Empire of Dreams
The Epic Life of CECIL B. DEMILLE
By Scott Eyman (2010)
Best known as the director of such spectacular films as The Ten Commandments and KingOf Kings, Cecil B. DeMille lived a life as epic as any of is cinematic masterpieces. As a child DeMille learned the Bible from his father, a theology student and playwright who introducedCecil and his older brother, William, to the theater. Tutored by impresario David Belasco,DeMille discovered how audiences responded to showmanship: sets, lights, costumes, etc. He took this knowledge with him to Los Angeles in 1913, where he became one of the movie pioneers, in partnership with Jesse Lasky and Lasky’s brother-in-law Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn). Working out of a barn on streets fragrant with orange blossom and pepper trees, the Lasky company turned out a string of successful silents, most of them directed by DeMille, who became one of the biggest names of the silent era. With films such as The Squaw Man,Brewster’s Millions, Joan the Woman, and Don’t Change Your Husband, he was the creative backbone of what would become Paramount Studios. In 1923 he filmed his first version of The Ten Commandments and later a second biblical epic, King of Kings, both enormous box-office successes. Although his reputation rests largely on the biblical epics he made, DeMille’s personal life was no morality tale. He remained married to his wife, Constance, for more than fifty years, but for most of the marriage he had three mistresses simultaneously, all of whom worked for him. He showed great loyalty to a small group of actors who knew his style, but he also discovered some major stars, among them Gloria Swanson, Claudette Colbert, and later, Charlton Heston. DeMille was one of the few silent-era directors who made a completely successful transition to sound. In 1952 he won the Academy Award for Best Picture with The Greatest Show on Earth. When he remade The Ten Commandments in 1956, it was an even bigger hit than the silent version. He could act, too: in Billy Wilder’s classic film Sunset Boulevard, DeMille memorably played himself. In the 1930s and 1940s DeMille became a household name thanks to the Luce Radio Theater, which he hosted. But after falling out with a union, he gave up the program, and his politics shifted to the right as he championed loyalty oaths and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist witch hunts. As Scott Eyman brilliantly demonstrates in this superbly researched biography, which draws on a massive cache of DeMille family papers not available to previous biographers, DeMille was much more than his cliched image. A gifted director who worked in many genres; a devoted family man and loyal friend with a highly unconventional personal life; a pioneering filmmaker: DeMille comes alive in these pages, a legend whose spectacular career defined an era.
In the years after World War I, propriety was less attractive than the promise of freedom. Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish would inevitably give way to Clara Bow and Louise Brooks — a transition anticipated by DeMille. The DeMille films manage to have it both ways — they confront the anxieties implicit in abandoning old behavior patterns, but they tend to reaffirm the original marital transaction. At the same time, they’re problem pictures in which the premise carries more weight than the characters; DeMille doesn’t give his women the room for authentic emotion as would directors who came out of a different cultural tradition such as Lubitsch or Josef von Sternberg.
Ramping up a studio from a standing start entails a vast amount of work and money, especially when it comes to story material. “Do you want to buy best sellers by popular authors or cheaper originals and older stories?” inquired Ella Adams. DeMille would have preferred gilt-edged properties, but there were money issues. “We are short on material for women,” he wrote back. “We need eight feminine vehicles and we only have four.”
Then there was the problem of stars. Lillian Gish wired DeMille to say that she had been told he was interested in her: have YOU A representative here in new YORK THAT I COULD TALK WITH OR COULD YOU WIRE ME ABOUT ANY PLANS YOU MIGHT HAVE AFFECTING MY FUTURE WHICH IS STILL UNSETTLED?
DeMille responded with a flurry of telegrams: I WOULD LIKE VERY MUCH TO HAVE YOU AS A MEMBER OF MY NEW COMPANY AS I BELIEVE I CAN DO MORE FOR YOU THAN ANYONE AT present IN the field. He told his New York man to “call upon Gish immediately, tell her I would like [to] make four pictures a year with her that I will personally supervise and in which she would be starred. Or possibly three starring pictures and have her appear in one of my personally directed productions each year. . . .
If she mentions [Gish’s lover, the drama critic] George Jean Nathan you can say that I have the highest regard for Mr. Nathan and would be glad to associate him in some way with her pictures. That at the same time if she is to have the benefit of my direction and supervision naturally the choice of stories and matters of that sort must be left in my hands.”
DeMille’s agent reported back that three or four companies were bidding for Gish’s services, for what he thought was a minimum of $5,000 a week, and she wanted a definite offer. A couple of days later, he asked DeMille, “would you take Nathan if signing Gish depended on it?” The negotiations with Gish went no further; she signed with MGM. That wasn’t the only disappointment. DeMille was anxious to sign the silk hat comedian Raymond Griffith, and was willing to trade Bebe Daniels, with whom he had worked out a contract memo. But Daniels changed her mind about working for DeMille because her boyfriend was going to be working in the East and she wanted to follow him there. This left DeMille with nothing to offer of comparable value for Griffith.
On July 27, 1948, DeMille had attended the funeral of the largely forgotten, alcoholic D. W. Griffith. Lillian Gish remembered that only six people came to the funeral home the night before the funeral; one was DeMille, another was John Ford. For the funeral itself, where there were sure to be cameras, there was a crowd.
Sitting there, DeMille must have thought about the meaning of Griffith’s life, and the circumstances of his death, about roads not taken, and why he, alone of all the directors of his generation, maintained a preeminent position in the industry.
Martin Scorsese once wrote that what moved him about DeMille was his sense of wonder. “DeMille presented such a sumptuous fantasy that if you saw his movies as a child, they stuck with you for life. The marvelous superseded the sacred. What I remember most are the tableaux vivants, the colors, the dreamlike quality of the imagery, and of course the special effects. . . .
“DeMille’s legacy is . . . putting on a giant show for people who were working class people, who don’t have much money to go and see a film in a theater. They are told it’s a spectacle and they really do see a spectacle. He wouldn’t let the audience down at all, and it always paid off in that beautiful flow of poetic and dream-like images.”
Alone among the survivors of a bygone era, DeMille persisted in constructing vast pieces of silent music: Pre-Raphaelite, pre-Freudian images that rendered dialogue irrelevant. His silent films have maintained DeMille’s reputation as a great director by those lucky enough to see them, and the enormous spectacles have kept his name alive for audiences more than fifty years after his death. Years after DeMille’s death, Gloria Swanson visited Palm Springs, where William Holden was living. Holden was in Africa, so Swanson left a note for him on a toilet seat.
“Dear Joe,” [his character’s name in Sunset Boulevard]
I’m leaving this note where I know you’ll find it.
“Where is Max? Where is DeMille? Where is Hedda? Where has everybody gone?
“Love, Norma Desmond.”
Once, when DeMille’s granddaughter Cecilia was a little girl, she asked him what he did for a living. He thought about it for a moment, then smiled. “I tell stories,” he said.