Friday, June 24, 2011

The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Cecil B. DeMille returns to the genre of biblical epics in 1932 with the production of The Sign of the Cross, a story about the struggles of early Christianity during the first century, shortly after the time of Christ. Though based on a play rather than an biblical texts the film will mark the final chapter in what would unofficially be known as DeMille's biblical trilogy, which included his silent epics The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings. Despite his past successes with such epics this particular film was made on a reduced budget due to DeMille's recent track record of less profitable pictures, yet because of his masterful direction it would not be noticeable. Here in this epic, DeMille plays to his old form.

The Sign of the Cross is the tale of persecuted Christians of Rome in the first century AD under the rule of the crazed emperor Nero as the backdrop to the story of one centurion's affection for a Christian girl that he is told to kill. Nero (Charles Laughton) is the mad Caesar of the Roman Empire who's entertainment comes to the price of even the suffering of others. The new sect, the early Christians, is seen as a threat to  Caesar, as these new people proclaim their allegiance to a man called Jesus. Thus it is proclaimed that anyone even accused of being a Christian is to be killed immediately or  at the games in the coliseum. It is in this hunting of the Christians that Marcus Superbus (Fredric March) meets and falls for the innocent Christian girl Mercia (Elissa Landi). But the seductive and deceitful Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) out of jealousy has Mercia sent to the coliseum where Superbus must make the decision to let go of his love or stand by her to death

DeMille would work exceptionally hard to get this production made despite its many hurdles. He would take a pay cut, as well as reuse sets and wardrobe from previous pictures including The Ten Commandments to lower the cost of production. But even with this reduced production cost, DeMille was rich in movie making knowledge and would produce a fine product with all the pomp and circumstance that would come with such a picture. His production would include the great cinematography of award winner Karl Struss, who again would be nominated for his work on this film. DeMille would also know how to draw in a wide audience with mixing both sins and a sermon into the picture, attraching both religious audiences as well as people looking to be titilated by the scantaly clad Claudette Colbert and other women in the film.

The cast included handful of current and future stars. Fredric March, the headlining actor, was fresh from a fruitful year of 1931 that saw him win the Academy Award in Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. His co-star Elissa Landi was not as well known, and proved to not win acclaim for this role as she would be greatly overshadowed by Claudette Colbert. Despite playing a supporting character, Colbert was a well on her way up the Hollywood ladder, and she relished playing the evil seductress, something very different from her previous roles. Charles Laughton was a new face to the big screen, playing the glutenous Nero, setting a standard for a Caesar-like character that would be impersonated in many ways in future films. Laughton would be remembered for many iconic roles, this perhaps being his first well-remembered one. Ian Keith supported the story as the Roman rival to Superbus, Tigellinus, cementing himself as a dependable supporting actor in Hollywood for nearly three decades.

Like many films of the pre-code era, The Sign of the Cross would meet its share of censorship after the production code took effect in Hollywood. Scenes of Claudette Colbert bathing revealingly in a vat of milk would have censors in a bind. Also eventually cut for future releases would be a seductive lesbian dance, deaths of women in the coliseum who were wearing nothing but flowers over certain parts of themselves, as well as many other gruesome deaths in the gladiator scenes. For many years the movie would be only seen with these subtractions until restored for DVD release.

The Sign of the Cross is a good movie that can be seen as "preachy" to many audiences decades after the original release. I can see how the story could attract a vast audience with the action and barely covered women to bring in the men and the love story for the women, but the film does hit that wall of teaching salvation to bring in the faith-based audiences. Despite all that the film has inspired generations of other pictures. Laughton's Nero would be a great character, impersonated many times over in future films. The gladiator sequences are action packed and are even well done compared to the standards of films produced several decades later, this being the film that helped inspire such pictures. The action is shockingly gruesome, not as if there is any blood being spilled on screen, but it does depict some terrible ways of death in the games watched by the masses in Rome. You can see hints of Ridley Scott's Gladiator in this film which surely must have had its part in inspiring.

Though not a well known film, or even a picture that I would recommend to see, The Sign of the Cross is a well produced picture. With DeMille's masterful direction, the film would set a standard in the genre of Roman/gladiator pictures of the future without modern audiences knowing it.

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