Raised by her grandfather Cecil B. DeMille, Cecilia DeMille Presley talks about her famous relative, one of the most dynamic producer/directors of all time.
Cecilia DeMille Presley distinctly remembers being on the Samson and Delilah film set as her grandfather Cecil B. DeMille directed the soon-to-be colossal hit. Ten years old at the time, the loving granddaughter lived with her grandfather and grandmother, just up the street from her family’s home in Los Feliz, California.
“I announced to my parents at age eight that I was going to live with grandfather and immediately walked to his house,” Presley says. “When I was old enough to dress myself, he never took a trip without me, which included the film destinations and film openings.”
It was in this epic world that “Pet,” DeMille’s affectionate name for her, grew up.
“I was a set brat,” Presley says, “but I was never spoiled. Grandfather taught me that money was convenient, but it did not make the man. We all worked.”
It seems the entire family was part of the literary/artistic world. According to Presley, DeMille’s father, Henry DeMille, was an accomplished playwright; his mother, Beatrice, an influential literary agent; and his brother, William, an established playwright. Cecil and Beatrice’s daughters, Cecilia (Presley’s mother) and Katherine (married to actor Anthony Quinn), were both actors, and William’s daughter was the famous dancer/choreographer Agnes DeMille. Cecil was blessed by his father, who was also a lay minister in the Episcopal Church, who read stories every night from the Old Testament, New Testament and chapters from history or a great novel.
“Once you’ve been in that environment, there is no other as stimulating as the creative artists who inhabit that world,” Presley says.
In 2014, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Straw Man, the first feature film made in Hollywood, Presley collaborated with noted photographer/film historian Mark A. Vieira in creating the book, Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic. The book is a treasure trove of storyboard art, concept paintings, images of costumes and artifacts, and spectacular still photographs from DeMille’s films.
“The best way to describe the way in which grandfather worked was that he was a modern Medici,” Presley says. “He summoned the best artists he could find across the globe. After he did painstaking research on a film and worked with a team of writers to craft a script, he gave the script to his artists and left them alone.”
Those creative renderings from DeMille’s 70 films, many of which are in the book, are works of art and constitute a unique art collection, for which Presley is the keeper.
“When Mark Vieira called and said he wanted to do a book, I was thrilled, because it meant that I could share this art,” Presley says.
Although Presley retains a large portion of the DeMille archives, much is kept with Brigham Young University’s impressive motion picture collections. Locally, Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts is the recipient of 187 rare photographs, original concept drawings and movie posters of DeMille’s work. After meeting Dodge College’s Dean, Bob Bassett, Presley believed in his dream of establishing a major film school at Chapman and was instrumental in getting it started. Today, it is one of the leading film schools in the country.
And, of course, there is the legendary filmmaker’s amazing collection of 70 films to ponder, spanning nearly 50 years. Known to many as the “King of Hollywood Epics,” DeMille is probably best known for his religious epics, including both the 1923 silent and the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments (Presley chronicled the Egyptian trip making the film), 1927’s The King of Kings, 1932’s The Sign of the Cross, 1935’s The Crusades (with Loretta Young), and 1949’s Samson and Delilah (with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr – Presley called her the most beautiful woman she had ever seen). Other highlights include a series of American history films: The Plainsman and North West Mounted Police (both with Gary Cooper), The Buccaneer, Union Pacific (with Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea), Reap the Wild Wind (with John Wayne, Presley’s favorite actor), and Unconquered (DeMille’s first talkie in 1929). Other film standouts include Cleopatra in 1934, starring the sultry Claudette Colbert, and The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952 (Presley traveled with the circus to do research for the film).
It was a long and eventful journey for this Hollywood pioneer, from his partnership with Jesse Lasky, Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) and Arthur Friend in the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company in 1913, which led to the founding of Paramount Pictures, to eventually launching Cecil B. DeMille Productions, Inc. It was quite the bio for the man who began his career directing the first feature-length movie in Hollywood to doing the monumental remake of his own The Ten Commandments in 1959 – who can forget Charlton Heston as Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with commandments in hand!
In keeping with her role as preserver and keeper of the DeMille estate, Presley, a longtime Newport Beach resident with her beloved husband Randall Presley, who she lost in 2011, is Vice-Chairman for the National Film Preservation Foundation, a longtime benefactor to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and serves on the boards of the American Film Institute, Chapman University School of Film and Cinema, and UCLA’s School of Film and Television. In her spare time, she produces documentaries.
How does Presley feel about her grandfather’s legacy?
“I think it’s not so much the carrying on of his legacy as my feeling of sharing the man and his art as a filmmaker and the artists with whom he worked,” she says.
Presley said she is also proud of the fact that her grandfather used native Americans to play native Americans for the first time.
“He was a Republican, but a social liberal,” Presley says. “He championed women’s rights and hated bigotry.”
There is no doubt Presley adored her grandfather and appreciated the closeness they shared. She reminiscies, saying, “When I was 11 or 12, I was sitting on a bench and thinking that I was one of the luckiest person’s alive.”
That you were, Cecilia DeMille Presley, that you were.