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Cecil B. DeMille
Demille - c1920.JPG
DeMille in c. 1920
Cecil Blount DeMille

(1881-08-12)August 12, 1881
Died January 21, 1959(1959-01-21) (aged 77)
Hollywood, California,
United States
Cause of death Heart failure
Nationality American
Occupation Producer, director, editor, screenwriter, actor
Years active 1913–1959
Spouse(s) Constance Adams
Partner(s) Jeanie MacPherson
Julia Faye
Parent(s) Henry Churchill DeMille
Beatrice Samuel

Cecil Blount DeMille ( August 12, 1881 – January 21, 1959) was an American filmmaker. Between 1913 and 1956, he made a total of 70 features, both silent and sound films. He is acknowledged as a founding father of the cinema of the United States and the most commercially successful producer-director in film history. His films were distinguished by their epic scale and by his cinematic showmanship. He made silent films of every genre: social dramas, comedies, Westerns, farces, morality plays, and historical pageants.

DeMille began his career as a stage actor in 1900. He later moved to writing and directing stage productions, some with Jesse Lasky, who was then a vaudeville producer. DeMille's first film, The Squaw Man (1914), was also the first feature film shot in Hollywood. Its interracial love story made it a phenomenal hit and it "put Hollywood on the map." The continued success of his productions led to the founding of Paramount Pictures with Lasky and Adolph Zukor. His first biblical epic, The Ten Commandments (1923), was both a critical and financial success; it held the Paramount revenue record for twenty-five years.

In 1927 he directed The King of Kings, a biography of Jesus of Nazareth, which was acclaimed for its sensitivity and reached more than 800 million viewers. The Sign of the Cross (1932) was the first sound film to integrate all aspects of cinematic technique. Cleopatra (1934) was his first film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. After more than thirty years in film production, DeMille reached the pinnacle of his career with Samson and Delilah (1949), a biblical epic which did "an all-time record business." Along with biblical and historical narratives, he also directed films oriented toward "neo-naturalism," which tried to portray the laws of man fighting the forces of nature.

He went on to receive his first nomination for the Academy Award for Best Director for his circus drama The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. His last and most famous film, The Ten Commandments (1956), is currently the sixth highest-grossing film of all-time adjusted for inflation. In addition to his Best Picture Award, he received an Academy Honorary Award for his film contributions, the Palme d'Or (posthumously) for Union Pacific, a DGA Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. He was also the first recipient of the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award, which was later named in his honor.


Young Cecil B. DeMille
c. 1904


DeMille began his career as an actor on the Broadway stage in the theatrical company of Charles Frohman in 1900. His brother William was establishing himself as a playwright and sometimes invited him to collaborate. DeMille performed on stage with actors whom he would later direct in films: Charlotte Walker, Mary Pickford, and Pedro de Cordoba. DeMille also produced and directed plays. DeMille found success in the spring of 1913 producing Reckless Age by Lee Wilson, a play about a high society girl wrongly accused of manslaughter starring Frederick Burton and Sydney Shields. DeMille and his brother at times worked with the legendary impresario David Belasco, who had been a friend and collaborator of their father. Changes in the theater rendered DeMille's melodramas obsolete before they were produced, and true theatrical success eluded him. By 1913 he was having difficulty supporting his wife and baby daughter.

Moving pictures

In July 1913 DeMille, Jesse Lasky, Sam Goldfish (later Samuel Goldwyn), and a group of East Coast businessmen created the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. On December 12, 1913, DeMille, his cast, and crew boarded a Southern Pacific train bound for Flagstaff via New Orleans. His tentative plan was to shoot a film in Arizona, but he disliked the quality of light he saw there. He continued to Los Angeles. Once there, he chose not to shoot in Edendale, where many studios were, but in Hollywood. He also flouted the dictum that a film should run twenty minutes. He made his first film run sixty minutes, as long as a short play. The Squaw Man (1914), co-directed by Oscar Apfel, was a sensation and it established the Lasky Company.

Silent era

Cecil B. DeMille 1919
Advertisement (1919)

The first few years of the Lasky Company (soon to become Famous Players-Lasky) were spent in making films nonstop, literally writing the language of film. DeMille adapted Belasco's dramatic lighting techniques to film technology, mimicking moonlight with U.S. cinema's first attempts at "motivated lighting" in The Warrens of Virginia

After five years and thirty hit films, DeMille became the American film industry's most successful director. In the silent era, he was renowned for Male and Female (1919), Manslaughter (1921), and The Godless Girl (1928). DeMille's trademark scenes included bathtubs and lion attacks. A number of his films featured scenes in two-color Technicolor.

The immense popularity of DeMille's silent films enabled him to branch out into other areas. The Roaring Twenties were the boom years and DeMille took full advantage, opening the Mercury Aviation Company, one of America's first commercial airlines. He was also a real estate speculator, an underwriter of political campaigns, and a Bank of America executive, approving loans for other filmmakers.

Sound era

When "talking pictures" were innovated in 1928, DeMille made a successful transition, offering his own innovations to the painful process; he devised a microphone boom and a soundproof camera blimp. He also popularized the camera crane.

DeMille made stars of unknown actors: Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels, Rod La Rocque, William Boyd, Claudette Colbert, and Charlton Heston. He also cast established stars such as Gary Cooper, Robert Preston, Paulette Goddard and Fredric March in multiple pictures. DeMille displayed a loyalty to his performers, casting them repeatedly. They included Henry Wilcoxon, Julia Faye, Joseph Schildkraut, Ian Keith, Charles Bickford, Theodore Roberts, Akim Tamiroff and William Boyd. DeMille was credited by actor Edward G. Robinson with saving his career following his eclipse in the Hollywood blacklist.

Cecil b de mille directing
DeMille directing

DeMille had a reputation for autocratic behavior on the set, singling out and berating extras who were not paying attention. A number of these displays were thought to be staged, however, an exercise in discipline. He despised actors who were unwilling to take physical risks, especially when he had first demonstrated that the required stunt would not harm them. This occurred with Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah. Mature refused to wrestle Jackie the Lion, even though DeMille had just tussled with the lion, proving that he was tame. DeMille told the actor that he was "one hundred percent yellow". Paulette Goddard's refusal to risk personal injury in a scene involving fire in Unconquered cost her DeMille's favor and a role in The Greatest Show on Earth.

DeMille was adept at directing "thousands of extras", and many of his pictures include spectacular setpieces: the toppling of the pagan temple in Samson and Delilah; train wrecks in The Road to Yesterday, Union Pacific and The Greatest Show on Earth; the destruction of an airship in Madam Satan; and the parting of the Red Sea in both versions of The Ten Commandments.

DeMille first used three-strip Technicolor in North West Mounted Police (1940). Audiences liked its highly saturated color, so DeMille made no further black-and-white features.

Showmanship as director

Cecil B DeMille 1937
DeMille as producer of the CBS Radio Theatre, 1937

DeMille was one of the first directors to become a celebrity in his own right. He cultivated the image of the omnipotent director, complete with megaphone, riding crop, and jodhpurs. From 1936 to 1944, DeMille hosted Lux Radio Theater, a weekly digest of current feature films.

DeMille was respected by his peers, yet his individual films were sometimes criticized. "Directorially, I think his pictures were the most horrible things I've ever seen in my life", said director William Wellman. "But he put on pictures that made a fortune. In that respect, he was better than any of us." Producer David O. Selznick wrote: "There has appeared only one Cecil B. DeMille. He is one of the most extraordinarily able showmen of modern times. However much I may dislike some of his pictures, it would be very silly of me, as a producer of commercial motion pictures, to demean for an instant his unparalleled skill as a maker of mass entertainment."

DeMille appeared as himself in numerous films, including the M-G-M comedy Free and Easy. He often appeared in his coming-attraction trailers and narrated many of his later films, even stepping on screen to introduce The Ten Commandments. DeMille was immortalized in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard when Gloria Swanson spoke the line: "All right, Mr. DeMille. I'm ready for my closeup." DeMille plays himself in the film.

In the 1940s DeMille continued to please the public. He averaged one film a year; most of them centered on historical figures or Bible stories. His first attempt at a drama set within a semi-documentary frame was The Greatest Show on Earth, a saga of circus performers released in 1952. His experiment gained him a nomination for best director and won an Oscar for best picture.

The Ten Commandments

In 1954, DeMille began his last film, the production for which he is best remembered, The Ten Commandments.


Cecil B de Mille in The Greatest Show on Earth trailer
DeMille in 1952

DeMille received hundreds of awards, commendations, and honors in his lifetime.

Posthumous honors

For his contribution to the motion picture and radio industry, DeMille has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The first, for radio contributions, is located at 6240 Vine Street. The second star is located at 1725 Vine Street.

Two schools are named after him: Cecil B. DeMille Middle School, in Long Beach, California, closed and demolished in 2007 to make way for a new high school; and Cecil B. DeMille Elementary School in Midway City, California.

The former film building at Chapman University in Orange, California is named in honor of DeMille. The Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts now resides in Marion Knotts Studios.

The Golden Globe's annual Cecil B. DeMille Award recognizes lifetime achievement in the film industry.

The moving image collection of Cecil B. DeMille is held at the Academy Film Archive and includes home movies, outtakes, and never-before-seen test footage.


DeMille made seventy features. In spite of careful storage in his film vaults, seven films were lost to nitrate decomposition; all were early silent films. The titles are: The Arab, The Wild Goose Chase, Chimmie Fadden, The Dream Girl, We Can't Have Everything, The Devil Stone, and The Squaw Man (the 1918 remake). Roughly twenty of his silent features are available in commercial DVD format.


Silent films

  • The Squaw Man (1914)
  • Brewster's Millions (1914, Lost)
  • The Master Mind (1914)
  • The Only Son (1914)
  • The Man on the Box (1914)
  • The Call of the North (1914)
  • The Virginian (1914)
  • What's His Name (1914)
  • The Man from Home (1914)
  • Rose of the Rancho (1914)
  • The Ghost Breaker (1914)
  • The Girl of the Golden West (1915)
  • After Five (1915)
  • The Warrens of Virginia (1915)
  • The Unafraid (1915)
  • The Captive (1915)
  • The Wild Goose Chase (1915, Lost)
  • The Arab (1915)
  • Chimmie Fadden (1915, Lost)
  • Kindling (1915)
  • Carmen (1915)
  • Chimmie Fadden Out West (1915)
  • The Cheat (1915)
  • Temptation (1915, Lost)
  • The Golden Chance (1915)
  • The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1916)
  • The Heart of Nora Flynn (1916)
  • Maria Rosa (1916)
  • The Dream Girl (1916, Lost)
  • Joan the Woman (1917)
  • Lost and Won (1917)
  • A Romance of the Redwoods (1917)
  • The Little American (1917)
  • The Woman God Forgot (1917)
  • Nan of Music Mountain (1917)
  • The Devil-Stone (1917)
  • The Whispering Chorus (1918)
  • Old Wives for New (1918)
  • We Can't Have Everything (1918, Lost)
  • Till I Come Back to You (1918)
  • The Squaw Man (1918, Lost)
  • Don't Change Your Husband (1919)
  • For Better, for Worse (1919)
  • Male and Female (1919)
  • Why Change Your Wife? (1920)
  • Something to Think About (1920)
  • Forbidden Fruit (1921)
  • The Affairs of Anatol (1921)
  • Fool's Paradise (1921)
  • Saturday Night (1922)
  • Manslaughter (1922)
  • Adam's Rib (1923)
  • The Ten Commandments (1923)
  • Triumph (1924)
  • Feet of Clay (1924, Lost)
  • The Golden Bed (1925)
  • The Road to Yesterday (1925)
  • The Volga Boatman (1926)
  • The King of Kings (1927)
  • Walking Back (1928)
  • The Godless Girl (1929)

Sound films

  • Dynamite (1929)
  • Madam Satan (1930)
  • The Squaw Man (1931)
  • The Sign of the Cross (1932)
  • This Day and Age (1933)
  • Four Frightened People (1934)
  • Cleopatra (1934)
  • The Crusades (1935)
  • The Plainsman (1936)
  • The Buccaneer (1938)
  • Union Pacific (1939)
  • North West Mounted Police (1940)
  • Reap the Wild Wind (1942)
  • The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944)
  • Unconquered (1947)
  • California's Golden Beginning (1948, short subject)
  • Samson and Delilah (1949)
  • The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
  • The Ten Commandments (1956)
  • The Buccaneer (1958, producer)


  • The Squaw Man (1914) (cameo)
  • A Trip to Paramountown (1922)
  • Felix in Hollywood (1923)
  • Hollywood (1923)
  • Glamour Boy (1941)
  • Star Spangled Rhythm (1942)
  • Jens Mansson in America (1947)
  • Variety Girl (1947)
  • Sunset Boulevard (1950) (as himself)
  • The Fallbrook Story (1951) (Narrator)
  • Son of Paleface (1952) (cameo)
  • The Greatest Show on Earth (1952, Narrator)
  • The Ten Commandments (1956, Intro and narrator)
  • The Buster Keaton Story (1957)
  • The Buccaneer (1958) as Himself - Prologue (uncredited)

Personal life and death

DeMille's tomb at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

DeMille married Constance Adams on August 16, 1902 and had one child, Cecilia. The couple adopted Katherine Lester in the early 1920s. She married Anthony Quinn. They also adopted two sons, John and Richard. DeMille suffered a near fatal heart attack in 1956 during the shooting in Egypt of The Ten Commandments. He never fully recovered. He died on January 21, 1959 of heart failure. He rests in Hollywood Forever Cemetery). At the time of his death, he was planning to direct a movie about space travel. He also wanted to do a movie about the Biblical Book of Revelation.

Images for kids

See also

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