» Cecil Blount DeMille Bust

“If I were starting college I would take an adventurous mindopen to new facts, new truths. Its test is neither shiny novelty, nor moss grown tradition – but simply truth, wherever it is found.”

- Cecil Blount DeMille

Critical Essay By
Alexandra Rose
Dodge College of Film and Media Arts
View Bio

“Give me any two pages of the Bible, and I’ll give you a picture.” -Cecil B. DeMille.
(Born, August 13, 1881 – died January 21, 1959)

 Cecil Blount DeMille’s career plowed relentlessly forward living and dying again and again in waves – on the crests and in the troughs of the “American Dream.”

His overriding spirit reflects both optimism and crushing defeat, picking himself up out of his own ashes and recreating yet another professional victory for himself.

Assailed as an anti-hero for being on the wrong side of history during the McCarthy period of cruel, career-destroying witch hunts while rocketing to motion picture heights never before seen (nor possibly since), DeMille’s trajectory was a living manifesto to living life in extremes. 

On the one hand, he can be viewed as the single most successful filmmaker in Hollywood history with an uncanny ability to plumb the zeitgeist of the moment to deliver just the right entertainment to satisfy audiences’ appetites; and on the other hand, he showed himself a cunning strategist, responsible for wreaking cruel and even unconstitutional “sentences” on his filmmaker colleagues. If we have a third hand: While being neither physically imposing, nor particularly handsome, DeMille excelled in the art of consummate persuasion, aided by a theatrically-trained, superbly commanding voice. Having directed more than seventy films, he’s noteworthy in his ability to have entertained audiences for four generations.

Let’s look at his prodigious accomplishments.

Cecil Blount DeMille was born in a Boston rooming house/hotel, the son of Henry DeMille, an actor/ playwright of Southern heritage, whose family had endured financial ruin. DeMille’s mother, Beatrice Samuel, of Central European, Jewish heritage, created extreme turmoil in both their families when she announced she was marrying Henry, a gentile; and no small part of Henry DeMille’s married life was his running interference between his wife, Beatrice and his mother, who never fully approved of his marital choice.

Following in his father’s thespian footsteps and attending New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, DeMille embarked on a rather ill-fated acting career, often playing in his brother William Churchill DeMille’s plays, in which he often collaborated as a co-writer.

He was able to ply his stage craft in one of the last films of his career, DeMille famously played himself in one pithy scene in the classic film, Sunset Boulevard and proved so credible, the film’s director, the renowned, Billy Wilder is credited with saying,” “DeMille was very good. Much better than a lot of the actors in his pictures. He took direction terrifically. He loved it, he understood it. He was very subtle.”

Furthermore, the stage hardly proved a waste for DeMille; In 1936, as Master of Ceremonies, he hosted a long-running radio show in Hollywood (the Lux Radio Theater) while simultaneously active as a film director, which launched him as a well-loved radio star to audiences who had often enjoyed the magnetism and grandeur of his mammoth historic epics. Contributing to the success of his films, the radio scripts that were broadcast were often his own productions read by the most renowned stars of the day – Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. America listened in thrall of DeMille’s voice for nine years – until 1945.

DeMille did not tarry long in his early acting career, which he deemed unsuccessful, as he starred in a series of financial flops and was remarkably unremembered as an actor.

In 1911, DeMille met Jesse Lasky, a sometimes highly solvent Vaudeville producer, who had recently faced an enormous financial loss, and they formed a partnership, which suffered miserable productions and losses in the theatrical world. They further teamed with Lasky’s brother-in-law, Sam Goldfish (later, Goldwyn); and on the spur-of-the-moment, decided to exit the theater world in favor of an exciting, new technology -  motion pictures.

DeMille’s directing debut in 1914,The Squaw Man proves to establish the tradition of the Hollywood “remake,” as DeMille remade his own film on three separate occasions in three separate decades. The first film, a financial success, was produced as a silent film; the second, for Famous Players-Lasky (which became Paramount) in 1918 – was shot largely because DeMille believed so much in that particular story. The third very expensive remake, as a “talkie,” which performed disastrously at the box office, rang the death knell for his three-year, largely unsuccessful relationship with M-G-M.

Interestingly, among DeMille’s first directorial endeavors, two love stories (The Cheat and Squaw Man) featured interracial romance – a verboten practice in polite society, yet sizzling hot topics for the time period – especially for women, whom early filmmakers realized, made up the largest percentages of their audiences. It was noted that women screamed and swooned during the performances of The Cheat, largely due to the sexy,  yet racially “forbidden,” Japanese star. The film was soon re-edited and re-intertitled to change the nationality of the lustful, wealthy Japanese businessman to a Burmese ivory dealer to smooth U.S. – Japanese relations, both allies in the Great War against Germany.

An early and ardent supporter of women in film and possessing a heightened sense of aesthetic, DeMille broke ground again by elevating pioneer costume designer, Clare West, to the Head Studio Designer at Famous Players-Lasky to oversee all costume design for the entirety of the company’s production slate, as he deemed her work an integral element of a film’s overall production design. Furthermore, as his career grew in stature, he labored long hours in the editing suite for most of his lifetime with Anne Bauchens, his highly-cherished editor. And one cannot omit his foundational, three decade “partnership” with screenwriter, Jeanie MacPherson, whose screenplay credit adorns his films from 1915 to 1930. As film historian, Shelley Stamp aptly quotes, "From her brain has sprung the Big Ideas for all the Cecil B. DeMille features: from her hand has come the completed scenarios replete with original business for the picture dramas that have stood, each one of them, as milestones in the photoplay’s progress"

Clad in his characteristic high leather boots, riding jodhpurs, a casual, open-necked shirt and introducing the use of the megaphone on set, DeMille further proved his uniqueness as he was one of the few renowned silent era directors to succeed into directing the “talkies” and mastering all the challenges early sound production brought to the set. He seemed to make the transition with ease – journeying all the way from the sweaty, hoi-polloi of the penny nickelodeons to the grand film palaces of wide screens and stereophonic sound – no easy feat, and many did not succeed in transitioning.

After DeMille suffered disastrous financial losses on the stock market and after the Great Depression, the film business and thousands of filmmakers lives and careers were suffering and in extreme disarray. DeMille decided, along with notable directors, Frank Borzage, Lewis Milestone, and King Vidor, to found The Directors Guild, Inc.  DeMille is quoted as reasoning, “With Wall Street in control, the directors need an alliance similar to United Artists; but with this difference: The director does better work as he grows older – the actor, poorer…the sellers of films have been exploiting the makers of film long enough.  It is the writers and directors who make a picture – not the executive in his office.” This idea never crystalized into reality.

In 1932, Hollywood closed its doors to DeMille and his lavish extravaganzas. His career dead, he took another huge risk. Pledging the only money he had left after the Depression flattened his bank accounts, DeMille barely managed to cajole his way back into his old “partner” studio, Paramount, by offering to personally finance one-half of the lurid religious epic, The Sign of the Cross, which ultimately enthralled audiences and secured his position at Paramount until the end of his career.

DeMille proved to be one of the more vocal and influential conservatives in Hollywood by supporting the House of Un-American Activities, and the subsequent adoption of the Waldorf Statement which called for the studios to remove any employee who would not attest under oath that she or he was not a Communist. (HUAC) was a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives that employed controversial repressive and intimidating tactics. Those who refused to comply with the committee’s questioning, which often demanded that they provide the names of other colleagues to testify before the committee, were blacklisted thus losing their jobs and effectively their careers and livelihoods.  They were no longer allowed to ply their crafts professionally in the United States, and many fled to survive by working abroad.

DeMille’s politics ultimately spawned his undoing in the Hollywood community. The rabid ferocity with which he attacked and accused his liberal friends and colleagues of being communists backfired as the toll of ruined careers of so many great talents began to mount. Calmer attitudes finally prevailed, and the liberal wave which had always been warring against DeMille, his cronies, and the FBI gained momentum and active followers.

In 1956, DeMille directed his “curtain-call” film, a glorious, monumental spectacle shot in Technicolor and a remake of his 1923 mega-hit, religious epic, The Ten Commandments. Its enormous canvas and state-of-the art special effects garnered it Academy Award nominations as well as well as a special place in the hearts of Americans. Besides becoming the film by which DeMille will always be remembered, it survives as a symbolic tribute to his lasting contribution to American cinema – the creation of tent-pole, blockbuster films – the mainstay of the Hollywood studio system today.

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Cecil Blount DeMille bust

March 1, 1999

Cinetech, Inc.

Designation Name
The Marion Knott Filmmaker in Residence Endowed Chair in the School of Film and Television

Miriam Lodder

Campus Location
Between Leatherby Libraries and Argyros Forum, Orange Campus