Interview: Cecilia De Mille Presley on Her Grandfather Cecil B. De Mille

Posted on April 8, 2015 at 3:18 pm

Copyright Running Press 2014
Copyright Running Press 2014

The great director Cecil B. De Mille, known for his grand, lavish epics like Claudette Colbert’s sizzling Cleopatra and the Biblical epics The Ten Commandments and Samson & Delilah, and Best Picture Oscar winner The Greatest Show on Earth deserves a book tribute every bit as big in scope and scale as his films. And he got one in the truly spectacular Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic, a massive, sumptuous, and simply gorgeous book that is sure to be treasured by anyone who loves movies. It is filled with never-before-shared behind-the-scenes drawings and production stills. And it features the recollections by De Mille’s granddaughter, Cecilia de Mille Presley. I had the very great pleasure of chatting with Ms. Presley about the book and about being on the set of “The Ten Commandments” with her grandfather when she was just 15 years old.

How is it that you and your mother happened to go and be on the movie set while the film was being made?

Well mother was his right-hand man from forever and he raised me, I went everywhere with him.

And the sets were already built when you arrived?

Yes, well, they still had the scaffolding so if grandfather wanted to make any change he could.  The scaffolding was still there but when we rounded that corner and saw the row of sphinxes it was amazing!

What did you do during the day while they were filming?

Just what I did on every other picture that I was on that he made. Just try to be of help, cart water, soothe people’s nerves, whatever I could do.

What were some of the challenges that he faced filming in Egypt?

The special effects came later but in Hollywood but in Egypt we hired whole tribes with thousands of people. We hired whole tribes out of the desert. They came with their flocks and their wives and their children and their camels and their geese and their water buffalo. And Frank Westmore, who was head of makeup, used to get in at five with with Dorothy Jenkins who did the costumes. I used to meet him on the set at five o’clock and help get everybody made up. Most of them were okay because a lot of the Bedouins dressed just like they did 5000 years ago but if they were wearing a watch I actually had to get it off of them. The Egyptians were wonderful.

Your grandfather became ill during the filming I understand.

Copyright Running Press 2014
Copyright Running Press 2014

He did, he had a major heart attack but it would have been a publicity nightmare to say that, so he said it was just a bout of dysentery and mother took over and directed the film. He never missed a day on the set. He knew if he wasn’t there it would be news so he went and sat quietly behind the camera and mother made all the decisions. Mother and Loyal Griggs, his cinematographer made all the decisions and after a week he felt stronger though very weak still and very skinny and then he recovered his strength and went back to Hollywood and he continued and made the film.

Did you spend any time with the lead actors?

Oh sure, I mean they were all friends Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston were the ones that went there.  They were wonderful anything they could do to help. Everybody just pitched in.  When Yul walked in a room he would just make some kind of statement and everybody would look at him, he was just that imposing. He wasn’t a really tall guy but he had a gorgeous build with great body and worked out, very handsome man; spoke three or four or five languages. He read constantly, very intelligent, he was an artiste. He was just a really nice guy to be around. You know I’ve known actors all my life, both actors and actresses and usually they are almost with no exception, they are just really nice people.  Charlton Heston was a very good friend of mine and of the family. Chuck was very straight, very studious, he walked around with all the books on Moses he could find reading everything he could read about the life and times of Moses. He wanted to know what it was like to be there then. And he had many talks with Egyptologists and people that were familiar with that era. How would he act? What would he be seeing? He did that with every film, Chuck was like that when he played Michelangelo and Ben Hur, he always wanted to know everything.

And you worked with the camels?  How was that?

Camels are kind of cranky but they are ok. They are fun to ride.  But it is a rocky ride.  The roughest ride was in the chariot. Chuck Heston took me for a ride in the chariot. I tell you I hung onto him with my life because there are no shock absorbers.  But he loved it.

Tell me about the book. 

Mark Viera<img src="" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" / has have been after me for some time to write that and I finally thought, "Why am I doing saying no?" I have all these wonderful archives that nobody has ever seen. I mean the art and the photographs. You know it weighs over 6 pounds and it sold out in four months. We are on the second printing and we are going to into a third. They did such a beautiful job on this book it is spectacular, of all the reviews we have had not one has been a bad review. They’ve all been over the top. Not even one criticism of anything in that book of all the reviews we have had.

I think what the book is about, it’s about certainly De Mille and how he made movies. De Mille was a modern-day Medici which doesn’t happen now. He brought in artists from all over the world, costume, jewelry, painters, everything from all over the world. He would tell them the story from his perspective and let them go. He didn’t want to tell them what to paint; he wanted them to tell him the new ideas. I have and we show in the book a concept drawing and this happens all the time, an artist would bring a concept drawing for the scene and he would film that scene exactly as that artist had shown. Where does the light come for the drama? These guys were brilliant and he knew they were brilliant. He wanted their ideas and used them. That is why when he accepted the Academy Award he said, “Pictures aren’t made by one man.” He said film is a collaborative art form and he was very well aware of all that.

My grandfather raised me. I moved in with him at seven and when I could dress myself he took me everywhere that he went, everywhere. And I bring those stories that nobody’s heard or knows about the actors we knew, about what he was thinking about all that and just fun stuff.

What made your grandfather want to oversee such enormous and complicated productions?

He was in his element doing that. People loved working with him and he worked with the same people over and over. He knew how to work with crowds. He could have 1000 extras and make it work. On the set if he didn’t think extras were giving the performances he wanted, he would pick one guy out that was just not paying attention and get him and say, “What are you doing? You have to act!” and be rough on him and then he might call him at the end of the day and say, “Look, I chose you and I’m going to give you more parts in this.”

And people love the films. One year, ABC didn’t run it and they called me and said, “We have never received more letters in our lifetime that we received because we didn’t show “The Ten Commandments.” I get letters saying, “The only time my teenage son will sit down with me is to watch “The Ten Commandments.” So you know it’s a lasting, wonderful thing.

Is that your favorite of his films?

I love The Sign of the Cross, that is a brilliant epic. And I love “The Ten Commandments, of course, I love The Plainsman. I love watching Gary Cooper — how good is that! And Union Pacific was one of my very favorites. Joel McCrea was so handsome. And Barbara Stanwyck was by far grandfather’s favorite actress. She was always on time, always knew her lines, never groused, willing to do anything the script called for. And she loved him. There is a quote in the book that she said, “I loved Mr. DeMille and Mr. DeMille loved me.”

And I understand you are still sending checks to people who worked with him.

Yes I am. you know he did something unusual twice when Joe Pew who had the Pew foundation. Joe Pew was a friend of his and a very wealthy man and they put a great deal of money in the making of The King of Kings and they sat down just the two of them and watched the movie and they agreed after seeing it that they would pay back the cost and they would never take a profit. De Mille gave all of his checks to charity and Joe Pugh gave all of his money to getting new prints out all over the world. They never took a dime of profit ever. And in “The Ten Commandments,” De Mille took ten percent of his profit and divided it among the hundred people that were key to the production of this film. And those checks I still write, unfortunately not as many as I used to. But I mean that has never been done.

What do you miss the most about that era of Hollywood?

The studio system of course is gone as it should be gone because actors should be able to call their own shots. But if you have a good studio head, like Paramount was at that time with Barney Balaban and Jesse Lasky, it was like a family. People got along, they all backed up each other. You know, it’s an absolute cut throat business today.

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