Cecil 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 D.W. Griffith, 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
"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;
camera will get the splintering door and catch the bullet holes as they
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.
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
"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
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 promising
beginnings for producers and film companies crashed and burned quickly, due
to reckless spending on the productions, especially on the star's salaries.
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 Eleanor 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
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
and oftentimes a great big dollop of religious conscience for good measure.
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
Carmen (Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co., 1916), starring Geraldine Farrar
and Wallace Reid; The Cheat (Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co., 1915), starring
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?
1920), starring Thomas Meighan and Gloria Swanson; The Affairs of Anatol
(Famous Players-Lasky, 1921), starring Wallace Reid and Gloria Swanson; The
(Famous Players-Lasky, 1923), starring Theodore Roberts and Richard Dix;
The Volga Boatman (DeMille Pictures, 1926), starring William Boyd and Elinor
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.
The Run of DeMille
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
era was the hallmark of his career, but make no mistake. His artistic virility
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 protégés, 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
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,
director — he was big.