Childhood & Early Life
He was born on August 12, 1881, in Ashfield, Massachusetts, to Henry Churchill DeMille and Mathilda Beatrice Samuel DeMille.
His family was into theatrical arts. His father was a playwright and a lay reader in the Episcopal Church. He was brought up in Washington, North Carolina.
His father used to read classics and the Bible to the children at night. He later recalled that while staying in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, where the family operated a private school, he used to visit Christ Episcopal Church and it was at this church that he envisioned the story of the silent film, ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1923).
After his father succumbed to typhoid on February 10, 1893, his mother opened ‘Henry C. De Mille School for Girls’, an acting workshop, in their home. Later Beatrice worked with Broadway as a female play broker.
DeMille joined ‘Pennsylvania Military College’ (presently ‘Widener University’) at fifteen years of age and completed his graduation in 1898.
Thereafter he and his brother William Churchill DeMille received scholarship and joined ‘American Academy of Dramatic Arts’ in New York. Later the Academy conferred upon him an Alumni Achievement Award.
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He made his acting debut as a teenager in 1900 with the theatrical company of Charles Frohman on Broadway stage with the play, ‘Hearts Are Trumps’. Other stage productions where he performed include ‘The Prince Chap’, and ‘Lord Chumley’.
Although he did a long string of performances, success seemed to elude him and he was better known in the theatrical circuit as brother of William, who was gradually making a mark as a playwright. William occasionally called DeMille to collaborate and the duo sometimes worked with theatrical director-producer, impresario and playwright David Belasco, who was an acquaintance of their father.
DeMille’s 1913 theatrical production ‘Reckless Age’ garnered success, but overall it was a hard time for him, and he struggled to sustain his family comprising his wife and a little daughter.
He along with Sam Goldfish (or Samuel Goldwyn), Jesse Lasky and a few East Coast businessmen founded ‘Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company’ in July 1913.
His first film, a silent western drama ‘The Squaw Man’ that he co-directed with Oscar Apfel was released on February 12, 1914, in the US. He chose Hollywood as the shooting location instead of the regulars and also made the film with a run time of 74 minutes, flouting the dictum of 20 minutes. The sensational interracial love story of the film not only made it a phenomenal hit establishing the Lasky Company but also "put Hollywood on the map" of show business.
His other remarkable films of silent era included ‘The Warrens of Virginia’ (1915), ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1923), ‘The King of Kings’ (1927), and ‘The Godless Girl’ (1929).
With back-to-back successful silent films he achieved immense popularity that eventually saw him treading into other fields including launching the first commercial airlines of the US, the ‘Mercury Aviation Company’; working as an executive in ‘Bank of America’, thereby aiding filmmakers in loan approvals; delving as an underwriter of political campaigns; and also working as real estate speculator.
His transition from silent films to talkies was quite a smooth one with him playing an instrumental role in not only devising a microphone boom and a blimp ( a sound proof cover placed over a camera while shooting), but also making the camera crane widely popular.
He continued to be productive, popular and commercially successful with his sound pictures that he created till the 1950s. He worked with several well-established stars like Fredric March, Robert Preston and Gary Cooper, and also with many not so famous like Charlton Heston, Rod La Rocque and Gloria Swanson and made stars out of them.
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He was distinguished for his big-scale extravagant films that included using thousands of extras and application of strikingly impressive set pieces. Some such remarkable films include the dramatic western film, ‘Union Pacific’ (1939), ‘Samson and Delilah’ (1949), ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ (1952) and ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956), which is a partial remake of his 1923 silent film of the same title.
DeMille himself performed in many films including ‘Variety girl’ (1947), ‘Son of Paleface’ (1952) and as narrator in ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956) among others.
He was one of the most celebrated directors of his time equipped with jodhpurs, riding crops and megaphone.
He was a dedicated Republican activist all through his life. Designated by Frank Wisner and Allen Dulles, he served board of anti-communist National Committee for a Free Europe in the early 1950s.
DeMille designed uniform of cadets at the newly established ‘United States Air Force Academy’ in 1954 at the behest of Secretary of Air Force, Harold E. Talbott. The designs were adopted to make uniforms and such uniforms are worn by cadets till present.
Memoir of DeMille titled ‘The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille’ was published in 1959.
He was a Freemason who remained a member of Prince of Orange Lodge #16 in New York City.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Constance Adams, his co-star from ‘Hearts Are Trumps’ on August 16, 1902. They had four children, one biological daughter Cecilia (born on October 5, 1908), one adopted daughter Katherine Lester and two adopted sons, Richard and John.
Katherine became an actress and later married actor Anthony Quinn. Richard became a distinguished filmmaker and writer. He was also a psychologist.
DeMille succumbed to heart failure on January 21, 1959, in California. His funeral took place on January 23 at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and his remains were interred in ‘Hollywood Memorial Cemetery’.