Cecil B. DeMille and David O. McKay—an Unexpected Friendship

Volume 57:4 (2018)
Section and Issue
Article
from
Product
Product Attributes
PDF (Download)
$0.00

Cecil B. DeMille and David O. McKay—an Unexpected Friendship

Author Fred E. Woods

World-renowned filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille and David O. McKay, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, developed an unexpected friendship when they were introduced by Latter-day Saint painter Arnold Friberg, who had been commissioned by DeMille as the set painter for his epic The Ten Commandments. The two men developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other, as evidenced in their correspondence with each other and McKay’s invitation to DeMille to be the commencement speaker at Brigham Young University’s April 1957 graduation exercises. McKay also visited the set of The Ten Commandments in Hollywood and gave DeMille and some of his production team a personal tour of the newly completed Los Angeles Temple. The two men found common ground in respect for God’s law and their efforts to spread God’s law to benefit mankind.


Early in the twentieth century, what should have been a most unlikely friendship curiously evolved into a lifelong amiable relationship between world-renowned filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille and David O. McKay, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In some ways, the two men were polar opposites. DeMille was an icon in the twentieth-century film industry who directed seventy motion pictures in an illustrious career that spanned over four decades. Dwelling in the midst of “Babylon” (Los Angeles), he was referred to as “Mr. Hollywood.”1 McKay presided from the heart of Latter-day Saint conservatism, Salt Lake City, dedicated to building Zion as prophet, seer, and revelator. Bringing the two men together was Latter-day Saint artist Arnold Friberg, set painter for DeMille’s epic film The Ten Commandments. Although DeMille had formed good relationships with other religious leaders,2which was simply good business, his friendship with President McKay reveals a deeper and long-lasting bond. Through analysis of their private correspondence and public statements, instances of contact and sentiments shared by President McKay and DeMille emerge. This essay also traces how McKay’s friendship influenced DeMille to share a more positive image of the Latter-day Saints, which seems to have influenced American perception of the Church of Jesus Christ in the mid-twentieth century. 

These two remarkable men were both directors—influencers who shaped the culture and character of their milieu. A decade after McKay’s call to the holy apostleship, DeMille was working as the Lasky Company Director-General3 when he lent his support to the production of an anti-Mormon propaganda silent film titled A Mormon Maid. Although DeMille was not responsible for the content of the film, he was responsible for the decision of whether or not the film should be released in theaters. He gave his approval, and it premiered on Valentine’s Day 1917 during an era when anti-Mormon literature was rampant. The film was “arguably the most potent and important anti-Mormon film in the history of cinema” and “the most-advertised picture in the history of American cinema up to that time.” Critic reviews were extremely favorable of the film, and audiences came in droves to view it.4 

The following is a summation of this damning sixty-five-minute, black-and-white silent film: 

Settlers Tom and Nancy Hogue, with their beautiful daughter Dora, are rescued from Indians by a group of Mormons and, destitute, are forced to go live in the Mormon city. After a few years, apostle Darius Burr directs puppet leader Brigham Young to force Hogue to enter plural marriage as part of a plot for Burr to take Dora unto himself. Hogue takes a second wife to save his daughter, but his wife kills herself upon learning of it. Dora is taken prisoner anyway, and as she attempts to escape there is a small battle in which Hogue is killed. About to be forced to marry Burr, Dora lies about her maidenhood to avoid the ceremony, after which she escapes again with her beau, a Mormon scout named Tom Rigdon. They flee with the aid of a renegade Danite, but are overtaken on the plains and in the climactic battle Dora shoots Burr in the back. The Danite is unhooded to reveal none other than Hogue, who secretly survived the previous fight, and three set off together, leaving the Mormons behind forever.5 

The film played frequently for several months “across the United States, Europe, and other countries, and anti-Mormon organizations kept it in private circulation. . . . Mormons at the time and for years to come remembered it as the most lethal cinematic treatment they had ever received, particularly because of its depiction of sacred temple robes.”6 Who could have guessed that nearly four decades later DeMille would be taking a private tour of the Los Angeles temple at the generous invitation of his dear friend, President McKay. What were the events that precipitated this ironic twist of fate? 

During the early 1950s, DeMille was immersed in the preproduction stages of his final and most successful film, The Ten Commandments. After getting a recommendation from an international artist, DeMille hired Latter-day Saint artist Arnold Friberg to design sets and costumes as well as promotional paintings for his epic film. Friberg became the catalyst in bringing Mr. Hollywood and the Latter-day Saint prophet together.7 

In the course of their collaboration, Arnold and Cecil had many discussions that piqued DeMille’s interest in learning more about priesthood, temples, and all things pertaining to this religious film. DeMille asked Friberg to inquire into the possibility of meeting with President McKay because of his desire to tour the Los Angeles temple, then under construction not far from DeMille’s workplace. The circumstances and series of events bringing these two influential men together are described in McKay’s diary from July 11, 1954: 

This morning Mr. Arnold Friberg . . . called at the office and explained . . . his position with Cecil B. deMille who has employed him to paint pictures of characters and costumes . . . for the forthcoming motion picture masterpiece, “The Ten Commandments” which is being produced by Mr. deMille of the Paramount Studios. 

He said that next year they are going to Palestine to take scenes of the crossing of the Red Sea. They will also make scenes on Mt. Sinai. 

Brother Friberg also said that Mr. deMille confers with him from time to time about different phases of the Old Testament. For example, the conferring of the Priesthood upon Joshua. Mr. deMille said that this was the first instance of the conferring of the Priesthood. Brother Friberg told him No; that Adam conferred the Priesthood upon his sons Seth, Noah, and others. Upon hearing this, Mr. deMille changed the scenes. . . . 

Furthermore, Mr. deMille is reading the Pearl of Great Price, the Book of Mormon, etc. 

During one of their conversations, on a certain subject, Mr. deMille said, “If I knew your President, I would telephone him upon this matter.” Said he had met President Grant, and President Smith, but that he had never met President McKay.” Brother Friberg told him that he was sure it would be perfectly all right to call me, but Mr. deMille was reticent about doing so. He said, however, that he would very much like to make my acquaintance. I told Brother Friberg that I would be in Los Angeles the first week in August, and at that time arrangements can be made for me to meet Mr. deMille.8 

The following month, on August 5, 1954, DeMille and McKay met at Paramount Studios, making an instant connection. DeMille expressed his desire to go inside the temple. 

“I’ll take you through myself,” said President McKay. 

“Now that’s before it’s dedicated, I may go through?” Cecil inquired. 

“Yes.” 

“Now after it’s dedicated I may not go through?” asked DeMille. 

“Oh,” joked McKay, “We’ll take care of that. The first thing we’ll do is baptize you!” 

Both men laughed heartily.9 

A decade later in a BYU devotional speech, Arnold Friberg recalled another detail of this humorous experience when McKay asked, “‘Will that wash off all this encrusted Episcopalianism?’ ‘Oh,’ Mrs. McKay said ‘it’ll wash off every drop.’” Friberg added, “That evening I remember Mr. DeMille stopped me in the hall and was talking about President McKay. He says, ‘You know I sure love that old buzzard.’ . . . It was said with the greatest of affection. . . . He [DeMille] said, ‘When I talk to President McKay, I know I’m in the presence of a prophet. . . . It’s as if I were standing before the burning bush. I feel the same power.’”10 

Concerning this meeting in Los Angeles, McKay’s diary notes, “Mr. deMille received us graciously and had nothing but high praise for Brother Friberg’s work. . . . We were entertained most graciously and interestingly during our visit.” Following their time together, DeMille presented McKay with an inscribed copy of a Samson and Delilah handbook, containing research from his previous movie. The inscription read, “To President McKay, with respect—admiration, and now affection.”11 

That night from the Los Angeles Alexandria Hotel, President McKay wrote a thoughtful handwritten letter to his new friend: 

My dear Mr. de Mille, 

your graciousness to Mrs. McKay and me this afternoon, we shall ever cherish as one of the most interesting and informative experiences of our lives. Indeed, we became so absorbed in your presentation of the magnitude and possibilities as well as the responsibility of your art that we failed to realize how grossly we encroached upon your valuble [sic] time. The more I think of it, the more keenly becomes my embarrassment. 

I not only apologize but beg your forgiveness. 

In the generosity of your heart kindly remember our overwhelming interest and forget our intrusion.12 

Less than a week later, DeMille responded: “Thank you for your letter of August 5th. It was a great pleasure to see you and Mrs. McKay. I am the one who should ask forgiveness, if my absorption in my work—which is heavy right now—made you feel in the slightest degree uncomfortable. Far from being an encroachment, your visit was for me a privilege as well as a pleasure—and one which I hope will be repeated if you should come to Los Angeles while I am filming THE TEN COMMANDMENTS here next year.”13 

The correspondence steadily continued. The following month Mr. DeMille referred to their previous conversation during their initial August meeting: “When you were last in Los Angeles you may remember our touching on the problem of portraying the Voice of God in my forthcoming motion picture of The Ten Commandments.”14 DeMille spoke of his efforts to produce such a divine voice and described how one of his staff members (“a brilliant electronics technician” named John H. Cope, who had worked for DeMille since 1933) had remembered “the unique quality of the Tabernacle organ and believes that the Vox Humana15 stop on this magnificent instrument will be the closest thing in the world to a musical representation of the Voice of God.” 

DeMille asked McKay for “permission to have Mr. Cope record the Tabernacle organ” and persuasively continued, “It would be a great contribution to a proper and reverent portrayal of the Voice of God and to the spiritual values which you, and we, hope that THE TEN COMMANDMENTS will carry through the world.” DeMille concluded by reminding McKay that Mr. Cope had “built a radio station that is well known to you, KSL, and also installed the first public address system in the Tabernacle.” Finally, DeMille thanked McKay for the Gospel Ideals book McKay had recently sent to him, which contained McKay’s selected public discourses compiled the previous year. The famed filmmaker said he continued to find this book “a source of new inspiration.”16 

Not surprisingly, five days after DeMille sent this letter President McKay and the First Presidency granted DeMille permission to use the tabernacle organ. McKay wrote: 

My dear Mr. deMille: 

I was greatly pleased to receive your letter of September 18, 1954 in which you refer again to the problem of portraying the Voice of God in your forthcoming motion picture “The Ten Commandments.” As I read your comments I thought—this is another illustration of the masterful, painstaking research that Mr. deMille makes when he produces a great picture. Truly, I admire your greatness and especially your sincerity. 

This morning I read your letter in the regular meeting of the First Presidency. My counselors were also deeply impressed. We are one in assuring you that it will be a joy for us to do anything within our power to contribute to the success of the great picture you are producing. If the Vox Humana on the Tabernacle Organ will add to the musical representation of the Voice of God, this is your permission and authority to make any use of it that you wish.17 

The vox humana was then used to accentuate the deep base voice of former Mormon Tabernacle Choir member Jesse Delos Jewkes, who portrayed the singular voice of God for the film.18 

The following month, DeMille responded to President McKay’s note of permission: “Just returned from more than a week on Mount Sinai—one of the most unforgettably moving experiences of my whole lifetime—without further delay I must thank you and your counselors in the First Presidency for your permission to use the great Tabernacle Organ, as contained in your letter of September 23rd, and for the deep and, I am sure, prayerful interest which you and your counselors are taking in our production of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. I hope we and our work may be worthy of it.”19 

The following year, on July 21, 1955, President McKay and his wife, Emma Rae, visited DeMille’s studio in Los Angeles during active filming. On this date, McKay’s diary notes the following entry: 

We went over to the Paramount Motion Picture Studios. . . . This visit to the studios was in accordance with a previous invitation by the producer, Cecil B. deMille, when we met him personally last year. As we approached the set we saw that they were taking shots of the scene just following the building of the golden calf. Moses’ descent from the mountain, the breaking of the tablets, and then the wrath of Heaven descending with fire right in the midst of it. 

There were four hundred and sixty-five people in this scene. 

As we were looking with admiration at what was going on, suddenly we heard over the loud-speaking system a voice saying: “I understand President McKay is in the audience; will you please come up here, President McKay.” Right then and there the whole proceedings were stopped and Mr. deMille introduced me to the entire group. Later, he announced that Sister McKay was in the audience, and he invited her to join us. He then presented Edward G. Robinson to us, a prominent actor, who is taking one of the leading parts. 

We spent three hours on the set and were intensely interested and amazed at the magnitude of the whole project—what a stupendous thing it is to produce such a play as The Ten Commandments! I am impressed more than ever with Cecil B. deMille’s ability—he is a great director!20 

A week after this impressive experience, President McKay wrote to thank DeMille. 

My dear deMille: 

As Mrs. McKay and I recall our visits and appointments in the Los Angeles area last week, we hold as the outstanding event our experience at your studio set Thursday afternoon, July 21st

To see the “shooting” of one magnificent scene in the great picture “The Ten Commandments” was something to remember always. 

Your courtesy and graciousness in recognizing our presence, and paying us tribute (however unmerited) added greatly to the thrill of the occasion. 

Mrs. McKay and I have always held you in high esteem and admiration as the greatest director of this modern age; but after glimpsing the stupendousness of your task, in staging the scene following the destruction of the Tablets by Moses so deeply grieved at the people’s worshipping the golden calf, and after noting your masterful attention to every detail of scenes in which over four hundred people participated, our admiration of your leadership rose to greater heights! 

So also did our appreciation of your nobility of character! 

Mrs. McKay joins me in this note of appreciation for a most impressive and memorable visit.21

DeMille was deeply touched by his friend’s kind letter and responded in part: “Your letter . . . reminds me of the ideal my father had as a playwright—to bring to the larger ‘congregation’ of the theatre the same message he delivered every Sunday in the little church which he served as lay reader. I have tried to follow in his footsteps; and it means much to me that you believe I have to some extent succeeded.”22

Less than six months later, President McKay took DeMille and his small staff of six through the Los Angeles temple. This special private tour took place on January 16, 1956, two months before the temple was dedicated in March.23 This was at a time when both men were pressed with many responsibilities and DeMille was still in the middle of filming The Ten Commandments.

The local news picked up on DeMille and his Paramount Studios entourage touring the temple. Soon, “DeMille Visits L.A. Temple” headlined the papers. The papers also captured the mutual admiration that DeMille and McKay had for each other. DeMille informed the press that the private tour “was a great privilege and a pleasure.” As President McKay bid farewell to the group, he said of DeMille, “Here is one of the true noblemen of this world.” DeMille described President McKay to a reporter as “one of the great souls that I have been privileged to meet in this world; he has understanding; he has the true spirit of Christ; he is a great pioneer of God.”24

Apparently, the temple tour had a spiritual impact on DeMille. The Deseret News reported that President McKay described DeMille as “a longtime friend and interested student and admirer of the Church and its people” and noted he “seemed deeply impressed by his visit to the new temple as were the other members of his party.”25 Friberg later recalled that President McKay’s only explanation to DeMille regarding the temple’s purpose was “to take man from physical man to spiritual man.”26

In his autobiography, DeMille described McKay as a “great-hearted, lovable man who is literally a latter-day saint” and a man “through whom the Divine Mind shines crystal clear.” In addition, the Episcopalian DeMille noted, “Others like me might be more regular church-goers if there were more McKays.”27

On Thursday, August 2, 1956, DeMille arrived in Salt Lake City to provide a preview of his epic film, The Ten Commandments.28 DeMille biographer Scott Eyman noted that this was the film’s “sole public preview.”29 During a press conference, the famed filmmaker of over seventy motion pictures told reporters that his three-hour-and-forty-three-minute film was his “greatest achievement.”30 The following night, The Ten Commandments was shown. The Salt Lake Tribune announced, “Cecil B. DeMille, the undisputed king of Biblical motion pictures, arrived in Salt Lake City Thursday bent on determining public reaction to his latest 13 million dollar epic.31 The Hollywood director will attend a sneak premiere Friday night at the Center Theater to find out what Salt Lakers think of ‘The Ten Commandments.’” DeMille said Salt Lake was selected for the preview “because there are ‘good normal American people’ here and they don’t offer ‘undue criticism or praise.’”32

In his Autobiography, DeMille noted, “I always preview my pictures away from Hollywood, because it is almost impossible to get a typical audience reaction. . . . Most of my staff warned me that I would not get a typical reaction in Salt Lake City either: it would be too heavily weighted in favor of a religious theme because of the preponderant number of Mormons in any Salt Lake City audience.” Yet DeMille reasoned, “If the deeply religious, serious-minded Latter-day Saints of Salt Lake City approved . . . , so would millions of others, of other faiths, throughout the world.” DeMille affirmed the Latter-day Saints “did approve it, enthusiastically. And,” he said, “I may have had a personal, almost a selfish, reason for wanting to preview in Salt Lake City: it gave me another chance to spend some time with . . . the President of the Mormon Church, David O. McKay. There are men whose very presence warms the heart. President McKay is one of them.”33

The Deseret News reported, “About 1,700 lucky Utahns were in the audience, which included many civic, business and church leaders. . . . Many of the audience had stood in line prior to noon Friday to purchase tickets to the rare showing. . . . Several thousand others . . . were unable to obtain admittance because the Centre Theater showing was the only one that could be arranged.”34 DeMille’s staff described the Salt Lakers as “the perfect audience. . . . It was the best audience reaction we have ever seen.”35

The Tribune headline proclaimed, “Previewers Cheer ‘Commandments.’” Praiseworthy comments included “Great beyond words . . . Fabulous . . . Indescribable . . . A masterpiece . . . The best picture ever produced.” DeMille was particularly delighted by the “burst of applause at the scene showing the waters of the Red Sea parting. The scene required three years of effort, he explained.”36 

Following the Salt Lake premier, final film editing was completed in Hollywood before the motion picture opened in New York City on November 9, 1956.37 Just prior to the New York opening at the Criterion Theater, DeMille gave an address, later published, titled “Why I Made the Ten Commandments.” In his address he stated, “The Ten Commandments are not outmoded relics of a barbaric age. They are as true and valid and real as the day they were burned into tablets of stone by the Finger of God.”38

Near the beginning of the new year, President and Sister McKay sent a pamphlet to DeMille to explain the teachings of the Church. DeMille graciously responded, writing, “Thank you for sending me the inscribed copy of ‘A Look At Mormonism’, a fascinating and very useful collection of glimpses at the widespread and varied activities of your church. As I leaf through it, one thing that strikes me is the predominance of cheerful smiling faces, even in the unposed photographs—a fine illustration of the wholesome influence of your faith upon its devout adherence.”39

Soon thereafter, DeMille was selected to receive an honorary doctoral degree from Brigham Young University and spoke at the spring commencement exercises on May 31, 1957, following an introduction by President McKay. On that occasion, McKay said of his dear friend, “I have never felt the joy in introducing a speaker to an audience that I experience at this moment in announcing to you, as the Commencement speaker, Mr. Cecil B. deMille.” President McKay added that DeMille was “one of those living light-fountains in whose presence one feels inspired and uplifted.” McKay felt his famed friend’s greatness was “not only in his ability to choose the right . . . but also because of his soul, his faith in God, his confidence in his fellow men,” adding, “I love him because of his nobility.”40

DeMille then spent the bulk of his well-prepared speech41 on the importance of law and keeping the Ten Commandments, a theme apparent in his landmark film, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and which he produced, directed, and narrated. He also spoke of his friend President McKay: “One of the most valued friendships that I have [is] the friendship of a man who combines wisdom and warmth of heart. . . . I have known many members of your Church . . . but David O. McKay embodies, more than anyone that I have ever known, the virtues and the drawing-power of your Church.” DeMille then said, “David McKay, almost thou persuadest me to be a Mormon!”42

About six weeks later, McKay sent DeMille a letter with enclosed photographs of the commencement activities of which DeMille had been a part. President McKay noted, “I cherish these pictures as being reminiscent of one of the greatest days in the history of the Brigham Young University. Your Commencement address . . . won and merited the praise of tens of thousands who heard it directly and over radio and television.”43 A week later, DeMille thanked the President for “the touching inscription on the photograph which . . . enshrines forever the memory of that wonderful evening at Brigham Young University.”44

On September 7, 1957, DeMille sent a birthday telegram to McKay: “The world has changed mightily since 1873 [the year of McKay’s birth on September 8], but through all worldly changes the eternal values abide, the faith in God of which your life is a valiant example, the hope that has inspired you, and the love with which you are surrounded on this happy birthday, in which I join with warmest greetings and affection.”45

Four days later, President McKay wrote a letter to DeMille thanking him for his thoughtfulness in sending a birthday greeting, noting, “It was gracious of you to take time to send affectionate greetings. . . . None of the many received gave me more joy.” McKay also wrote, “Among the ‘eternal values’ that direct men’s souls toward the Infinite is the desire to be of service to one’s fellowmen. You have demonstrated that you possess this virtue in rich abundance. May God’s choicest blessings be your reward! For your graciousness and friendship I am deeply grateful.”46

As the year drew to a close, President McKay and his wife, Emma Rae, sent a Western Union telegram on December 29, 1957, to DeMille stating, “YOUR WIRE DELIVERED XMAS DAY IN THE MIDST OF FAMILY FESTIVITIES. . . . MAY THE NEW YEAR BRING YOU RESTORED HEALTH HAPPINESS AND CONTINUED SUCCESS IN YOUR BENEFICIAL SERVICES FOR THE BETTERMENT OF MAKING [MANKIND].”47

The well wishes for a restoration of health were sent due to a recent heart attack DeMille had suffered in Egypt. Six months after the warm holiday wishes sent by DeMille to the McKays, he testified for the right to work before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. On his return to his home in Hollywood, June 18, 1958, he suffered another heart attack, which was more serious than the previous one.48 Llewelyn R. McKay, the second oldest son of President McKay, also sent a Christmas gift in November, a short book he and his father had written this same year titled Christmas Silhouettes: Two Christmas Stories.49 Two months later, on January 21, 1959, DeMille died at his home due to heart failure at the age of seventy-eight; his friend McKay outlived him by a decade, not passing until 1970 at the age of ninety-six.50 On the eve of his passing, DeMille discussed with his granddaughter their family and God, whom Cecil described as “the mind of the universe.”51While on his deathbed, DeMille had marked various passages in his Bible, including Psalm 121:1: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills; from whence cometh my help?”52

On the day of DeMille’s death, McKay’s diary notes, “Received word of the passing of Cecil B. DeMille . . . a friend for many years, and I held him in the highest esteem.” In addition, he sent a telegram to the DeMille family stating that Mr. DeMille “merits the welcome, ‘Well done thou good and faithful servant; enter thou into the rest prepared for the just.[’] Heartfelt condolence to his bereaved Loved Ones.”53 A Deseret News reporter called at McKay’s office that same day to request a statement on his friend’s passing. President McKay stated, “I am deeply grieved. He was a great man, fearless in the defense of what he considered to be right. I consider him the greatest leader in the motion picture business, really a world benefactor. He was a man of high ideals. This was demonstrated in his strenuous fight a few years ago for the right to work. I was proud to be counted among his friends.”54

A few days after the passing of DeMille, President McKay received a letter from the Paramount Pictures Corporation notifying him of a gift that would soon be coming—“an especially bound copy of the screenplay for THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.” President McKay learned that there were just twenty-five of these works printed and only nineteen of them were inscribed, one of which was McKay’s.55 Soon thereafter, the gift arrived, and President McKay expressed in his diary his delight at receiving one of only nineteen bound inscribed screenplays and described “the beautiful book with my name imprinted in gold.” He added, “So genuine is my affection for this great man that I feel honored to have my posterity know that, in part at least, he reciprocated my friendship.”56

Such a special, inscribed gift seemed fitting, since DeMille had spent years trying to produce a moving piece to hold up God’s law, engraved on stone tablets, while President McKay had spent a lifetime trying to etch spirituality in the Latter-day Saints and the good people of the earth. Like David O. McKay, Cecil B. DeMille spent his life filled with a desire and unique ability to lift his fellowman via his extraordinary gifts. Donald Hayne, his close associate and editorial assistant to his autobiographical work, wrote on the night before his funeral, “He was a man of unquenchable faith and hope and a courageous heart. . . . He was a man of vision.”57 James Vincent D’Arc, who was well acquainted with DeMille’s Autobiography and wrote part of his dissertation on the creation of this work, noted:

According to his close associates, DeMille was not the crassly commercial purveyor of sex and redemption that many critics of his films have written of him. His creation, early in life, of the Champion Driver—“the Robin Hood whose Sherwood Forest was the world”—who fought against the forces of evil, was sincerely felt. Whether as a child jousting artichokes in his mother’s garden in acting out the chivalry of his Champion Driver, or later in life showing Moses in glorious Technicolor uttering God’s retribution to an unrepentant Ramses, DeMille’s deeply rooted values espoused by his minister-playwright father spoke to generations of eager moviegoers. “He sold the same message as the great illustrator Norman Rockwell,” wrote DeMille screenwriter Jesse Lasky, Jr., and son of his former partner, “by using Babylon instead of the small-town drugstore.”58

Both David O. McKay and Cecil B. DeMille had a great impact on their generation. President McKay wore out his life building what he believed to be God’s kingdom on earth. While DeMille spent most of his life in the flash and pomp of Hollywood, he never seemed sullied by it.

Orson F. Whitney of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles discussed the influence of such good people: “The Lord’s Work has need of auxiliaries outside as well as inside, to help it along. Because of their worldly influence—which would depart if they connected themselves with the Church—many are kept where they are, where the Lord has placed them, and can best use them for the good of all.”59DeMille certainly seems to fit into this category.

Because of the laws both DeMille and McKay lived, they were both considered men of honor, decency, and nobility in their different spheres of society. The genuine friendship of David O. McKay and Cecil B. DeMille was not only unexpected but remarkable, shining a bright light down the corridor of history’s shadows and also yielding a more favorable view of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the midst of the twentieth century.


Fred E. Woods is a native of Southern California and a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He completed a BS degree in psychology (1981) and an MS degree in international relations (1985) at Brigham Young University. In 1991, he earned a PhD in Middle East Studies from the University of Utah with an emphasis in Hebrew Bible. He has been a BYU professor in the department of Church History and Doctrine for the past two decades. From 2005 to 2010, he held a Richard L. Evans Professorship of Religious Understanding dedicated to building bridges among varied faiths and cultures. Woods has been a visiting professor at several universities and has lectured at numerous academic institutions in the United States and internationally. He is also the author of many publications. His most recent book, Melting the Ice: A History of Latter-day Saints in Alaska, was published by BYU Studies in 2018. His current projects include a history of Latter-day Saints in Tonga, which will be completed by the end of 2018. He has spent the past two springs in Oxford as a research fellow at Harris Manchester College and will return to the British Isles in spring 2019 to complete his study about the Latter-day Saint image in the British mind. Fred is married to JoAnna Merrill, and they are the parents of five children and have eight grandchildren.


  1. Sumiko Higashi, “An American Spectacular: The Life and Career of Cecil B. DeMille,” in The Register of the Cecil B. DeMille Archives, MSS 1400, comp. and ed. James V. D’Arc (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1991), 1. Herein, Higashi notes that during DeMille’s lifetime, “he was unequaled for the type of filmmaking that consistently broke box-office records and earned him the title ‘Mr. Hollywood.’” This essay also provides a wonderful, succinct overview of DeMille’s life. The best biography on DeMille is by Scott Eyman, Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010). For other treatments of DeMille, see Charles Higham, Cecil B. DeMille (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973); and Donald Hayne, ed., The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille (New York: Garland Publishing, 1985). An analysis of this autobiography was conducted by James Vincent D’Arc, titled “Two Articles: ‘Darryl F. Zanuck’s Brigham Young: A Film in Context,’ and ‘So Let It Be Written . . .’—The Creation of Cecil B. DeMille’s Autobiography” (PhD diss., Brigham Young University, 1986), 11–14, 74–88.
  2. DeMille’s papers reveal correspondence with various religious leaders.
  3. Higashi, “American Spectacular,” 3, notes, “DeMille’s life changed dramatically toward the end of 1913. According to a story that has since become legendary in motion picture history, DeMille joined a venture with Jesse L. Lasky, a vaudeville producer with whom he had collaborated on musical shows; Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn), Lasky’s brother-in-law and a glove salesman; and Arthur Friend, an attorney. Pooling resources, they founded the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company (named after Lasky because he was best-known) to produce feature film adaptions of stage and literary works for middle-class audiences.”
  4. “A Mormon Maid,” Mormon Literature and Creative Arts, Brigham Young University, https://mormonarts.lib.byu.edu/works/a-mormon-maid/.
  5. “Mormon Maid.” For a critique of the film, see Richard Alan Nelson, “Commercial Propaganda in the Silent Film: A Case Study of A Mormon Maid (1917),” Film History: An International Journal 1, no. 2 (1987): 149–62. For an overview of anti-Mormon silent films for this period, see Jacob W. Olmstead, “A Victim of the Mormons and The Danites: Images and Relics from Early Twentieth-Century Anti-Mormon Silent Films,” Mormon Historical Studies 5 (Spring 2004): 203–21.
  6. “Mormon Maid.” For more detail on A Mormon Maid, see Randy Astle, Mormon Cinema: Origins to 1952 (New York: Mormon Arts Center, 2018), 147, 157, 160, 178–81, 185, 187–90, 196, 200, 222, 241–42, 259. I wish to thank Joy Loosli, faculty delivery supervisor at the Harold B. Lee Library for her extramile efforts to provide this information in a timely fashion. Joy has assisted me with support of needed sources and source checking for this article and many other publications. She will retire at the end of 2018, and her devoted service to BYU will be greatly missed.
  7. Velan Max Andersen quotes Friberg about how he came to work with DeMille on The Ten Commandments: “Shortly after working with the Book of Mormon paintings an event took place which was to have enormous results later. At the time, I was teaching at the University of Utah. The secretary there was Carey Midgely. . . . Mrs. Midgely had a job with the State Department, probably more honorary than anything else. . . . She told [me] that the next man arriving was coming from Sweden. ‘This man,’ she said, ‘is a publisher of the largest Swedish newspaper and [is] a fine art books publisher. . . . His name was Herman Stolpe. . . . She thought that . . . he might enjoy coming out to my studio. . . . While he was here, I gave him a set of the Book of Mormon prints. When he got to Los Angeles, it had been arranged that he was to see Mr. DeMille. Actually, Mr. DeMille was very busy and he didn’t want any visitors. . . . He asked Henry Wilcoxin to meet with him instead. [Wilcoxin was associate producer of The Ten Commandments.] Mr. Wilcoxin . . . has a marvelous eye for art and illustrating. . . . At that time Mr. DeMille was in sore need of a religious illustrator. . . . He had looked around and he couldn’t find a religious artist and so in the course of Mr. Wilcoxin’s talk with Herman Stol[p] e, they talked about printing and publishing and what illustrators Stol[p]e liked in America and were there any good ones in Europe. . . . Could he tell him of anyone over there? Well, Stol[p]e said that he would have to think about that and then he said that he would write him. Stol[p]e left Los Angeles and after he was back in Sweden, he wrote to Mr. DeMille and sent the Book of Mormon prints of my pictures and said that the man they were looking for was in Salt Lake City.” Velan Max Andersen, “Arnold Friberg, Artist: His Life, His Philosophy and His Works” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1970), 192–95. While Friberg was engaged in providing paintings and illustrations of costumes for the film, another Latter-day Saint was involved in making and fitting the clothes to be used in The Ten Commandments. Josie Lynn Bird Miller noted she made the “white pleated chiffon” of the female actress, Nina Foch, who tended Moses in the bulrushes. Miller agreed with Anderson that “a DeMille picture was really a major production. . . . He always did it big.” Josie Lynn Bird Miller, interview by Jeff Anderson, October 1989, Kanosh, Utah, transcript, 30–31, MS 19814, Church History Library.]
  8. The David O. McKay diaries are located in MS 668, David O. McKay Papers, Manuscripts Division, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City. This reference taken from box 33, folder 4, of the McKay Diaries (hereafter cited as DOMD), July 11, 1954, underlining in original. Referring to his experience working with DeMille, Arnold Friberg recalled, “I was surprised at his [DeMille’s] grasp of the spiritual things. Many times I was called in on what they called theological consultation.” Friberg further noted that DeMille believed the Bible had not been translated correctly and had been tampered with. Further, DeMille told Friberg that the priesthood of God had been perverted in various periods of time, but stated, “It hasn’t happened to the Mormon Church yet. They’re too young.” Friberg also viewed DeMille as a humble man and wrote, “DeMille read the Bible every day of his life.” Arnold Friberg, Journal extract, no date, 28–29, transcribed from a recording of Friberg by David C. Skousen, 1957, in possession of the author.
  9. Arnold Friberg, interviews by Gregory Prince, August 4, 2000; November 16, 2000; cited in Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 259. Friberg noted that along with the wonderful invention of the motion picture, “a great spirit came into the world who became known as DeMille. He pioneered the motion picture industry and produced some of the great biblical epics. He put great truth into his pictures. . . . Having worked closely with this man for four years, I know of his great sincerity and the deep conviction that made his art so great. He believed that because he served a cause larger than himself that the men whom he needed would be sent to him, and for that reason felt that there was no accident that his path should cross my own. He needed the priesthood to work with him on that motion picture, ‘The Ten Commandments.’” Sven Arnold Friberg, “Talk given by Arnold Friberg, 10 June 1961, at a department session of MIA Conference,” 8–9, MS 1808 Sven Arnold Friberg, 1913–2010, Church History Library. Three years later, Friberg also said in a public setting that God “uses men of various talents and He places them in the earth at certain times in order that they may throw their talents into the scales on the side of truth. . . . I am sure that men like Mr. DeMille were placed on the earth at such a time. . . . He came at a time when his abilities and his understanding would be a great service in the world.” In this same address, Friberg further noted that after receiving approval from President McKay, “my wife and I went down to the Manti Temple and did the [ordinance] work in one day, both for Mr. DeMille and for Mrs. DeMille, . . . and it was one of the happiest moments in my whole life to be able to do this for him.” Arnold Friberg, Brigham Young University devotional address, Provo, Utah, April 29, 1964, audio recording made from this devotional radio broadcast by KBYU Television, AV 662, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City. Thanks to Tyson Thorpe, Church history consultant, for making arrangements for access to this audio recording.
  10. Arnold Friberg, BYU devotional, April 29, 1964.
  11. DOMD, August 5, 1954.
  12. David O. McKay to Cecil B. DeMille, August 5, 1954, MSS 1400, box 482, folder 13, Cecil B. DeMille Papers, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (hereafter cited as CBDP). The author thanks Cindy Brightenburg and her competent staff for their assistance in the preparation of this article.
  13. Cecil B. DeMille to David O. McKay, August 11, 1954, box 482, folder 13, CBDP.
  14. Cecil B. DeMille to David O. McKay, September 18, 1954, box 482, folder 13, CBDP.
  15. Vox humana is the Latin word for “human voice” and is contained in a box that is continually shut. Organ swell pedals determine the tone of what can be admitted from the box at various levels. See Encyclopedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences and General Literature with New American Supplement, ed. Day Otis Kellogg (New York: Werner, 1898), s.v. “organ.” See also Edward L. Stauff, “Vox Humana, Voix Humaine, Voz Humana,” Encyclopedia of Organ Stops, updated February 13, 2009, http://www.organstops.org/v/VoxHumana.html.
  16. Cecil B. DeMille to David O. McKay, September 18, 1954, box 482, folder 13, CBDP. Two weeks earlier, DeMille had thanked President McKay for the Gospel Ideals book “so handsomely inscribed,” noting, “on every page to which I open the book, I find some thought worth pondering—so it will be not only a valued memento of your recent visit, but a source of inspiration to me as well. Please remember me most kindly to Mrs. McKay, whose graciousness added so much to the pleasure of my meeting with you both.” Cecil B. DeMille to David O. McKay, September 2, 1954, box 482, folder 13, CBDP.
  17. David O. McKay to Cecil B. DeMille, September 23, 1954, box 482, folder 13, CBDP.
  18. Eyman, Empire of Dreams, 473, notes, “It [the voice of God] was actually a small-part actor with a bass voice named Delos Jewkes.” The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is now known as the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.
  19. Cecil B. DeMille to David O. McKay, October 25, 1954, box 482, folder 13, CBDP. The address of DeMille’s letter was given as 21, Sharia Tewfik, [Egypt].
  20. DOMD, July 21, 1955.
  21. David O. McKay to Cecil B. DeMille, July 28, 1955, box 482, folder 13, CBDP.
  22. Cecil B. DeMille to David O. McKay, August 5, 1955, box 482, folder 13, CBDP.
  23. The date of the tour is evident from a letter written by McKay to DeMille, noting January 16, 1956, “will be mutually convenient.” The memo also explained that he and Mrs. McKay would meet the DeMille company at the Bureau of Information, on the Los Angeles temple site. David O. McKay to Cecil B. DeMille, January 10, 1956, box 482, folder 13, CBDP. A letter from President McKay to DeMille’s field secretary, Berenice Mosk, thanked her for sending a list of names on January 21, 1956, of those who had recently come on the tour. (Those listed were DeMille, Joseph W. Harper, who was DeMille’s son-in-law, and a few members of DeMille’s staff: Donald Hayne, Donald MacLean, Henry Noerdlinger, and Berenice Mosk.) Berenice Mosk to David O. McKay, January 21, 1956; David O. McKay to Miss Berenice Mosk, January 24, 1956, box 482, folder 13, CBDP.
  24. “DeMille Visits L.A. Temple,” [Los Angeles] California Intermountain News, January 26, 1956, newspaper clipping in DOMD, January 15–19, 1956.
  25. “DeMille Is Guest: Pres. McKay Back from Temple Visit,” Deseret News, Church Section, January 21, 1956, newspaper clipping, DOMD, January 15–19, 1956. Another article appeared in the Deseret News, Church Section, a week later (January 28, 1956); in that article it was evidenced that DeMille and his group were among thousands who visited the temple prior to its dedication. In fact, a record was set in which over eighteen thousand visitors attended the temple in one day. The title of this article was simply “1600 Per Hour: 18,462 Visit L.A. Temple in Single Day.”
  26. Friberg, interviews, August 4, November 16, 2000, cited in Prince and Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, 259.
  27. Hayne, Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, 433–34.
  28. The 1956 film was a partial remake of an earlier silent film by the same name launched in 1923. Hayne, Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, 251, explains that the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments was “a modern story with a Biblical prologue. The prologue, following the Book of Exodus. . . . The modern story is of two brothers, one of whom keeps the Commandments while the other breaks them all.” Hayne, Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, 411–12, further notes that decades after the release of this silent film, people wrote letters wanting another Ten Commandments film. DeMille and his staff gave it much thought, and DeMille wanted to focus on the biblical portion of the 1923 film to make a full story out of the Exodus and emphasize the importance of the law. See Hayne, Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, 411–35, for a detailed treatment of the making of The Ten Commandments film released in 1956. See also Eyman, Empire of Dreams, 438–79.
  29. Eyman, Empire of Dreams, 474.
  30. Howard Pearson, “DeMille in S. L. To Show ‘Ten Commandments,’” Deseret News–Salt Lake Telegram, August 3, 1956, A11. In the appendix of Hayne, Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, 441–46, there is listed in chronological order the seventy films DeMille personally directed, yet 441 notes that the other motion pictures he supervised are not included.
  31. Hayne, Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, 414, notes the exact cost for the production of the film was $13,282,712.35. Less than three years after the release of The Ten Commandments, the film had grossed over eighty-three million dollars and nearly one billion people had already seen the film.
  32. “DeMille Wings in to Test ‘Commandments’ on Utahns,” Salt Lake Tribune, August 3, 1956, D9.
  33. Hayne, Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, 433. In addition, Pearson, “DeMille in S. L. to Show ‘Ten Commandments,’” 11A, noted DeMille mentioned to reporters he had previously provided a sneak preview of his last movie, Greatest Show on Earth (released in 1952), also in Salt Lake City.
  34. Howard Pearson, “‘Ten Commandments’ Given Premier Test Run in S. L.,” Deseret News–Salt Lake Telegram, August 4, 1956, B1. It is also evident that the specific nature of this upcoming event was not known. Just three days earlier, the Deseret News had mentioned, “A group of top Hollywood personalities will be in Salt Lake City Friday for a special prevue of what is described as ‘one of the most important pictures ever made in Hollywood.’ The name of the film was not divulged.” See “Hollywood Group Coming to S. L. for Top Prevue,” Deseret News–Salt Lake Telegram, August 1, 1956, C9. Two of the lucky few to attend the preview were Nadine Nelson and her husband, Tom. Nadine recalled, “At nine months pregnant, I stood outside in the August sun for two hours waiting in line to get a ticket. Well, I remember Cecil B. DeMille coming out on stage. . . . He simply said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen and David McKay.’ He pointed his finger, and he said, “David O. McKay, thou almost makest of me a Mormon.’” Nadine Nelson, phone interview with author, December 1, 2018.
  35. Pearson, “‘Ten Commandments’ Given Premier Test Run,” B4. Nadine Nelson, who was in the audience, remembered, “The audience reaction at the end was stupendous. It was just absolutely wonderful.” Nelson, phone interview.
  36. “Previewers Cheer ‘Commandments,’” Salt Lake Tribune, August 5, 1956, B8.
  37. Pearson, “‘Ten Commandments’ Given Premier Test Run,” B1.
  38. Cecil B. DeMille, “Why I Made The Ten Commandments,” address given at a luncheon at the Plaza Hotel just prior to the opening of his motion picture production at the Criterion Theatre in New York City, Church History Library. Arnold Friberg noted that DeMille “hoped that God himself will use this motion picture in order that men may know that freedom and the law were once given from the fiery summit of Mount Sinai. That it has been the basic law of mankind ever since. . . . That was his purpose in making the Ten Commandments.” Arnold Friberg, BYU devotional, April 29, 1964.
  39. Cecil B. DeMille to President and Mrs. David O. McKay, January 15, 1957, box 482, folder 13, CBDP.
  40. Introduction by President David O. McKay, in Addresses of the Eighty-Second Annual Commencement Exercises and Baccalaureate Services, 1957, in Brigham Young University Bulletin 54, no. 17 (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1957), 1, Perry Special Collections. DOMD, May 31, 1957, evidences that President McKay “had great joy in introducing Cecil B. DeMille as the Commencement speaker.”
  41. It is readily apparent that DeMille had a gift for speaking, as evidenced by his commencement address, which was carefully organized and executed. Evidence of such preparation is revealed in notes DeMille made over a year before the commencement address: “There are three approaches. this is a graduating class. One is their duty to their God first, duty to their country second and their home third. I would talk on those three things and in the commandments you have those three things. Definitely provided for.” “Notes for Possible Mormon talk,” April 17, 1956, box 482, folder 13, CBDP. In a May 31, 1957, “7:00am” diary entry, there is also evidence that President McKay diligently prepared to introduce DeMille that night at the commencement exercises: “Although the office is closed today, in order to give employees a week-end holiday, I came to the office to study for three important events.” President McKay then notes the funeral of Elder John V. Bluth, the issue of whether to have Ricks College in Rexburg or Idaho Falls, and his commencement introduction of DeMille. Concerning this introduction, McKay noted, “I shall preside and also introduce Mr. Cecil B. DeMille, movie producer, who is delivering the Commencement address and also receiving an honorary doctorate.” See DOMD, May 31, 1957.
  42. Cecil B. DeMille, in Addresses of the Eighty-Second Annual Commencement, 3. The news also captured DeMille’s commencement address: “BYU Hears: ‘Understand Law of God,’” Salt Lake Tribune, June 1, 1957; “Keep Ten Commandments, DeMille Tells BYU Graduates,” Deseret News, June 1, 1957, newspaper clippings, DOMD, May 31, 1957.
  43. David O. McKay to Cecil B. DeMille, July 9, 1957, box 482, folder 13, CBDP.
  44. Cecil B. DeMille to David O. McKay, July 18, 1857, box 482, folder 13, CBDP.
  45. Cecil B. DeMille to David O. McKay, telegram, September 7, 1957, box 482, folder 13, CBDP.
  46. David O. McKay to Cecil B. DeMille, September 11, 1957, box 482, folder 13, CBDP.
  47. David O. McKay to Cecil B. DeMille, telegram, December 29, 1957, box 482, folder 13, CBDP.
  48. Hayne, Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, 438. At this same time, President McKay was recuperating at his home from an eye operation. See DOMD, June 17, 1958. Yet two days later, he “unexpectedly arrived at the office.
  49. Box 482, folder 13, CBDP. Llewelyn R. McKay and David O. McKay, Christmas Silhouettes: Two Christmas Stories (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958). This short book was only twenty-eight pages in length. It contained a story titled “The Two Waifs,” written by President McKay, and another story, titled “The Talking Clock,” written by Llewelyn. Inside the book given to DeMille is an inscription that states, “To Cecil B. deMille with highest regards. Llewelyn R. McKay.”
  50. Hayne, Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, 438–39; Prince and Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, 393.
  51. Eyman, Empire of Dreams, 500.
  52. Eyman, Empire of Dreams, 502.
  53. DOMD, January 21, 1959. In the diary, it is recorded that the following month, Joseph W. Harper sent a note of appreciation for McKay’s telegram noting, “Your message of sympathy was most understanding. You have Mrs. deMille’s and our deep appreciation.” Joseph W. Harper to David O. McKay, February 19, 1959, copy in DOMD, January 21, 1959.
  54. “DeMille Dies of Heart Ill,” Deseret News, January 21, 1959, copy of newspaper clipping in DOMD, January 21, 1959.
  55. Paramount staff member Ann del Valle to David O. McKay, January 26, 1959, copy in DOMD, February 6, 1959.
  56. David O. McKay to Miss del Valle, February 6, 1959, copy in DOMD, February 6, 1959.
  57. Hayne, Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, 439.
  58. D’Arc, “Two Articles,” 87–88. See also Hayne, Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, 38–39, on the imagination of a young boyish DeMille, concerning his perceived imagined role of “The Champion Driver,” spurred by “heroic tales my father read us.”
  59. Orson F. Whitney, in Ninety-Eighth Annual Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Sale Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1928), 60.

 

Categories: