Considered one of the founders of Hollywood, film producer and director Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959) earned a place in moviemaking history with such religious epic films as The Ten Commandmentsand King of Kings.
Although he is one of the most commercially successful film directors of all time, Cecil B. DeMille has for a long time been considered at best a director of mediocre quality. Still his place in the history of Hollywood movie making is central; in fact, more than anyone else, he deserves to be called the man who founded Hollywood. As Lewis Jacobs has said—as quoted in World Film Directors: "If in the artistic perspective of American Film History, Cecil B. DeMille is valueless; in the social history of films, it is impossible to ignore him."
Religious and Theatrical Background
DeMille's father was split between wanting to be an actor and wanting to be an Episcopalian priest. It was an internal conflict strangely appropriate for the father of a man who would become identified with making sexually lurid motion pictures from Bible stories. The elder DeMille ended up teaching school until his friendship with David Belasco, the most successful American playwright of the late 19th century, led him to satisfy his theatrical urge by writing plays instead of acting in them. Both his sons followed him into the theater. Cecil's older brother broke in as a playwright, and Cecil tried to make it as an actor; but after ten years on the boards, he was still struggling to feed his family.
As he neared 30, DeMille gave up acting to join his mother in launching a theatrical agency. Working as the general manager, he met Jesse L. Lasky who along with a Samuel Goldfish—later to change his name to Goldwyn—was trying to break into motion picture production. At this time, feeling frustrated, DeMille was thinking of leaving show business altogether; but Lasky, after working on several musical plays with the younger man, convinced him to try his hand at directing a motion picture. After spending a day at Thomas Edison's studios in New York, DeMille took off for Arizona to shoot The Squaw Man, a melodrama based on a Broadway play and set in Wyoming. When the Arizona locations did not work out, DeMille got back on the train and headed off to the end of the line, Los Angeles.
The Man Who Founded Hollywood
DeMille was not the first person to ever shoot a film in Hollywood, but when he arrived in late 1913, he decided to stay. The southern California climate was perfect for motion picture making, because even the indoor scenes could be shot outside on sets with three walls and no ceilings, since plenty of sun and not much rain let the crews shoot without having to set up lights, a huge savings in time and money. The barn on the corner of Vine Street in which DeMille set up shop would soon be the world headquarters for Paramount Studios; but at the moment they were sharing facilities with a stable of horses, and things did not always smell nice around the studio. DeMille was the consummate showman from the start and not only in the movies. Writing in World Film Directors, Philip Kemp speaks about De-Mille's making of the image of the Hollywood Filmmaker: "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 bold and masterful adventurer, intrepid pioneer and empire-builder."
With the commercial success of The Squaw Man, De-Mille's founding of Hollywood was complete. He had found the perfect location to make movies, he had developed the fashion style that would come to be associated with movie-making, and, now with the money he was making for Paramount, he proved the viability of his creation. The reviews of DeMille's early directorial efforts were very favorable. He worked with Alvin Wyckoff, one of the most important of the first generation of cameramen in Hollywood. Besides shooting motion pictures, Wyckoff invented new camera lenses that had the ability to work under difficult conditions. By the end of 1914, after only three DeMille films, Lasky moved his whole enterprise to California. He bought the barn next door and established a vast studio in the desert.
In 1915, DeMille made what many still consider his most impressive film. Writing in the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Eric Smoodin writes, "Although he made films until 1956, DeMille's masterpiece may well have come in 1915 with The Cheat. … .For the cinema's first 20 years, editing was based primarily on following action … [but] in The Cheat, through his editing, DeMille created a sense of psychological space." DeMille was the first to use film editing in such an intrusive way to show off what a character is thinking.
Produced First Epics
In the silent era, DeMille was fast becoming the middle-brow alternative to the high-brow films of D. W. Griffith, still the greatest innovator in film history, and the low-brow silent comedies pouring out of Mack Sennet's and Hal Roach's studios. In 1917, DeMille left his social comedies behind to make his first epic, Joan the Woman, the story of Joan of Arc. One of the longest and most extravagant pictures made to that time, it was a box office disaster. DeMille had made the first feature released in this country several years before, but audiences were not ready for the extra time he added to Joan.
The next years were difficult ones of DeMille. Two pictures he made with Mary Pickford flopped, and after several more mediocre films, he made The Whispering Chorus. The film meant a lot to him. In the film historian Kevin Brownlow's memorable phrase, he sunk not only his money, "but also his heart" into the film. The story of a man who tries to avoid a debt by faking his death, the film featured a chorus of whisperers who followed him through the movie, speaking his thoughts out loud. Whatever its artistic merit, it was a big failure. Some think it was the disappointment attendant on the reception of The Whispering Chorus which led DeMille to forsake artistic aspirations and concentrate on giving audiences what they wanted.
Still whatever his artistic disappointments, DeMille was able to regain his golden touch at the box office, primarily by making social comedies filled with both a bit of titillating sex and moralistic messages. Titles such as We Can't Have Everything and Don't Change Your Husband give a good sense of the message of these movies. By 1921, the critics held DeMille's work pretty much in contempt for the mix of sex and morality which he peddled so easily, satisfying his audience's erotic urges while at the same time satisfying their puritan tendencies. At the same time, DeMille was helping to set up the Hays Office, the self-policing branch of the Hollywood industry, which censored films for sexual or immoral content. DeMille's worry, shared by many in Hollywood at the time, was that if Hollywood did not censor itself, Congress would.
In 1923, he was powerful enough to return to the epic despite the failure of Joan the Woman at the box office. Costing $1,475,000, the first version of The Ten Commandments was probably the most expensive movie made to that time. Adolph Zukor, the studio head, threatened to pull the plug on the movie several times; but in the end, it was a blockbuster, making its huge budget back several times over. Some of the critics even liked it. He continued making expensive epics, but he did not return to the Bible until 1927 when he filmed a life of Christ entitled King of Kings. His first sound movie was Dynamite, which fared respectably, but his attempt to take advantage of the new medium to make a musical was another failure, Madame Satan.
The Crusades, another one of his epics, lost $700,000, perhaps the largest failure in Hollywood history up to that time. Five years later, after a couple of moderately successful westerns, DeMille made his first color film, North West Mounted Police, starring Gary Cooper. His next film, Reap the Wild Wind, distinguished itself by being the first motion picture edited by a woman, Anne Bauchens, to win the Oscar for Best Editing. Neither DeMille, nor any of his films had to that time an Oscar.
End of His Career
After World War II, DeMille set a new tone for himself when he made Samson and Delilah with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr. It was widely viewed as one of the most tasteless American films ever made with its tacky special effects and heavy-breathing sexuality. In 1950, he returned to acting, playing himself in Billy Wilder's acid portrait of Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard. In 1952 he made The Greatest Show on Earth, a film often considered to be the closest movie to a self-portrait that DeMille ever made. It was the first film he made to win an Oscar. The best directing Oscar that year went to John Ford.
Unfortunately for DeMille, he was involved in another dispute with John Ford, one which would forever damage DeMille's reputation. DeMille, a politically conservative man, got wrapped up in the McCarthy anti-communist campaign in Hollywood and decided that he wanted to oust Joseph Mankiewicz as president of the Director's Guild. Mankiewicz was a successful director himself and politically liberal. DeMille thought he was soft on communism. A special meeting of the Director's Guild was called to air DeMille's charges. It was a very rancorous meeting attended by nearly every director in the guild. After four hours of debate, John Ford, who had not said a word as of yet, rose to speak. In an Esquire Magazine article, Peter Bogdonavich recounts the scene with Ford rising and introducing himself, "My name is Jack Ford—I make westerns." He then went on to praise DeMille's ability to produce pictures that appealed to the public—more so, Ford said, than anyone else in the room; he turned to look across the hall now directly at DeMille: "But I don't like you, C. B.," he said, "and I don't like what you've been saying here tonight. I move that we give Joe a vote of confidence—and let's all go home and get some sleep."
It is worth noting that DeMille did not mention the episode in his memoirs. He also made his final film with one of the most conservative actors in Hollywood, Charlton Heston. Although the second version of The Ten Commandments is his most widely seen film, thanks to Easter-time television programming, it is not one of his most respected. Still it was a colossal success at the box office, capping a directing-producing career that was by far the most commercially successful of all time, at least until that of the much later director, Steven Spielberg. DeMille suffered a heart attack while shooting The Ten Commandments, but he refused to slow down; and soon after, in 1959, on a publicity tour for another picture, one which he produced but did not direct, he had another heart attack which led to his death.
Further Reading on Cecil Blount DeMille
Eric Smoodin, International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Nicholas Thomas, ed., St. James Press, 1991, pp. 204-207.
Bogdanovich, Peter, "The Cowboy Hero and The American West. … as Directed by John Ford," in Fifty Who Made a Difference, ed. Lee Eisenberg, Esquire Press Book, 1984, pp. 347-348.