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Cecil B. DeMille was in all a great director, producer, writer and actor. Born Cecil Blount DeMille, he was THE original aristocrat of Hollywood, but this aristocrat had humble beginnings. His father was a clergyman and his mother ran a girls school. An old soul in knee pants and determined to get his show on the road, he ran away from military school and tried to enlist in the Armed forces at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. He was let down when he was turned down for being too young.
His next plan was to join his older brother, William, who had begun a successful stage career. Cecil, a young man of strong integrity, enrolled at the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts. In the decisive year of 1900, he first trod the boards on Broadway. For the next 12 years he remained devoted to brother Williams tutelage and eventually collaborated with him on several moderately successful plays. There was something stirring in Cecil's blood. It was a mixture of self-confidence, ambition, passion, artistry and gutsiness.
In 1913 he could add the attribute of astute businessman to his list of abilities. He formed a lucrative alliance with a vaudeville musician, Jesse L. Lasky, and a glove salesman named Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) called the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company.
Cecil then did something astounding. He moved to Hollywood, rented an old barn in the heart of town and directed the most famous early feature film, The Squaw Man, starring Dustin Forum and Monroe Salisbury. The results were beyond everyones expectations, except possibly Cecil himself, for The Squaw Man not only established the new company as a force, but it also instantly placed Cecil B. DeMille in the top echelon of directors. With everything set in place, it was only the beginning of his fantastic voyage. DeMille was a born showman and had an innate sense of what the public would clamor for.
He has been called many things: The Founder of Hollywood, The Worlds Greatest Director and The Showman of Showmen. While these names may be debatable, given the existence of other great showman directors such as, Mack Sennett and Steven Spielberg and Hitchcock, one thing is for sure he became a household name to a huge audience that appreciated his ability to entertain them, often in provocative ways that had not been scene previously. He insisted on realism and wouldnt hesitate to use any method achieve it. William Churchill DeMille, Cecil's initial mentor, was a multi talented artist who found his fame eclipsed by his baby brother. William was a superb artisan himself, yet a humble man of powerful instincts that leaned towards honesty, integrity and patience. The DeMille clan was a close one where jealousy was not an issue.
What mattered was maintaining the status quo of artistic merit and respect of society. In his memoirs, Hollywood Saga, William DeMille described a telling exchange with his hardheaded brother who was determined to film a scene as realistically as possible: As I chatted with my old friends, C. B. came towards us bearing a carbine in his hand. Here, Bill, he ordered, You can shoot. Take this 30 - 30, go with Frank and shoot through this door.
But dont shoot until you get the word. More blanks? I asked, taking the gun. Blanks, Hell! chirped C. B.
These are bullets, and each one of em will go through three or four men if you make a mistake. But listen, son, I said faintly, I watched you rehearse this scene; there are a lot of actors in front of that door. They wont be there when you shoot, he said, and added grimly, unless you miss your cue, or they do. But why bullets? Look, he said. Theyre barricading the door; the Gringos are coming up the stairs; they pound on the door; it wont open, but we can see it shake.
When the Gringos start shooting through the door to break the locks; the camera will get the splintering door and catch the bullet holes as they appear. Thats why the cue is so important. One minute theyre all in front of the door; the next, bullets are pouring through and its being shot to pieces. Get the idea? I got the idea completely, though I didnt like it much.
But C. , I demurred, I suppose you know what youre doing, but it looks damn dangerous to me. Dangerous! he snorted. Of course its dangerous; who said it wasnt? But thats pictures. We dont fake anything in pictures; weve got to have the real thing.
Thats pictures, he had said: I wonder how many times during the next 20 years I was to hear those words, and use them myself. Thats pictures. This one short phrase lightly explains away the most unbelievable, the most strange happenings, which are just run-of-the-mill events in the strange world that is Hollywood. C.
B. was turning away when a thought struck him. For Gods sake be careful, Bill, he said earnestly. I can only take the scene twice; weve only got two doors!
Part of being an astute businessman is watching your pennies. Many processing beginnings for producers and film companies crashed and burned quickly, due to reckless spending on the productions, especially on the stars salaries. Cecil had an uncanny knack for choosing and developing fledgling performers into fully grown swans and eagles, for a song. These prot g es included such future stars as Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels, Geraldine Farrar, Raymond Hatton, Wallace Reid, Thomas Meighan, William Boyd, Carmel Myers, Julia Faye, Elliott Dexter, Monte Blue, Wanda Hawley, Agnes Ayres, Leatrice Joy, and Elinor Fair among many illustrious names. He also guided the career of another young and ambitious actress named Jeanie Macpherson, who became his closest professional confidant and collaborator until her death in 1946. As a creator of film, Cecil had always pushed the envelope.
He was diverse in his subject matter, whether it was society comedies or dramas, Biblical spectaculars, melodramas or historical epics, he had a formula for presenting these diverse concepts. These were the typical DeMille flourishes: fantastic costumes, elaborate set designs, rampant sexual innuendo, the steam created over forbidden love and oftentimes a great big dollop of religious conscience for good measure. This formula never failed him, and it catered to the basest of elements where human nature dwells. It was a heady mixture of escapism and realism, in films like Carmen, starring Geraldine Farrar and Wallace Reid; The Cheat, starring Sessue Hayakawa and Fannie Ward; Joan the Woman, starring Geraldine Farrar and Wallace Reid; The Little American, starring Mary Pickford; The Whispering Chorus, starring Raymond Hatton and Kathryn Williams; Male and Female, starring Thomas Meighan and Gloria Swanson; Why Change Your Wife? , starring Thomas Meighan and Gloria Swanson; The Affairs of Anal, starring Wallace Reid and Gloria Swanson; The Ten Commandments, starring Theodore Roberts and Richard Dix; The Volga Boatman, starring William Boyd and Elinor Fair; and The King of Kings, starring H.
B. Warner. In film after film, Cecil B. DeMille made headlines and history. Theres the DeMille touch and then there was the DeMille grope. DeMille had a special relationship with women, professionally and artistically.
He relied heavily on their intelligence and feminine discrimination. He was a tough taskmaster, but if an actress pleased him she could do no wrong. However, pleasing him was not so simple a feat. An actress had to be a good sport to survive a DeMille production. He could be seemingly cruel in his methods of getting what he wanted as the King of Comedy, Mack Sennett was at getting the belly laughs he wanted. Demille's actresses crawled through the mud, came in contact with wild animals, submitted to very revealing costumes and various humiliations which they were all glad to do.
For example, in The Volga Boatman, the conquered, aristocratic women of White Russia are humiliated by the peasant armies. They are wearing their most revealing evening gowns with plunging backs and necklines. They all have been painted with crude drawings of twisted faces etched onto their exposed alabaster skin by their tormentors. Demille's women trusted his powerful presence and respected the absolute autocrat that he was. An honorable mention goes to Miss Fannie Ward for her enduring a branding by Sessue Hayakawa in The Cheat. How many people on the planet could wield the power and get the immediate results on demand that Cecil B.
DeMille could command? Not many at least, none that were household names. DeMille was a captain of the Hollywood industry. His power and fame, from the beginning of his love affair with film, has always preceded him. The silent era was the hallmark of his career, but make no mistake. His artistic virility was keenly felt during the sound era in films and in radio (he directed and hosted Lux Radio Theater).
Even though his output of films diminished after the silent era, he still continued to discover and / or showcase his latest prot g e or star. Among his showcased discoveries and established stars in the sound era were Evelyn Keyes, Francesca Game, Paulette Goddard, Gary Cooper, Henry Wilcox and Charlton Heston. DeMille had emotionally moving reunions years later with the stars who owed him their initial great success. He even appeared in front of the camera, playing himself (who else could? ), with one of his greatest prot g es, Gloria Swanson, in her magnificent comeback, Sunset Boulevard. He was like a proud Papa with his young fellow, as he affectionately called the petite beauty. A legend like DeMille could have rested on his laurels, but as long as he was healthy he worked as hard and as intensely as he could.
Like a latter day P. T. Barnum, it seemed fitting that he would produce and direct a film like The Greatest Show On Earth. He gave this film his supreme and undivided attention to detail, pageantry and publicity.
Even at this late date in his career he triumphed by having his circus epic win the Oscar for best picture. Another film that got the same attention to detail, pageantry and publicity was his remake of The Ten Commandments. Having come full circle, this was his last film. It was, however, as big a mega-hit as his original, 1923 version.
Up until recently, due to the unavailability of his greatest silent films, Cecil B. DeMille has been more stuff of legend than substance. Now that more of his movies are being released on video, we can analyze the legend and see for ourselves that all the hype was deserved. Cecil B.
DeMille was a great artist, a great director he was big. Very rarely does a director come who has the courage to think outside the norm. DeMille is a prime example of this. His unconventional and unorthodox methods of making a movie set him apart from any and all directors of the century. He didn t just make great movies, he made great dreams.
For someone to enter a theater in the 30 s during the Great Depression and see one of his movies, was like escaping into a dreamworld for one hour. The movies are a place where everything will always turn out well. The villain loses, sometimes wins but will lose for sure in the sequel, and the hero wins. The movies portray a world that really beats our real world. The real world has death, pain, and suffering, but in the movies nothing like this exists. Cecil B.
DeMille emphasized this in all his movies. In short, he made people happy. That s what makes him a great American figure.
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