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Cecil B. DeMille: The Man Who Built Hollywood

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
August 23, 2023 3:00 am

Cecil B. DeMille: The Man Who Built Hollywood

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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August 23, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories when you think of the parting of the Red Sea, you probably think of movie director Cecil B. DeMille, who turned Bible stories he turned into epic films like "The Ten Commandments," starring Yul Brenner and Charleton Heston. But there is much more to the story of this man who helped turn Los Angeles into the film capital of the world. 

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This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. When you think of Hollywood, you should think of Cecil B. DeMille. Here to tell us why is Scott Eyman, author of Empire of Dreams, The Life of Cecil B. DeMille. Let's get into the story.

Take it away, Scott. Without DeMille, there's no Hollywood and without Hollywood, there was no DeMille. It was a perfect symbiotic relationship.

He was born in Massachusetts, but essentially, he was raised in New York City, a child of the 19th century theater. Cecil's childhood, when his father was alive, he remembered as a golden period. As a matter of fact, he had very little criticisms to make of either of his parents in terms of raising their children. They indulged him. There was sufficient money.

They were fine. His father was Henry DeMille, an Episcopalian, I guess, lay minister, you could call him, and wrote plays in collaboration with David Belasco. There's no modern equivalent for David Belasco. Belasco was a producer, a writer, a wildly theatrical character who wore an ecclesiastical collar in spite of the fact that he was Jewish.

And everybody pretended not to notice. DeMille's mother was Jewish. His father, as I said, was Episcopalian, and a mixed marriage in that era was extremely unusual.

There were three children in all, Cecil, his older brother, William, and a younger daughter named Agnes. Agnes died at the age of three of meningitis, one of those 19th century childhood diseases that swept off thousands and thousands of children that doesn't really exist much anymore. And when it does, we all shake our heads and say, my God, what a terrible tragedy. But in the 19th century, that was what happened. Henry DeMille died at the age of 40 of typhoid, another thing that rarely happens anymore. But in that era, happened all the time. This put Beatrice, Cecil's mother, basically her back against the wall. Henry had been the bread earner in the family, as was typical in that era. So she had to come up with something. So what she did was she took their house and turned it into a school for girls. And it was successful for a while.

And then after a while, it wasn't successful. So at that point, she became a theatrical agent. Beatrice was a hustler because she had to be. She had to raise her boys and in time represented William when he became a playwright and also represented Cecil when he became a playwright. But that was far in the future. Cecil went to military school as a young boy, loathed it, hated it. In retrospect, it's obvious because Cecil was an alpha and not one to subjugate his own ego to anybody else's.

This was clear even at the age of 12. He was already taking charge of his life and everybody else's around it. Surprisingly, his mother was also an alpha, but they got along.

They didn't butt heads too, too much. He was amused by her. He respected her because of how well she had adjusted to the death of Cecil's father and the rigor and the seriousness with which she'd raised her her sons and how well she'd adjusted to the death of her daughter, which of course had to be devastating for a young mother in that era. But he also tended to stay clear of her because she was incredibly bossy. Around Cecil B. DeMille, there was only going to be one boss and that was Cecil B. DeMille. He followed his genetic footprint and went into the theater as his father had, as his brother had.

Unlike his father and unlike his brother, Cecil was predominantly unsuccessful. He was a jobbing actor for a long time. He was a very good actor, at least as long as he could play Cecil B. DeMille.

He was superb. I don't know how well he could do enacting Shakespeare and Marlowe and other plays that he was doing, but at Cecil B. DeMille, he was a master. He tried writing plays. He wasn't terribly successful. Whereas Bill, his older brother, by three years had several hit plays. Cecil collaborated with David Belasco as his father had collaborated with David Belasco and was stunned to discover that Belasco shafted him out of credit for what he believed was essentially his play.

Belasco didn't give Cecil any credit and it embittered Cecil a great deal. He got into the movie business essentially because there was nothing else left. And he went to the movies because it was the growing thing. We're talking now 1913.

Cecil would have been 32 years old and the movies were beginning their rampant expansion out of the Nickelodeon era into what we think of as the feature motion picture era, which coincided with the founding of Hollywood, which was instigated essentially by Cecil B. DeMille. He hooked up with a young man named Jesse Lasky. The thing about Cecil and Jesse, which made them so well matched was that they were both compulsive optimists. They never really considered themselves to be beaten.

They never thought they could lose. They really believed in themselves. They believed in each other as well. They liked each other deeply, deeply liked each other. So they brought in another young man who had some money to invest named Sam Goldwyn, who was Jesse Lasky's brother-in-law.

This was the triumvirate that formed the Lasky Company. And they sent Cecil, who had never directed a movie in his life, out to Arizona to shoot a script they had bought of a successful Broadway show called The Squaw Man. It was a Western. Now, Cecil's immersion in the world of how to make a movie consisted of one day at the Thomas Edison Studio in East Orange, New Jersey.

He came out, sat there and watched the makeup movie. And with typical Brio, some called it arrogance, thought to himself, well, I could do this. This isn't so tough. They're not that good.

I could do better than this. And they handed him about $25,000 and sent him out on the train to go to Arizona to make this Western. Not that Cecil had ever been to Arizona because he'd never acted in Arizona, but it was a Western.

Therefore, you're going to shoot it in Arizona or Montana. The train stopped in Arizona. He got off, looked around and decided it wouldn't do it all because it was flat.

The light was harsh and ugly. And he asked the conductor where the end of the line was. The conductor said, well, Los Angeles.

And so he got back on the train after 20 minutes and went to the end of the line, which was Los Angeles, and said a wire to Jesse back in New York about the change in plans. And he got off the train in Los Angeles and realized he had stumbled upon a wonderful location for shooting movies. And you're listening to Scott Eiman tell the story of Cecil B. DeMille and being a product of a mixed marriage back then, a Jewish mom and Episcopalian father, very unusual indeed.

And when you think about where his film obsessions took him, that's possibly an interesting combination, interesting beginning. When we return, more of the story of Cecil B. DeMille here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the great American stories we tell and love America like we do, we're asking you to become a part of the Our American Stories family. And if you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation.

A monthly gift of seventeen dollars and seventy six cents is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters. Go to our American stories dot com now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American stories coming. That's our American stories dot com. And we return to Our American Stories and the story of Cecil B. DeMille, the founder of Hollywood and one of the main forces behind Paramount Pictures. When we last left off, Cecil had hopped on a train and discovered this place called California. Let's return to the story.

Here again is Scott Eyman. Movies had been shot in California before DeMille got there at the end of 1913, but they hadn't been necessarily shot as a full-time occupation. People had gone out during the winter to get away from the New York winters because at this point, the American movie industry was essentially centrally located in and around New York City and New Jersey. During the winter, the locations were more difficult to get to. The camera oil would freeze in the camera if it got really cold and it often does get really cold on the East Coast and it was just very hard to keep up with production.

It ain't gonna happen unless you're working indoors and that's claustrophobic and the audience liked the camera to go outdoors, even then. So they began looking for other places. They tried Florida. Florida was okay, but the train from New York to Florida stopped around Jacksonville. There was no train to Miami or Palm Beach in that era, so the locations were limited to kinds of moss in the trees environments, which was limiting. But if you got off the train in Los Angeles and you drove around, there were mountains, there were deserts, there was an ocean, every kind of landscape you would ever need to make any kind of movie within about a two or three hour drive.

And they were free from law enforcement of the patent's company. That was also part of the reason to get out of New York because the Edison company was trying to enforce illegal patents on the camera that Edison had owned and they were exacting heavy, heavy tribute in terms of money if people wanted to exist under the Edison patents. But if you got the hell out of New York, it was much harder to enforce. I mean, it was almost impossible to get a long distance call from LA to New York, let alone law enforcement.

It was just very difficult. It was a much bigger country then. But essentially the reason to get out of the West Coast as a production center was scenery. So Cecil looked around and he needed a place to make movies for the Lansky company. And he found a rental studio in a little town called Hollywood, a bedroom suburb of Los Angeles.

The roads were dirt. There was one hotel. He rented the studio.

They put up a nice sign, a clapboard sign over the building. And Cecil made the movie in about three weeks, four weeks, shot the movie. And then they sat down and waited for the money to come back in. And by God, the money came back in.

The movie made about 10 times what it cost. And Cecil was named the director general of the Lansky company, which is about the most appropriate title anybody in Hollywood's ever had. Because from the beginning, Cecil controlled his environment. He controlled his space. He dominated not merely the making of his pictures, but he set the matrix for what would become the Hollywood studio system.

In other words, mass production. The first year or two, he made almost a picture a month, a feature picture a month of about an hour. It was a furious pace and it damn near killed him. But he realized he had found his metier. He had found what he'd been put on earth to do.

And that belief in his own gift never failed him, never failed him. His early films are extraordinary. Cecil B. DeMille was a great, great silent film director.

There's no question. We're talking about the transition now from say the Nickelodeon era, where people would open a movie theater by renting a storefront and putting up a white sheet and having one or two projectors and some folding chairs they'd rent from a funeral home unless the funeral home needed them for a funeral. And that was a movie theater, certainly by World War I. There's a transition taking place in terms of exhibition as well as production towards the huge downtown movie palaces, the equivalent of an amusement park, the early 20th century version of an amusement park, beauty and lavishness that the people that paid 20 cents or 50 cents or a dollar to get in could never have experienced otherwise. It was more than just a place to watch a movie.

It was an environment in which to luxuriate. He wanted his movies to reflect the environment in which they would be shown. So he began the movies, his movies began to get longer.

They began to get less focused on narrative and more focused on what you might say is pushing the envelope in terms of subject matter, turning what was a parlor amusement, a novelty item, into an art form. He and Lasky were always bound at the hip. They were very close all their lives.

Never had a crossword between them. DeMille and Zucker were never close, never close. Zucker was a bottom line guy and DeMille spent a lot of money.

DeMille's budgets were extremely high, as high as a million dollars on the first version of the Ten Commandments. He just spent and spent and spent until he thought the picture was what it needed to be and this drove Zucker batty. Although DeMille's pictures made money, Zucker still resented the fact that DeMille didn't observe what Zucker regarded as financial sanity.

And this became a real sticking point between the two of them. And finally, it was the most bitter experience I think DeMille ever had. There was a meeting between Zucker and Lasky and DeMille and Zucker said, Cecil, you've never been one of us. Now DeMille took this to mean that he hadn't been he hadn't been a loyal partner in the company. What I think Zucker actually meant was that DeMille was not Jewish and that Zucker had a hard time trusting him because of that because Zucker was Jewish and Lasky was Jewish.

DeMille was an Episcopalian, a religious Episcopalian. In any case, it resulted in DeMille leaving the company after over 10 years in which he had constructed the company basically by dint of the sweat of his brow. He went into independent production.

He was not terribly successful. And then sound lands with both feet in 1927 and 1928 and the industry is convulsed. A lot of major silent filmmakers never get their solid footing again for one reason or another. In some cases, they were just too old to adjust to a different manner of storytelling. Sometimes there was a way of farming out people whose salaries were regarded as onerous.

There was a culling, shall we say. DeMille lands at MGM, the most successful Hollywood movie studio. They supplanted Paramount. MGM is run in a completely different way than Paramount had been run. The director is relatively unimportant. What is important is the star. MGM exists to cultivate and promote stars. At Paramount, DeMille had been the star. If it said a Cecil B. DeMille production, the stars were if not irrelevant of secondary importance. At MGM, the star was of primary importance. The director was tertiary, if that.

Directors at MGM didn't have autonomy and DeMille always had autonomy. He made three pictures at MGM and they cut him loose. And at that point, he's 50 years old, not a young man anymore and the industry is convulsing and what is he to do?

Well, he goes back to Paramount where he'd started and on very, very strict budgetary and production guidelines. He doesn't have an unlimited budget. It's a one-picture deal.

It's called the sign of the cross. It's a biblical picture, which he'd been very successful with before in the silent era. His top line is $650,000 and it's a lavish biblical picture and $650,000 in 1932 is not a lot of money to make a lavish biblical picture.

But he pulls it off and it makes money. And then he's signed to another deal at Paramount and with a few bumps along the way, he stays there for the rest of his life until his death in 1959. So not only was he the founder of the company, once he lands there again in 1932, he spends the next 27 years there. And if you put those two terms of service together, you're looking at 40 years with one movie studio. It's an unheard of record in Hollywood. Even in that era, it was an itinerant profession. Nobody stayed any place for 40 years.

It wasn't good sense. But when he landed there again in 1932, he became a pillar of the studio, the pillar that he'd always wanted to be and that Zucker would not grant him originally. But as the 30s wore on and he made hit after hit after hit, Zucker had no choice but to basically acquiesce to DeMille's primacy in the creative firmament of Paramount. DeMille had his own building on the lot. And you've been listening to Scott Iman, author of Empire of Dreams, The Life of Cecil B. DeMille.

Pick it up at Amazon or any of the usual suspects wherever you buy your books. When we come back, more of The Life of Cecil B. DeMille, here on Our American Stories. And we return to Our American Stories in the final portion of our story of Cecil B. DeMille. When we last left off, Cecil had created the Hollywood studio system, something which lasts to this day. Let's return to the story.

Here again is Scott Iman. By the mid 30s, he's settling into a rhythm of big epic stories of alpha males. The acting DeMille wanted in his films never shifted, really. It's what I call stand and deliver acting.

You're not asking for psychological depth or behavioral reality. You're asking for actors to give a kind of stentorian, very overtly masculine performance. And the reason he liked that kind of acting is because it's the acting he grew up with as a boy in the 19th century of New York theater. That was the standard of acting. I think the corollary to DeMille is James Cameron. I mean, the problem with DeMille is he's often judged by his dialogue and by the style of acting, which is exactly what he wanted. But people judge him by his dialogue. And people often make, in fact, I've made remarks about James Cameron's dialogue, which tends to be completely on the nose and kind of theatrical and often clunky. But look at the shots.

Look at the shots. Look at what he pulls off in spite of ridiculous premises. Don't get me started on Avatar.

If there's a modern equivalent to DeMille, it's Cameron, because there's a certain panache. There's a certain monomania in asserting his belief in that this will work. This movie will work. And not only will the movie work, people will come to see this movie. Why would people come to see a movie about the Titanic when everybody knows what happens?

Everybody knows they die, OK? But he got millions and millions, tens of millions of people to come see the Titanic over and over again, even though they knew the ending. That's an achievement. It really is. It really is an achievement, because it's the filmmaking that seduces the audience into ignoring the fact that the dialogue is on the nose and this is improbable and that's improbable.

And of course, they're going to die because that's what happened in the Titanic. To be able to counter all those obstacles and send people out thinking, this is the greatest thing I've ever seen in my life, that's an accomplishment. And that's the same kind of skill that DeMille had. By the war, he was grooved. He was grooved. He didn't really deviate from what he knew he could do well.

In the modern era, directors will make a left turn to do something that appeals to them, unlike something they've already done. But DeMille loved what he was. He didn't feel the need to do a Tennessee Williams adaptation. He would go to see those shows. He would go to the theater and see those shows and appreciate them. But he understood that that wasn't his strength and he wanted to play to his strength. And he also didn't want to disappoint his audience.

It's a very crucial thing. He enjoyed being successful. He didn't want to risk being unsuccessful. He'd gone through lack of success as a young man before he got into the movies. When sound came in, he had that rough three or four-year patch. And it wasn't pleasant for him.

He did not have a burning urge to seduce the New York critics, not his business. His business was being Cecil B. DeMille. And he stuck to it all his life. So he liked to latch on to stories about manifest destiny, what we would now call manifest destiny, which is more or less an outmoded philosophy.

But building the railroad, bringing civilization to the West, that kind of thing. So he would latch on to, for instance, the Union Pacific, the railroad company, and sell them the idea of making the company, through portrayal of one man building the railroad, the hero of the movie. He did the same thing with The Greatest Show on Earth, the movie that changed Steven Spielberg's life. The Greatest Show on Earth was the copyrighted slogan of Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. Paramount paid Ringling Brothers, I believe it was $250,000 for the use of their winter facilities and the use of the slogan, The Greatest Show on Earth.

And John Ringling North, who was the head of the company, Ringling Brothers at that point, even makes a guest appearance in the beginning of the picture playing himself. It cost Paramount $250,000. But it was worth it because the film made an incredible amount of money.

It won best picture of the year, which was a sort of career award for DeMille. And it set him up to make the last picture of his life, The Ten Commandments. On the one hand, it was a picture he would have given his life to make. And on the other hand, it basically did cost him his life. So of course he was drawn to the Bible, the King James Bible. A lot of his visual sense of his spectacles derives from the Bible that his father had illustrated by Gustave Doré. Beautifully so, he made The Ten Commandments a night.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-08-25 22:14:52 / 2023-08-25 22:23:57 / 9

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