Friday, July 22, 2011

God bless the Orgiast / who's brought his own: SIGN OF THE CROSS

Cecil B. DeMille's SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932) mixes pre-code decadence with stilted odes to the Lord of Dullness, have mercy. It makes a great exhibit A for the case against the prudes, as this was a Catholic-sanctioned favorite yet is far more lurid than anything they might condemn. Like much of Hollywood it quietly snickers at these prudes and rubes for treating it like some holy writ. DeMille loves to slyly  mimic his own audience in the lengthy final coliseum scene and its vast array of naked women tied with garlands being offered to giant gorillas, and even Amazons vs. Pygmies.

While ostensibly being something that could be shown in Sunday school, THE SIGN OF THE CROSS harbors such a pre-code phallic yen for lurid orgies and grotesque spectacle it's like sneaking an EC horror comic into church and having no one know the difference. The lurid tableaux that get the Romans howling and leering are the very reason after all, that we're watching this film, not the wearyingly Christian dialogue. While posing as a saintly preacher telling the sad tale of Christians being thrown to the lions, De Mille is really our own delighted Nero (here played by a false-nosed Laughton, set to medium-low) and the movie audience is really the slavering Roman crowd, turning away in horror from the spectacle while peeking through their fingers, leering and judging and gasping all in one emotional outburst of repressed desire. The Christians, as depicted here, are very uninteresting. We wait for the lion's jaws the way kids with shaky legs wait for church to finally fucking end.

Maybe that's because decadence is cinematic and Christianity is not. Jesus didn't understand the joys of a circus. But that kind of three ring showmanship is where De Mille's heart is really at. His story may preach meekness but, aside from their suicidal tendencies, these simpering Christians are strictly like from Dullsville. De Mille never shows any spark of life in them: they just pose like old paintings and drone on at their secret meetings until violent Roman intervention is all but begged for by an impatient theatergoer. Even the saintly and sanctified Ann Harding even seems to be rolling her eyes at her dad's endless sermonizing and terrible fake beard (below).

And besides! These Christians may preach a good game, but in a short millennium or so they'd be torturing and burning astrology-minding pagans just as viciously as they're being tortured by them now. Where's your messiah now, see? M'yeah!

But as long as we're not stuck alone in a room with Ann Harding, things are pretty lively in SIGN OF THE CROSS. A great moment is when Frederic March is racing his chariot to the secret Christian meeting and goes plowing into his clandestine lover Claudette Colbert's carriage; De Mille cuts from the calm and seductive Colbert to March, racing to the finish and clutching the reigns like a boy told to take out the trash right at the climax of some special film, if you know what I mean:

Besides, who wants a whiny virgin Christian with a water pitcher when you can have sexually experienced Claudette Colbert in a milk bath? Only a fool! Only a man young enough that his acting style is one long John Barrymore impression (March actually played the man, more or less, in 1930's THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY), a dramatic choice probably explained by his lack of guidance from DeMille, who was notorious--even Lucas-like--for his lack of direction for his up-close actors. De Mille's lack of dramatic subtlety can make even the most bitterly pious of small town prurients choke on their smuggled-in pint of Dr. Silver's Golden Elixir. At least I hope they'd choke, and not completely miss the point of all life. For as Oscar W. notes in An Ideal Husband (which I caught yesterday on TCM): 
"Do you really think it is weakness that yields to temptation? I tell you that there are terrible temptations that it requires strength, strength and courage, to yield to. To stake all one's life on a single moment, to risk everything on one throw, whether the stake be power or pleasure, I care not -- there is no weakness in that."

Special thanks to Glorious Trash's Joe Kenney for recommending the DeMille box set! My natural inclination to avoid anything with Christians in it has until now prevented me from seeing any  DeMille pic--even the non-Christian ones, just to be safe--but SIGN is hardly a biblical epic at all but rather a horror film, similar to one of my top five essentials, Todd Browning's DRACULA (1931). Like that film, directed by Tod Browning, the hissing oceanic quality of early sound adds an extra frisson, as if the air itself is being photographed and recorded and is in its own way even thicker and more nurturing than the bottom of a dark ocean. Like DRACULA, CROSS even ends with lovers marching out of a deep cellar's steep stone steps into the wrathful sunlight, hand in frickin' hand.

In DRACULA it's the still-human survivors going into the dawn after staking the count, but in CROSS it's the reverse! It's the doomed Christians walking to their deaths at the hands of the pagan idolators!  For though Christians are 'reverse vampires' (drawing crosses in the sand, making them out of sticks) they're still outsiders, the cast-offs, the lost, the elderly and fearful, the desperate for salvation, and they can be hypnotized, tricked, by any good cult leader into dying and killing and blood-drinking with alarming ease.

The thing is, can actors be tricked so easily? Can they look up from their private life Gomorrahae long enough to feel the burn of that cross upon their forehead, to suffer through another deadening sermon from that old Catholic Legion of Decency? Hell no. In two years from this film's release the production code would end all this fornication and savagery with enough intolerant patriarchal force enough to make Nero's tyranny seem restrained.

The most heartbreaking scene for me was when March kicks out his big Fellini-esque dinner party--including the always delightful Ferdinand Gottshalk, who gets off all the wittiest and Wilde-iest cracks--at the behest of his buzzkill Christian girlfriend. You see these huge slaves carrying huge kegs and ice buckets leading the way down his marble steps and away from his pad - Nooooo! It's so painful any drinker will be clearly rooting against the Christians from then on--we've all had stick-in-the-mud crabby girlfriends like that, girls whose sole aim is to get us away from our friends and make us miserable, alone with them and their cat and their stupid tales about who they saw in church who just got engaged--and so I say: go get 'em, Nero! Let the lions rend Wilde-jailing buzzkills everywhere. Two hundred pieces reward for every Christian turned in! Free Oscar Wilde and send in Joe Breen to fight the pygmies! PS - He'll lose!!


  1. Erich, a wonderful review, probably one of the best I've ever read about Sign of the Cross. Someone once loglined this as "The R-rated Quo Vadis," which is pretty accurate.

    The making of the film is almost as entertaining as the film itself. Frederic March was in lust with Colbert and followed her around like a lap dog. First-hand accounts from on the set have it that March walked around "in a daze" between scenes. All of this, mind you, shortly after March had gotten married. Colbert detested him, so ignored him -- March was a notorious "ass pincher," one of the most notorious in Hollywood apparently.

    Also, Mitchell Leisen reportedly directed a lot of the film; I've read interviews with him where he claimed he was behind the camera for all of Colbert's scenes. I've also read that the majority of her scenes were filmed with a red gauze over the camera.

    The version of the film on the boxset might actually be longer than what was released in 1932. In particular the bits with the crocodiles in the arena; these scenes caused a stir even in the pre-Code era and were likely removed for most prints. The theory is that the DeMille boxset contains DeMille's personal print of the film. (The '40s edit, which removed most of the arena and I think the nipple-shots from Claudette's milk-bath, is now the lost version of the also featured an added opening with US soldiers fighting in Italy).

    Longest comment ever? Probably. But Sign of the Cross does that to me.

    Thanks for the review!

  2. One of my favourite movies, and Cleopatra is great as well. The combination of DeMille as director and Colbert as star is electrifying.

  3. I remember seeing the 1944 version on TV a long time ago. I'd appreciate having the WW2 intro as an extra, but it's nothing special, while the film itself is. As a non-religious fan of religious spectacle, I particularly enjoyed the patent insincerity of March's conversion and the suicidal compulsion behind it. He'd rather die with the girl whether he's resurrected or not. Beat that!

    But you must complete the DeMille-Colbert set with the wacky Four Frightened People (if I remember the count right) in which the star morphs from meek and mousy to dominant jungle woman. Not what comes to mind when you think Cecil B. DeMille, but more wonderful for that.

  4. Thanks again, Joe, for your recom. and now comments. Sam, I agree about that patent insincerity which I felt was both March and DeMille's way of subverting the Christian gloominess.You convinced me to watch 4 Frightened People last night, and I'm still reeling.

  5. I read somewhere that when Charles Laughton was asked how he was going to play Nero, he said, "I'm going to play him straight".

  6. Anonymous21 May, 2014

    A misunderstanding of Christianity, joy, and truth. What is the joy of the circus? It's entertainment, and usually bad at that. While you identified with the degraded Roman spectators, I found in them a condemnation of human "nature" and popular culture. I'm not defending the production code, but worse than an cruel tyrant who disposed of human lives like so much trash? Are you serious? I don't see the Christians as boring or deluded, but as rejecting an evil and superficial way of life. Joy is about knowing the truth and freeing one's soul to love God, neighbor, and enemy, because we are all brothers and sisters. Many so-called Christians forget that, and I'm sure many so-called atheists know that in their hearts. Peace be with you.

  7. And with you, Anon. And please believe me I don't mean to condemn Christianity as a whole because of a few dull apples, merely that Jesus, by some accounts, including the Book of Enoch, was lively and fun, 'remember me laughing from a tree, not hanging from a cross' - or something. I think each side of this argument overdoes it, becomes extreme, in order to set itself apart from that which it condemns, so the Christians become dour and sanctimonious to counteract the overly jovial and frivolous Romans, and vice versa. The bottom line, the difficulty, with translating Christianity to screen without burying it in dull sanctimony, lies in its ephemeral nature - watching people be nice to her just isn't fun, isn't cinematic, isn't action - hence the very nature of theater from the Greeks as being either tragedy or comedy, never sober niceness. But the screen isn't the same as real life, most of us agree on that, Christians included. But the more sensationalism one absorbs the more one needs to get the same rush, that's what to me is expressed in the Roman debauchery. Whereas the other extreme is to become more and more a martyr to your cause until no one wants to party with you cuz you lost your sense of humor. We need to find the middle. By the way, you should check out my piece on the Holy Madman archetype, which finds me in one of my every-third-autumn holy man states.


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