“Creativity is a drug I cannot live without.” – Cecil B. DeMille
The 1914 silent film The Squaw Man is a memorable part of film history for a lot of reasons. For one, it was the directorial debut of Cecil B. DeMille: a founding father of American cinema. It was also the first feature film to be shot in what is now known as Hollywood. It was a collaboration between DeMille and Oscar C. Apfel, another towering figure of the silent film era.
Based on Edwin Milton Royle’s 1905 play of the same name, The Squaw Man is a tragic story of a British officer who shoulders the blame for an embezzlement charge to save his cousin. In the hopes of starting anew, he travels to America and marries a Native American woman. However, it does not end well as the man’s life slowly falls apart.
At the time of production, Apfel had directed several short films but he had never made a full-length feature. On the other hand, DeMille had never even seen films properly and cinema was still a very foreign medium to him. DeMille spent his time at the studios in order to learn more about the magical world of motion picture, an invaluable experience that would shape his future as a filmmaker.
While making The Squaw Man, DeMille kept two copies of the negatives which ended up saving his job. Someone broke into the lab and destroyed one set of the footage; DeMille thought it was an unhappy former employee but it seemed like it was the work of another studio. To top it all off, DeMille received threatening letters and survived two attempted assassinations.
After all sorts of unforeseen difficulties, the film finally premiered in February of 1914 and made a net profit of around $240,000 on a $15,000 budget. The studio was more than happy with DeMille’s efforts and The Squaw Man became DeMille’s introduction to the world as a promising young filmmaker. Even though he was new to the business, he had the perception of an artist and understood the importance of crucial cinematic elements like lighting and how the image on the screen had a direct connection to the emotions of the audience.
DeMille was so fond of the subject matter of his debut, he made two more attempts to perfect it: a silent remake in 1918 and a 1931 talkie. When he was asked about his favourite version in an interview, DeMille said: “Well, each one of them has something that’s different about it. I would say that the first two are the best-the first because it was the first feature-length picture made from a great drama.
He continued, “The second is the best picture because the technique had advanced to such a point, though it was still silent, that we could tell a story so much better and the photography was better, the movement was better. Everything technically about it was better. The performances were better: we had good actors instead of beginners.”
Watch Cecil B. DeMille’s 1914 directorial debut The Squaw Man, below.