Born August 12, 1881, in Ashfield, MA
Died January 21, 1959, in Hollywood, CA
Cecil B. DeMille - Director, producer, writer and actor. Cecil Blount DeMille was an original aristocrat of Hollywood, but this aristocrat had humble beginnings. His father was a clergyman and his mother ran a girl's school. An old soul in knee pants and determined to get his show on the road, he ran away from military school and tried to enlist in the Armed forces at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. He was disappointed when he turned down for being too young. His next plan was to join his older brother, William, who had begun a successful stage career. Cecil, a young man of fierce integrity, enrolled at the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts. In the decisive year of 1900, he first trod the boards on Broadway. For the next 12 years he remained devoted to brother William's tutelage and eventually collaborated with him on several moderately successful plays.
There was something stirring in Cecil's blood. It was a mixture of self-confidence, ambition, passion, artistry and gutsiness. In 1913 he could add the attribute of astute businessman to his list of abilities. He formed a lucrative alliance with a vaudeville musician, Jesse L. Lasky, and a glove salesman named Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) called the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. Cecil then did something astounding. He moved to Hollywood, rented an old barn in the heart of town (it still exists today, although moved to a different location) and directed the most famous early feature film, The Squaw Man (Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co., 1914), starring Dustin Farnum and Monroe Salisbury. The results were beyond everyone's expectations (except possibly Cecil himself), for The Squaw Man not only established the new company as a force, but it also instantly placed Cecil B. DeMille in the top echelon of directors. With everything set in place, it was only the beginning of his fantastic voyage.
DeMille was a born showman and had an innate sense of what the public would clamor for. He has been called many things: "the founder of Hollywood," "the world's greatest director" and "the showman of showmen." While these names may be debatable, given the existence of other great showman directors such as , Mack Sennett and Thomas Ince, one thing is for sure - he became a household name to a huge audience that appreciated his ability to entertain them, often in provocative ways that had not been scene previously. He insisted on realism and wouldn't hesitate to use any method achieve it.
William Churchill DeMille, Cecil's initial mentor, was a multitalented artist who found his fame eclipsed by his baby brother. William was a superb artisan himself, yet a humble man of powerful instincts that leaned towards honesty, integrity and patience. The DeMille clan was a close one where jealousy was not an issue. What mattered was maintaining the status quo of artistic merit and respect of society. In his memoirs, Hollywood Saga (E.P. Dutton, 1939), William DeMille described a telling exchange with his hardheaded brother who was determined to film a scene as realistically as possible:
As I chatted with my old friends, C.B. came towards us bearing a carbine in his hand. "Here, Bill," he ordered, "you can shoot. Take this 30-30, go with Frank and shoot through this door. But don't shoot until you get the word."
"More blanks?" I asked, taking the gun.
"Blanks, Hell!" chirped C.B. "These are bullets, and each one of 'em will go through three or four men if you make a mistake."
"But listen, son," I said faintly, "I watched you rehearse this scene; there are a lot of actors in front of that door."
"They won't be there when you shoot," he said, and added grimly, "unless you miss your cue, or they do."
"But - why bullets?"
"Look," he said. "They're barricading the door; the Gringos are coming up the stairs; they pound on the door; it won't open, but we can see it shake. When the Gringos start shooting through the door to break the locks; the camera will get the splintering door and catch the bullet holes as they appear. That's why the cue is so important. One minute they're all in front of the door; the next, bullets are pouring through and it's being shot to pieces. Get the idea?"
I got the idea completely, though I didn't like it much. "But C.," I demurred, "I suppose you know what you're doing, but it looks damn dangerous to me."
"Dangerous!" he snorted. "Of course it's dangerous; who said it wasn't? But that's pictures. We don't fake anything in pictures; we've got to have the real thing."
"That's pictures," he had said: I wonder how many times during the next 20 years I was to hear those words, and use them myself. "That's pictures." This one short phrase lightly explains away the most unbelievable, the most bizarre happenings, which are just run-of-the-mill events in the strange world that is Hollywood.
C.B. was turning away when a thought struck him. "For God's sake be careful, Bill," he said earnestly. "I can only take the scene twice; we've only got two doors!"
Part of being an astute businessman is watching your pennies. Many promissing beginnings for producers and film companies crashed and burned quickly, due to reckless spending on the productions, especially on the star's saleries. Cecil had an uncanny knack for choosing and developing fledgling performers into fully grown swans and eagles, for a song. These protégés included such future stars as Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels, Geraldine Farrar, Raymond Hatton, Wallace Reid, Thomas Meighan, William Boyd, Carmel Myers, Julia Faye, Elliott Dexter, Monte Blue, Wanda Hawley, Agnes Ayres, Leatrice Joy, and Elinor Fair among many illustrious names.
He also guided the career of another young and ambitious actress named Jeanie Macpherson, who became his closest professional confidant and collaborator until her death in 1946.
As a creator of film, Cecil had always pushed the envelope. He was diverse in his subject matter, whether it was society comedies or dramas, Biblical spectaculars, melodramas or historical epics, he had a formula for presenting these diverse concepts. These were the typical DeMille flourishes: fantastic costumes, elaborate set designs, rampant sexual innuendo, the steam created over forbidden love and oftentimes a great big dollop of religious conscience for good measure. This formula never failed him, and it catered to the basest of elements where human nature dwells. It was a heady mixture of escapism and realism, in films like Carmen (Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co., 1916), starring Geraldine Farrar and Wallace Reid; The Cheat (Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co., 1915), starring Sessue Hayakawa and Fannie Ward; Joan the Woman (Cardinal Film Corp., for Paramount, 1916), starring Geraldine Farrar and Wallace Reid; The Little American (Artcraft, 1917), starring Mary Pickford; The Whispering Chorus (Artcraft, 1918), starring Raymond Hatton and Kathlyn Williams; Male and Female (Famous Players-Lasky, 1919), starring Thomas Meighan and Gloria Swanson; Why Change Your Wife? (Famous Players-Lasky, 1920), starring Thomas Meighan and Gloria Swanson; The Affairs of Anatol (Famous Players-Lasky, 1921), starring Wallace Reid and Gloria Swanson; The Ten Commandments (Famous Players-Lasky, 1923), starring Theodore Roberts and Richard Dix; The Volga Boatman (DeMille Pictures, 1926), starring William Boyd and Elinor Fair; and The King of Kings (DeMille Pictures, 1927), starring H.B. Warner. In film after film, Cecil B. DeMille made headlines, history and hay.
There's the DeMille touch - and then there was the DeMille grope. DeMille had a special relationship with women, professionally and artistically. He relied heavily on their intelligence and feminine discrimination. He was a tough taskmaster, but if an actress pleased him she could do no wrong. However, pleasing him was not so simple a feat. An actress had to be a good sport to survive a DeMille production. He could be seemingly cruel in his methods of getting what he wanted - as the King of Comedy, Mack Sennett was at getting the belly laughs he wanted. DeMille's actresses crawled through the mud, came in contact with wild animals, submitted to very revealing costumes (by Adrian, of course!) and various humiliations which they were all glad to do. For example, in The Volga Boatman, the conquered, aristocratic women of White Russia are humiliated by the peasant armies. They are wearing their most revealing evening gowns with plunging backs and necklines. They all have been painted with crude drawings of twisted faces etched onto their exposed alabaster skin by their tormentors. This is style and humiliation, all wrapped up together - a device worthy of von Stroheim, but executed to the hilt by DeMille. DeMille's women trusted his powerful presence and respected the absolute autocrat that he was. Put through "DeMille," La Swanson probably did more traumatically physical sequences for this exacting director than she ever did in her Mack Sennett days. An honorable mention goes to Miss Fannie Ward for her enduring a "branding" by Sessue Hayakawa in The Cheat (Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co., 1915). How many people on the planet could wield the power and get the immediate results on demand that Cecil B. DeMille could command? Not many - at least, none that were household names.
DeMille was a captain of the Hollywood industry. His power and fame, from the beginning of his love affair with film, has always preceded him. The silent era was the hallmark of his career, but make no mistake. His artistic virility was keenly felt during the sound era in films and in radio (he directed and hosted "Lux Radio Theater"). Even though his output of films diminished after the silent era, he still continued to discover and/or showcase his latest protégé or star. Among his showcased discoveries and established stars in the sound era were Evelyn Keyes, Francesca Gaal, Paulette Goddard, Gary Cooper, Henry Wilcoxon and Charlton Heston.
DeMille had emotionally moving reunions years later with the stars who owed him their initial great success. He even appeared in front of the camera, playing himself (who else could?), with one of his greatest protégées, Gloria Swanson, in her magnificent comeback, Sunset Boulevard (Paramount, 1950). He was like a proud Papa with his "young fellow," as he affectionately called the petite beauty. A legend like DeMille could have rested on his laurels, but as long as he was healthy he worked as hard and as intensely as he could. Like a latter day P.T. Barnum, it seemed fitting that he would produce and direct a film like The Greatest Show On Earth (Paramount, 1952). He gave this film his supreme and undivided attention to detail, pageantry and publicity. Even at this late date in his career he triumphed by having his circus epic win an Academy Award for best picture. Another film that got the same attention to detail, pageantry and publicity was his remake of The Ten Commandments (Paramount, 1956). Having come full circle, this was his last film. It was, however, as big a mega-hit as his original, 1923 version.
Up until recently, due to the unavailability of his greatest silent films, Cecil B. DeMille has been more stuff of legend than substance. Now that more of his movies are being released on video, we can analyze the legend and see for ourselves that all the hype was deserved. Cecil B. DeMille was a great artist, a great director - he was big.
Many, many people had things to say about DeMille and his career, but what did the man have to say himself? His autobiography, The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille (1959), edited by Donald Hayne, was published posthumously. This book is valuable for hearing DeMille's own voice, but, like most autobiographies, is best analyzed along with other, objective authors who have researched the DeMille saga inside and out.
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