March 19

This Day in History

General Interest

Mar 19, 1953:

DeMille wins Oscar

On March 19, 1953, legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille wins the only Academy Award of his career when The Greatest Show on Earth takes home an Oscar for Best Picture. The film, a big-budget extravaganza about circus life, starred Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, and Cornel Wilde.

Born in Ashfield, Massachusetts, in 1881, DeMille came from a theatrical family and studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1913, hoping to exploit the fledgling movie industry, he joined with Jesse Lasky, Samuel Goldwyn, and Arthur Freed in forming the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, which later grew into Paramount Pictures. He produced and co-directed a silent western called The Squaw Man (1914), which at six reels was the first feature-length film made in the small town of Hollywood, California.

During the next few years, DeMille was responsible for a string of commercially successful movies and became the archetype of the Hollywood director as a dashing and assertive figure. After World War I, he made comedies with sexual themes, such as Male and Female (1919) and The Affairs of Anatol (1921). These and other Hollywood movies of the postwar period led to a series of scandals in which the industry was forced to defend itself against charges of immorality. In response, DeMille made the The Ten Commandments (1923), which combined a modern-day morality tale with an elaborate biblical flashback. Three years later, he released The King of Kings (1927), a biblical epic that was seen by hundreds of millions of people.

Having found a winning genre, he made a series of lavish biblical and historical epics in the 1930s, including The Sign of the Cross (1932), the exotic Cleopatra (1934), and The Crusades (1935). Henceforth, DeMille concentrated on big-budget spectacles, and his last three films--Samson and Delilah (1949), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and a second version of The Ten Commandments (1956)--were all progressively bigger than anything he had done before. In all, he made some 70 films.

Although rarely critically acclaimed, his spectacles attracted vast audiences, and he was a dominant figure in Hollywood for decades. His only Oscar was for The Greatest Show on Earth, but that year he also received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 1950, he had received a special Academy Award for "37 years of brilliant showmanship." In 1952, the Golden Globe Awards introduced the Cecil B. DeMille Award for outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment. The first Cecil B. DeMille Award went, appropriately, to Cecil B. DeMille. He died in 1959.

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