Echoes of Epics in DeMille’s Paradise
Nestled amid the arid, rugged wilderness of Little Tujunga Canyon are some of Hollywood’s greatest treasures, movie set leftovers that have survived the same real-life disasters--fires, floods and earthquakes--that they have posed for in their creators’ biblical epics.
These relics from award-winning productions are a throwback to the days when studios churned out films with gargantuan sets that matched moguls’ aspirations--a heavy iron gate from “King of Kings,” a lavish 1927 Cecil B. DeMille film about Christ, and a desert boulder that God emblazoned with his laws for Moses’ people in the 1923 film “The Ten Commandments.”
Along with a granite tombstone and a ranch house that became a mecca for actors and movie makers, these are all that remain of legendary filmmaker DeMille’s 310-acre ranch, the one he called Paradise.
A walk down the long road to the former ranch is a journey back into its heyday, beginning in 1916, when DeMille bought his piece of paradise.
Three years before, DeMille had arrived in Hollywood to begin his first directorial job on “The Squaw Man.” It was then that he invented the stereotype that would follow him for decades. Out at Paradise, his trademark get-up of jodhpurs, riding boots and a six-shooter on his hip turned out to be as necessary as it was showy. The boots boosted his height and helped protect him from rattlesnakes, and the gun could dispatch the creatures if necessary.
Anxious to have a hideaway in which to “recharge his batteries” and to find a retreat not far from his Los Feliz home and Paramount Studios, DeMille had his attorney, Neil McCarthy, check out an advertised piece of property in the Angeles National Forest.
McCarthy told DeMille that it was the “wildest, most terrible place” he ever saw in his life. But DeMille bought it anyway. It was exactly what he wanted--secluded, with a stream, and only 25 miles from home.
Paradise grew as DeMille bought more land--mountainsides and a “Middle Ranch,” where he stabled his horses on flatter ground.
He built the main ranch house with a 60-foot-long living room, added a stone cottage for himself with a mirror over the bed, planted peach and apricot trees, and dug a swimming pool that he filled with the numbingly cold water of a brook he dammed up. His ranch was a sanctuary for wildlife as well as people. Except for snakes, no shooting was allowed. Actor Yul Brynner, who was on his way to becoming an accomplished photographer, snapped many photos of wild creatures there, including foxes, coyotes, an occasional mountain lion and a deer eating an apple out of DeMille’s hand.
In 1923, DeMille shipped a $25,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ to the ranch so his composer, creating the scores for upcoming films, could work in solitude. Screenwriter Jeannie Macpherson also locked herself up in a cabin for weeks at a time as she wrote and collaborated on 90% of DeMille’s films.
Not everyone enjoyed the rugged beauty of Paradise, and DeMille’s wife, Constance, was one of those who didn’t.
When the former actress and philanthropist, who was several years older than her husband, locked her bedroom door, DeMille made no protest. He recruited his longtime mistress, actress Julia Faye, to travel with him and spend weekends at the ranch.
Paradise also had its two-legged party animals. In 1928, DeMille hosted a small surprise birthday party for his red-haired actor friend, Charles Bickford. He hired an erotic dancer who began her performance covered only in a thin veil, according to Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.
Female guests often found oysters seeded with cultured pearls in front of them at the dinner table. DeMille’s grandson, Joe Harper, recalled that when his daughter was born--more than 32 years ago--he received in the mail a pearl bracelet with an unsigned note saying that DeMille had given the sender the pearls during parties at the ranch. She had them made into a bracelet and wanted DeMille’s great-granddaughter to have it.
Often DeMille enthralled his guests with a game he called “Paradise Tray.” He placed valuables--including diamonds, gold coins and silk scarves--on a tray. They served as the prizes for the winners of games of pool.
DeMille insisted on dressing up for dinner and always suggested to male guests that they bring a pair of black pants, but no jacket. After a vigorous day of hiking, clearing brush or chopping wood with some of his chums, including Charlton Heston, Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper and H.G. Wells, DeMille and the men all donned colorful silk Russian blouses and cummerbunds instead of dinner jackets. There was never a dress code for the women.
Toward the end of his life, DeMille tried to revive his childhood faith and erected a large bronze cross at the foot of a giant oak tree. He placed it near the tombstone of Joseph DeMille, an 18th century ancestor. On late afternoons, when the sun slanted through the tree, DeMille meditated there.
His going was almost as dramatic as his years on earth. Before DeMille died of a heart attack in 1959 at age 77, he scribbled a note that read, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the Lord. It can only be a short time . . . until these words are spoken over me.” In 1963, members of the DeMille family turned Paradise Ranch over to the Hathaway Foundation (which has cared for severely emotionally disturbed and abused children since 1919), along with one of the few keys made for the “King of Kings” gate, which now guards the entrance to the Hathaway Children’s Village.
Today, the ranch that once rejuvenated DeMille’s soul, helping him to create the dreams, illusion, romance and entertainment that captured the imagination of the nation, is the heart and soul of the 120 children who live and attend school there.