William C. de Mille: Not Just Cecil’s Brother

I’ve had occasion to refer to this chap a few times on Travalanche so now I devote an entire post to playwright/screenwriter/director/ producer William C. de Mille (1878-1955). Today this man is chiefly remembered as the elder brother of director Cecil B. DeMille (who changed the family spelling) and the father of choreographer Agnes de Mille (who did not). But in his day, William was an important man of stage and screen himself, as distinguished as his brother if not more in certain ways.

The brothers were second generation theatre folk. Their father Henry Churchill de Mille was also a playwright. William graduated from Columbia University and studied at the Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1903 he married Anna Angela George, daughter of the important economist and social scientist Henry George, author of the hugely influential Progress and Poverty. (Hence the stage name of de Mille’s other daughter, Peggy George, Agnes’s sister).

In 1905, William’s play Strongheart became  the first of his 11 works to be produced on Broadway. It was filmed twice, first in 1914 with Henry B. Walthall and Blanche Sweet, and then in 1925 under the title Braveheart, produced by Cecil B. DeMIlle and directed by Alan Hale Sr. Nat C. Goodwin produced his second play The Genius in 1906 as a vehicle for himself.  His third play Classmates (1907) became his first script to be filmed, in 1914 and was later remade in 1924. The Warrens of Virginia (1907-1908), produced by David Belasco, was a long-running hit, with a cast that included Cecil, as well as a young Mary Pickford. The Warrens of Virginia was made into films in 1915 and 1924. Belasco also produced the Broadway production of de Mille’s The Woman (1911-1912), which was filmed in 1915, and (as The Telephone Girl) in 1927. de Mille also wrote several one-act sketches that were produced in vaudeville, including In 1999 (produced by his future Paramount cohort Jesse Lasky), Food, Poor Old Jim, The Squealers, The Martyrs, and The Deceivers. After Five (1913), co-written with Cecil, was the last play of the original stretch of his Broadway career. This script would be filmed in 1915.

In 1914, William followed Cecil into the film industry, where he directed more than 50 movies through 1933, and contributed to over three dozen screenplays. Among his other notable credits were the screenplay to the 1915 version of Carmen (directed by Cecil); Peg O’ My Heart (1919), which was filmed but unreleased but due to rights issues; the first film version of George Kelly’s Craig’s Wife (1928); and the screen version of O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1933), his last work as screen director, although the credited director is Dudley Murphy (more about that interesting fellow in this post). Two Kinds of Women (1932) with Miriam Hopkins, is William C. de Mille’s last official directing credit.

In 1927 de Mille divorced George and in 1929 married Clara Beranger, the screenwriter of his 1921 film Miss Lulu Bett. In the intervening time he had an affair with Scottish writer Lorna Moon, who secretly bore him a child. The boy Richard de Mille, was raised by Cecil as one of his own, a fact that was not known to the public until Richard’s 1998 memoir.

William co-hosted the first Oscar ceremony in 1929 with Douglas Fairbanks; and hosted the 2nd ceremony in 1930 solo — that’s how eminent he was in the business at the time. Still, by that time, his career was winding down. In 1936, three years since his last film directing work, he wrote and directed a short-lived play called Hallowe’en on Broadway. He’d also self produced about a half dozen of his own films back in the day; in 1934 he was listed as associate producer of the film Social Register, his last such credit. In 1939, he was one of the credited writers on the adventure story Captain Fury, directed by Hal Roach, and featuring Brian Aherne, Victor MacLagen, and Paul Lucas. After this, a well earned retirement for William C. de Mille, whom much like his brother Cecil, is a strong link in the chain between the American stage and the American screen, helping to forge some of the melodramatic aesthetics that still find their way into Hollywood movies to this day.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,