Cecil B. DeMille is considered to be one of the founders of Hollywood as the motion picture capital of the world. He made his debut as an actor in 1900, in the early years of the motion picture industry. By the time of his death in 1959, he more than any one had put his stamp on the industry as a director, producer, writer, editor and even to some limited extent as an actor. DeMille was the originator of such spectacular films as “The Ten Commandments”, “The Greatest Show on Earth”, “Cleopatra”, “King of Kings”, and others. DeMille was also the co-founder of what would eventually become Paramount Pictures.
DeMille was born in Ashfield, Massachusetts on August 12, 1881. His father was of Dutch background and was an Episcopalian minister and amateur playwright. His mother was of a Sephardic Jewish background and was born in England. In his younger years he became involved in theater through his parents’ interest in the theater as amateur artists. Since DeMille’s father was an amateur playwright and his mother formed a theatrical group in the early 1900’s, the young Cecil was exposed extensively to the travails and joys of acting and performing. Although he acted as early as the year 1900, he also became the general manager as well as a performer in his mother’s theatrical group. It is therefore not surprising that he eventually chose to become a director and producer, areas where he obviously saw his strength, as opposed to just acting.
In 1913, DeMille along with Jesse Lasky and Sam Goldwyn founded a film making partnership that later became a part of Paramount Pictures. The following year in 1914, the trio produced their first film, “The Squaw Man”. DeMille was the co-writer, co-director and co-producer of the film with Oscar Apfel. In that same year DeMille directed and/or produced and/or co-wrote 10 additional films. To be sure at that time all movies were silent movies and were relatively short, and apparently could be scripted, planned, produced and directed within a short time span. In the following year, in 1915, DeMille was involved, utilizing his various capacities, in 14 more films. During the subsequent three years DeMille was involved with four to six films on average per year.
In the 1920’s DeMille got tired of the short films and started working on longer feature films. Some of these longer films became epic films. He also favored biblical stories, probably due to his upbringing in a church environment. The first large biblical film was “The Ten Commandments” in 1923. It was followed by what some consider DeMille’s greatest artistic success, the film telling the story of the life of Christ, “The King of Kings” in 1927. Other biblical films produced and directed by DeMille were “The Sign of the Cross” in1932, “Cleopatra” in 1934, and “Sampson and Delilah” in 1949.
DeMille’s success can probably be attributed to his ability to identify talent. He was known for being able to identify promising young actors and support them in developing their talents. DeMille also had a loyalty to certain supporting performers and used them repeatedly. He was more discriminating with the leading actors, but was able to identify them and use them in his films. Leading actors appearing in his films were Claudette Colbert, Gloria Swanson, Gary Cooper, Jetta Goudal, Robert Preston, Paulette Goddard and Charlton Heston.
DeMille’s film career spanned over half a century. His last blockbuster was “The Ten Commandments”, made in 1956. It was entirely different from the DeMille’s earlier version made in 1923, not surprisingly given the technological changes that had occurred during the intervening 33 year time period. His other great film, also made late in his career was “The Greatest Show on Earth” produced in 1952.
During his entire film career DeMille produced 83 films between 1914 and 1958, directed 90 films between 1914 and 1956, edited 30 films between 1914 and 1939, wrote 22 films between 1914 and 1925, and acted in 10 films between 1914 and 1957.
Cecil B. DeMille passed away in 1959. He died of heart failure. He is interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California. At the time of his death he was negotiating with MGM about making another version of “Ben Hur”. He was also planning to make a movie about space travel. He clearly was not quite ready to go when the reaper called.
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