b. Cecil Blount deMille, 12th August 1881, Ashfield, Massachusetts, USA
d. 21st January 1959, Hollywood, California, USA
d. 21st January 1959, Hollywood, California, USA
Legendary producer-director Cecil B. DeMille, (1) affectionately known as C.B., was a seminal cofounder of Hollywood and a progenitor of Paramount studio who became a mega-star of the American cinema during its Golden Age. He quickly became the archetypal image of a movie director; especially when wearing his trademark puttees, barking orders through a megaphone, and having an attentive chair boy two lock-steps behind his every move. This iconic but frequently unsung auteur helped turned an obscure Californian orange grove into themovie centre of the world and made “Hollywood” synonymous with success. DeMille’s life and career was itself an epic adventure. Not only did he help instigate the West-coast genesis of this billion dollar industry, but he adroitly navigated the arrival of sound films, the introduction of colour films, the Great Depression, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, shifting demographics, volatile fads, Communist hysteria, the challenge of television, cut-throat competitors, interfering bosses, controlling censors, agitating politicians, uppity actors and numerous Hollywood scandals involving drugs, sex and murder. (2) He survived them all, and whereas vast distances, massive workloads, personal crises and sickness could slow down the indefatigable DeMille, only death could stop him.
This self-confessed pop culture professional (3) with over seventy feature films to his credit became “Hollywood’s most successful money-director,” (4) and although originally remembered as the “bathtub king,”(5) DeMille is best remembered today for his monstrous mob scenes and spectacular epics, or as Aubrey Malone cheekily put it: “In the beginning was the epic, and the epic was with DeMille and the epic was DeMille.” (6)Alongside his flamboyant showmanship and international reputation as “the Barnum of Hollywood films,” (7) he is frequently identified with his Oscar-winning circus picture The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and his four indelible Bible pictures The Ten Commandments (1923), The King of Kings (1927), Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956) plus “the near impossibility of mentioning his name without the epithet “master of the biblical epic” attached to it.” (8) And yet, despite DeMille’s fame, fortune and fecundity, he still remains Hollywood’s best-known unknown. As his biographer Simon Louvish put it: “For such an auteur, of such world-wide renown, the ignorance with regard to his best work must surely be considered peculiar, if not astounding,” (9) and as film scholar Eric Smoodin lamented: “De Mille rarely receives the serious academic recognition and study that he deserves.” (10)
(11) indeed, “no one on the Hollywood scene ever contradicted his own legends more consistently than he did as you got to know him better and better.” (12) For example, Cecil was pegged as a sentimental Salvationist, a warm-hearted man-of-God and a cinematic lay preacher, but also as a salacious cineaste who proffered epic sex-and-sin behind a moral façade. He was a Freemason, profoundly religious but a non-church-going Christian with a strong belief in reincarnation who had an Episcopalian lay minister father, a Sephardic Jewish mother and worked in an industry dominated by Jewish immigrants. DeMille was a conservative moralist who married for life, but had a few mistresses condoned by his wife, and was loyal to them all, and they to him. He was a director of perfection and also a hokum merchant toying with the historically absurd as he fed back to the public their dreams of desire. He was a Victorian age man and a trained actor steeped in the American theatre, but he championed modern social issues concerning marriage, divorce and romance in his films. He pioneered the science and art of filmmaking and acted as a salesman for Hollywood and America, but was accused of being mired in the past, uninventive and disingenuous.
DeMille was an archconservative, a staunch American patriot, a rabid anti-Communist, and an anti-unionist who joined a union and picketed. He briefly held political office, spied for the FBI and the CIA, was a lover of democracy and freedom, but tyrannical on the set, a staunch Paramount company man but an auteur individualist. He loved creative filmmaking, success and profits and dedicated much of his energy to his Lux Theatre Radio career and then gave it away along with a fortune to social causes, favoured and distressed employees. He was an intensely private man who proactively courted the public and made himself a superstar greater than any of his film stars, yet he stayed loyal, kind and generous behind his carefully crafted enfant terrible façade. As Robert S. Birchard put it: “it may well be that Cecil B. DeMille was Cecil B. deMille’s greatest creation.” (13) The intelligentsia deemed DeMille a vulgar artist catering to the common folk, but the public loved this master of mass entertainment and voted for him via bums-on-seats to make him rich, famous and continuously in work. His biblical epics were highly recommended for children by priests and parishioners, but they were also accused of having thrown more sex-and-sin into the audience’s faces for longer than anyone else dared to, and so were either lauded as pinnacles of film faith or derided as devilry and debauchery. His filmic oeuvre was accused of being based upon pedestrian formulas, but frequently overlooked were the many interlocking sacred and secular subtexts deftly engineered therein. Consequently, critical evaluations of his films and career rarely went “beyond the valley of the wisecrack” (14) and so DeMille’s reputation is in urgent need of rehabilitation, rectification and renewal.
2. In the Beginning
Born on 12 August 1881, the son of theatre parents Henry Churchill DeMille and Matilda Beatrice “Bebe” DeMille (nee Samuel), Cecil became an icon of the American cinema when he changed careers from theatre to film, moved from New York to California, and made movies instead of stage plays. As Director-General of the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co. (nowadays Paramount studios), he rented a barn at the corner of Vine and Selma in Hollywood and made his first film, a feature length western, The Squaw Man (1914), about embezzlement, interracial romance and murder. (15) This commercially successful debut was quickly followed by virile frontier tales The Call of the North (1914) and The Virginian (1914) before he changed to modern tales of life and love withWhat’s-His-Name (1914) and The Man from Home (1914) then returned to frontier tales with The Rose of the Rancho (1914), The Girl of the Golden West (1915) and the civil war adventure The Warrens of Virginia (1915). Changing genres to please the public in pursuit of the exotic, The Unafraid (1915) dealt with spies, romance and two Montenegrin brothers, The Captive (1915) focused upon a Montenegrin protagonist, warring Turks and inter-ethnic romance, The Wild Goose Chase (1915) was set in France with two American grandfathers trying to romantically match their children, whilst The Arab(1915) enhanced foreigner exoticism alongside romance and inter-religious discord.
(16) French director Rene Clair called it “one of the great accomplishments of the American cinema,”(17) and so with it “deMille showed he was a master of the film narrative.” (18) The Golden Chance (1916) dealt with alcoholism, love and blackmail, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1916) highlighted moonshiners, romance and murder, whilst The Heart of Nora Flynn (1916) focused on love, deception and scandal. The Dream Girl(1916) explored romantic fantasies of rescuing white nights, alcohol and deception, whilst Maria Rosa (1916) dealt with love, death and romance starring opera singer-cum-film star Geraldine Farrar, who also starred inTemptation (1916), about a poor opera singer, and in Joan the Woman (1917) as its heroine, Joan of Arc. Although sacred servants featured throughout his early cinema, this was DeMille’s first major religious film and employed his trademark resort to historical flashbacks (which itself subtly reinforced DeMille’s belief in reincarnation).
A Romance of the Redwoods (1917) starred Mary Pickford, America’s sweetheart, in a tale of innocence and evil, love and deception, quickly followed by her starring role in The Little American (1917) about love and war, almost-rape and patriotic deception. The Woman God Forgot (1917) continued DeMille’s penchant for exotic themes with a tale about Cortez and Montezuma, love and sacrifice in Ancient Mexico followed by The Devil Stone (1917), another exotic tale about superstition and covetousness, murder and marriage when a cursed piece of emerald jewellery that long-ago belonged to a Norse Queen is found anew and spreads its evil. With his moody The Whispering Chorus (1918), DeMille experimented with a psychological thriller and photographic double exposure to depict the desperation of his doomed protagonist who had faked his own death, but in his new identity he is accused of being his own murderer! However, the public were cool to his critic-pleasing expressionist tale of guilt and redemption and so he abandoned this high art experiment and embarked upon a remake of his groundbreaking popular western also entitled The Squaw Man (1918), and then an extensive series of domestic dramas in pursuit of audience popularity and profits.
3. The Marriage and Mayhem Films
DeMille-the-businessman quickly latched onto the Jazz Age preoccupations of wealth and sex with his comedy of manners and romantic farces. Old Wives for New (1918) dealt with marriage haste and spousal neglect, We Can’t Have Everything (1918) focused upon spousal neglect, martial boredom and affairs, whilst Till I Come Back to You (1918) explored the potential heartache of marriage with foreigners when war broke out and they are on opposing sides. Don’t Change Your Husband (1919) explored slovenly partners and the perils of hasty divorce whilst For Better, For Worse (1919) focused upon romantic rivals, mistaken motivations and re-marriage bigamy when the first husband was not dead merely wounded in war. Male and Female (1919) explored the malleability of domestic, social and romantic roles when a group of pampered aristocrats were shipwrecked on a deserted island and only survive under the leadership of their class inferior, the butler. Why Change Your Wife?(1920) dealt with mismatched partners, hasty divorce and the perils of remarriage, Something to Think About(1920) explored the problem of marrying for the wrong reasons, whilst Forbidden Fruit (1921) was essentially a retelling of The Golden Chance with an elaborate Cinderella storyline added as a flashback sequence.
The Affairs of Anatol (1921) dealt with the problem of still seeking the ideal partner after marriage and the destructiveness of persistent fault-finding, Fool’s Paradise (1921) explored the perilous path of true love whilst avoiding deception, jealousy and heartlessness, whilst Saturday Night (1922) examined the negative consequences of marrying outside one’s own social class. Manslaughter (1922) highlighted the disastrous consequences of hedonism, including a flashback to a decadent Ancient Rome, whilst Adam’s Rib (1923) dealt with the consequences of ignoring one’s spouse in the single-minded pursuit of wealth. Overall, as Charles Lockwood argued, DeMille “shrewdly sensed that Americans wanted to forget about suffering and sacrifice, and he started making sophisticated modern comedies that showed beautiful people wearing fashionable clothes, living and partying in expensively furnished homes. Drinking and adultery were very much in evidence (although true love and legal marriage always won by the end of the film).” (19) Many of these films starred “the uniquely beautiful and sophisticated Gloria Swanson, who, in retrospect, was the first and most enduring exponent of the new woman on screen” (20) and wherein “De Mille implicitly preached that modern women should protect their marriages by adopting the vamp’s erotic weapons and that men should realize that their wives needed affection and sex as well as food and shelter.” (21)
4. The Genesis of DeMille’s Biblical Epics and Hollywood Lay Preacher Reputation
As the son of an Episcopalian lay reader who read the Good Book to his children regularly, it is somewhat appropriate that the dramatic enactment of Holy Writ finally found its feature film expression within DeMille’s pious three-part picture The Ten Commandments (1923). This classic silent film depicted the giving of the Ten Commandments in ancient times, the disastrous consequences of breaking these holy laws in modern-day America starring two sons, one good and one bad, and a flashback scene to Jesus forgiving a leprous outcast woman. (22) Its Moses story with dramatic parting of the Red Sea and DeMille’s trademark aesthetic of astonishment wowed audiences, but more importantly, it helped saved the very existence of Hollywood itself. It did this by appeasing the women’s groups and fulminating fanatics who were in flock shock over the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle rape-and-manslaughter trial, the murder of William Desmond Taylor, the drug addiction and death of Wallace Reid, and numerous lesser contretemps. The Arbuckle case in particular generated intense fear for as Louis B. Mayer confided to King Vidor: ““If this pressure keeps up, there won’t be any more film business.” It wasn’t a case of moving to Florida or New York. The moguls firmly believed they faced a total, complete, and permanent closure.” (23)
However, from desperately wanting to close down this Sodom-by-the-sea, DeMille demonstrated the religious-cum-ethical possibilities of Hollywood cinema, thereby assuaging the anger of the moral vigilantes and simultaneously championing a new movie market, genre and trend. As Vincent Sherman noted regarding The Ten Commandments (1923): “Along with its success, it achieved a little-known or recognized result: it made moving pictures respectable in the small towns of the south. Prior to this, the churches and their ministers regarded films as evil and the work of the devil. But this film, which condemned greed and extolled morality, was the catalyst” (24) that quickly permeated throughout America and helped save an entire industry that was soon to be under the tight control of movie censor Will H. Hays, the czar of Hollywood.
DeMille’s directorial, religious and business triumph was followed by Triumph (1924), another morality tale about wealth and rivalry between two sons, one good and one bad. Feet of Clay (1924) allowed DeMille to explore his penchant for reincarnation in a strange story about suicide, soul travel and romantic love triangles.The Golden Bed (1925) was DeMille’s last film for Paramount and continued the themes of disastrous marriages, love triangles and death coupled with an extravagant candy ball sequence. The Road to Yesterday(1925) marked the first film from his new studio, Cecil B. DeMille Pictures, and deftly mixed marriage with reincarnation using a disastrous train crash to flashback to medieval England to explore the past life roots of the couple’s modern-day marital problems. Next, The Volga Boatman (1926) was DeMille’s exotic Russophile film about revolution, love triangles and class rivalries.
The King of Kings (1927) marked DeMille’s triumphal return to the biblical epic with this innovative story about Jesus (H. B. Warner). It was DeMille’s favourite film, (25) it quickly “became the template for Jesus movies for the next eighty years,” (26) and “Some critics still consider it the best Jesus movie ever made.” (27) It featured a trademark love triangle between Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene, an epic crucifixion scene, and a very satisfying solution to apparently contrary scriptural accounts of Judas’ demise. Whereas Matthew 27:5 said Judas “went and hanged himself” and Acts 1:18 reported that “falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out” (i.e., hanging versus disembowelment), DeMille had his despairing Judas atop a small cliff face with a tree branch jutting out over a precipice. He slowly wrapped a noose around his neck and (unseen) launched himself into oblivion. His dead body is seen dangling from the jutting branch when an earthquake linked to Jesus’ death uprooted the tree and it, along with his body, plummets into the ravine below to be dashed open upon impact, thereby, cinematically harmonising the “contradictory” scriptural accounts (i.e., Matthew dealt with the mode of the suicide whilst Acts dealt with the results), thus verifying DeMille’s status as a master of the biblical epic. With The Godless Girl (1928), DeMille’s last silent film, he explored the anti-religious viewpoint—atheism, as well as the brutality of reform school life. Its protagonists turn aside from Christian teaching and suffer terribly until they regained their faith in God again. DeMille gave up being a studio mogul, sold his business and returned to full-time directing with MGM.
5. Sound Cinema, DeMille’s MGM Interlude and His Second Coming at Paramount
Dynamite (1929) marked DeMille’s first sound film and first MGM production. It dealt with death, mismatched marriage and wedding for the wrong reasons, all against a mining industry backdrop including a catastrophic cave-in that needed a (very noisy) stick of dynamite to escape. Madam Satan (1930) followed, which was his first-time foray into the musical genre as he explored the relationship need of reinventing oneself in order to recapture a wondering spouse. This erotic hunt featured a showy Ballet Mechanique and another industrial disaster when the giant dirigible hosting the costume ball was struck by lightning and plummeted to earth forcing participants to parachute to safety. The Squaw Man (1931) was DeMille’s last MGM production and third remake of his miscegenetic western about fortitude and sorrow, but although competently done, his contract was not renewed. The box-office success of The Sign of the Cross (1932) marked DeMille’s triumphal return to religion, Paramount studio and a secure future with his former home studio. Technically, the film was a Roman/Christian film and not a biblical epic, (28) but trod upon holy ground nonetheless with its Neronic story of heterosexual and homosexual temptation, catastrophic conflagration, and transcendental sacrifice set against the obligatory backdrop of Christian versus pagan rivalry.
With This Day and Age (1933), DeMille returned to contemporary America and the crime genre in a daring tale of youth and corruption involving rough justice, torture and the inevitable romantic reconciliations. Four Frightened People (1934) dealt with bubonic plague, a perilous jungle trek, cloth-stealing chimps and attacking pygmies as four mismatched persons faced severe survival challenges and forevermore were transformed; furthermore, “Who but DeMille would give audiences a Pekinese-toting feminist lecturing South Sea natives on the liberating rewards of birth control.” (29) Returning to the ancient world, Cleopatra (1934) retold the love triangle between Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony and the very sexy Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) utilising Busby Berkley style showmanship and the deft deployment of erotic visual metaphors. The Crusades (1935) continued DeMille’s penchant for love triangles and historical reconstructions but this time tinged with action packed religious history as the holy war between Saracens and Christians was re-enacted. It is especially noteworthy for portraying Saladin as a peace-loving honourable man whilst the Christians were treacherous and blood-thirsty; especially when Saladin said: “I offer peace to you, foes of Islam” but Richard the Lion-Hearted responded by drawing his sword and saying: “We’re going to slaughter you.” DeMille’s positive portrayal of Saladin as a great and holy leader won the favour of Muslims worldwide including Egyptian Prime Minister, Colonel Gamal Abdal Nasser and General Abdel Hakin Amer who claimed it was their favourite film and they had watched it over twenty times. (30)
DeMille was a staunch patriot and a true believer in America’s manifest destiny, which he explored within his exciting Americana films. Starting with The Plainsman (1937), he examined the mythology of the Wild West and its attempt to civilise the American frontier. It starred Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane (with Buffalo Bill Cody) and involved menacing Indians, love triangles and renegade gun-runners as it chartered the fate of these American icons using Hollywood icons, Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur. The Buccaneer (1938) was a love triangle adventure starring the dashing Jean Lafitte (Frederic March) and his pirates of the Louisiana bayous who came to the aide of General Jackson and his backwoodsmen against the British during the War of 1812, thus saving New Orleans for the Americans. Union Pacific (1939) was DeMille’s epic saga about the construction of the transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific. It had a love triangle involving Barbara Stanwyck, corrupt politicians, saboteurs, gamblers and besieging Indians as it lionised the technological taming of the American frontier; symbolised by driving in a golden spike at Promontory Point. “Stanford University lent DeMille the actual Golden Spike for the film, but a “stand-in” was substituted when it came time for the silver-headed sledge to drive it into the laurelwood tie.” (31)
North West Mounted Police (1940) was set against the Riel Rebellion of 1885 when Indians and half-breeds instituted civil war by forming an independent Metis nation. DeMille’s storyline involved a love triangle, political cooperation and the lawmen services of the Canadian Mounties and a lone Texas Ranger (Gary Cooper) in pursuit of a murderer wanted in both Texas and Canada. With his sea spectacle Reap the Wild Wind (1942), DeMille returned to the theme of piracy in a love triangle story about corrupt business practices that flourished along Key West (e.g., salvage companies causing wrecks to be first on the reclamation scene). Starring John Wayne and Ray Milland as romantic and business rivals, it featured major underwater photography with men in diving suits, a thrilling battle with a giant squid, and multiple drowning deaths before the truth is outed. Set during World War II, The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944) was a modern-day biopic about heroic medical missionary and Naval Commander Dr. Corydon M. Wassell (Gary Cooper). Against orders, he selflessly led a convoy of desperately injured American seamen through a Japanese gauntlet of boats and planes to safety in Australia, thereby expecting court-marshal but earning respect, admiration and the Navy Cross for his devotion to duty. InUnconquered (1947), DeMille told a spirited historical tale about the American frontier colonies involving the defence of Fort Pitt, a love triangle, slavery, gun-runners, potential court-marshal, British redcoats, menacing red-skins and religious trickery when Captain Holden (Gary Cooper) appeared in a flash of gunpowder smoke and passed himself off as a god in order to save Abby Hale (Paulette Goddard) from a tortured death, thus finding happiness, peace and security together.
Samson and Delilah (1949) marked DeMille’s spectacular return to the biblical epic with a love triangle story based upon Judges 13-16. Starring Samson (Victor Mature), Delilah (Hedy Lamarr), Semadar (Angela Lansbury) and the Saran of Gaza (George Sanders), this phenomenally successful production was a “watershed film” (32)that triggered the 1950-60s rash of American Bible pictures. As movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck enviously claimed: “Samson and Delilah is basically a sex story and when you can get one in biblical garb apparently you can open your own mint.” (33) Scripturally speaking, the Samson saga is “the story of sexy stories…always an entertaining and sacred scandal sheet” (34) that “contains all the features that make for a top-rated movie—excessive violence, romance and sex, and R-rated humor. No wonder it attracted DeMille!” (35) However, frequently overlooked by critics and audiences too busy looking over Delilah-the-biblical-babe were the interlocking sacred subtexts deftly engineered therein that helped make DeMille “virtually the Sunday school teacher for the nation.” (36) Next, DeMille made his Oscar-winning circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth(1952), which focused upon the perils and pleasures, life and love triangle traumas of this adventurous life style. It starred Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde and Dorothy Lamour and incorporated DeMille’s penchant for hazardous tricks, spectacular train crashes and subtle social commentary with a storyline about a clown-disguised doctor (James Stewart) who is wanted by the police for the mercy killing of his wife.
8. The Value and Legacy of DeMille Today
Before DeMille died he claimed: “my ministry was making religious movies and getting more people to read the Bible than anyone else ever has,” (45) but whatever his subject matter, DeMille “always seemed to have the capacity of serving both God and Mammon simultaneously.” (46) He was certainly “Hollywood’s king of epic film,” (47) “a giant figure in American film history” (48) and arguably the “Golden Age of Hollywood summed up in a single man.” (49) He was a trailblazing pioneer who loved profits and showmanship whilst simultaneously addressing serious social issues such as marriage haste, unrequited love, traitorous partners, slovenly and incompatible partners, marital sex and romance, honour-in-marriage, justice, duty, destiny, suicide, reincarnation, soul travel, birth control, euthanasia etc. In short, he repeatedly filled studio purses creatively fusing together social, political, religious and artistic ideas into entertaining feature films that audiences eagerly awaited and craved for again and again. In 1993 and 1995, The Cheat (1915) and The Ten Commandments(1956) respectively were selected, honoured and preserved by the United States National Film Registry (Library of Congress) for being culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.
If success is measured by exposure and being on the lips of others, then DeMille was clearly a success because “the total audience for all Mr. deMille’s pictures, from 1913 to 1959, is no less than 4,000,000,000 people” (50) and many times that figure today, half-a-century later! Furthermore, his cinematic offerings are still regularly screened around the world; particularly The Ten Commandments (1956), which nowadays has become a “family favorite, a good old-fashioned epic, a television tradition…a staple of American popular culture.” (51) If success is measured by the amount of money generated then DeMille succeeded again because his “seventy pictures produced during the years 1913-56 had grossed $750,000,000 by the time of his death in 1959,” (52) and who knows how many billions in today’s money! In short, “Cecil made financial gold mines.” (53) If success is measured by how well one achieved one’s personal goals, then DeMille is again a winner because his filmic oeuvre matched his passionate mission to tell an absorbing story (frequently against a background of great historical events) that itself evolved into a unique and internationally recognisable signature style—the DeMille epic. (54) As directorial peer George Cukor confessed: “The way that man could tell a story was fascinating—you were riveted to your seat. That’s exactly what he was: a great, great story teller…That was De Mille’s great talent and the secret behind his popular success.” (55)
What better legacy than fame, fortune, fecundity, longevity, popularity, peer recognition, a distinctive auteur signature, mastership of the American biblical epic, and internationally acclaimed classics of world cinema could a passionate professional filmmaker leave behind; in addition to being a seminal cofounder and saviour of both Paramount and Hollywood? DeMille’s death in 1959 “was truly the end of an epoch in the Hollywood he helped to create” (56) just as his directorial debut had signposted its auspicious beginnings. As his adversarial niece Agnes de Mille summed up his life: “Cecil B. DeMille had been largely instrumental in building a world industry and founding a city; he had taken crucial steps in the shaping of a new art. He was a dramatist more widely known to his contemporaries than any other in history, and he was a religious propagandist with an appeal that, although superficial, was possibly the most popular of our time in terms of numbers reached within a short space of time.” (57) However, upon closer inspection, DeMille was not superficial, but rather, multilayered. There was only one C.B. and chances are that we will never see his likes again, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas notwithstanding.