Saturday, November 6, 2010

DVD Review: THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (Paramount, 1932)

In 1932, Cecil B. DeMille was as close to being in a "career crisis" as the autocratic director was ever going to get. Kicked out of Paramount in the late 1920s for his profligacy, C.B. tried going the independent route, a gambit which produced one substantial achievement and several dozen buckets full of red ink. A stint at MGM in the early days of "talkies" proved equally troublesome. Finally accepted back at Paramount, DeMille found himself subjected to fairly stringent budgetary restrictions, partially due to his past reputation but also due to the Great Depression, which had put all the major studios in a financial pinch. Undaunted, C.B. sought to capture some of the old fire by mounting -- of all things -- an adaptation of a 19th-century play about the persecution of the Christians under the reign of Emperor Nero. With the financial system in complete meltdown, a grim period piece of this sort might not be expected to be an audience-grabber. Against all odds, The Sign of the Cross proved to be a hit, resurrecting (no pun intended) C.B.'s career and proving that he could, too, direct good sound movies -- though DeMille's reputation as a director with a tin ear for good dialogue may also have begun here as well.

The MCA-Universal DVD that Nicky and I watched was the restored original version of the film, which was hacked and butchered mercilessly in the wake of the establishment of the Production Code. Knowing that the slightly hackneyed main story of Roman official Marcus Superbus (Fredric March) falling in love with the virtuous Christian girl Mercia (Elissa Landi) couldn't carry the entire movie -- especially so, given the bland dialogue that the two equally bland actors were forced to recite -- DeMille amped up the film's "decadence quotient" to a degree that seemed quite shocking at the time. Charles Laughton, urged not-so-subtly by DeMille to camp it up in the role of Nero, goes "whole hog" into "deliciously debauched" hamminess that includes barely veiled gay references, while Claudette Colbert "milks" the role of the haughty, sexy, slutty Empress Poppaea for all it's worth. And when I say "milks," I mean it literally:

That was real (powdered) milk, by the way. Filming this scene was apparently a smelly and thoroughly unpleasant ordeal for all concerned, but you wouldn't know it by Colbert's behavior. Colbert does give us a brief "nipple shot" for our trouble, at least. As for the other "decadent" Roman characters, suffice it to say that one of the most memorable classical cretins is a "dirty old man" who resembles a homeless Al Lewis.

In the case of the concluding Coliseum scene, in which Mercia's brave band of Christians (ultimately joined by Marcus, not so much out of a desire to convert to Christianity as an unwillingness to be without his lady love) are torn apart by wild beasts as just one portion of the "entertainment," DeMille strayed dangerously close to Freaks territory. A good number of these sequences were trimmed when the movie was reissued during World War II, being replaced by (of all things) scenes of fighter planes flying over Italy to the stentorian tones of a voice-over narration. The connection seems tenuous, and, anyway, the "gorilla attack" and "pygmy battle" scenes would probably have been better morale boosters than a boring bunch of planes.  Also cut from the original version of the film was a frankly dreadful "lesbian dance sequence" in which Mercia is urged to sin by an exotic dancer with the costume and eyeshadow of a flapper, a voice like a rusty saw blade, and the dance moves of a drunken king cobra. Is there an equivalent of saltpeter for lesbians? If so, then watching this sequence would certainly function as the practical equivalent of same. The only reason why this and other deleted scenes survived was that the DeMille estate possessed a copy of the original film, which it donated to UCLA for restoration.

The Sign of the Cross was condemned by numerous Church authorities at the time of release despite its supposed "pro-Christian" message. The clerics correctly recognized that DeMille seemed far more interested in depicting out-of-control, sadistic luxury than he was in helping the audience to get to know, and hence root for, all of the Christian protagonists. For all of Mercia's trials and tribulations, Stephan, a teenage boy who betrays his fellows under torture and later quails at the thought of death at the lions' jaws before finally seeing his martyrdom through, is easily the most "human" and least plastic of the Christians, who basically content themselves with talking "softly and meaningfully" and singing hymns to buck up their spirits. These faults in characterization, together with the Jazz Age-influenced clothing and the frequent overacting, make the film seem a bit dated today. For my own part, knowing how little money DeMille had to work with here, I'm amazed at how effortlessly the director was able to sustain the illusion of an old-fashioned epic. Thanks to his ability to discipline his tendency towards extravagance -- ironically, in a movie in which decadence was on display from first to last -- C.B. assured that his "probationary" return to Paramount would be a permanent one.


Joe Torcivia said...

I’m guessing that the depiction of Nero in the Bugs Bunny cartoon “Roman Legion Hare” stems from this movie! True?

Chris Barat said...


Physically, most definitely. In voice, possibly. But the Warners Nero wasn't nearly as "swishy" as Laughton's version.