It’s the birthday of American film director Cecil B. DeMille, whose epic Hollywood films, like The Ten Commandments (1956) and Samson and Delilah (1949), have grossed over $30 billion worldwide.
DeMille as born in Massachusetts (1881), but grew up in Washington, North Carolina. His father was a playwright and also a lay reader in the Episcopal church. He read to his children every night from the Bible and classic literature. Though he eventually stopped going to church, DeMille continued to believe in prayer and the power of biblical stories. He once said, “My ministry has been to make religious movies and to get more people to read the Bible than anyone else ever has.”
In 1913, DeMille was in debt and working as an actor on Broadway when he met a glove salesman named Samuel Goldfish who convinced him that the real money was in making movies out west, in California. They bought the rights to a stage play called The Squaw Man and DeMille boarded a train for Flagstaff, Arizona, to scout locations. When the train stopped in Flagstaff, it was raining, and DeMille didn’t like the light, so he kept on going to California. In those days, movies were called “flickers” and they weren’t longer than 20 minutes. DeMille thought audiences could handle longer, more complicated stories, and he set up camp in a barn on Selma and Vine that he rented for $75 a month. The Squaw Man (1914) was a silent film with an interracial love story and took three weeks to film. It was a huge hit. Samuel Goldfish changed his name to Samuel Goldwyn and he and DeMille set about inventing Hollywood.
Cecil B. DeMille made 70 films and all but six were profitable. He was the first director to give actors screen credit, and he created the positions of story editor and art director. He used theatrical techniques for lighting, which enhanced the scene’s mood, and liberated the camera from a stationary booth, which allowed the actors more room to move. He was also the first director to use large crowds in scenes, which excited audiences and became one of his trademarks, especially in later films like The Ten Commandments (1956), which he shot in Egypt using 14,000 extras and 15,000 animals in the Beni Suef desert. DeMille had made an earlier version of that film (1923), in which the parting of the Red Sea was filmed using a giant slab of red Jell-O sliced in two and filmed up close as it jiggled.
Cecil B. DeMille’s films include Cleopatra (1934), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and The King of Kings (1927), about the Passion of Christ. Because it was a silent film, Protestant and Catholic missionaries were able to use the movie for decades as a way to share the Gospel with non-English-speaking peoples. It’s estimated that by 1959, more than 800 million people had viewed DeMille’s The King of Kings.