Friday, July 2, 2021

Stubs - The Sign of the Cross

The Sign of the Cross (1932) Starring: Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton Directed by Cecile B. DeMille. Screenplay by Waldemar Young, Sidney Buchman. Based on the play The Sign of the Cross by Wilson Barrett (London, 27 May 1895). Cecil B. De Mille's Production. Run time: 126 minutes. USA Black and White. Melodrama, Historical, Religious. Pre-Code.

Feature filmmaking in Hollywood owes a lot to Cecile B. DeMille. Along with Jesse Lasky, Sam Goldfish (later Samuel Goldwyn), and a group of East Coast businessmen created the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company in 1913, one of the companies that would eventually become Paramount Pictures. DeMille became director-general of the company. He would also co-direct the first full-length film shot In Hollywood with The Squaw Man (1914).

By 1924, however, DeMille was out at Paramount over disputes with Adolph Zukor over his extravagant and over-budget production costs. He formed DeMille Pictures Corporation in 1925 and produced his own films working with the Producers Distributing Corporation. But of the four films he made, only King of Kings (1927) was a success.

With the coming of sound, DeMille made a successful transition. He is said to have devised a microphone boom, a soundproof camera blimp, and popularized the camera crane. Working at MGM, the first three films he directed there, Dynamite (1929), Madame Satan (1930), and The Squaw Man (1931) were not critical or financial successes.

After his contract ended at MGM, no production studios would hire him. He attempted to create a guild of half a dozen directors with the same creative desires called the Director's Guild. However, the idea failed due to a lack of funding and commitment. Moreover, DeMille was audited by the Internal Revenue Service due to issues with his production company. This was, according to DeMille, the lowest point of his career. DeMille traveled abroad with his wife Constance, visiting Egypt and Russia.

Upon his return, no studio was interested in hiring him. “Nobody would even listen,” DeMille is quoted as saying. “I was through, I was dead. I was just dead.”

At the same time, D.W. Griffith, another early film director, had made his last film and was slipping into ignominious retirement; a fate DeMille did not want for himself. In March 1932, before Lasky and B.P. Schulberg were themselves ousted from the studio, they convinced Paramount to give DeMille a one-picture deal. DeMille’s reputation and association with Paramount meant nothing to Sam Katz and Emanuel Cohen, who were now in charge.

Zukor had welcomed DeMille back but only under the condition DeMille could not exceed his production budget. “Remember Cecil,” Cohen told him. “You are on trial with this picture.” The Sign of the Cross, the film DeMille wanted to make, was budgeted at $650,000, half of that money DeMille had raised. Shot in 8 weeks, beginning on July 25, 1932, DeMille managed to not go over budget.

To save production expenses during the Great Depression, existing sets were reused as well as costumes leftover from the making of The Ten Commandments (1923). He also relied on art director Mitchell Leisen. As time grew shorter, DeMille had Leisen design costumes and even co-direct scenes.

For one of the lead roles, DeMille chose Claudette Colbert. The French-born actress was a star on Broadway and was signed by Paramount in 1928 when all the studios were looking for stage actors who could handle dialogue. In her early films, her elegance and musical ability were a great asset. She appeared in films such as The Big Pond (1930) and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) opposite Maurice Chevalier; Manslaughter (1930) and Honor Among Us (1931) opposite Fredric March; and His Woman (1931) with Gary Cooper.

Having rejected Pola Negri and Norma Talmadge as unsuitable, DeMille happened to look out his office window when he saw Miss Colbert walking across the Paramount lot.

“I think they’ve got you wrong,” DeMille said to her. “You should not be playing these little girls. To me you look like the wickedest woman in the world. Would you like to play her?”

“I'd been in kind of a rut playing nice, long‐suffering heroines,” Colbert would later recall. “I was bored with those roles, but because I happened to look like a lady, that's all they wanted me to play. Working with DeMille opened up a whole other field; they realized I could look sexy.”

The making of the film was not without its own controversy. In July 1932, Alfred Cohen, president of B'nai B’rith of Cincinnati, wrote to Carl E. Millikin of the Hays Office protesting the making of the film, claiming it was highly offensive to Jewish people. Jason Joy, also of the Hays Office, assured Milliken that there was no basis for Cohen's apprehension concerning anti-Semitic propaganda and the matter apparently was dropped.

But the film’s real notoriety would come when the film was released.

Rome is on fire at the beginning of The Sign of the Cross.

The film opens in Rome, 64 AD, and hedonistic Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) delights as the city burns. When notified by a centurion that the people believe he set the fires, he devises a plan to blame it on the Christians, a burgeoning religion that he feels threaten his standing as master of the world.

Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) devises the idea to blame Christians for the great Rome fire.

The emperor puts a bounty on the head of Christians and an angry and hungry populace go along. Two such Romans, Strabo (Nat Pendleton) and Servilius (Clarence Burton), believe that their own fortune lies with finding and turning in Christians.

When Titus (Arthur Hohl), a messenger of Paul, one of Christ’s apostles, arrives in Rome to deliver St. Paul's message, he makes contact with the Roman Favius (Harry Beresford) by drawing half of the sign of the cross in the sand, to which Favius responds with the other half. The two manage to leave but when Strabo and Servilius notice the cross they’ve drawn, they hunt the two men down and arrest them.

While they’re waiting for authorities to arrive, Marcus Superbus (Fredric March), the prefect of Rome, arrives on the scene. He spies Mercia (Elissa Landi) and is taken in by her beauty and virtue. At her request, he pardons the two men, even though he’s probably sure they are Christians. The men and Mercia go back to Favius’ home, but not before Marcus puts a tail on her. He wants to know all he can about her.

Meanwhile, Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) is taking a bath in ass milk that is being fed through pipes to her bath. Dacia (Vivian Tobin) a courtier, arrives with news and tells her that Marcus won’t be arriving as planned and that he’s fallen for a Christian woman. Poppaea invites her to take off her clothes and join her in the bath, so she can tell her everything.

Meanwhile, Tigellinus (Ian Keith), who is Marcus' rival for Nero's devotion, sees an opportunity to prove himself to the Emperor and show Marcus’ disloyalty by arresting the very Christians Marcus has pardoned.

At home, Favius is helping Titus translate St. Peter’s message into other languages. We learn that Mercia and her younger brother Stephanus (Tommy Conlon) came to live with Favius after their parents were burned alive for their beliefs by Nero to light one of his orgies.

Marcus Superbus (Fredric March) surprises Mercia (Elissa Landi) when she goes to get water.

Marcus surprises Mercia at the water fountain she frequents and tries to engage her, though Tigellinus interrupts them with a message from Nero reminding him of his responsibility to capture and kill Christians.

Stephanus (Tommy Conlon) promises Titus (Arthur Hohl) that he won't divulge the location of the meeting if captured.

In order to get the word out about the meeting, Favius sends Stephanus out as a messenger. He promises Titus that he would never reveal the location to the authorities. But before he leaves, Mercia asks that while he’s out he pick up some bread for dinner that she was buying when the arrest took place but had left at the bakers.

Following up on leads, Tigellinus has also found this out and leaves Strabo and Servilius behind to wait for her to return. When Stephanus arrives, the baker does his best to pretend Stephanus is just another customer, but the boy insists he is there for Mercia and is then promptly arrested. Stephanus is tortured until he tells Tigellinus where the Christians are meeting.

Marcus arrives at Favius’ house looking for Mercia, whom he wants to take away before there are more arrests. Initially, Favius tries to hide her from him but does relent. While he’s there, the Baker arrives to tell them of Stephanus’ arrest.

Marcus goes to the jail and frees Stephanus from his captors and when he learns of where the meeting is and knowing Mercia will be there, takes his own troops to stop Tigellinus.

While racing through the streets, Marcus’s procession collides with a carriage meant for Poppaea. She is happy to see Marcus and even though he says he’s in a hurry, orders him to come to her. The empress is in love with Marcus and wants him to stay with her but he insists that he has to go, much to her dismay.

Titus tells Paul's message to those gathered before he is killed.

The delay allows Tigellinus’ men to attack the worshippers, killing Titus and Favius amongst others. Marcus commands the troops to end the massacre and rescues Mercia, ordering that those still alive be taken to prison. He also orders one of his men to bring Mercia to his palace during the change in the guards that night.

Mercia comforts Favius (Harry Beresford) as he dies from his wounds.

The next morning, Marcus goes to see Poppaea to make his apologies for the previous night. Despite her best flirtations, Poppaea isn’t able to shake Marcus from his love for Mercia. But she does evolve a plan to get back at him.

Poppaea makes her play for Marcus, but he resists her.

Meanwhile, Tigellinus then convinces Nero that Marcus is not loyal and to make an example by executing him for treason. Poppaea intervenes, insisting his motives are not religious, but sexual. Instead, she orders that Mercia be taken from him.

Ancaria (Joyzelle) tries to entice Mercia with her sexual dance.

Back at his palace, Marcus excuses himself from a banquet and goes to see Mercia. He proposes to Mercia, but she accuses him of wanting her only as his sexual slave. He curses her Christianity and mocks her virtue by having the court temptress Ancaria (Joyzelle) perform a lascivious dance in a futile attempt to arouse and embarrass her.

Outside the palace, the Christians sing a dirge as they are led to the prison at the coliseum. Ancaria, can’t dance with that music playing, despite Marcus’ orders to continue. But Ancaria gives up and Marcus is forced to end the orgy.

Mercia tries to explain to Marcus that his love cannot out-power Christian truth. He forces himself on her when Tigellinus interrupts with an order for her arrest.

Marcus pleads with Nero to spare Mercia's life.

The next day, Marcus, in a rage, begs Nero to spare Mercia. He seems on the verge of agreeing but Poppaea insists Mercia be killed. He does offer to pardon her if she renounces her faith.

Gladiators salute Nero before fighting to the death.

At the arena, thousands of Romans gather to watch a spectacle that includes gladiators, pygmies fighting Barbarian women, as well as a host of bloody spectacles planned by Nero culminating in the execution of one hundred Christians by lions.

Pygmies fight Barbarian women.

As the barbaric audience cheers and makes wagers, gladiators fight and kill each other, African pygmies fight half-naked amazon women to the death and men wrestle wild beasts. The orgy continues as tigers devour maidens, a naked maiden is devoured by alligators and a gorilla is left alone with a naked girl tied to a post.

A naked maiden tied up and being fed to alligators.

Meanwhile, awaiting their own fate, the Christians pray. When their time comes, they are led, singing and praying, out of the dungeon and into the arena. Mercia, on Poppaea’s orders, is to be held back and be sent out alone.

Christians sing and pray before meeting their fates.

Young Stephanus becomes paralyzed with fear and Mercia promises to meet him in heaven. Even though they’re separated, they sing a hymn together until Stephanus’s voice is silenced.

Marcus arrives moments before Mercia is to walk up the steps to the arena, begging her to renounce her faith so that she might live. He admits he prayed the night before, and she swears her love, promising to teach him the Christian faith.

Marcus tries to convince Mercia to give up her faith so she can live with him.

Suddenly he is full of strange hope and is willing to die in order to have her as his wife in heaven. As Marcus and Mercia walk to their death, the dungeon doors close, creating in light the sign of the cross.

Merica and Marcus climb the steps to the floor of the arena.

Despite DeMille traveling back East to assist with the studio’s campaign to get this picture through official censor boards without deletions, according to the Motion Picture Herald, prior to the film's release, three or four minutes of screen time were cut in which Marcus becomes "the immobile focus of a bombardment of Lesbian wiles offered by a dancing wanton."

After early screenings in New York, the Motion Picture Herald reported an "entrancingly sadistic passage limning the approach of a herd of hungry crocodiles waddling to an arena feast of edible, white-fleshed Christian girls" was also cut. The Motion Picture Herald also stated that audiences would love the film "provided their sensibilities survive the odors of Lesbos and de Sade."

According to the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the Hays Office wanted Ancaria's seductive dance around Mercia eliminated entirely. In his autobiography, DeMille recounts the conversation he had with Hays Office director Will H. Hays regarding the scene. After Hays asked DeMille what he was going to do about the scene, DeMille responded, "Not a damn thing." And the dance stayed in the picture.

Censorship wasn’t limited to the U.S. either. Singapore censors cut scenes, too, including ones with the trucks carrying dead bodies, a gorilla dancing around a nude girl and elephants walking over Christians and picking them up with their tusks.

While there were reports of women in the audience covering their eyes or even fainting, the film was still a financial success, making $2,738,993 in its initial release.

Mourdant Hall began his review in the New York Times with, “It is undoubtedly an opulent and striking pictorial spectacle that Cecil B. DeMille has wrought from Wilson Barrett's famous old stage work, 'The Sign of the Cross.' It was offered last night at the Rialto before a brilliant audience, which revealed no little interest in its variety of handsome scenes, its battling gladiators, its orgies in Nero's court, its chanting Christians, its music and its screams.”

Charles Laughton as Nero.

Hall is also full of praise for Charles Laughton, calling his performance an “outstanding histrionic achievement.” He later adds, “It is a remarkable performance of the fiddling Emperor as Laughton sees him; perhaps quite a restrained piece of acting, considering what is generally known of this creature.”

Despite the high praise, Laughton, though featured, has the lesser screen time of the major characters, as most of the relationships revolve around Marcus. Fredric March is good in the role. Regarded as "one of Hollywood's most celebrated, versatile stars of the 1930s and 1940s", March plays a rather complex character here.

A loyal Roman, Marcus has sexual desires for the virginal Mercia. When his upfront efforts to woo her fail and the lesbian dance he forces upon her doesn’t work on her baser side, he actually seems to decide she is worth dying for. I’m not really convinced he’s a true convert to Christianity until the very end, when he is about to sacrifice his life for her beliefs. March plays the role with a certain confidence and youthful vigor. The film comes the year after his Academy Award tying performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931).

Mercia is played by Elissa Landi, who may not be a Hollywood name you recognize. The Italian-born actress, who was also an author, came to the U.S. to perform on stage in the Broadway production of A Farewell to Arms in 1930. She was signed by Fox in 1931, where she was paired with the studio’s major leading men, including David Manners, Charles Farrell, Warner Baxter, and Ronald Colman.

She was loaned to Paramount for this film. DeMille wanted her for the role because, according to him, "There is the depth of the ages in her eyes, today in her body and tomorrow in her spirit." Hall notes “Elissa Landi is restrained and graceful as Mercia,” which pretty much sums up her performance.

After this film, Landi starred with Robert Donat in The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), which was also a major hit. But her career at Fox came to an abrupt end in 1936 when she refused a particular role. Signed by MGM, she would appear as Myrna Loy’s cousin in After the Thin Man (1936). She would only appear in two more films after that, retiring from acting in 1943. After that, she would write six novels and a series of poems before dying of cancer in 1948 at the age of 43.

The real star of the film, at least in my opinion, is Claudette Colbert. This is not a role you would necessarily associate with Colbert while the scene bathing in asses’ milk may be one of her most memorable. She seems perfect as the conniving Poppaea, who uses her power to try to ruin the man she claims to love.

Claudette Colbert as Poppaea.

Colbert would go on to appear in one of her best-known roles in It Happened One Night (1934). Even though she was reluctant to take the part, she would win an Academy Award, one of three nominations she would receive for Best Actress. That same year, she would be loaned to Universal and starred in Imitation of Life. And if that wasn’t enough, she also starred in Cleopatra playing the title role opposite Warren William and Henry Wilcoxon. It was the highest-grossing picture of that year in the United States. That film would be her last to play an overtly sexual character. Fun fact, all three films were nominated for Best Picture at the next year’s Academy Awards. Colbert is, so far, the only actress to star in three films nominated for Best Picture in the same year.

This film is a great example of what a great pre-code film was capable of being in the right hands. Epic in scope, the film titillated, scared, and inspired its audience. It showcased what Cecil B. DeMille could do as a director, which is to tell a bigger than life story. Following a couple of financially disappointing dramas in 1933 and 1934, DeMille would stick to his large-budget spectaculars for the rest of his career. His films include Cleopatra (1934); Union Pacific (1939); Samson and Delilah (1949); The Greatest Show on Earth (1952); and his final film, The Ten Commandments (1956).

DeMille knew how to make what Hall called “an opulent and striking pictorial spectacle.” He further noted, “Throughout this really mammoth production the fine DeMillean hand is noticeable. Where there was a chance to touch up episodes it has been done.” With The Sign of the Cross, DeMille shows all that he has learned in his career, including how to make a big film on a budget.

Cecil B. DeMille directing March and Colbert.

While there is a religious theme throughout, it is not overplayed or the only thing the movie is about. However, religion was an important part of DeMille’s life and something he was more than comfortable dealing with.

I would definitely recommend The Sign of the Cross. It is a well-made film and tells an interesting story with some really great visuals and good acting. The film is also an example of the sort of story that films without a Production Code hampering them were capable of telling. While AFI viewed a heavily edited version of the film when they did their survey of films, The Sign of the Cross has now been fully restored and is available on Blu-ray through Kino Lorber.

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