NEW YORK -- The 75th anniversary of Cecil B. DeMille's first Hollywood film has touched off a round of observances around the country, and inspired the first book about the DeMille family as one of America's great dynasties.
'They are a dynasty on the grandest scale as far as America and the American dream goes, ranking with such families as Roosevelt and Kennedy despite the fact that none of their members ever occupied the White House,' said biographer Anne Edwards, whose subjects have included Shirley Temple, Katharine Hepburn, Ronald Reagan, and Britain's Queen Mary.
'There is William, the noted playwright and film writer and director; his daughter Agnes, the choreographer, and of course, William's younger brother Cecil with his grand scope as a film director and a personality that was bigger than life. In an era when Americans are looking for their roots, the DeMilles have a fascination that few families can match.'
Edwards' 'The DeMilles: An American Family' (Abrams, 248 pp., $39.95) is an authorized biography. It was published this month to coincide with tributes to Cecil B. DeMille by the Museum of Modern Art and Museum of the Moving Image in New York, the Director's Guild in Los Angeles, and the American Film Institute and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
A sale of furnishings and memorabilia from the director's Hollywood estate at Christie's gallery in New York Oct. 18 fetched $711,000. The sale excited inordinate attention considering the fact that DeMille died in 1959 and his Hollywood Baroque chattels were not exactly top auction quality.
The items that brought surprisingly high prices were related to Hollywood stars who had appeared in DeMille's spectacular Paramount Pictures films, especially the biblical epics such as 'The Ten Commandments' and 'King of Kings.'
'Cecil's granddaughter, Citsy (Cecilia DeMille Presley) runs the empire and ran it out of her grandfather's offices on the estate property until recently,' said Edwards. 'Cecil owned almost all of his films except the earliest outright, so there is still a huge amount of income.'
The book reveals that William had a son out of wedlock and arranged with Cecil and his wife to have the child placed on the doorstep of their attorney who would arrange for them to adopt it. He is Richard DeMille, a West Coast social scientist, who gave Edwards permission to release the story.
'I don't think Agnes was too pleased about going public with it,' Edwards said.
Agnes, 83, won fame as an innovative Broadway choreographer with 'Oklahoma' in 1943. She also worked in film and with major ballet companies, notably the American Ballet Theater, and was a theatrical director. She is described by Edwards as 'a little outside the pale' as far as the family goes.
'She created her own life, and of course there may have been a resentment about Cecil overshadowing her father, William, who was a remarkable director of silent films, a cinema verite pioneer, and president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Unfortunately he was swallowed up by sound films.
'It's tricky to say whether William was a greater talent than Cecil. Certainly he was the more intellectual and sensitive director and a cult for his films has been growing recently, expecially in Russia where he is considered a great director. Cecil was greater as a showman, and that's a different kind of greatness.'
William's wife, Anna, reflected even greater glory on his side of the family. She was the daughter of economist Henry George, who at the turn of the century was considered second only to George Bernard Shaw as a great thinker and reformer.
However, William and Cecil's mother, Beatrice Samuel DeMille, was the most formidable woman in the family. She was Jewish and her husband of Dutch Protestant descent, but she found no difficulty in giving up her cultural heritage in her ambition 'to make both her sons be recognized as the greatest geniuses on earth' in a gentile-dominated society.
'She set about to make that happen and she made it happen, and I think she was the greatest DeMille,' Edwards said.
Beatrice DeMille had to support her family after her husband, Henry, a playwright and actor, died at age 39.
She became a literary agent and theatrical producer, specializing in women playwrights. She prodded her less than successful actor-playwright son Cecil toward California, where he made his first feature-length film, 'The Squaw Man' in 1914. William, a successful Broadway dramatist, followed in 1915.
The rest is history, and Edwards has tried to put it into perspective, with the complete cooperation of the DeMilles.
Along the way she has touched on other family members, including actress Katherine, wife of Anthony Quinn.
But it is really Cecil who dominates Edwards' book, as he did Hollywood for nearly 40 years during which 'Ready when you are, C.B.' was a part of American parlance.
What would C.B. be doing if he were alive today?
Without hesitation Edwards answered, 'He would be the king of the TV miniseries.'