DeMille, Cecil B. (1881-1959)

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DeMille, Cecil B. (1881-1959)

Director Cecil B. DeMille epitomized the film epic and Holly-wood's "Golden Age." From the 1910s through the 1950s, he was able to anticipate public taste and gauge America's changing moods. He is best known for his spectacularly ambitious historical and biblical epics, including The Sign of the Cross, The Crusades, King of Kings, The Ten Commandments, Cleopatra, Unconquered, and The Greatest Show on Earth, but he also made domestic comedies such as The Affairs of Anatol. Originating the over-the-top reputation of Hollywood filmmakers, DeMille is famous for his huge crowd scenes, yet his films also clearly demonstrate his mastery as a storyteller. He avoided camera trickery and developed plots in a traditional manner that film audiences appreciated. In narrative skill and action, DeMille had few competitors.

Cecil Blount DeMille was born in Ashfield, Massachusetts, on August 12, 1881. His father was of Dutch descent and an Episcopalian lay preacher, Columbia professor, and playwright. His mother, Beatrice Samuel, also occasionally wrote plays and ran a girls' school. DeMille attended the Pennsylvania Military Academy from 1896 to 1898 and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York from 1898 to 1900. He had his Broadway acting debut in 1900 and struggled to make his living as an actor for the next decade.

Abandoning his acting career in 1913, DeMille went into partnership with vaudeville musician Jesse L. Lasky and glove salesman Samuel Goldfish (later changed to Goldwyn) to form the motion-picture production company that would eventually become Paramount Studios. It was then that DeMille directed his first film, The Squaw Man, shot on location in the Los Angeles area, bringing DeMille to the southern California locale he would help develop into the enclave of Hollywood. The film's success and popularity established DeMille in the nascent motion-picture industry; he was understood to be the creative force at Paramount, not only directing many films but also overseeing the scripts and shooting of Paramount's entire output.

DeMille capitalized on the same themes throughout his lengthy career. He often used a failing upper-class marriage, an exoticized Far East, and obsessive, hypnotic sexual control between men and women. At the same time, he emphasized Christian virtues alongside heathenism and debauchery. He repeatedly mixed Victorian morality with sex and violence. DeMille's popularity can largely be attributed to his dexterity with these seemingly contradictory positions and their appeal to audiences.

Instead of focusing on big-name stars, DeMille tended to develop his own roster of players. With the money he saved, he centered his energies on higher production values and luxurious settings. The players he developed include soprano Geraldine Ferrar in Carmen, Joan the Woman, The Woman God Forgot, The Devil Stone, andGloria Swanson in Male and Female, Why Change Your Wife?, Something to Think About, and The Affairs of Anatol.

DeMille produced and directed 70 films and participated in many more. He co-founded the Screen Directors Guild in 1931, and from 1936 to 1945, he was a producer for Lux Radio Theater of the Air, a position that consisted of adapting famous films and plays to be read by noted actors and actresses. He was awarded the Outstanding Service Award from the War Agencies of the United States government and he also received a Special Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1949. His long list of awards continues with the Irving Thalberg Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures in 1952, the Milestone Award by the Screen Producers' Guild in 1956, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Southern California.

—Liza Black

Further Reading:

DeMille, Cecil B. The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille. New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1959.

Higashi, Sumiko. Cecil B. DeMille: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston, G. K. Hall, 1985.

——. Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture: The Silent Era. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994.

Higham, Charles. Cecil B. DeMille. New York, Charles Scribner'sSons, 1973.