Silent Features

DeMille personified the silent era of American film. In 1913, when he left a thirteen-year career on the stage and stepped behind a motion-picture camera, the medium was still being formed. He immediately sensed that anything was possible. Applying theatrical methods to the new medium, and inventing new ones as needed, he adapted and thrived, molding a new art form. He did not invent the closeup, for example, but he found many ways to improve it.

One of DeMille’s most important contributions was to organize the hierarchy of filmmakers. In 1914 he created the post of story editor for his brother William de Mille. Shortly thereafter he hired a writer-director named Jeanie Macpherson and taught her what he had learned about story construction from his father, his brother, and David Belasco.

DeMille also created the post of art director, hiring Belasco’s lighting and scenic designer, Wilfred Buckland. This affected the work of cameraman Alvin Wyckoff, who only used flat, diffused light. DeMille forced Wyckoff to imitate moonlight with a spotlight borrowed from the Mason Opera House in downtown Los Angeles, and “motivated lighting” was born.

DeMille became a modern Medici, hiring artists from all over the world, and giving them freedom to do their work.

There was no model for the movie director in 1914. DeMille wore boots because of weak ankles, a condition aggravated by sixteen-hour work days. He carried a gun because the countryside was rife with rattlesnakes. He wore a visored cap backwards because that made it easier to look through the camera. He substituted a microphone for a megaphone because it reached farther. Nothing was for show. Everything served his ultimate purpose, which was to tell his stories. DeMille soon saw that his image was bringing audiences to his films.