Cecil B. DeMille

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Cecil Blount DeMille (August 12, 1881 - January 21, 1959) was one of the most successful filmmakers during the first half of the 20th century.

Born in Ashfield, Massachusetts to a Dutch father who was a lay Episcopalian minister and a Sephardic Jewish mother who was born in England, DeMille directed hundreds of silent films, including Paramount Pictures first production: The Squaw Man (1914), before coming into huge popularity during the late 1910s and early 1920s, when he reached the apex of his popularity with such films as Don't Change Your Husband (1919), The Ten Commandments (1923), and The King of Kings (1927). Though most commonly referred to by the press as DeMille with a capital "D", deMille preferred and even signed his checks as "deMille" with a small "d". DeMille's business address for most of his career was 2010 DeMille (capital "D") Drive, Hollywood, California. In either case, the persona of the larger than life showman was reinforced by such affectations and his status as an icon thrived.

Cecil B. DeMille had a keen eye for talent and was known for being an instrumental catalyst for the rising status of many a previously young, struggling, or unknown actor. Actor Richard Dix's best-remembered early role was in the silent version of Demille's The Ten Commandments. Richard Cromwell owed his 1930s movie fame in part to being personally selected by DeMille for the role as the leader of the youth gang in Demille's poignant, now cult-favorite, This Day and Age (1933).

DeMille displayed a loyalty to certain supporting performers, casting them over and over in his pictures. They included Henry Wilcoxen, Julia Faye, Joseph Schildkraut, Ian Keith, Charles Bickford, Theodore Roberts, Akim Tamiroff, and William Boyd. He also cast leading actors such as Claudette Colbert, Gloria Swanson, Gary Cooper, Jetta Goudal, Robert Preston, Paulette Goddard, and Charlton Heston in multiple pictures. He was not known as a particularly good director, often hiring actors whom he relied on to develop their own characters and act accordingly. He was, however, adept at directing "thousands of extras," and many of his pictures include spectacular set pieces, including the parting of the Red Sea in both versions of The Ten Commandments, the toppling of the pagan temple in Samson and Delilah, train wrecks in Union Pacific and The Greatest Show on Earth and the destruction of a zeppelin in Madam Satan. He knew what the movie-going public wanted, and gave it to them over and over.

DeMille was one of the first directors in Hollywood to become a celebrity in his own right, performing as himself, long before the likes of Erich von Stroheim and Alfred Hitchcock made it fashionable. From 1936 to 1944, DeMille hosted and even acted as pitchman for Cecil B. DeMille's Lux Radio Theater, which was one of the most popular dramatic radio shows at the time. Gloria Swanson immortalized DeMille with the oft-repeated line, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up" in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, wherein DeMille played himself.

While he continued to be prolific throughout the 1930s and 1940s, he is probably best known for his 1956 film The Ten Commandments (which is very different from his 1923 film by the same title). Also representative of his penchant for the spectacular was the 1952 production of The Greatest Show on Earth which gave deMille an Oscar for best picture and a nomination for best director.

During on location filming in Egypt of the exodus sequence for 1956's "The Ten Commandments," the then 73 year-old DeMille climbed a 107 foot ladder to the top of the massive Per Rameses set and suffered a near fatal heart attack. Miraculously, aided by his daughter, Cecilia, but against his doctor's orders, he was back directing the film within a week.

Cecil B. Demille died of heart failure in 1959 and was interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California. At the time of his death, he was negotiating to direct the remake of Ben-Hur for MGM, and was planning to direct a movie about space travel.

A lesser known fact, regarding DeMille's date of death, is that Cecil DeMille died on exactly the same day as Carl Switzer who had played "Alfalfa" in the 1930s "Our Gang" shorts. Many of Switzer's associates would later claim that this was bad timing and slightly unfair, since Cecil DeMille's obituary was so lengthy that Switzer's death was allocated very little attention in the media. Ironically, Switzer appeared, unbilled, in DeMille's 1956 The Ten Commandments.

DeMille's niece, Agnes de Mille, was a dancer and choreographer, best known for choreographing the "dream ballet" in Oklahoma!.



Cecil B. DeMille inspired the name of the movie Cecil B. DeMented (and of its main character). In that movie, Cecil B. DeMented is an anarchic film director, shooting in one cut.

Filmography (As Director)


Cecil B. DeMille bibliography (via UC Berkeley)

External links

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