Cecil B. DeMille from the trailer for the film The Ten Commandments (1956).
Cecil B. DeMille was a visionary filmmaker and a true pioneer of Hollywood’s Golden Age, with a career that spanned several decades, during which he directed and produced a multitude of acclaimed films. His larger-than-life epics, characterised by their grandeur and spectacular sets, captivated audiences and set new standards for cinematic storytelling.
DeMille’s legacy extends beyond his contributions to the art of filmmaking. He played a crucial role in the development of the Hollywood studio system, successfully navigating the business aspects of the industry while maintaining artistic integrity. As one of the founding members of Paramount Pictures, DeMille helped shape the landscape of American cinema and paved the way for future generations of filmmakers.
Here are 10 facts about the life, work, and enduring legacy of this cinematic legend.
1. He grew up in a theatrical family
Born on 12 August 1881, in Ashfield, Massachusetts, Cecil Blount DeMille grew up in a theatrical family.
His father, Henry Churchill DeMille, was a successful playwright and drama teacher, known for his works in the melodrama genre. His mother, Matilda Beatrice DeMille, ran a prestigious school for girls, fostering an atmosphere of creativity and artistic appreciation within the household.
DeMille’s upbringing in a theatrical environment played a significant role in shaping his passion for the arts. He often attended rehearsals and performances, immersing himself in the world of storytelling, stagecraft, and visual spectacle. These early experiences ignited his imagination and laid the foundation for his future endeavours in the film industry.
2. He failed as an actor
DeMille’s career began on the stage in 1900 when he joined Charles Frohman’s theatrical company. In 1902 he married Constance Adams, whom he met while acting in Hearts Are Trumps in Washington D.C. Despite publicists claiming he became an actor to learn how to direct and produce, DeMille later admitted that his primary motivation was to earn a living.
Financial struggles led him to work as a stock theatre actor with his wife from 1904 to 1905. To support himself, DeMille’s mother hired him for her agency, The DeMille Play Company, where he learned the skills of an agent and playwright.
However, DeMille’s interest in theatre waned, and his passion for film was ignited when he saw the 1912 French film Les Amours de la reine Élisabeth.
3. He founded Paramount Pictures
In 1913, DeMille, along with other industry pioneers, founded the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, which eventually evolved into Paramount Pictures. DeMille, with Jesse Lasky, Sam Goldfish (later Samuel Goldwyn) and a group of East Coast businessmen reportedly sketched out the company’s organisation on the back of a restaurant menu. DeMille’s role as director-general involved making films and overseeing the production of the company’s first year of films.
Under DeMille’s leadership, Paramount Pictures thrived and became one of the most influential studios in the Hollywood film industry.
4. His first film made cinematic history
DeMille’s entry into the film industry came in 1914 when he co-directed and co-wrote the silent film The Squaw Man. The film was a critical and commercial success, and it’s popularity with audiences propelled DeMille into the limelight and paved the way for his subsequent directorial endeavours.
Released in 1914, the film was a significant milestone as it was not only DeMille’s directorial debut but also the first feature-length film shot entirely in Hollywood.
This pioneering achievement set the stage for Hollywood to become the epicentre of the American film industry.
5. He was a marketing pioneer
DeMille’s filmmaking career went beyond directing and writing films, he actively engaged in the business side of the industry. He employed innovative strategies to attract larger audiences, such as the ‘roadshow’ exhibition model where, instead of traditional theatre screenings, he transformed film showings into exclusive events.
Renting prestigious venues such as opera houses, DeMille turned them into glamorous settings for his film premieres, which featured live music and even live actors interacting with the audience.
He also understood the power of publicity, using captivating movie posters, newspaper advertisements and interviews to cultivate anticipation for his upcoming projects.
6. He created the art of the Hollywood epic
Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood epic genre, as he revolutionised the concept of grand-scale productions with his extravagant and visually stunning films. His films, such as Cleopatra (1934), showcased grand scale productions that set new standards for spectacle in filmmaking.
DeMille spared no expense in recreating the opulence of ancient Egypt and employed over 2,000 extras and meticulously choreographed crowd scenes. Its budget reached an unprecedented $1.4 million, making it one of the most expensive movies of its time.
Due to DeMille’s distinctive style, characterised by lavish sets, epic storytelling, and meticulous attention to detail, he became widely acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of American cinema.
7. He was a technical trailblazer
DeMille was one of the first to use sound in his films, incorporating synchronised sound effects and dialogue in his 1929 film The Godless Girl, which was groundbreaking at a time when many filmmakers were transitioning from silent films to the ‘talkies’.
He was also a trailblazer in the use of Technicolor, a revolutionary colour process. His use of Technicolor contributed to the immersive storytelling, as seen in his biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1956), where vibrant colours heightened the grandeur of the ancient Egyptian setting.
Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments film trailer.
Image Credit: Public Domain
He also employed innovative visual effects to depict the parting of the Red Sea, with a pioneering use of miniatures, water tanks, and creative editing techniques.
8. He won numerous Academy Awards
Within a span of 5 years and the creation of 30 successful films, DeMille had become the most accomplished director in the American film industry.
His contributions to the film industry were honoured with recognition from the Academy. In 1950, he was presented with an honorary Academy Award, acknowledging his outstanding lifetime achievements in the industry.
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), further solidified DeMille’s place in film history. It triumphed at the 25th Academy Awards by winning the coveted Best Picture award, solidifying his legacy in the annals of cinema.
9. His final film was his longest and most expensive
Released in 1956, The Ten Commandments was DeMille’s final and longest film, running for 3 hours and 39 minutes, and costing $13 million, the highest in Paramount history. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and grossed over $80 million, surpassing the earnings of nearly every other film in history, except Gone with the Wind. DeMille offered 10% of his profit to the crew, a unique practice at the time.
During the filming of The Ten Commandments in Egypt DeMille, aged 73, experienced a severe heart attack after climbing a 107-foot ladder. Although DeMille completed the film, his health suffered further heart attacks.
His daughter Cecilia took over as director while DeMille remained behind the camera with cinematographer Loyal Griggs. This film marked DeMille’s final work
10. He transformed the Hollywood motion picture industry
Cecil B. DeMille’s death on 21 January 1959 marked the end of a prolific and influential era in the history of filmmaking.
Even today, his remake of The Ten Commandments remains one of the highest-grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation. DeMille’s directorial persona, complete with iconic wardrobe and commanding presence, contributed to his celebrity status and added to his image as a larger-than-life figure in the industry.
Despite his commercial success and numerous awards, DeMille faced criticism from critics who dismissed his films as shallow and lacking artistic depth. While his films were not universally embraced by critics, his artistic vision and unmistakable style have left an enduring mark on cinema.