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Cecil B. DeMille

1881 - 1959

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03 Life Stories

Cecil B. DeMille
1881 - 1959

A born showman, a master director, producer, and screenwriter. One of the single most important influences in the history of film. When citing the career of Cecil B. DeMille, there is no shortage of accolades, and no end to the wonder.

Cecil Blount DeMille was born on August 12, 1881, in Ashfield, Massachusetts. He was the son of an Episcopalian lay minister and the former Beatrice Samuel, who was a strong influence on sons Cecil and William, in her penchant for writing (she also opened a school for girls, which later grew into an acting company). Older brother, William Churchill DeMille, developed a keen early interest in theatre, and younger sibling Cecil followed suit, enrolling in New York’s Academy of Dramatic Arts. Cecil began aiming high early: his acting debut, in 1900, was on Broadway. In 1902, he married a fellow thespian, Constance Adams.

In the first dozen years of the twentieth century, Cecil acted in, and managed, his mother’s company, and worked with brother William on some screenplays. But, it was his 1913 partnership with Vaudeville musician Jesse L. Lasky and Samuel Goldfish (a glove salesman; he later changed his surname to Goldwyn) that started him on his monumental career. The trio formed the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, and ventured west to make their first picture, The Squaw Man (1914). This film may, very well, be the single most important in the DeMille repertoire of masterpieces: at six reels, it is generally recognized as the first major feature film, and as such, greatly impressed discriminating audiences. Its length was not its only asset, however, for its strength in plot, characterization, and cinematography far exceeded any competitor’s product (DeMille would, amazingly, remake this picture twice, first in 1918, then in 1931). As the main director of the picture (with Oscar Apfel), DeMille instantly rose to his place as a directorial force to be reckoned with in Hollywood, a town yet to reach its peak.

The Lasky Company soon took on a new name, Paramount Pictures Corporation, and DeMille was touted as the driving creative force of the firm. His direction (of the company and the films) took cinema in new directions – with emphasis on higher production values, and greater length of pictures, the era of the short film was soon to come to an end.

DeMille’s vision not only built up the overall cinematic panorama, but also created major stars, all under his tutelage: Theodore Roberts, Bebe Daniels, Wallace Reid, Julia Faye, and Gloria Swanson. The names of his films are, themselves, synonymous with spectacle and wonder: The Ten Commandments (DeMille directed both the 1923 silent and the 1956 sound versions); The Sign of the Cross (1932); Cleopatra (1934); Union Pacific (1939); Samson and Delilah (1949), and the Academy Award-winning Best Picture of 1952, The Greatest Show on Earth.

With a filmography that boasts 70 films which he either produced or directed (with scores more in which he participated in informal ways), DeMille might not have been the most prolific of artisans, but he was, without question, the most skillful and entertaining of the master storytellers of his, or any other, time. Interestingly, his talents did not stop with the behind-the-scenes nature of theatre and film: he appeared, as himself, in Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard, which splendidly showcased DeMille’s silent era protégé, Gloria Swanson. From 1936-1945, he hosted, and directed, the immensely popular and influential Lux Radio Theatre, which adapted famed films and plays for radiophonic glory – most of the great stars of that era were proud, and eager, to appear with “Mr. DeMille” on the program. He closed the series after a dispute with the union of radio artists (which has since added television laborers, to become AFTRA).

DeMille, and wife Constance, raised two daughters who became actresses: Cecilia, and Katherine, adopted at age 9 by the couple in 1920. His story – and what a story it was – was put to paper by his own hand. Its title was apt: Autobiography. Sadly, Cecil Blount DeMille did not live to see its publication, as he died, on January 21, 1959, at the age of 77, in the town that owed so much of its success to him: Hollywood. Two stars along the Hollywood Walk of Fame salute his illustrious career: 1735 Vine Street for his film work, and 6240 Hollywood Boulevard for his radio achievements. The Los Angeles Gold Mine, The Hollywood Studio Museum, also known as The Barn, salutes his and Jesse Lasky’s contribution to film history -- it was the site of the shooting of the silent The Squaw Man. His obituaries spoke volumes for the reverence that Tinseltown felt for him, but the headline in the January 28, 1959 issue of Variety said it all: “DeMille: Founder of Hollywood; Pioneered Rembrandt Lighting When Sun Failed to Shine – Long, Unique, Creative Career.”