Cecil B. DeMille wielded unusual power in the movie industry.
He was so powerful, he bossed Moses around.
The famed Hollywood producer and director churned out hit after hit during a long stage and film career that spanned over 60 years.
At the top was his spectacular telling of "The Ten Commandments."
He commanded respect wherever he went, and when he wanted something to be done, the sea figuratively parted.
"Cecil B. DeMille was one of the giants of 20th century Hollywood," wrote Robert Birchard in his book "Cecile B. DeMille's Hollywood." "His box-office record was unsurpassed and his swaggering style established the public image for movie directors. His career was studded with big-budget epics."
Cecil had an older brother, William -- a successful Hollywood figure in his own right -- and a younger sister, Agnes, who died in childhood. William's famous choreographer daughter, Agnes de Mille, was named for her.
At the time of Cecil's birth, his father -- frustrated in his bid to be an actor -- taught at New York City's Columbia University. In 1882, he took a job as a play reader at New York's Madison Square Theater.
Henry DeMille started writing plays there and entered into a successful collaboration with well-known theater impresario David Belasco. They produced several hit shows together.
Raising The Curtain
Henry DeMille died at age 40 in 1893, the year Cecil turned 12.
Faced with raising a family on her own, his mother -- after first turning the family home in Pompton, N.J., into a girl's school -- created the DeMille Play Co., an agency for plays and playwrights.
He made his stage debut in early 1900 at 18 and became a touring actor. During this time he met actress Constance Adams, whom he married in 1902. They would have four children.
In addition to his work as an actor, Cecil helped his mother manage the DeMille Play Co., directing or managing a number of shows and writing and co-writing plays.
Following his father's lead, he joined with Belasco on the play "The Return of Pet Grimm."
DeMille also wrote several one-act operettas with vaudeville producer Jesse Lasky. The association with Lasky led to a lasting friendship.
In 1916, it merged with two other movie companies. The new name was Paramount Pictures.
The professional relationship with Lasky was fruitful for DeMille, who directed dozens of silent films, including the firm's popular first production, "The Squaw Man."
Also in 1916, DeMille made his first try at the genre that gained him the most fame, the large-scale spectacle. The film, "Joan the Woman," gathered critical acclaim but had modest box-office success, and DeMille was forced to give up for a while his dream of what he called "painting on a big canvas."
For the next several years, DeMille turned out a successful and influential series of domestic social comedies that focused attention on married life rather than the usual boy-meets-girl formula.
DeMille satisfied his desire to make spectacles by inserting innovative flashback sequences into several of the films.
All the while, DeMille was expanding his business interests.
In 1919 he established Mercury Aviation, the first commercial airline service to carry passengers on a regular schedule.
In 1923, DeMille tried another spectacle. "The Ten Commandments" -- the Moses biblical drama -- delivered, but it went way over budget, causing a strain between DeMille and Lasky. The film was one of the most successful movies of the silent era, but DeMille and Lasky parted company.
DeMille went independent for a while, churning out such box-office hits as "The Volga Boatman" and "The King of Kings" before joining Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as the silent era was ending in the late 1920s.
DeMille showed skill in using the new medium of sound in films such as 1929's "Dynamite" and a 1930 remake of "The Squaw Man."
But in the economic downturn that led to the Great Depression, they were box-office failures.
The early 1930s were a time of crisis for DeMille.
His contract with MGM was not renewed and, like many high rollers of that time, he took a financial bath in the October 1929 stock market crash.
After years of success in Hollywood, he found himself unemployed and almost broke. Yet much like the heroes of his films, DeMille overcame the elements.
After an unsuccessful trip to Europe with his wife in search of film deals, DeMille managed to get a one-picture contract splitting the costs with Lasky and Paramount to produce and direct another religious epic, "The Sign of the Cross."
The 1932 movie was a tremendous hit, and DeMille worked with Paramount for the rest of his career.
Before long, he was a household name -- so much so that he performed as himself long before Alfred Hitchcock made it fashionable.
He was featured in director Billy Wilder's classic "Sunset Boulevard," in which Gloria Swanson's line, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," is one of the staples of the film's dialogue.
Close up, DeMille was demanding.
"What I have crossed out I didn't like," he said about the exacting measures he applied to the scripts in his movies. "What I haven't crossed out I'm dissatisfied with."
DeMille had little tolerance for actors and actresses unwilling to take physical risks. He threw every bit of himself into his work, and he expected the same from the cast.
During filming in Egypt of the exodus sequence for the 1956 remake of "The Ten Commandments" -- his most famous film -- 73-year-old DeMille climbed a 107-foot ladder to the top of the set and suffered a heart attack.
Amazingly, aided by his daughter Cecilia and against his doctor's orders, he was back directing the film within a week.
"Most of us serve our ideals by fits and starts," DeMille said. "The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly. That is dedication."
The Real Deal
Although a taskmaster, DeMille was loyal to those people he trusted and respected. He used a select coterie of actors again and again.
A shrewd businessman, he was considered honest in his dealings.
DeMille died at 77 in January 1959.
"Cecil B. DeMille was a seminal founder of Hollywood who helped turn a Californian orange grove into a world class center that became the synonym for filmmaking," wrote film critic Anton Karl Kozlovic.
At the time of his death, DeMille was negotiating to direct "Ben-Hur" and was planning to direct a movie about space travel.
Source: Investor's Business Daily