly became known as a welcome middle ground between D.W. Griffith's serious, intense dramas, and Max Sennet and Hal Roach's slapstick comedies. He was a hit at the box office with his popular dramas. But DeMille's status slipped when he made his first epic, "Joan the Woman," based on the story of Joan of Arc, in 1917. The public was apparently not ready for such a lengthy, serious drama, and the film was roundly criticized. DeMille's next few years of moviemaking continued to be difficult, as he made one box office flop after another. When he made the movie "The Whispering Chorus" not long after "Joan," he ventured into a more sophisticated artistic method. The film featured a chorus of whispers following the leading man throughout the movie, as he attempted to avoid his debts by faking his own death. While it was recognized to have critical merit, the public scorned it. DeMille seemed determined to give the public what they wanted following these resounding failures. He regained his fame with ordinary people by making social comedies with moral messages.
In 1923, having re-established himself as a moneymaker for producers and studios, DeMille set out to make his second epic, "The Ten Commandments," which cost more to make than any movie up to that time. The final cost was $1.5 million. Adolph Zukor, head of the studio, was upset enough to talk about stopping production. But DeMille did finish the movie, and it was a blockbuster.
DeMille made 70 films during his career in Hollywood. While not all of his movies were successful, he brought much more to Hollywood. His many innovations in filmmaking established the norm in the business. In addition to his introduction of color in movies, he was also well known as the person who invented "Rembrandt lighting," a technique of lighting part of a character's face for accent, much as a spotlight would on stage. He was also responsible for the first camera "boom" by which the camera could move around a set. In addition, once "talkies" (motion pictures with sound) began, he invented the standard sound "blimp," the protective cell to keep machinery noises recording onto a sound track. DeMille also wrote over 30 screenplays.
DeMille did not often enjoy critical acclaim. Until his "Greatest Show on Earth" won Best Picture at the 1953 Academy Awards, only one of his many films had received an Oscar. That was "Reap the Wild Wind," in 1940. Anne Bauchens, the first woman editor of a motion picture, won the award for Best Editing. In 1949 he received the Irving G. Thalberg Award for lifetime achievement from the Academy of Motion Pictures for "thirty seven years of brilliant showmanship," in the words of the Academy.
The McCarthy Hearings in the United States Senate on Communist activities signaled an end to the respect DeMille enjoyed in Hollywood. His testimony as a political conservative against Joseph Mankiewicz, then president of the Director's Guild, brought DeMille many enemies. Other directors, especially John Ford, began to turn away from him following the hearings. DeMille's side career as the host and narrator of Lux Radio Theater was also ended by the radio union for his political action. He was thereafter barred from the radio air.
Chronology: Cecil B. DeMille
1898: Entered American Academy of Dramatic Arts, New York City.
1912: Cofounded Jesse Lasky Feature Play Co. with Lasky and Samuel Goldwyn.
1913: Made first picture, "The Squaw Man."
1916: Introduced color for first time in "Joan the Woman."
1923: Made first "Ten Commandments."
1929: Made his first sound picture, "Dynamite."
1949: Won Lifetime Achievement Academy Award.
1952: Received Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award from Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
1953: Won Best Director, Golden Globe Awards, for "The Greatest Show on Earth."
1956: Released second version of "Ten Commandments."
DeMille made his final movie, "The Ten Commandments," in 1956. Again, it was blockbuster at the box office, even if it was not his most respected picture. Until later directors such as Steven Spielberg emerged in the 1980s, "The Ten Commandments" remained the most successful commercial film of all time. The movie is shown on the American Broadcasting Company (AMC) network annually at Easter, and continues to reach a wide audience.
Social and Economic Impact
DeMille helped found Hollywood in the early part of the twentieth century and helped make a tiny section of Los Angeles emblematic of American culture known throughout the world. It was DeMille himself who decided to stay in Hollywood and make it the place where movies were made. The economic significance of the motion picture industry in America is almost without parallel when it comes to making fortunes. Hollywood (along with the aerospace industry) was responsible for California becoming the money and entertainment capital of the world. DeMille also produced more efficient films with his technical innovations in camera, sound, and lighting.
DeMille's conservative religious background influenced his movies profoundly. The advice of DeMille's mother had radically influenced his father's life and it was DeMille who fully reaped the benefits of that wisdom. His Biblical and moral dramas brought religion to many people. DeMille's interpretation of the Bible made moviegoers flock to his pictures. The American taste for explicit films with a puritanical undertone was not invented by DeMille. It was DeMille, however, who best captured that mood. DeMille influenced a whole century by telling the stories people wanted to hear and see. Andrew Sarris, in his book The American Cinema, said of DeMille, "He may have been the last American director who enjoyed telling a story for its own sake."
Sources of Information
Byers, Paula K. and Suzanne M. Bourgoin, eds. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.
"Cecil B. DeMille Obituary." Variety, 28 January 1959.
Contemporary Authors. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996. Available from http://galenet.gale.com.
Higham, Charles. Cecil B. DeMille. New York: Charles Scriber's Sons, 1973.
Hochman, Stanley, ed. A Library of Film Criticism. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1974.