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Cecil B. DeMille - Biography

Cecil Blount DeMille (August 12, 1881 – January 21, 1959) was an American film director and Academy Award-winning film producer in both silent and sound films. He was renowned for the flamboyance and showmanship of his movies. Among his best-known films are Cleopatra; Samson and Delilah; The Greatest Show on Earth, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture; and The Ten Commandments, which was his last and most successful film.

Contents

Early life

DeMille was born in Ashfield, Massachusetts while his parents were vacationing there and grew up in Washington, North Carolina. While he is known as DeMille (his nom d'oeuvre), his family name was Dutch and is usually spelled "Demil". His father, Henry Churchill DeMille (1853–1893), was a North Carolina-born dramatist and lay reader in the Episcopal Church, who had earlier begun a career as a playwright, writing his first play at age 15. His mother was Beatrice DeMille (née Samuel), whose parents were both of German-Jewish heritage. She emigrated from England with her parents in 1871, when she was 18, where they settled in Brooklyn, New York. According to biographer Carol Easton, Beatrice grew up in a middle-class English household.

DeMille's parents met while they were both members of a local music and literary society in New York. She was attracted to Henry, a tall, redheaded student who shared her love of the theater. While he was "slender and mild-mannered," she had dark good looks that "must have seemed to him exotic," writes Easton. She was also intelligent, educated, forthright, and strong-willed, and they were mutually attracted to each other. They were also both born in 1853. She would later convert to Henry's faith when they married. Henry worked as a playwright, administrator and faculty member during the early years of The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, established in New York City in 1884.

In 1893, at the age of 40, Henry contracted typhoid fever and died, leaving Beatrice with three children, a house, and no savings. Cecil was 11 at the time. Until Henry's sudden death, they had both loved the theater, and she "enthusiastically supported" her husband's theatrical aspirations. Recognizing his love of the theater and his efforts to become a playwright and producer, she wrote at his funeral,

"May your sons be as fine and as noble and good and honest as you were. May they follow in your steps . . . "

Within 8 weeks after the death, to provide an income for the family, Beatrice opened an acting workshop, the Henry C. De Mille School for Girls, in her home. She would later become one of the few successful women theater promoters on Broadway.

DeMille attended Pennsylvania Military College in Chester, Pennsylvania from the age of 15. He had an elder brother, William, and a sister Agnes, who died in childhood. Cecil DeMille's famous niece was named for her. He is credited with providing its name, and both Cecil (Class of 1900) and William (Class of 1901) graduated from the Academy, which they attended on scholarship. The Academy honored Cecil with an Alumni Achievement Award.

Broadway

DeMille began his career as an actor on the Broadway stage in the theatrical company of Charles Frohman in 1900. His brother William was already establishing himself as a playwright and sometimes worked in collaboration with Cecil. DeMille co-starred with some of the men and women whom he would later direct in films (i.e. Charlotte Walker, Mary Pickford, and Pedro de Cordoba, among others). DeMille also served as producer and/or director for many plays. Some of these plays were later adapted into silent and sound films. Cecil and his brother occasionally worked with David Belasco. Belasco was legendary for the way he lit his stage scenes, as well as creating a lurid atmosphere. In 1911, Belasco premiered a play titled The Return of Peter Grimm. DeMille claimed he wrote the play and that Belasco had plagiarized DeMille's work without compensation. DeMille later adopted many of Belasco's stage lighting and atmospheric techniques in such films as The Cheat, a move some saw as revenge against Belasco.

Motion pictures

DeMille entered films in 1913. He directed dozens of silent films, including Paramount Pictures' first production, The Squaw Man (1914), which was co-directed by Oscar Apfel, before coming into huge popularity during the late 1910s and early 1920s, when he reached the apex of his popularity with such films as Don't Change Your Husband (1919), The Ten Commandments (1923), and The King of Kings (1927). A few of his silent films featured scenes in two-color Technicolor.

Cecil B. DeMille was known for being an instrumental catalyst for the rising status of many a struggling or unknown actor. Actor Richard Dix's best-remembered early role was in the silent version of DeMille's The Ten Commandments. Richard Cromwell owed his 1930s movie fame in part to being personally selected by DeMille for the role as the leader of the youth gang in DeMille's poignant, now cult-favorite, This Day and Age (1933). To ensure that Cromwell's character used current slang, DeMille asked Horace Hahn to read the script and comment (at the time, Hahn was senior class president at Los Angeles High School).

DeMille displayed a loyalty to certain supporting performers, casting them repeatedly in his pictures. They included Henry Wilcoxon, Julia Faye, Joseph Schildkraut, Ian Keith, Charles Bickford, Theodore Roberts, Akim Tamiroff and William Boyd. He also cast leading actors such as Claudette Colbert, Gloria Swanson, Gary Cooper, Jetta Goudal, Robert Preston, Paulette Goddard and Charlton Heston in multiple pictures. He was not known as a particularly good director of actors, often hiring actors whom he relied on to develop their own characters and act accordingly.

DeMille had a reputation for tyrannical behavior on the set, and he despised actors who were unwilling to take physical risks. Such was the case with Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah, when Mature refused to wrestle the lion, though the lion was tame and toothless. (DeMille remarked that Mature was "100% yellow"). Paulette Goddard's refusal to risk personal injury in a scene involving fire in Unconquered cost her DeMille's favor and probably a role in The Greatest Show on Earth. DeMille was, however, adept at directing "thousands of extras," and many of his pictures included spectacular set pieces, such as the parting of the Red Sea in both versions of The Ten Commandments, the toppling of the pagan temple in Samson and Delilah, train wrecks in The Road to Yesterday, Union Pacific and The Greatest Show on Earth, and the destruction of a zeppelin in Madame Satan.

DeMille was one of the first directors in Hollywood to become a celebrity in his own right. From 1936 to 1944, DeMille hosted and acted as pitchman for Cecil B. DeMille's Lux Radio Theater, a popular dramatic radio show of the time. Gloria Swanson immortalized DeMille with the oft-repeated line, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up" in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, wherein DeMille played himself. DeMille also appeared as himself in Paramount's 1947 all-star musical comedy Variety Girl and he narrated many of his later films, as well as appearing on screen in the introduction to The Ten Commandments.

DeMille first used three-strip Technicolor in Northwest Mounted Police (1940). Following the favorable response to the vivid color photography, shot partly on location in the Canadian Rockies, DeMille decided to always use Technicolor in his films.

While he continued to be prolific throughout the 1930s and 1940s, he is probably best known for his 1956 film The Ten Commandments (which is very different from his 1923 film of the same title). Also representative of his penchant for the spectacular was the 1952 production of The Greatest Show on Earth which gave DeMille an Oscar for best picture and a nomination for best director.

In 1949 or 1950, DeMille was recruited by Allen Dulles and Frank Wisner to serve on the board of the anti-communist National Committee for a Free Europe, the public face of the organization that oversaw the Radio Free Europe service. In 1954, Secretary of the Air Force Harold E. Talbott sought out DeMille for help in designing the cadet uniforms at the newly established United States Air Force Academy. DeMille's designs—most notably his design of the distinctive cadet parade uniform—won praise from Air Force and Academy leadership, were ultimately adopted, and are worn by cadets today.

Near the end of his life, DeMille began pre-production work on a film biography of Robert Baden-Powell, 1st Baron Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout Movement and had asked David Niven to star in the film, which was never made. Because of illness, he asked his son-in-law, actor Anthony Quinn, to direct a remake of his 1938 film The Buccaneer; although DeMille served as executive producer, he was unhappy with Quinn's work and tried unsuccessfully to remedy the situation. Despite a cast led by Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner and some impressive battle scenes, the film was considered a disappointment by many.

Though DeMille was respected by his peers, his individual films were often criticized by them. "Directorially, I think his pictures were the most horrible things I've ever seen in my life," said director William Wellman. "But he put on pictures that made a fortune. In that respect, he was better than any of us."

Personal life and death

DeMille married Constance Adams on August 16, 1902 and had one child, Cecilia. The couple adopted Katherine Lester in the early 1920s; her father had been killed in World War I and her mother had died of tuberculosis. Katherine married Anthony Quinn. They also adopted two sons, John and Richard, the latter of whom became a notable filmmaker, author, and psychologist.

During on-location filming in Egypt of the Exodus sequence for 1956's The Ten Commandments, the then-75-year-old DeMille climbed a 107-foot ladder to the top of the massive Per Rameses set and suffered a near-fatal heart attack. Aided by his daughter Cecilia, but against his doctor's orders, he was back directing the film within a week.

Though DeMille completed the film, it proved to be his last, for he never fully recovered from this episode, and died on January 21, 1959 of heart failure. He was entombed in Hollywood Memorial Cemetery (now known as Hollywood Forever Cemetery). At the time of his death, he was planning to direct a movie about space travel. He also wanted to do a film on the Biblical Book of Revelation.

Legacy and honors

A majority of the DeMille motion picture library now resides with EMKA, Ltd. through the television division of NBC Universal, due to Paramount Pictures' losing the rights to the DeMille films in 1958 to EMKA, so technically it is Universal Pictures that now oversees a vast part of DeMille's motion picture career as well as its related archival material. Samson and Delilah, although pre-1950, has been retained by Paramount, as are all the DeMille/Paramount silent films produced before 1928, and all sound films produced after 1950—television distribution for those films is handled by Trifecta Entertainment & Media.

In the mid-1950's, DeMille oversaw the development of a family of distinctive uniforms designed for use by the cadets, at the new Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs CO, for which he received the Defense Department's Exceptional Service Award.

The former film building at Chapman University in Orange, California is named in honor of DeMille. The Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts now resides in Marion Knotts Studios.

The Golden Globe's annual Cecil B. DeMille Award recognizes lifetime achievement in the film industry.

There are two schools named after him, Cecil B. DeMille Middle school, in Long Beach, California, and Cecil B. DeMille elementary school in Midway City, California.

Al Stewart's single Last Days of the Century makes reference to him: "You look like a still from Cecil B. DeMille".

In the film Blazing Saddles, Gene Wilder's gunslinger character says of himself, "I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille." This was in reference to DeMille's disregard for the safety of his actors.

With DeMille renowned for his flamboyance and showmanship, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury famously said of his band, "We're the Cecil B. DeMille of rock and roll, always wanting to do things bigger and better".

In the seventh episode of the six season of The Sopranos, where Christopher Moltisanti is making an attempt to make a movie with Ben Kingsley, Silvio Dante makes a funny remark by calling him "Cecil B. Moltisanti".

Filmography (as director)

Year Film Academy Award Wins Academy Award Nominations
1919 Male and Female
1926 The Volga Boatman
1927 The King of Kings
1928 Walking Back
1928 Skyscraper
1929 The Godless Girl
1929 Dynamite
1930 Madam Satan
1931 The Squaw Man
1932 The Sign of the Cross
1933 This Day and Age
1934 Four Frightened People
1934 Cleopatra 1 5
1935 The Crusades 1 0
1936 The Plainsman
1938 The Buccaneer 1 0
1939 Union Pacific 1 0
1940 North West Mounted Police 1 4
1942 Reap the Wild Wind 1 2
1944 The Story of Dr. Wassell 1 0
1947 Unconquered 1 0
1948 California's Golden Beginning
1949 Samson and Delilah 2 5
1952 The Greatest Show on Earth 2 5
1956 The Ten Commandments 1 7


Silent

  • The Squaw Man (1914)(Extant)
  • Brewster's Millions (1914)(Lost)
  • The Master Mind (1914)(Lost)
  • The Only Son (1914)(Lost)
  • The Man on the Box (1914)(Lost)
  • The Call of the North (1914)(Extant)
  • The Virginian (1914)(Extant)
  • What's His Name (1914)(Extant)
  • The Man from Home (1914)(Lost)
  • Rose of the Rancho (1914) (Extant)
  • The Ghost Breaker (1914)(Lost)
  • The Girl of the Golden West (1915)(Extant)
  • After Five (1915)(Lost)
  • The Warrens of Virginia (1915)(Extant)
  • The Unafraid (1915)(Extant)
  • The Captive (1915)(Lost)
  • The Wild Goose Chase (1915)(Lost)
  • The Arab (1915)(Extant)
  • Chimmie Fadden (1915)(Lost)
  • Kindling (1915)(Extant)
  • Carmen (1915)(Extant)
  • Chimmie Fadden Out West (1915)(Extant)
  • The Cheat (1915)(Extant)
  • Temptation (1915)(Lost)
  • The Golden Chance (1915)(Extant)
  • The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1916)(Extant)
  • The Heart of Nora Flynn (1916)(Extant)
  • Maria Rosa (1916)(Extant)
  • The Dream Girl (1916)(Lost)
  • Joan the Woman (1917)(Extant)
  • Lost and Won (1917)(Extant)
  • A Romance of the Redwoods (1917)(Extant)
  • The Little American (1917)(Extant)
  • The Woman God Forgot (1917)(Extant)
  • Nan of Music Mountain (1917)(Lost)
  • The Devil-Stone (1917)(Incomplete; Library of Congress)
  • The Whispering Chorus (1918)(Extant)
  • Old Wives for New (1918)(Extant)
  • We Can't Have Everything (1918)(Lost)
  • Till I Come Back to You (1918)(Extant)
  • The Squaw Man (1918)(Incomplete)
  • Don't Change Your Husband (1919)(Extant)
  • For Better, for Worse (1919)(Extant)
  • Male and Female (1919)(Extant)
  • Why Change Your Wife? (1920)(Extant)
  • Something to Think About (1920)(Extant)
  • Forbidden Fruit (1921)(Extant)
  • The Affairs of Anatol (1921)(Extant)
  • Fool's Paradise (1921)(Lost)
  • Saturday Night (1922)(Lost)(Lost)
  • Manslaughter (1922)(Extant)
  • Adam's Rib (1923)(Lost)(Extant)
  • The Ten Commandments (1923)(Extant)
  • Triumph (1924)(Extant)
  • Feet of Clay (1924) (Lost)
  • The Golden Bed (1925)(Extant)
  • The Road to Yesterday (1925)(Extant)
  • The Volga Boatman (1926)(Extant)
  • The King of Kings (1927)(Extant)
  • Walking Back (1928)(Extant)
  • The Godless Girl (1929)(Extant)

Sound (All extant)

  • Dynamite (1929)
  • Madam Satan (1930)
  • The Squaw Man (1931)
  • The Sign of the Cross (1932)
  • This Day and Age (1933)
  • Four Frightened People (1934)
  • Cleopatra (1934)
  • The Crusades (1935)
  • The Plainsman (1936)
  • The Buccaneer (1938)
  • Union Pacific (1939)
  • North West Mounted Police (1940)
  • Reap the Wild Wind (1942)
  • The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944)
  • Unconquered (1947)
  • California's Golden Beginning (1948) (short subject)
  • Samson and Delilah (1949)
  • The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
  • The Ten Commandments (1956)

Filmography (appearing as himself)

  • Felix in Hollywood (1923)
  • Hollywood (1923)
  • Jens Månsson i Amerika (1947)
  • Variety Girl (1947)
  • Sunset Boulevard (1950)
  • The Fallbrook Story (short subject) (1951)
  • Son of Paleface (1952)
  • The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) -- Narrator
  • The Ten Commandments (1956) Introduces the film; also narrator
Notes
  • Robert S. Birchard, "Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood" Lexington: University Press of Kentucky 2004 ISBN 978-0-8131-2324-0

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