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Film

The life of Cecil B. DeMille: The founding father of American cinema

@TomTaylorFO

When you consider that American cinema is perhaps the most influential art drive in history and that the cultural hegemony of the movement has undoubtedly changed every region of the world, being crowned the founding father of it is one hell of an achievement. Cecil B. DeMille is the trailblazer whom the title has most commonly been thrust upon thanks to the 70 pioneering features to his name. 

He now stands as the most commercially successful producer-director in film history, but it took steely determination to get there. As he said himself, “The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly.” It would seem that DeMille’s target was already in place from the day he was born on August 12th, 1881.

The son of a playwriting father and literary agent mother, it would seem that an eye for a story was always in his blood. He would keenly watch his father rehearse his plays with his collaborator David Belasco and was enamoured by the drama and veneer of fiction. In watching this make-believe unfold, the young DeMille christened his own character: Champion Driver. This alter-ego was Robin Hood rip-off and it displayed a tendency to turn a timeless twist to fiction that would run throughout his later career. 

Tragedy would soon strike his family when he was only young. His father unexpectedly passed away when Cecil was only 12 and his father’s parting words were to wish that his son didn’t become a playwright because of the uncertainty and disappointment that you face in the career. Thus, he was sent off to Pennsylvania Military College but soon fled in an attempt to join the Spanish-American War despite being too young to enlist. With his tail between his legs, fate soon ushered him towards Broadway after he was sent on a free of charge scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts owing to his late father’s contribution.

His forays into acting soon followed and he was quickly gracing the stage of Broadway. He married Constance Adams in 1902 and although their sexual proclivities were incompatible, she allowed her husband to satisfy his kinks in extramarital affairs feeling the love and sex were unrelated. Thus, to be glib, his life as a theatre figure was all but formed. 

Critics would later opine that his early acting stints were merely to learn how to produce and direct, but in his own typically world-wise way, he would say it was simply to pay the bills. However, despite that, inspired by his father, his eyes were always more set on story than performance. 

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By 1905 he began collaborating with his brother William on the playwriting side of things to little success and slowly his interest in theatre began to wane entirely. While struggling to pay the bills or find success, he sidestepped into his mother’s line of work and joined the family agency. Here his keen production skills were honed which he would later put to good use in cinema. All the while he continued to dabble in theatre and he continued to flop in the uncertain industry, but a new and exciting medium was bubbling to the surface. 

Along with his favourite vaudeville star, Jesse Lasky, and Samuel Goldwyn, he set up the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Plat Company and barnstormed into the world of moving pictures in 1913. By 1956 he had made a whopping 70 feature films, blending narrative and spectacle in daring sexual scenes and biblical overtones. The first of which came in the form of The Squaw Man which has been suggested by Lasky.

He was sent off to The Bronx to see how “flickers” were made and returned upbeat that he could outbox the industry in the directing department. It was soon after this visit that he crafted the image of the typical “omnipotent director” with a megaphone and sun-shielding visor to ensure he could command and see every fine detail. On December 29th, 1913 they began shooting The Squaw Man and on January 20th, 1914, filming wrapped on the first feature film shot in Hollywood. A seismic moment in history was in the can.

(Credit: Film still / Cecil B. DeMille)

That feat alone would have been enough to render him an eminent figure in history, but soon he moved on to ever daring epics, seemingly unphased by the partialities of this brand-new technology and determine to push the narrative of the stage into the forefront of film. Epics like Joan the Woman would soon follow in 1916.

These grand productions would become his signature style when cinema entered the roaring twenties and DeMille never looked back. Amid all the lavish sets, DeMille retained his theatre sensibilities of the importance of story, context and nuance despite the critics thinking the public were only interested in thrills. As he opined in a lesson that still rings true today: “Every time I make a picture the critics’ estimate of American public taste goes down ten percent.”

This culminated in the picture that he considers his opus: The Ten Commandments. It premiered in 1956 and brought to life a vision he had as a young man in the Christ Episcopal Church where he would mourn the loss of his father and family members. With the 1956 version, he achieved his goal of bringing entertainment to the masses with a clear message of faith. As he always maintained, “I win my awards at the box office.” Just as well considering that he scored $30 billion there when you adjust the figures for inflation. 

He signed off on this epic as his last film. Three years later, he passed away at the age of 71. He was survived by his wife Constance; by his daughter Cecilia de Mille Harper; by his adopted children, John, Katherine, and Richard. His legacy continues to have an impact on cinema as productions continue to escalate.

Even Steven Spielberg stated that DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth was one of the films that influenced him to become a filmmaker and Martin Scorsese claims to have watched The Ten Commandments at least 40 times. Despite his detractors – like John Huston who said he was “terrible to a diseased degree” – all in all, as an early progenitor of ‘big budget’ he is one of the few filmmakers for whom it can be said that the world would not be the same without.