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Cecil B. DeMill

Cecil DeMill


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Cecil Blount DeMille (August 12, 1881 – January 21, 1959) was one of the most successful filmmakers during the first half of the 20th century. DeMille directed dozens of films, including The Ten Commandments.


Early life

DeMille was born while his parents were vacationing in Ashfield, Massachusetts to Henry Churchill DeMille (1853-1893), an Episcopal lay minister and playwright from North Carolina, and Matilda Beatrice Samuel (1853-1923), who was born to a Sephardic Jewish family in England but converted to her husband's faith. DeMille grew up in Pompton, New Jersey and attended Pennsylvania Military College in Chester, Pennsylvania beginning at the age of 15. He had an older brother, William, and a younger sister who died in childhood, Agnes, after whom William's famous daughter was named.


DeMille directed dozens of silent films, including Paramount Pictures' first production, The Squaw Man (1914), 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).

Though most commonly referred to by the press as DeMille with a capital "D", DeMille preferred and even signed his checks as "deMille" with a small "d". DeMille's business address for most of his career was 2010 DeMille (capital "D") Drive, Hollywood, California (which is actually in the adjacent Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz). In either case, the persona of the larger than life showman was reinforced by such affectations and his status as an icon thrived.

Cecil B. DeMille had a keen eye for talent and 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).

DeMille displayed a loyalty to certain supporting performers, casting them over and over in his pictures. They included Henry Wilcoxen, 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 also had a reputation for being a tyrant on the set, and he despised actors who were not willing to take physical risks, such was the case with his dissatisfaction with the casting of Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah, as Mature refused to wrestle the lion, even though the lion was tame and had its teeth pulled (he remarked that Mature was "100% yellow"). Her refusal to risk personal injury in a scene involving fire in Unconquered cost Paulette Goddard her director's favor, and probably a role in The Greatest Show on Earth. He was, however, adept at directing "thousands of extras," and many of his pictures include spectacular set pieces, including 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 Union Pacific and The Greatest Show on Earth, and the destruction of a zeppelin in Madame Satan. He knew what the movie-going public wanted, and gave it to them over and over.

DeMille was one of the first directors in Hollywood to become a celebrity in his own right, performing as himself, long before the likes of Erich von Stroheim and Alfred Hitchcock made it fashionable. From 1936 to 1944, DeMille hosted and even acted as pitchman for Cecil B. DeMille's Lux Radio Theater, which was one of the most popular dramatic radio shows at 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.

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 by 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.

Near the end of his life, DeMille began pre-production work on a film biography of Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, and had asked David Niven to star in the film; the film was never made. 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 very unhappy with Quinn's work and tried unsuccssfully to remedy the situation. Despite a good cast led by Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner, and some impressive battle scenes, the film was a disappointment.

Personal life

DeMille married Constance Adams on 16 August 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.

During on-location filming in Egypt of the exodus sequence for 1956's The Ten Commandments, the then 73 year-old DeMille climbed a 107-foot ladder to the top of the massive Per Rameses set and suffered a near fatal heart attack. Miraculously, aided by his daughter Cecilia, but against his doctor's orders, he was back directing the film within a week. DeMille's mansion in Wayne, New Jersey was recently demolished, although the gatehouse has been transformed into a modest-size home, currently occupied by Ryan Ward, the famed child actor from the Academy Award-nominated film Far From Heaven.

Cecil B. DeMille died of heart failure in January 1959 and was interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California. At the time of his death, he was negotiating to direct the remake of Ben-Hur for MGM, and was planning to direct a movie about space travel.




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