His name is still well known enough that probably most university students could confidently identify Cecil B DeMille as the director of blockbuster epics with a ‘cast of thousands’.
Cecil Blount DeMille was born on August 12, 1881, in Ashfield, Massachusetts. Ashfield was (and is) a small village in the western half of the state. His parents happened to be taking their holiday there at the time.
Family history and artistic endeavour
The original family name was spelled De Mil and is Dutch. Cecil’s father, Henry Churchill de Mille, was the son of landowner William Edward and Margaret Blount Hoyt de Mille. Born in 1853, Henry grew up on the family farm in Little Washington, North Carolina. He earned BA and AM degrees from Columbia College (as it was then).
He studied for the ministry before deciding to become a teacher and playwright but also served as an Episcopal lay reader throughout his life.
Henry de Mille taught school at Brooklyn’s Lockwood Academy, where he was promoted to vice-principal, and then at Columbia Academy in Manhattan. He also taught at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
By 1882, de Mille was editing stageplays. In 1883, he began writing his own which were performed in Manhattan theatres.
He married Matilda Beatrice ‘Bebe’ Samuel in 1876. Samuel, born in Liverpool, was the daughter of Sephardic Jews who had left Germany to settle in England. She was related to Herbert Louis Samuel, 1st Viscount Samuel, a Liberal Party politician who was the first practising Jew to serve as a British cabinet minister. He was the first High Commissioner for Palestine.
Viscount Samuel, incidentally, became a secular Jew but kept kosher law to please his wife and for hygienic reasons. He was, for all intents and purposes, an atheist.
Beatrice and her parents left England for Brooklyn, New York, in 1871. She later converted to Christianity, becoming an Episcopalian when she married Henry de Mille.
Henry and Beatrice had three children: William, Cecil and Agnes. They lived in New Jersey, dividing their time between the communities of Wayne and Pompton Lakes. Unfortunately, Henry died at the age of 39 in 1893 after a short illness. Agnes died of spinal meningitis two years later.
Needing to support the family, his widow founded the Henry C. De Mille School for Girls in Pompton and became America’s second woman playbroker, working with actors, playwrights and producers.
Cecil B DeMille, only 11 when Henry died, seemed to inherit his grit from his mother, storytelling ability from his late father and a love of the dramatic arts from both.
Henry must have also instilled in his children a good grounding in the Bible and Christianity because Cecil later said that he got the idea to portray the story of the Ten Commandments whilst attending Christ Episcopal Church in Pompton with his family.
Beatrice was able to send Cecil to military academy in Pennsylvania. He and William both won scholarships to and graduated from the aforementioned American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Whilst William moved into play and scriptwriting, Cecil turned to acting then directing and producing. He and his brother occasionally worked together.
Because Cecil started his career at the advent of silent film, he got to know the future stars of silent and sound films well. He directed dozens of silent films and segued into sound films in 1929 with Dynamite.
His last film was the epic, The Ten Commandments, released in 1956. DeMille was 75 at the time and suffered a serious heart attack on set. Ignoring his doctor’s advice, he returned to continue filming the masterpiece a week later.
However, his health took a turn for the worse and DeMille died in 1959. His funeral was held at St Stephen’s Episcopal Church on January 23 of that year. He was interred at the former Hollywood Memorial Cemetery, now known as Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
DeMille married Constance Adams in 1902. They had one daughter, Cecilia, and adopted two boys and a girl. Their adopted daughter Katherine later married actor Anthony Quinn.
DeMille didn’t suffer fools or weaklings gladly, especially on set. He expected his actors to use their intelligence to develop their characters properly instead of relying on him.
He also expected his direction to be followed. He lost all respect for Victor Mature when the actor refused to wrestle a tame, toothless lion in Samson and Delilah (1949). Paulette Goddard admitted she probably lost out on a role in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) when she refused to risk her life in a scene involving fire in Unconquered (1947).
Yet, DeMille respected and was loyal to many stars of the time, including Gloria Swanson, Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston in more than one of his films. Paulette Goddard was also in that group for a time.
DeMille excelled in directing his casts of thousands as well as the big set pieces which characterised so many of his films.
Besides film, he was also known to Americans through his Lux Radio Theater which ran from 1936 to 1944.
On a personal level, he favoured conservative politics, although he did vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt only because he wanted to see Prohibition repealed.
He was quite careful to downplay his Jewish heritage, a source of inner conflict for him.
King of Kings (1927)
Personally, no religious film can top DeMille’s silent, King of Kings. I saw it in school when I was eight years old. What a masterpiece it is. If it is ever released on DVD or remastered for television, it is a must-see.
It was instructive to see what effect it had on my classmates. By this point in the late 1960s, most of us had seen either Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961) or George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).
Thankfully, the nuns saw fit to rent DeMille’s film and show it to us class by class. Two classroom groups might have viewed the film together at each showing; I don’t remember. In any event, we were between 30 and 50 in roughly the same age group.
I also don’t quite remember how the soundtrack was handled, whether the music was scored into the reprint of the film or whether there was a separate LP recording.
However, the effect King of Kings had on the boys in particular was memorable. Very few silent films were shown on television and most of what we watched was in colour. So to view a black and white silent and not hear any dialogue was disconcerting for some of my classmates. ‘You mean we have to read this? Aww!’ And the late 20s sets and makeup caused some to laugh and make jokes.
After the first 20 minutes, the room was silent. As the nuns changed reels, the kids said, ‘I can hardly wait to find out what happens next.’ We all knew the story of Jesus Christ, but DeMille’s film was compelling in a way that religious education class sometimes wasn’t.
One boy in particular — the least likely candidate — was very quiet during the final reel and for the next few days. He was, I think, a foster child, possibly through a Catholic charity which might have also given him a bursary to attend school in our small town. He was from a big city a few hours away and the child of a single mother. He went to see her every third weekend. No one really knew his story outside of the teachers and administration. I’m not sure if he ever knew his father. He was visibly moved and nearly shed a tear by the end.
Christians who know the Bible complain that religious films take liberties with Holy Scripture. They do, but they also tell a story with human interest which helps drive the message home.
From the King of Kings Wikipedia page, I was reminded of the following scenes:
Our first sight of Jesus is through the eyesight of a little girl, whom He heals. He is surrounded by a halo …
Jesus is also shown resurrecting Lazarus and healing the little children. Some humor is derived when one girl asks if He can heal broken legs and He says yes, she gives him a legless doll. Jesus smiles and repairs the doll. The crucifixion is foreshadowed when Jesus, having helped a poor family, wanders through the father’s carpentry shop and, himself a carpenter’s son, briefly helps carve a piece of wood. When a sheet covering the object is removed, it is revealed to be a cross towering over Jesus.
Nothing I have ever seen on film can match DeMille’s depiction of the hours after Jesus’s death on the Cross. I still think of this scene frequently and would really enjoy seeing it again before I pass from this mortal coil:
… a great earthquake comes up. The tree where Judas had hanged himself with the rope used to bind Jesus’s wrists is swallowed up amidst gouts of hellfire. The sky turns black, lightning strikes, the wind blows, the people who had mocked Jesus run in terror, and the veil covering the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple is torn in two.
The rending of the veil is a terrifying ending to an already sad and scary Crucifixion segment. It put the fear of God into the viewer. It is my favourite scene in cinema.
I believe the ending is what sealed the message for my classmate, the foster child (emphases mine below):
The tumult ends when Mary looks up at heaven and asks God to forgive the world for the death of their son. The chaos ends and the sun shines. Jesus is taken down from the cross and is buried. On the third day, He rises from the dead as promised. To emphasize the importance of the resurrection, this scene from an otherwise black and white film is shot in color. Jesus goes to the Apostles and tells them to spread His message to the world. He tells them “I am with you always” as the scene shifts to a modern city to show that Jesus still watches over His followers.
Many of the film’s intertitles are quotes (or paraphrases) from Scripture, often with chapter and verse accompanying.
This is cinema at its best, no doubt about it.
DeMille was intent on ensuring a reverent film:
In order to preserve the spiritual nature of the film DeMille made his stars enter contracts that prohibited them from doing anything “unbiblical” for a five-year period. These activities included attending ball games, playing cards, frequenting night clubs, swimming, and riding in convertibles.
This obligation was rather unsuccessful as the actress who played Mary was involved in a well-publicised divorce from her husband. The actor who played Jesus allegedly had an affair with an extra.
Speaking of extras, author Ayn Rand was one. She met her future husband, actor Frank O’Connor, during filming.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
Who living in the West today has not seen this often-shown DeMille epic, his final film? And who doesn’t identify the late Charlton Heston with Moses and vice versa?
Not all minor roles in film were credited at the time, and The Ten Commandments has its share of little-known actors who became big stars or entertainers not long after, including Herb Alpert, Clint Walker, Mike Connors and Robert Vaughn.
Little known facts about this film include the following:
In some of his earlier films, DeMille had provided narration, especially at the beginning of the film. This was the first of only two times he was seen as well as heard (the other was in the 1958 remake of The Buccaneer, in which he also provided an onscreen introduction). He also narrated portions of The Ten Commandments, to provide continuity between scenes …
Heston, who previously worked for DeMille on The Greatest Show on Earth, won the part after he impressed DeMille (at an audition) with his knowledge of ancient Egypt …
Heston’s newborn son, Fraser, appeared as the infant Moses. According to DVD commentary by Katherine Orrison (a protege and biographer of Henry Wilcoxon, who played Pentaur in the film and served as associate producer), DeMille deliberately timed the filming of his scenes for when Fraser Heston was about three months old …
Katherine Orrison says that many details of Moses’ life left out of the Bible are present in the Qur’an, which was sometimes used as a source. She also presents some coincidences in production. The man who designed Moses’ distinctive rust-white-and-black-striped robe used those colors because they looked impressive, and only later discovered that these are the actual colors of the Tribe of Levi. Arnold Friberg would later state that he was the one who designed Moses’ costume. As a gift, after the production, DeMille gave Moses’ robe to Friberg, who had it in his possession until his death in 2010. Moses’ robe as worn by Charlton Heston was hand-woven by Dorothea Hulse, one of the world’s finest weavers. She also created costumes for The Robe, as well as textiles and costume fabrics for Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, and others.
Arnold Friberg, in addition to designing sets and costumes, also contributed the manner in which Moses ordained Joshua to his mission at the end of the film: by the laying on of hands, placing his hands on Joshua’s head. Friberg, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, demonstrated the LDS manner of performing such ordinations, and DeMille liked it.
Like me, you might be wondering how the parting of the Red Sea was achieved. The Ten Commandments was another film that I saw with my classmates, although it was when the film was re-released in 1972. Our teacher explained that gelatine was mixed with water to give the waves their distinctive effect. No one knew for sure at the time, because it was a cinematic secret.
Now we can read how that amazing special effect was created. Wikipedia tells us:
DeMille was reluctant to discuss technical details of how the film was made, especially the optical tricks used in the parting of the Red Sea. It was eventually revealed that footage of the Red Sea was spliced with film footage (run in reverse) of water pouring from large U-shaped trip-tanks set up in the studio backlot.
Whilst we might quibble about DeMille’s stories outside of Scripture and some of his sources, few would disagree that his religious films were near-instant classics.
They might have also been an influence in attracting many to the Bible and to Christ Jesus. Last night I read an online posting where someone said that in one of their classes at a Christian college, the professor asked how many experienced a deeper appreciation for Scripture and our Lord after seeing one of the 1950s and 1960s religious epics. Nearly everyone raised his hand.
The Ten Commandments remains popular to this day. Within four years it outgrossed Gone with the Wind in North America and, even over the past several years, is in one of the top three ratings spots — most often in the first — when shown on American television.
Tomorrow: Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961)