Cecil B. DeMille was born on August 12, 1881 in Ashfield, Massachusetts, and went on to enter the world of theater as an actor, director and playwright. He helped to establish Paramount Pictures and co-directed his first film, The Squaw Man, in 1914. He built a reputation as a legendary filmmaker with lavish epics like Cleopatra, Samson and Delilah and two versions of The Ten Commandments. He died in California in 1959.
Cecil Blount DeMille was born on August 12, 1881, in Ashfield, Massachusetts, to a family involved in the theatrical arts. His father, Henry DeMille, was a playwright who passed away when DeMille was 11; his mother, Matilda, after the death of her husband, opened up an acting workshop space for girls in her home, and later worked with Broadway.
DeMille attended Pennsylvania Military College, graduating in 1898, and then entered the world of acting himself, attending New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He began doing stage work as a teen, and made his debut in Hearts Are Trumps. He later starred in productions like Alice of Old Vincennes, Lord Chumley and The Prince Chap.
On August 16, 1902, DeMille wed his Hearts Are Trumps co-star, Constance Adams. The two would go on to have four children, three of whom were adopted.
Directing Silent Films
Having cultivated directing, playwriting and management experience during the first decade of the 1900s, DeMille decided to become a force behind the camera for silent films. He partnered with Jesse Lasky and Samuel Goldwyn to form a movie company originally called The Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, later renamed Paramount Pictures.
DeMille's first picture, The Squaw Man, filmed in a Hollywood barn and co-directed with Oscar Apfel, was released in 1914, and is billed as the first feature-length film. From 1914 to 1915, DeMille directed more than 20 movies, including The Only Son (1914) and The Girl of the Golden West (1915). The 1915 film The Cheat was particularly seen as a trailblazer in terms of its innovative editing, lighting and storytelling techniques, establishing a cinematic style that would become the norm.
In 1923, with The Ten Commandments, DeMille created the first movie to have a budget of more than $1 million, paving the way for his continued dalliance with lavish epics. He would be credited with other filmic innovations as well, including the concept of remakes.
Finding the Paramount studio system too rigid, DeMille went off to found his own studio in the mid-1920s, under which he released The King of Kings (1927), a film telling the story of Jesus Christ. His studio venture was ultimately unsuccessful, and DeMille did work for MGM before returning to Paramount in 1932. He also helped to found the Screen Directors Guild around this time.
With the era of talking pictures underway, DeMille helmed more biblical and ancient history films, as seen with The Sign of the Cross (1932), featuring Fredric March and Claudette Colbert, and Cleopatra (1934), also starring Colbert and nominated for a slew of Oscars. Westerns and adventure films were to follow over the ensuing years, including The Buccaneer (1938) and the Gary Cooper vehicle Northwest Mounted Police (1940), noted as the first film DeMille directed in Technicolor.
The Golden Globes, A Great Circus
DeMille directed several notable features during the 1940s, including Reap the Wild Wind (1942) and Unconquered (1947). In 1949—a banner year—he was awarded a special Academy Award for 37 years of showmanship in the movie industry, appointed chair of the Motion Picture Industry Council, and saw the release of the biblical epic Samson and Delilah, starring Victor Mature, Hedy Lamarr and Angela Lansbury. The film was a hit, and won an Oscar for art direction.
DeMille was notorious for his ego and dictatorial tendencies on sets while his populist movie vision resulted in great financial windfalls, helping to establish Paramount as a reigning studio. The last decade of DeMille's filmic output would continue to be fruitful. In 1952, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association—the organization that stages the Golden Globes—named a special award after the filmmaker that would annually honor a major figure in the entertainment industry.
The following year, DeMille's circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth was released, starring Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton and James Stewart in a colorful multi-plot circus extravaganza. The film was nominated in five Oscar categories, including best director, and won awards for writing and best picture, with DeMille receiving his first non-honorary Oscar in his role as a producer.
'The Ten Commandments'
DeMille's last film—his second incarnation of The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter—would be regarded as a landmark achievement. The film, released in 1956, took liberties with scripture to become an iconic film, with thousands of actors inhabiting a desert setting and grand visual moments that included the parting of the Red Sea. The movie earned seven Oscar nods, winning for its special effects.
In real-world affairs, DeMille helped to propagate the Red Scare of the 1950s, where well-known entertainers were blacklisted for alleged communist ties. Nonetheless, he hired two blacklisted figures for The Ten Commandments, actor Edward G. Robinson and composer Elmer Bernstein, with speculation that the film still served as a vehicle for the director's politically conservative beliefs.
Death and Legacy
DeMille died on January 21, 1959 in Hollywood, California, at the age of 77, from a heart ailment. DeMille produced and directed dozens upon dozens of movies throughout his career, and his legacy has continued to be written about and scrutinized as film evolves.
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