Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959)

A Hollywood director whose career spanned from silent film to the musical extravaganzas of mid-century cinema, Cecil B. DeMille, called the P. T. Barnum of the movies, was a flamboyant showman who produced and directed some of the industry’s most spectacular films. These included Biblical dramas like The Ten Commandments, stories of the American frontier like The Plainsman, and over-the-top films like The Greatest Show on Earth. As the New York Times commented in his obituary in 1959:

A pioneer in the industry, he used the broad medium of the screen to interpret in “colossal” and “stupendous” spectacles the story of the Bible, the splendor that was Egypt, the glory that was Rome. He dreamed in terms of millions, marble pillars, golden bathtubs and mass drama; spent enormous sums to produce the rich effects for which he became famous.

No one would accuse DeMille of being subtle, but that’s what audiences liked about his films. He knew how they loved showmanship. They loved the spectacular sets, the lavish costumes, and the epic stories that made movies by DeMille so entertaining. And they made him rich. He cofounded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science but never won a Best Picture Oscar until The Greatest Show on Earth won in 1952. He brushed off the previous snubs, saying, “I win my awards at the box office.” DeMille was a big spender, but he had still amassed a personal fortune of $8 million by 1946.

DeMille directed and produced some 70 films in his career, starting with The Squaw Man in 1914, a silent movie that was the first feature-length movie filmed in Hollywood. Adopted from a stage play about a British aristocrat who ends up in the American Wild West, the film was a hit and DeMille would remake it as a talkie in 1931. He had teamed up with Jesse Lasky and Samuel Goldwyn to form the Jesse Lasky Feature Play Company to produce movies and they all went west to Hollywood. On his first day running the company, DeMille signed up three unknown actors, Hal Roach, Hopalong Cassidy, and a skinny teenager named Gloria Swanson. They were the beginning of DeMille’s famous stable of screen stars.

The Lasky Company morphed into Paramount Pictures, and DeMille was off and running. His silent films during the 1920s were huge hits, including Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), The Ten Commandments (1923), and The King of Kings (1927). He even experimented with Technicolor in some of his silent films, but in 1927, the first talking film, The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson, was produced by Warner Brothers and would change everything. DeMille and Paramount had to come up with their own talkie and they did, Beggars of Life, in September of 1928. But most American movie houses were not equipped for sound at that point, and filmmakers were not even sure that talking films would have an appeal. Into the 1930s, moviemakers produced both silent and sound versions of their films.

Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille was an accomplished showman, known for his epic and spectacular films.

Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille was an accomplished showman, known for his epic and spectacular films. (AP Photo)

The nascent movie industry had mesmerized the American public with silent films that showed people, cars, and horses in motion and involved in thrilling escapades on the screen. D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915 got the movies off to a groundbreaking start as popular entertainment. When sound was added in the 1920s, the movies became a top entertainment. After all, there was no television to compete with them. During the Great Depression, the movies were an escape from the dismal economy and got many people through the bad times. It cost only about 27 cents to go to a movie then. Moviemakers felt an obligation to provide upbeat films, screwball comedies, and musicals. DeMille’s brand of spectacle was especially popular.

And for the next half-century, Cecil B. DeMille ruled the roost in Hollywood and on the proverbial silver screen as his religious epics and blockbuster films kept Americans coming back for more. From This Day and Age in 1933, which became something of a cult film, to Cleopatra with Claudette Colbert in 1934, Samson and Delilah with Victor Mature in 1949, The Greatest Show on Earth with Charlton Heston in 1952, and The Ten Commandments in 1956 with Heston again along with Yul Brunner, Anne Baxter, and Yvonne deCarlo, DeMille cemented his reputation as the filmmaker who could turn a cast of thousands into bonanza at the box office. He narrated The Ten Commandments himself. It was the last film he directed but it was highly successful, pulling in $65 million, which in present-day terms translates to approximately $977 million, making it the fifth highest grossing of movies. It got seven Academy Award nominations but won an Oscar only for visual effects.

DeMille could be tyrannical and testy, bawling out his actors in front of everyone. He called Victor Mature “100% yellow” when he refused to wrestle with a (toothless) lion on the set of Samson and Delilah, and other actors fell out of favor with him and lost parts when they did not please him. At the same time, DeMille brought many actors out of obscurity and gave them a chance at fame in his films. He himself became a celebrity for his flamboyant style, and as a director, he had worked hard at creating a memorable image for himself, as British film critic Philip Kemp commented in World Film Directors:

To direct his first movie, DeMille adopted a distinctive costume which he retained largely unaltered throughout his working career and which came to represent the publicly accepted image of an old-style movie director: open-necked shirt, riding breeches, boots and puttees along with a riding-crop, a large megaphone, and a whistle on a neck-chord. Charges of theatricality were met with pained denial from DeMille who always insisted that his garb was strictly functional... but his costume also undoubtedly reflected his favorite self-image—the movie director as a bold and masterful adventurer, intrepid pioneer and empire-builder.

It’s interesting to note that DeMille also designed uniforms for the U.S. Air Force Academy cadets, at the request of the secretary of the Air Force in 1954. His design for the cadet parade uniform is still worn by cadets today.

Seldom did anyone get the best of him, except maybe once when he was filming The King of Kings about the life of Jesus. He had moved the entire cast to Catalina Island off the coast of California, making everyone live in tents to give them a sense of the Galilee community and the time period. As filming began on the loaves-and-fishes sequence, a fancy yacht popped up in the background of the filmed scene and DeMille went into a rage. When he found out it belonged to his leading man, H. B. Warner, he shouted, “Just who does he think he is?” “Jesus Christ, sir,” a crew member said. DeMille was for the moment silenced.

Cecil Blount DeMille was born on August 12, 1881, in Ashfield, Massachusetts, to Henry Churchill DeMille and Beatrice DeMille. Both parents were playwrights and Cecil and his older brother William both headed to Broadway early to tread the boards. Their father taught English at Columbia University, was a lay reader in the Episcopal Church, wrote plays, and started a successful collaboration with David Belasco. When he died in 1893, their mother opened a drama school for girls in their home and, later, established the DeMille Play Company. The tuition helped pay for William to attend Columbia and Cecil to enroll in Pennsylvania Military Academy. He ran away from the academy and tried to join up to fight in the Spanish–American War but was turned down. His mother then enrolled him in the Academy for the Dramatic Arts in New York City. He and his brother William wrote plays together and Cecil made his debut as an actor in the play Hearts Are Trumps in 1900. In 1902, he married actress Constance Adams. They would eventually have a daughter, Cecilia, and adopt another, Katherine, who later married Anthony Quinn, and two adopted sons, Richard and John. His niece was Agnes DeMille, the famous dancer and choreographer, daughter of Cecil’s brother William.

Meanwhile, DeMille had also met Jesse Lasky and Samuel Goldwyn and, after they all saw the silent film, The Great Train Robbery, in 1913, they decided to form their own movie company, bought the rights to the play The Squaw Man, and proceeded to make a movie out of it. In the process, they went to California in search of the right setting and found it, at the end of the railroad in Los Angeles. DeMille rented an old barn to use as a movie studio (it became the headquarters for Paramount Pictures and is still there, preserved as a historical artifact) and filming began. He discovered that the light and climate of Los Angeles and Southern California were perfect for filmmaking, allowing daytime filming outdoors without extra lighting or rain delays. Though he was not the first to film in California, DeMille essentially made a film capital out of Hollywood.

He became the director of the Jesse Lasky Feature Play Company, which eventually merged with two other production companies and took control of Paramount Pictures. DeMille started making domestic comedies that were full of both titillating innuendo and moralistic messages, which were well received. Critics were contemptuous of this mix of sex and morality, but DeMille knew his audience, both its interest in sex and its puritanical public stance. As American film critic Pauline Kael said, DeMille was a purveyor of “the glamour of wickedness” and had that “unbeatable box-office combination—an aura of sexiness and a moral message”:

DeMille, whose specialty was... the photogenic demonstration that modern immorality resembles the hedonism of declining Rome, used to satisfy the voyeuristic needs of the God-abiding by showing them what they were missing by being good and then soothe them by showing them the terrible punishments they escaped by being good.

When the Hays Code was passed in 1930, restricting the suggestive and vaguely immoral approach many films took, DeMille deliberately flaunted the Code, almost daring the censors to take action, but he got away with it because his movies always punished the evildoers at the end. His films did not aspire to the avant-garde of cinema. They were decidedly middlebrow and would not be shown at French film festivals, but they made money. When he moved on to film the spectaculars he loved, like The Ten Commandments in 1923, he had huge box office hits. The Ten Commandments was the most expensive film ever made at the time, but DeMille had gone way over budget and his contract was not renewed.

He then formed his own company, Cecil B. DeMille Pictures, Inc., but after three years signed up with Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (M-G-M) to make three pictures, Dynamite, the first talkie he had made on his own, in 1929, Madame Satan in 1930, and a remake of The Squaw Man. But the Great Depression had taken hold and the films flopped at the box office. M-G-M did not renew his contract, and DeMille and his wife left town in 1931 for Europe, hoping to make film deals in England and the Soviet Union, but nothing materialized. Luckily, when he returned to the states, Paramount Pictures gave him a one-picture chance and half the funds to make a new movie. DeMille paid the other half with his own money and made the film, The Sign of the Cross in 1932. It was a huge hit. Paramount signed him on and DeMille stayed with that studio for the rest of his career.

By 1936, he was also producing the Lux Radio Theater on CBS, something he did for nine years until he got into a dispute over a union fee that cost him the job. DeMille also was embroiled in controversy over the loyalty oath President Harry Truman was asking members of the Screen Directors Guild to sign. DeMille did sign it, but tried to make all members sign and was opposed. In 1954, to oppose Senator Joseph McCarthy’s blacklisting of Hollywood stars accused of Communism, DeMille deliberately hired some of the blacklist actors for his remake of The Ten Commandments, including Edward G. Robinson, who credited him with saving his career.

During the filming of The Ten Commandments in 1956, which required a huge and spectacular set on location in Egypt, DeMille, then 75, climbed to the top of a 107-foot ladder on the Per Ramses set and suffered a heart attack. He was rescued, treated, and was back directing the movie a week later. DeMille was making plans to do several more films, including one about space travel and another about the Boy Scouts when he had a second heart attack and died on January 21, 1959. He was buried in Hollywood Memorial Cemetery, next to Paramount Pictures Studios.

—Mary Cross


“Cecil DeMille, 77, Pioneer of Movies, Dead in Hollywood.” January 22, 1959. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0812.html .

DeMille, Cecil B. The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille. Ed. Donald Hayne. New York: Prentice Hall, 1959. http://www.archive.org/details/autobiographyofc006995mbp1987 .

Eyman, Scott. Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Kemp, Philip. “Cecil B. DeMille.” World Film Directors. Ed. John Wakeman. Volume One: 1890–1946. New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 1987.