Romans Are Us: Cecil B. DeMille and The Sign of the Cross

We’re not about to argue that the 1932 Paramount studio production of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross is great art; far from it.  But, nearly eighty years after its premiere, it’s still a supremely watchable film.  Its story of Rome in the time of Nero continues to grip; whatever its faults, no one will say it’s dull.  Of course, as the success of the recent HBO television series, Rome, showed, viewers are always willing to watch the antics, both good and bad (but especially bad), of ancient Romans.  Still, there probably would not have been a Rome if there had not been a DeMille.  More than anyone else, DeMille could make the events of the ancient past as scintillating as the latest celebrity gossip on the E! channel.

In his time Cecil B. DeMille was one of golden-age Hollywood’s most famous, if not the most famous, film director.  “He was,” writes Simon Louvish in his recent biography, Cecil B. DeMille and The Golden Calf, “the complete master and auteur of his films.”  If DeMille was, as his detractors claimed, per Louvish, “a vulgarian who mixed sex and God in an unholy brew” (for a sample, just check out SOTC‘s scene of the naked girl bound with garlands being approached by a gorilla), he was also a masterly filmmaker.  He could construct a scene cinematically, making his narrative points from the placement and movement of his camera–he made a movie move.  For example, watch the crane shot in SOTC that begins the scene of the Coliseum games.  The camera hovers in extreme long shot above the mobbed arena as a parade of dancers, musicians, and gladiators enters to the roars of the crowd; slowly the camera moves down, across the line of frolicking celebrants, then up to a close-up of Nero (Charles Laughton) on his throne, a naked slave chained to one side, as he peers through a magnifying glass at the festivities.  It could have come straight out of Griffith.  What’s so great about this shot is not just its technical complexity (the camera’s long glide from a high shot into a close-up), but how it encapsulates, in one take, the appalling, paradoxical gaiety of these bloody games, climaxed by the emperor’s blithe unconcern–a monster seated at his leisure.

SOTC was adapted from a once well-known 1895 play by Wilson Barrett that dramatically focused on Christian persecutions in Nero’s Rome.  Apparently there’s a bit of a controversy over Barrett’s play because of its similarity to the plot of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s great 1895 novel Quo Vadis.  No doubt there are parallels, as both stories feature a worldly Roman patrician in love with a young Christian woman, and both conclude with scenes of Nero serving up Christian martyrs in the Coliseum.  And both play and novel side definitely with the Christians, their nobility contrasting strongly with Roman depravity.  We don’t intend to rehash arguments about who stole what, but we will note that SOTC’s plot is prime DeMillean meat:  “A melodrama,” write Gabe Essoe and Raymond Lee in DeMille: The Man and his Pictures, “of sex and violence played out against ornate backgrounds”; the film itself, says Louvish, “brings DeMille’s old sadistic kinks bubbling openly to the surface.”

SOTC certainly does that.  Like DeMille’s other Biblical epics, SOTC follows the Sin-and-Salvation narrative, which, says Margarita Landazuri, “show[s] all the sin and depravity of biblical times, then wrap[s] it all up with a sanctimonious message.”  Case in point:  both of DeMille’s versions of The Ten Commandments (silent and sound) feature wild orgies culminating in Old Testament displays of wrath against the party-goers.  The silent version, however, doesn’t let it go with just Moses fulminating displeasure from the heights of Mount Sinai; it hammers its moral point home with an additional, ‘modern-day’ sequence (ca. 1923) that follows the career of an ambitious young building contractor (Rod LaRocque) setting out, as he puts it, to break “all ten commandments” on the path to success. And so he does, as, working his way through the Biblical no-list, he swindles clients, bribes officials, cheats on his wife, and shoots his mistress.  Our anti-hero gets his in the end, of course–managing, in about a 24-hour period, to contract leprosy, lose his business, lose his wife, and finally drown.  He may be damned, but, like most overachievers, he sure is busy.

Although it doesn’t contain a modern-day sequence, SOTC also seems more a comment on contemporary life, circa 1932, than that of two millennia earlier:  No doubt its scenes of depraved sophisticates throwing wild parties would have evoked for its Thirties audiences the decade just past, that of the Roaring Twenties and its Bright Young Things making whoopee at every possible chance.  Indeed, according to Mark A. Vieira in his book about pre-Code Hollywood, Sin in Soft Focus, DeMille himself was aware of such a link, remarking to a reporter (somewhat disingenuously, we think) that SOTC bore a “close analogy between conditions today in the United States and the  Roman Empire prior to the fall[.]”  Certainly the film’s villainess, Empress Poppea, played by a gorgeously slinky, sexy Claudette Colbert, comes across as a modern high-society vamp, one who’s had it all and wants more of it (when wished pleasant slumbers by a manly young male, her eyes rove appreciatively over his torso as she throatily exclaims, “I’d rather have exciting dreams!”).  She also takes a bath in asses’ milk, which may be based on historical fact (per Essoe and Lee, DeMille was a stickler for details).  However, we’d venture that historical accuracy was not really the point.  According to Vieira, Colbert really was naked in that bath.  The experience must have been unpleasant (the bath, after several days’ filming under hot lights, began to stink to high heaven), but the actress doesn’t show it; indeed, her expression of uninhibited delight, smiling and splashing in the donkey lactate (actually powdered milk) as she lathers her breasts, makes the scene seem all the more so–well, so pre-Code.

For those who may be wondering, “pre-Code” refers to another historical period, that brief Hollywood moment between the industry’s mass wiring for sound in 1929, and the release of a torrent of movies that bluntly confronted such issues as sex, crime, poverty, societal injustice, and more sex, and the Production Code crackdown on film licentiousness in 1934.  The frank sensuality of many pre-Code films offended the sensibilities of Production Code watchdog Joseph Breen, and SOTC absolutely fitted his notion of Things Not To Do.  Note, for example, the film’s most notorious scene, the orgy at the house of the Roman Prefect, Marcus Superbus (how’s that for a moniker!), containing the blatantly lesbian-themed “Dance of the Naked Moon.”  As executed by the courtesan Ancaria (an actress billed as Joyzelle, who moves, in P.G. Wodehouse’s phrase, “like a snake with hips”) at the request of Marcus (an exuberantly virile Fredric March), the dance is meant to “warm up” Mercia, a chaste Christian girl (Elissa Landi, who’s good in the role, even if she tends to assume a Virtue-Menaced-By-Villainy stance) whom the Prefect is determined to seduce.  Ancaria, to her credit, doesn’t stint at her task, writhing her way through what looks like on-the-spot improvised choreography as she lasciviously strokes and kisses an unresponsive Mercia, while other, more susceptible guests collapse onto couches in erotic frenzy.  Mr. Breen’s own susceptibilities were more akin to Mercia’s; after 1934 that scene, along with others, was cut from prints and lost for many years.

That we can watch these cut scenes in SOTC today (a complete version was released in 1993 on VHS and is now on DVD) is, per Vieira, mainly due to DeMille’s own savviness in keeping a complete nitrate print for himself (preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive).  But although DeMille could not show intact prints after 1934, he did add in the early 1940s a modern-day prologue and epilogue, in which an American bomber crew flies over Coliseum ruins while the flight captain tells the story of Nero and the Christians; the film proper then became an extended flashback.  DeMille was trying to update his film for a wartime audience by equating the struggle of Christian against Roman to the Allied struggle against Nazism; its underlying resonance of a social class’s misbehavior was now subsumed into the broad sweep of the then-current military conflict.  This kind of metaphorical World War Two linkage continued as a handy narrative code for such post-war Biblical epics as MGM’s 1951 and 1959 productions of Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur and DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments, in which Roman and Egyptian empires can be read as Hitler and the Nazis and Christian martyrs and Hebrew slaves as victims of Nazi persecution.

Of course, since QV, BH, and TTC were made post-Second World War, they could easily be viewed through the prism of that recent history.  Obviously such references did not occur for SOTC’s 1930s audiences.  (We wonder, though, if there was meant a suggestion of the original play’s own era of fin-de-siécle decadence; Laughton’s make-up as Nero–heavy-lidded eyes and straight, thick-bridged Roman nose–gives him an astonishing resemblance to Oscar Wilde.) However, let’s not forget that there’s more to SOTC than the exploits of Emperors Gone Wild.  Breen’s objections were not just to images of naked virgins threatened by primates, but also to explicit depictions of Coliseum mayhem.  As earlier noted, DeMille had allowed free vent to his sadistic impulses, recreating, in grisly detail, Roman blood sports; he gives us, particularly in the film’s amphitheater scenes, a panoply of violence and cruelty that even today can raise eyebrows.  Christians are attacked openly in the streets or massacred by Roman soldiery; gladiators fight with swords, spears, and mailed fists that leave lacerating wounds; victims in the arena are skewered, decapitated, and mauled by beasts; and a dungeon scene features the torture of a child.  DeMille’s intent may have been to look back at the horrors inflicted on early Christian martyrs prior to Rome’s fall; but if we recall that SOTC was released the year before the Nazis took power in Germany, what may now be the film’s most striking quality is not so much its recreation of the immediate or ancient past, but what seems its eerie, unconscious prescience of historical atrocities to come.

Sources:

Essoe, Gabe and Lee, Raymond Lee, DeMille: The Man and his Pictures, South Brunswick: A.S. Barnes, 1970

Landazuri, Margarita, “The Sign of the Cross,” Turner Classic Movies Web Site, http://www.tcm.com/thismonth/article.jsp?cid=72483&mainArticleId=159623

Louvish, Simon, Cecil B. DeMille and The Golden Calf, London: Faber and Faber, 2007

Vieira , Mark A.,  Sin in Soft Focus: pre-Code Hollywood, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for citing “Sin in Soft Focus.” You’re in for a surprise. In my next book, which I co-wrote with Cecilia de Mille Presley, I do indeed argue that “The Sign of the Cross” is art. I hope you’ll write about our book when it is published by Running Press (in late November). “Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic.”

    Sincerely,

    Mark A. Vieira
    The Starlight Studio
    thestarlightstudio@sbcglobal.net

    Reply

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