Cecil B. DeMille was one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood history. Out of the seventy films he claimed as his personal productions, all but six turned a profit, and he remained a leading director of "A" list features from his first film in 1914 to his last in 1956.
He was born in Ashfield, Massachusetts on August 12. 1881, the second son of Henry Churchill de Mille and Matilda Beatrice Samuel de Mille. His brother, William C. de Mille, was born July 25, 1878 in Washington, North Carolina. Throughout his life, Cecil used the family spelling "de Mille" in his personal life and used the variation "DeMille" as his professional name.
Cecil's father taught at Columbia University and was a lay minister in the Episcopal Church. In1882, Henry de Mille, who had unfulfilled dreams of becoming an actor, was hired as a play reader with Madison Square Theater in New York He started writing plays and entered into a very successful collaboration with the silver haired "wizard of Broadway," David Belasco.
Henry de Mille died in February, 1893, and his widow turned the family home into a girl's school. Later she established the DeMille Play Company as an agency for plays and playwrights. Cecil attended Pennsylvania Military College and later attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He made his stage debut as an actor on February 21, 1900 in "HEARTS ARE TRUMPS." During his time as a touring actor, Cecil met actress Constance Adams. They were married on August 16, 1902, and would eventually have four children. Cecilia DeMille was their biological child. Katherine, Richard and John DeMille were adopted.
In addition to his work as an actor, Cecil also helped his mother manage the DeMille Play Company, and he directed or stage managed a number of shows. He also wrote or co-wrote plays, including a one act vaudeville drama called "THE ROYAL MOUNTED," which would later serve as the basis for his 1940 film "NORTH WEST MOUNTED POLICE." Following in his father's footsteps, he collaborated with David Belasco on "THE RETURN OF PETER GRIMM," and he also wrote several one-act operettas with vaudeville producer Jesse L. Lasky. This association with Lasky led to a lasting friendship.
By 1913, with theatrical prospects bleak, Lasky, DeMille and Lasky's brother-in-law Samuel Goldfish formed the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company to produce feature length motion picture versions of popular plays. Their first film was "THE SQUAW MAN", released in early1914 to great success. Cecil B. DeMille was named director General of the new company, supervising all production as well as writing and directing his own pictures. Cecil developed a reputation as one of the finest directors in the business with films like "CARMEN" (1915), "THE CHEAT" (1915) and "THE GOLDEN CHANCE" (1916).
Although the Lasky feature Play company had a shaky start, the company's success became assured when it joined with Adolph Zukor's Famous Players Films Company and Frank Garbutt's Bosworth, Inc. to distribute films through the newly formed Paramount Pictures Corporation headed by W. W. Hodkinson. In 1916 the three production companies merged to form the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, and then assumed control of Paramount.
Cecil B. DeMille retained his position as Director General with Famous Players, but he gradually gave up his supervisory duties to concentrate on making his own pictures. His first large scale spectacle, "JOAN THE WOMAN" (1916), received critical acclaim, but met with only modest box-office success, and for the next several years Cecil was forced to give up his dream of "painting on a big canvas."
During the late 1910's and early 1920's, Cecil turned out a successful and influential series of domestic social comedies. Films like "OLD WIVES FOR NEW" (1918), "DON'T CHANGE YOUR HUSBAND" (1919) and "WHY CHANGE YOUR WIFE?" (1920) gained great attention by focusing on married life rather than on the usual boy-meets-girl formula, and DeMille was able to satisfy his desire to make spectacles by inserting elaborate historical flashback sequences into several of these films.
In this period, DeMille also began to expand his business interests. In 1919 he established Mercury Aviation, the first commercial airline service to carry passengers on a regular schedule. He also sat on the board of the Bank of Italy (later Bank of America) and helped establish the bank's relationship with the motion picture industry.
In 1923, Cecil B. DeMille was allowed to try his hand at another large-scale spectacle.
"THE TEN COMMANDMENTS" delivered on the spectacular in a big way--but it also went tremendously over budget and caused a strain in relations between DeMille and Famous Players-Lasky. Although "THE TEN COMMANDMENTS" proved to be one of the most successful films of the silent era, the studio did not renew DeMille's contract.
In 1925, with independent financing, he set up his own studio, Cecil B. DeMille Pictures, Inc. The new company was located at the former Thomas H. Ince studio in Culver City. During its three year existence, DeMille supervised dozens of moderately budgeted program pictures and made annual specials. Although his personal productions "THE VOLGA BOATMAN" and
"THE KING OF KINGS" were major box-office hits, the studio's overall program did not perform well enough to sustain the company. It was absorbed by the Pathe Exchange, Inc. and DeMille signed a three picture deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
DeMille came to M-G-M just as silents were giving way to sound pictures. His first talking picture, "DYNAMITE" (1929), showed great skill in using the new medium and proved to be a modest hit. His next two pictures, "MADAM SATAN" (1930) and a remake of "THE SQUAW MAN," were also well made films, but in the severe economic downturn that led to the Great Depression they proved to be box-office failures. His M-G-M contract was not renewed. After years of success in Hollywood, DeMille, who also took a beating in the stock market collapse in1929, faced the prospect of being unemployed and nearly broke.
In 1931, Cecil and his wife went on an extended European vacation, hoping to stir up film production deals in Great Britain and the Soviet Union, but nothing came of these negotiations. Upon returning to Hollywood, Cecil managed to obtain a one-picture deal to produce and direct "THE SIGN OF THE CROSS." His old studio, Paramount, put up half the budget and DeMille financed the balance on his own. "THE SIGN OF THE CROSS" proved to be a tremendous hit, and DeMille remained with Paramount for the rest of his career.
In 1936 he signed on as host of the Lux Radio Theater a dramatic anthology series that aired over the CBS radio network, and these radio appearances made Cecil B. DeMille a household name. He remained with the show for nearly nine years, but a dispute with his union over a one dollar assessment for political activity brought his radio career to an end. DeMille disagreed with the Union's stance, and refused to be levied a fee for a cause he did not support. Suspended by the union, DeMille was forced to give up his $100,000 a year position on the Lux Radio Theater when he lost a court challenge over the $1 fee.
The incident with AFRA (American Federation of Radio Artists) was not the only union drama in which DeMille’s views became controversial. In 1950, dissention was fomenting within the Screen Director’s Guild over President Truman’s loyalty oath, which DeMille supported. Affidavits had been required of labor organization’s officers stating they had no Communist affiliations. John Ford, who was a Director’s Guild board member, signed such an affidavit, as did the Guild’s president, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. DeMille wanted to extend the oath to the full membership; Mankiewicz did not. On October 22nd, the SDG held a large, contentious meeting where DeMille confronted fellow Republican Mankiewicz. Members were divided on the issue. Later that week, Mankiewicz sent letters to the SDG members asking them to voluntarily sign the oath.
Those days are still today clouded in myth. But facts can’t be ignored. Cecil B. deMille never “testified” against colleagues or “named names” before the House Committee on Un-American Activities or any other Congressional panel, as is often asserted. (In 1948, he did testify before the House Subcommittee on Labor Relations where he championed more freedom in unions.) Nor did he collude with Senator Joseph McCarthy to create the black list.
In 1954, recognizing the unfairness of the broad McCarthy blacklist, he hired several blacklisted people for "THE TEN COMMANDMENTS" (1956) – among them composer Elmer Bernstein and actor Edward G. Robinson. In his autobiography, "All My Yesterdays", Robinson credited DeMille with saving his career
Years after DeMille died Mankiewicz reported that DeMille had read a list of names mispronouncing them. The minutes of the Screen Directors Guild do not support this claim.
To the end of his career, DeMille maintained his ability to produce box-office blockbusters. Whether making stories with American historical themes like "THE PLAINSMAN" (1936) or "REAP THE WILD WIND" (1942); or Biblical spectacles like "SAMSON AND DELILAH" (1949)and his remake of "THE TEN COMMANDMENTS" (1956), Cecil B. DeMille created some of the most successful and widely seen films of all time.
Cecil suffered a heart attack on location in Egypt during the making of the
"THE TEN COMMANDMENTS," but managed to recover sufficiently to finish the picture. He served as uncredited executive producer on "THE BUCCANEER" (1958), leaving the direction to his son-in-law Anthony Quinn (married to Katherine DeMille).
Cecil B. DeMille was planning a film on space exploration at the time of his death on January 21, 1959.