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Cecil B. DeMille Biography
Cecil B. DeMille was born on August 12, 1881 in Ashfield, Massachusetts. He was the younger of two sons born to his parents Henry Churchill DeMille and his wife Mathilda Beatrice. Henry taught English at Columbia University, preached sermons from the pulpit and wrote plays. His mother, Mathilda turned their home into a school for girls when her husband died and the tuition paid to send Cecil’s brother, William to Columbia University. Cecil was sent to the Pennsylvania Military College. But she is best known for establishing The DeMille Play Company.
Cecil ran away from military college to join the recruits to fight in the Spanish-American War, only to be rejected since he was too young. His mother then enrolled him as a student at the Academy of the Dramatic Arts in New York City after he had shown interest in the theater. While acting, he met his future wife, Constance Adams whom he married on August 16, 1902.
His debut as an actor was on February 21, 1900 in a production of Hearts Art Trumps. Cecil collaborated with his brother William on may plays and while doing so he met Jesse L. Lasky with whom he would have a lifelong relationship. After seeing The Great Train Robbery in 1913, DeMille and Lasky were excited about motion pictures and immediately decided to form the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play company. Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) also joined them. They purchased the rights for Edwin Milton Royle’s play, The Squaw Man. After deciding that shooting on location in Arizona was not appropriate they decided to go west to the end of the railroad line, Los Angeles.
DeMille rented a big old barn at what is now the northeastern corner of Vine and Selma to house their company. Here is where they began the interior shots for The Squaw Man. DeMille was already showing his interest in the epic since The Squaw Man was the first full length length (six reels) film. However, it was not until he made Joan the Woman in 1917 that he realized his true interest in filming the spectacular.
During his first years as Director Producer he was held in high regard by his peers. Among directors, only his name and those of D.W. Griffith and Alfred Hitchcock were really sufficient in themselves to attract top box office trade.
DeMille and his wife Constance raised a large family, a natural daughter and two sons and a daughter who were adopted, John, Richard, and Katherine. Katherine was to act in many of his films.
DeMille had many other interests which included:
Founder, 1919 Mercury Aviation Company, one of the first American airlines to carry air freight and passengers commercially on regularly scheduled runs.Vice President and chairman of motion picture loans for commercial National Trust and Savings Banks of Los Angeles, which was purchased by Bank of Italy and later became Bank of America. President, DeMille Foundation for Political Freedom President, Motion Picture Relief Fund Chairman of the Motion Picture Division of the Community Chest of Los Angeles On the Board of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and council of Motion Picture Organizations.
Three times president Association of Motion Picture producers.
When sound came, he was ready and able to accept the challenge. His fourth sound film, The Sign of the Cross, was truly the beginning of his sound career and marked the way for all his future films. Most of his films, from then on were historic or biblical epics for which he is best known.
During this period, he was also the producer of the Lux Radio Theater from June 1, 1936 to January 22, 1945. Part of its success was his name recognition. He left over a dispute regarding Proposition Twelve which is explained in my Lux Radio Theater section.
For his whole life he continued planning and producing and was working on a film about the boy scouts when he died. Early in the morning of January 21, 1959, he died at the age of 77. DeMille will be remembered for his historic/biblical epics, but I hope he will also be known for the innovations he provided to the film industry.
DeMille was the best known director in the world, decorated by many governments and blessed by the Pope, and finally he was singled out by the Industry that he had fathered from its early days to receive its highest recognition, The Academy Award, for his next film. The Greatest Show on Earth. Strangely, he received only three Oscars in his 45 year career. First in 1950 as a general recognition of thirty seven years of brilliant showmanship, given as a sop to hollywood’s conscience; and secondly, for Greatest Show, his 69th and the weakest of his last great films, again as an apology that perhaps he had been neglected. Then, as if to verify what had merely been suggested by his second Oscar, the AMPAS voted him the Irving Thalberg Award, which is bestowed on rare occasions to a filmmaker for outstanding years of producing and directing.
The following is a list of his awards and nominations:
- 1957 Nominated Oscar Best Picture for: Ten Commandments, The (1956)
- 1953 Won Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award
- 1952 Oscar Best Picture for: Greatest Show on Earth, The
- 1950 Won Honorary Award Distinguished motion picture pioneer for 37 years of brilliant showmanship.
- 1935 Nominated Oscar Best Picture for: Cleopatra (1934)
- 1953 Directors Guild of America, USA Won Lifetime Achievement Award
- 1953 Golden Globes, USA Won Golden Globe Best Director for: Greatest Show on Earth, The (1952)
- 1952 Won Cecil B. DeMille Award
THE DEMILLE FAMILY
DeMille was not the only talented person in his family. Both his parents, as well as, his brother and niece and an adopted daughter were well known in their own right. The family ancestors came to the U.S. in the late 1600’s. DeMille’s mother was a Samuel and of the Jewish faith, but his father was Episcopal and, at one time considered becoming an Episcopal priest. DeMille liked to talk about the genealogy of the DeMilles and the family can trace its roots back to around the year 1280, when one Gillis De Mille was born in Flanders.
Henry DeMille was a teacher and poet, as well as, a playwright. He collaborated as actor and writer with producer/playwright, David Belasco with whom he had a very successful career.
Cecil, like his father, began his career as a playwright. After his father’s death, his mother turned the family home into a day and boarding school for girls and boys and advertised herself as an author’s representative, a nice word for an agent which was not and accepted occupation for a woman of the time. However, both ventures enabled her to send her sons to school.
William was a playwright like his younger brother, but when Cecil moved onto motion pictures by founding the Lasky company, William didn’t immediately agree that it was a good idea. However, later when he saw the success it could be he joined his brother in California. He was a screenwriter on many of Cecil’s early silent films and became a film director in his own right. You can see a list of his credits at the Internet Movie Database.
Agnes DeMille was Cecil’s niece, daughter of William. She was a dancer and was was an innovator, like DeMille because she is responsible for the revolution in the broadway musical in the forties. She was the choreographer for Oklahoma in 1943 which revolutionized dance for theater. Gone were lines of chorus girls and boys interrupting the story; now cowpokes and their rural sweethearts and tavern cancan girls danced their roles. The dance became part of the story. Oklahoma introduced ballet as part of the story and was truly innovative.
Katherine DeMille, Cecil’s adopted daughter also became a successful actor in films and was in many of her father’s films like, Madam Satan and The Crusades. She married Anthony Quinn who later took over direction of the remake of The Buccaneer for DeMille who had to step back and just produce because of poor health. See Katherine’s credits at the Internet Movie Database.
The Demille’s were truly creative and interesting people and I believe that Cecil’s success was because of the wonderful family that supported and fostered his creative genius.I strongly suggest that you read the book which depicts the Demille Family in detail by Anne Edwards for further details regarding the DeMille family:
See more biographical information about DeMille at: Internet Movie Database