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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,612

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This is the grave of Cecil B. DeMille.

Born in Ashfield, Massachusetts in 1881, at his parents’ vacation home, DeMille grew up in New York City. His parents were well-off literary people. His father wrote plays with David Belasco and Cecil would watch them rehearse, which created his own interest in theater. But his father died of typhoid in 1893. Her mother had to support herself and did so by creating a private finishing school for girls in her home. DeMille was sent to military school for awhile and escaped to try and enlist in the Spanish-American War, though he was rejected as too young. So he ended up at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, an easy fallback since he had free tuition due to his father previously having been a board member.

DeMille started rising through the New York theater world, put on a lot of plays, did Hamlet, worked with his brother on plays, and also worked with his dad’s old friend David Belasco. But DeMille began to tire of the theater. He wasn’t making much money or having much success. His mother had started a theater agency of her own by this time and she brought her struggling son on board. She knew a lot about the business and taught him that side of the arts, including how to be an agent, how to be a producer, etc. He picked up on this stuff real easy. He also continued to struggle to have real success. He also started watching movies.

DeMille was hardly the only theater person who saw the potential in the movies. In fact, in 1913, he worked with Jesse Lasky and Samuel Goldwyn got a bunch of New York businessmen together to invest in a production company for the movies that Lasky would run. DeMille went to Hollywood. Let’s just say that worked out for him.

DeMille got behind the director’s chair for the first time in 1914, with The Squaw Man, which revolves around a tragic interracial marriage between a rich white guy and the daughter of a Ute chief. This kind of thing was super popular at the time, so long as it was a white man and an Indian woman. The other way? Might as well get out the lynching rope. It was successful. It was almost among the first movies to be made in Hollywood, which was just taking over the film industry. DeMille was not the first blockbuster director–that was D.W. Griffith, but he was probably the second great director of epic American film. He quickly realized the real ticket was over the top biblical epics and he hit it huge with The Ten Commandments in 1923 and then The King of Kings in 1927. This was the kind of film American right-wingers wanted to see.

DeMille had no problem moving his epics to sound either. The Sign of the Cross, yet another Biblical epic, came out in 1932 and is considered a technical masterpiece if nothing else, marking DeMille as the first director to integrate all the new sound technologies into a complete and quality piece of work. He occasionally did not make movies based on the Bible, but he still preferred the epics. So 1934’s Cleopatra was another major success for him. This was also the first time he was nominated for Best Picture (the Academy Awards were still pretty new) and the film received five total nominations.

But let’s be clear, DeMille always was the master of combining high production values with the Bible to make big stories that all the Christians would want to see and so would the non-Christians, though usually for different reasons. To be fair to DeMille, the Bible is, if nothing else, a great repository of stories told in a sketchy enough way that you can add pretty much whatever you want to them and they still work. Of course, I am a gigantic fan of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, so I clearly am flexible on how we interpret the thing.

The fact that DeMille was yet another right-wing Republican in Hollywood also influenced both his choices of projects and his ease of getting them funded. So Samson and Delilah came in 1949 that was the highest grossing picture of the year. That leads us of course to his remake of The Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Pharaoh in 1956. That was his last film as well. If we’ve seen only one DeMille, it’s almost certainly that one. It really sums him up–a combine of a well-made if bloated film and complete ridiculousness. It doesn’t hurt (or help?) that Heston’s acting is so ridiculously over the top in this film.

DeMille’s reputation was never very good with the artistic community. Many other directors saw him as a complete hack and so did many critics. John Huston said of him “He was a thoroughly bad director. A dreadful showoff. Terrible. To diseased proportions.” William Wellman wasn’t much kinder, noting “Directorially, I think his pictures were the most horrible things I’ve ever seen in my life. But he put on pictures that made a fortune. In that respect, he was better than any of us.” And that was pretty much the appeal–DeMille could make money. Part of it–his films had a lot of sex in them. DeMille realized you could come pretty close to some tits and ass in a movie if you placed it under the umbrella of Christian morality. He was pretty cynical about this. Samson and Delilah especially lays the sex on pretty thick for 1949.

Meanwhile, DeMille also was a big jerk, which did not help his reputation either. He really loved being the Power Director. He cultivated a larger-than-life image of the Man in Charge. He screamed at Victor Mature when the actor wouldn’t wrestle an actual lion in the making of Samson and Delilah. He flat out fired Paulette Goddard from the making of Unconquered when she refused to do stunts that might well result in physical injury. He especially loved screaming at extras. His sets were also flat-out dangerous, with people often hospitalized. In Unconquered, 30 people had to be hospitalized due to dangers on the set with actual flaming arrows.

Moreover, DeMille would drop projects if he didn’t like the politics of the writers. He was supposed to direct an adaptation of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and had purchased the rights himself for $100,000. But then he came to the belief that Hemingway was a communist and he was happy to eat the $100K rather than help a commie pinko. He would also pander to audiences, never challenging them. He wanted to make a picture about the Virgin Mary, but was dissuaded because he was told that Catholics would take it too seriously and thus not like it and non-Catholics would think it was Catholic propaganda. Well, maybe that wasn’t bad advice actually.

Conservatives loved him though. He designed some of the uniforms for cadets at the newly founded Air Force Academy in the mid 50s, some of which are still used today. He was on the board of National Committee for a Free Europe, which is what was in charge of Radio Free Europe. He would however help out his buddies if they were in risk of the blacklist. Edward G. Robinson for one credited DeMille with saving his career when his politics put it under threat.

Beginning in mid-1958, DeMille suffered a series of heart attacks and the last one killed him in January 1959. He was 77 years old. His last act was to reveal a will that gave almost the entire estate to his one biological daughter, cutting out his three adopted kids, which shocked them because he treated them as equal in life. Not death though. What a lasting memory.

Cecil B. DeMille is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, California.

If you would like this series to visit other American directors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Ford is in Culver City, California and Sidney Lumet is in Elmont, New York. Previous posts are archived here and here.

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