That's right, this time around I chose to feature a director. Not just any director-- the director. The name DeMille still has a powerful resonance and serves at times as the very definition of Hollywood itself. This makes perfect sense, being that ol' CB was one of the founding fathers of this luxurious place we know as La La Land. And trust me, luxury has everything to do with it.
While DeMille was an artist and craftsman, working behind the scenes in the original days of Hollywood-- back when orange groves and pepper trees lined the major through street of Prospect-- at heart he was a showman. In fact, he studied acting first, attending the same school at which his father-- a playwright-- had once taught: The American Academy of Dramatic Arts (ring any bells?). Taking the brains of his father, the passion of his mother, and the flamboyance of family friend David Belasco, young Cecil matured from a curious and ambitious youth into a vivacious and unstoppable entrepreneur. He took odd jobs in the theatre circuit-- writing plays, directing, producing, even acting-- all of which he could perform ably, but it wasn't until a partnership with Jesse L. Lasky and Sam Goldwyn brought him into the cinematic world that his life was forever altered-- and our world as well. His first directorial effort, The Squaw Man, made with the help of Oscar Apfel, is still historically cited as the first full-length feature film made in Hollywood.
The match was struck, and the fire in DeMille was ignited. He would work without even stopping for breath from 1914-1959. Forty-five years worth of dedication, drive, passion, and vigor would inevitably leave behind a legacy of unparalleled celluloid glory. After his contemporaries, including hero D.W. Griffith, disappeared into obscurity, DeMille always marched on, his energy for his work kept alive by the devout love of his craft. As the times changed, DeMille may not have exactly changed his own style, but he allowed it to expand, pushing the envelope further and further each time with respect to his artistic capabilities and his aesthetic extravagances. He loved movies, and he watched them as much as he made them, keeping up with the latest directors, the latest techniques, and the newest innovations. Over time, he fell into the immaculate cliche he had contrived for himself, that of the egotistical mouthpiece of God. His epic religious features, meant to strike the fear of a higher power into his viewers, too allowed them to indulge unapologetically in their sensual sides. While every film preached a lesson of love, brotherhood, and humility before one's maker, it too presented a very thorny and enjoyable segue on the crooked way to righteousness.
Herein we have the two DeMille's: the craftsman and the poet, the moral liberal and the political conservative, the lover and the fighter, the tactician and the showman. DeMille is either accused of being a slave-driving fascist-- marching around the set in his boots and riding breeches, followed everywhere by his chair boy, and shouting out brash commands through his megaphone-- or a dastardly seducer-- injecting his sexual, sinful, and exuberant films with a moral lesson simply to get them past the sensors. The truth is, both versions are true. "Indulgent" is, in fact, the best word with which to describe CB. His brimming intelligence yearned to ask every question, his passionate side sought to fulfill every pleasure, and his spiritual side hoped to do honor to the only being he was humble before, God himself. His silent films remain dangerous and inventive contributions to a quickly growing and expanding medium, and his sound pictures have found their place in hedonistic kitsch. But in either case, the one unifying factor is detail: the composition of every enchanting frame in every rich scene. DeMille produced vivid, living texture-- films his audiences could very nearly reach out and touch. It is this reason beyond any other that they last. Beyond the story, beyond the cheesy dialogue, beyond the special effects that still leave directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese spellbound, is the painterly, fluid, lusciously dripping quality of each masterpiece. This is why DeMille is synonymous with "Classic."
As controversial as DeMille remains, his lasting imprint on cinema is justified. But his impression was left on more than the screen. Those who knew him in his life were struck by how this cinematic God could so seamlessly come back down to earth. Many personal accounts recall the tenderness with which he dealt with those he loved and the generosity he provided to those in need. After his father passed away in his youth, the adult CB would always provide for his mother and even his brother, Bill (who too was a director, though a less notorious one), and his wife and children-- oh, and his three mistresses, who were not lookers but were intellectually vibrant and integral to his life. When actors from the silent period witnessed their careers disappearing into the abyss of sound, Cecil always found them parts in his films. He and his wife, Constance, began many charities, particularly for children and women. He lavished friends with gifts, enjoyed his wealth while living simply, and lived each day with the ambition of sucking all the marrow he could out of life. This he did up until the end, when, in 1956, his determination to re-make and improve upon his original silent film, The Ten Commandments, nearly killed him. In fact, perhaps it did. But he succeeded, and his last directorial effort became the pinnacle success of his career, (though The King of Kings remained his proudest film).
We cannot imagine a Hollywood without DeMille, for he was and is Hollywood. He built it as if with his own two hands, and he made it something bigger, something greater, something grander. Cecil and cinema are inseparable, which is why he was the necessary ingredient in Billy Wilder's Hollywood masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard. His mere name carried the context needed to relay all that movies are, all that they endow, and all that they represent. While a director in memory, he was at heart an actor, putting on the greatest show of his life by being the untouchable, indefinable Cecil B. DeMille. What he did, no one else could do, and the effort has taken down many men, (as Joe Mankiewicz could attest after his own Cleopatra debacle). CB gave his movies everything he had and gave us a limitless world in return. Vincent Price once said that you weren't a movie star until you had appeared in a DeMille picture. I suppose it goes without saying that you aren't a film lover until you've seen a DeMille film. With that said: All right, Mr. DeMille. We're ready for your close-up.