Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959)

Cecil B. DeMille
Cecil B. DeMille

Cecil B. DeMille was an American film director and producer whose career spanned almost 50 years and 70 feature films from the early silent movies, through the start of Talkies to Technicolor and the technology of the modern age. His name has become closely associated with great religious epics such as 'Samson and Delilah', and 'The Ten Commandments' but he was much more than merely a flamboyant showman. He was a cinematic craftsman and a genuine pioneer of movies. He became in his lifetime a part of Hollywood history.

He was one of the 36 co-founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences but, surprisingly he won just one Academy Award - for Best Picture for his circus movie 'The Greatest Show on Earth', made in 1952. He was also nominated for the Best Director award for the same film. He himself said of his lack of Oscar success, "I win my awards at the box office." And he did.

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He was born Cecil Blount DeMille on August 12, 1881 in Ashfield, Massachusetts, while his parents, both part-time actors, were touring New England with a stock company, and grew up in Washington, North Carolina. He had an elder brother, William, and a sister Agnes, who died in childhood. In 1893, when Cecil was 11, his father, who was working as a playwright and administrator for The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, died from typhoid fever, leaving his wife, Beatrice, with three children and no means of support. Beatrice had always shared her husband's love of the theater and she started up an acting workshop, named after her husband, the Henry C. De Mille School for Girls, in her home.

Cecil was sent, aged 15, to the Pennsylvania Military College, but, in 1898 after one year, he ran away to join the army and fight in the Spanish-American War which had just started. He was rejected as being too young. He next determined to follow his older brother, William, who had become a successful stage actor. Cecil attended the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts and began his acting career on Broadway in 1900 in 'Hearts Are Trumps'. For 12 years he worked closely with his brother learning new skills and producing and acting with him in several plays. He also worked closely with his mother who had started a theatrical agency in New York and it was she who, in 1908, introduced Cecil to Jesse Lasky, a vaudeville musician and producer, who was to have a profound effect on the young man's career.

Early Hollywood 1913

In 1913, Lasky formed the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company in partnership with his brother-in-law, Sam Goldfish, (later to become Goldwyn) and Cecil B DeMille and they moved to Hollywood, rented an old barn in the centre of the small town and made the first feature film ever made in Hollywood, 'The Squaw Man', starring Dustin Farnum. The movie was a big success and established the new company financially, and also made DeMille a force in the movie business. It was the beginning of a remarkable career.

From the outset DeMille began to earn a reputation as a starmaker and in his first year as a director he signed three unknowns: Hal Roach, William Boyd and Gloria Swanson, all of whom went on to become major Hollywood figures. This was the nucleus around which he built his galaxy of screen stars. His knack of recognising and nurturing future talent continued throughout his career and he is credited with introducing other silent movie stars to the public, such as Bebe Daniels, Wallace Reid, Elliott Dexter and Monte Blue. Even after the silent era, when his output lessened, he continued to make new discoveries such as Evelyn Keyes, Francesca Gaal, Paulette Goddard, Gary Cooper, Henry Wilcoxon and Charlton Heston.

After 'The Squaw Man' DeMille quickly became a hugely popular director of silent movies with such films as 'Carmen' and 'The Cheat' in 1915, 'The Golden Chance' and 'The Trail of the Lonesome Pine' in 1916, 'Don't Change Your Husband' in 1919, 'The Ten Commandments' in 1923, 'The Volga Boatman' in 1926 and 'The King of Kings' in 1927. DeMille showed at the early part of his career that he was versatile enough to direct domestic comedies as well as his more extravagant spectaculars, and films such as 'Old Wives for New' in 1918 and 'Why Change Your Wife?' in 1920 became extremely popular. Most of his films of this era were black and white but DeMille was one of the first to experimnt with color and 'The Ten Commandments' featured scenes in two-color Technicolor. Innovation and experimentation were hallmarks of his career and he is responsible for several cinematic 'first' such as indoor artificial lighting, opening a film with the cast credits, previewing a film to a test audience, and using three-strip Technicolor which he first tried in 1940.

Talkies 1929

DeMille showed great skill in adapting to the new medium of sound and his first sound film, 'Dynamite' in 1929 was a hit. His next two movies, 'Madam Satan' in 1930 and 'The White Man' a remake of 'The Squaw man' proved to be less popular although they were well made films. After years of Hollywood success DeMille had to face relative failure but with 'The Sign of the Cross' in 1931 he returned to his successful ways. Thereafter, DeMille's output decreased but he continued to produce box-office successes either with movies with historical themes like 'Cleopatra' in 1934, starring Claudette Colbert, 'The Plainsman' in 1936 and 'North West Mounted Police' in 1940 or Biblical spectacles like 'Samson and Delilah' in 1949 and his remake of 'The Ten Commandments' in 1956.

Outside the Movies

In 1936, already a famous and illustrious figure, he added to his fame by becoming the host of the "Lux Radio Theater", an hour long show which broadcast adaptations of movies, often with the original cast, before a live studio audience. DeMille remained with the show for nine years, becoming a household name and a symbol of Hollywood movie making. DeMille had other interests besides movies. He was an astute businessman and in 1919 he founded Mercury Aviation, which became the first commercial airline to regularly schedule passenger traffic. He was three times President of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, he was Vice President and chairman of motion picture loans for Commercial National Trust and Savings Bank of Los Angeles which later became Bank of America, and he was President of the DeMille Foundation for Political Freedom. In addition he appeared as himself in the classic movie 'Sunset Boulevard' in 1950, where Gloria Swanson, his former protegée, utters the famous line, "All right Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."


DeMille was married in 1902 to Constance Adams, an actress he met at the start of his acting career. They had one biological child, Cecilia, and adopted three children, Katherine, Richard and John. The couple stayed married until DeMille's death.

Cecil B. DeMille died on January 21, 1959 of heart failure, aged 78 years. He is buried at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles.


Cecil B. DeMille was an exceptional man. He was a gifted director who had a feel for what the movie-going public wanted, and gave it to them. He was a natural showman and delighted in creating flamboyant epics with color, spectacle and hundreds of extras. His subject matter was diverse, ranging between drama, comedy, Biblical epics and historical spectaculars. His successful formula included elaborate costumes, spectacular sets and hints of provocative sexuality. He created some of the most successful and popular films of all time, and enriched Hollywood and the movie industry with his charisma, drive and imagination.

Cecil B. DeMille Academy Awards

No Wins:
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Director ... The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Honorary Award:
Received an Honorary Award in 1950 for "Distinguished motion picture pioneer for 37 years of brilliant showmanship."
Won the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award (1953)

Cecil B. DeMille Filmography

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