Cecil Blount DeMille was a major figure in Hollywood from the mid-1910s to the late 1950s. Remembered now mainly as a showman and as the producer/director of a number of biblical epics, he was in fact a versatile innovator who made important films of all kinds throughout his career.
DeMille's parents were involved in the theater. When his father died, he worked as actor and general manager for his mother's theatrical company and also produced and wrote plays with his brother, William. In 1913, he left the theater to work in motion pictures as cofounder of the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. In 1914, he coproduced, cowrote, and codirected its first film, The Squaw Man, a six-reel adaptation of Edwin Royle's play, which was a success. When the Lasky company became part of Paramount later that year, DeMille supervised its production program. He also wrote, produced, directed, and edited many of its films.
By the mid-1920s, DeMille had been at the forefront of a number of key developments: the use of plays as a template for feature-length films; the production of feature-length westerns; the dramatic use of low-key lighting effects, most notably in The Cheat (1915) and The Heart of Nora Flynn (1916); the production of Jazz Age marital comedies such as Don't Change Your Husband (1919) and Why Change Your Wife? (1920) (both of them written, as many of DeMille's films were, by or with Jeannie Macpherson); and the production of "superspecials" such as The Ten Commandments (1923).
The Ten Commandments, a Paramount film, was the first of DeMille's biblical epics. His second, The King of
Kings (1927), was released through Producers Distributing Corporation, a company for whom he began making films in 1925. Following a period with MGM, DeMille returned to Paramount to make The Sign ofthe Cross in 1932. He remained with Paramount for the remainder of his career, making social problem dramas, westerns, and spectacles like Samson and Delilah (1949), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and the 1956 remake of The Ten Commandments. From 1936 to 1945, he also hosted and directed adaptations of Hollywood films and Broadway plays for Lux Radio Theater.
DeMille's films are usually said to be marked by a formula in which seductive presentations of sin are countered by verbal appeals to a Christian ethic inherent in scenes of redemption and in the providential outcome of events. However, it is worth stressing the extent to which, as the actions of characters like Moses, Samson, and John Trimble (in The Whispering Chorus) all illustrate, acts of virtue as well of sin in these films entail unusually perverse or destructive behavior.
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