Saturday Editor’s Pick: “Male and Female” (1919)

by on April 16, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

5:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]
Dave Kehr for Chicago Reader:

Legend has it that Cecil B. De Mille retitled this 1919 version of James M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton because he was afraid that audiences would think it was a navy picture. Crammed with sin, sex, and sermonizing, Male and Female is a perfect opportunity to examine the dominant and most delirious directorial personality of the 20s at its height.


Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

The Admirable Crichton, J.M. Barrie’s grand spoof of The Swiss Family Robinson, receives the Cecil B. DeMille readjustment: “Why shouldn’t the bathroom express as much art and beauty as the drawing room?” Spoiled aristos are introduced through their respective keyholes, the dainty peacock (Gloria Swanson) rises from bed and is unwrapped in the marble bathtub; Crichton the butler (Thomas Meighan) takes stern pride in his duties, and ignores the lovelorn maid (Lila Lee) while being strangely attracted to a Victorian poem about ancient Babylon. … The gusto of the cast of spirited farceurs is keyed ideally to the inane surroundings (bamboo condominium and leopard-pelt ensembles),  DeMille clinches the lunacy by dissolving from their verdant idyll to Mesopotamian splendor and apropos of not much recasting his leads as haughty monarch and feisty slave. Rescue reinstates the upstairs/downstairs structure, DeMille positions the desolate Meighan and Swanson by the corner of a festive tableau. Pricelessly obvious, and greatly mined by others.


Robert Sklar in Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies:

The tactics of moviemakers in transforming social codes were nowhere more successful than in the films of Cecil B. DeMille. His audacity has since become a centerpiece of the Hollywood legend, but like many such stories, the facts are much more interesting.


The DeMille legend focuses primarily on the most controversial of his early postwar films, Male and Female.  Moralists grew outraged as soon as they learned of DeMille’s suggestive change of title from its source, and the picture disappointed no one’s expectations. In its famous bathroom scene Gloria Swanson, as Lady Mary, steps into a sunken bathtub the size of a small swimming pool, revealing a momentary glimpse of her breasts. Later DeMille introduced a lavish Babylonian fantasy sequence not to be found in the original, taking his inspiration from a poem by William Ernest Henely, whose lines the butler Crichton quotes in the play: ‘I was a king in Babylon/And you were a Christian slave.’


By all accounts, Male and Female could never have been made before World War I… In Lewis Jacobs’ classic study, Male and Female is called ‘more daring in its subject matter than any other picture Hollywood had produced.’


Gloria Swanson recounts on-set shenanigans to Kevin Brownlow in The Parade’s Gone By:

In the Babylonian sequence on Male and Female one of the lions got loose and came within ten feet of me. The next day when I came on the set, I was rather shaken from the experience. I’m a Swede you see, so there’s a delayed reaction. Mr. DeMille decided to cut out the shot where the lion is on my back.


‘Mr. De Mille,’ I said, ‘you can’t do that. I want to do it. Please – you promised me I could.’


‘Young fellow,’  he said, ‘why do you want to do this?’


‘Well,’ I said, ‘when I was a little girl, I used to sit at my grandmother’s piano. On the left-hand side there was a copy of a famous painting called A Lion’s Bride. You told me you wanted to reproduce this painting, and I’d like to take part.’


‘All right,’ he said, ‘I thought maybe it was a little too much for you.’


In the arena, there was Mr. DeMille, the cameraman and his assistant – and my father, in army’s officer uniform standing on top of this arena, looking at his one and only with his eyes bulging out of his head. There were also two trainers, armed with whips. They folded up canvas and put this on my back, which was bare to the waist. They put the animal so that his front legs were resting on me, and little by little they eased the canvas out from under his paws. They they cracked their whips till he roared. It felt like thousands of vibrators. ever hair on my body was standing up. I had to close my eyes. They last thing I saw was Mr. DeMille with a gun.


Stephen Snart for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

Even the most casual movie fan can recognize the line ‘All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up’ and identify its source as the tragic faded star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. While the movie and character name might easily spring to mind, less frequently is the actress who delivered that iconic line identified as Gloria Swanson. Even scarcer is the recognition of the full ramifications of that line and its fundamentally self-reflexive nature. Blurring the border between an actor’s character and the actor herself is generally considered a postmodern exercise, a trend that has become prevalent in recent years, exemplified in the recently released JCVD. But what is often forgotten is that way back in 1950 Billy Wilder was dabbling in that same sort of experimentation by drawing upon Gloria Swanson’s real career and casting Hollywood creative types as themselves, including Cecil B. DeMille. The plot draws from reality in that Gloria Swanson, like Norma, was an enormously popular silent film star whose fame declined after the advent of sound cinema.


Swanson even starred in a handful of DeMille’s films in her early career. Between 1919 and 1921, the pair made six films together, with Male and Female (1919) considered their most controversial collaboration… While Swanson has secured her legacy in cinema thanks to Sunset Boulevard, it’s a great shame that that particular film so often overshadows the rest of her career. In Male and Female, her enunciation appears so perfect that for once in a silent film I could read the performer’s lips routinely and consistently; there was none of the marble-mouthed miming or fast-talking gibberish that so often befuddles viewers. At the same time, her elocution never borders on histrionics. The effect made me feel like I could hear her speaking the lines of dialogue, which makes it all the more tragically ironic that it was the transition to sound cinema that signaled her departure from silver screen popularity.


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