Playing Sun July 24 at 4:15 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
If Guy Maddin doesn’t convince you, nothing will (in his program notes for Pacific Film Archive):
This sword-and-sandals curiosity is the most decadent of all the spectacles created by the currently rehabilitating DeMille!! Plumped and perfumed Charles Laughton, given a Roman-coin profile and a complete body-waxing by the Paramount makeup department, is the most debauched Nero ever essayed on film. The arena contests where hapless Christians face off in death-battles against a Noah’s arkload of savage beasts are wondrously effervescent and sadistic. No shortage of sexy, pre-code lesbians, either. With Fredric March and Claudette Colbert. A must-see for anyone who’s ever felt special in a toga.
William Charles Morrow for The Chiseler:
In spring of 1932 Cecil B. DeMille received a letter from his sister-in-law urging him to reconsider his new, highly moralistic film project. “Just now the civilization of America is in a state of decadence resembling that of Rome before its fall,” she wrote, adding that audiences prefer “froth with no serious undercurrents” in their entertainment. Her warning was ignored. It’s curious anyone might have believed an allusion to Roman corruption could dissuade DeMille, considering that his subject matter was the persecution of Christians in Nero’s Rome.
While it purports to celebrate piety and Godly perseverance The Sign of the Cross devotes abundant footage to pagan debaucheries. Viewers are unlikely to admire the hoards of devout Christians in homespun sackcloth, but will certainly enjoy the sight of the Imperial court’s women in their flimsy silk gowns slit to the thighs, Charles Laughton’s outrageously epicene Nero, and Claudette Colbert’s wickedly sexy Poppaea, soaking in her legendary bath of asses’ milk. (A scene more fun to watch than to stage, by all accounts.) The Colosseum finale is an interminable orgy of sadism, supposedly demonstrating the power of faith. When Marcus Superbus, Prefect of Rome (Fredric March), reforms for the love of a comely Christian lass (Elissa Landi) and willingly marches to his death with her in the arena, it means that Good has triumphed. Sure, whatever. But not before we’re treated to a prolonged look at Bad. DeMille’s commercial instincts were impeccable: the movie was an enormous success that reaped bountiful gold for Paramount ’s coffers.
A prologue tacked on in 1944 ludicrously attempts to link the Allies’ advance over Italy to the dreadful happenings in Nero’s time. But history was always a plaything to DeMille, useful only as a surefire way of offering up sex, violence and visual spectacle under the guise of cultural and moral enlightenment. And this slice of ‘history’ has it all: Laughton’s implicitly gay Nero fiddling away while an impressive miniature set burns, Colbert bathing up to her nipples in asses’ milk, Christians and other unfortunates thrown to a fearsome menagerie, much suggestive slinking about in Mitchell Leisen’s costumes, much general debauchery teetering between the sadistic and the erotic. Not for people with scruples.
Margarita Landazuri, TCM, provides some background and details that just seem so apt for a Cecil B. Demille production:
Cecil B. DeMille’s sex-and-religion epics allowed him to have it both ways. He delighted in showing all the sin and depravity of biblical times, then wrapping it all up with a sanctimonious message. In the era before the Production Code imposed strict censorship in films, the depravity in DeMille’s movies got more screen time than the sanctity, and none more so than in The Sign of the Cross (1932)….
The need to economize did nothing to temper DeMille’s showmanship, however. Lions, tigers, bears, and elephants were rented from a dozen zoos. But even though they were trained animals, they either refused to cooperate or cooperated too well. For a scene where lions were supposed to attack the Christians, Leisen and his crew had stuffed dummies with lamb carcasses, but the lions wouldn’t eat them. They merely lapped daintily at the blood. The elephants were supposed to parade slowly around the arena. But when they heard the extras’ applause, they reacted as they’d been taught to do, by standing on their heads…
While on the Paramount lot, DeMille noticed a young contract actress, Claudette Colbert, whose films he called “fluffy, lightheaded stuff.” The director approached her and asked, “how would you like to play the wickedest woman in the world?” “I’d love it!” Colbert replied, and she played the empress, wonderfully. But it wasn’t always easy. The famous scene in which Poppaea bathes in asses’ milk took several days to shoot. DeMille, of course, announced to the press that real asses’ milk was being used, though it was probably powdered cow’s milk. The milk was left standing in the tub overnight, and by the second day, it had turned to cheese under the hot lights. The stench was overwhelming. Colbert nearly fainted from the odor.
John McElwee, Green Briar Picture Shows:
The nastiest pre-code of them all may be Cecil B. DeMille’s Sign Of The Cross… No code-cuts here as before. This is the absolute complete version — in fact, I think it may be more complete than what 1932 audiences originally saw. Word is DeMille’s personal nitrate print, rediscovered in the early nineties, was used as source material. It even has an intermission, though the feature only runs a little over two hours. Until this rediscovery, Sign Of The Cross had been available only in a dreadfully truncated re-issue edition that had gone into the PCA butcher shop on at least three occasions between 1934 and 1944. For a DeMille pageant, Sign Of The Cross may seem a little undernourished. Depression jitters and friction with Paramount bosses dictated a lower budget — half of it coming out of DeMille’s purse — amazing how far (less than) $700,000 went in those days. Some would say it’s a bit sluggish at times. True enough — but when this show lights up, it’s pure incandescence. There’s three wallops — the milk bath, Fredric March’s at-home sex orgy, and a coliseum bloodbath that’s the all-time grand slam of pre-code excesses — it took a lot of sick minds working overtime to dream up this stuff, and all of us should be profoundly grateful for their efforts.
Any pre-code feature with Charles Laughton as Nero is automatically one up on the rest, and here he stretches, yawns, undulates, and sucks his thumb in an uninhibited exhibition of all things we love best in Charlie. That appliance they’ve attached to his nose looks like Chaney’s Quasimodo hump in reverse. In profile, it seems to slope from the top of his forehead, but that’s mere visual icing on a rich slice of histrionic cake. Speaking of costume excesses, Freddie March makes his grand entrance in what appears to be a ponytail as fully luxuriant as any Sandra Dee ever wore, and that lip rouge they’ve painted on his mouth must have been borrowed from Mae West’s vanity case. Claudette Colbert is happily naked in her first scene, bathing in “wild asses’ milk.” One immediately ponders the distinction, if any, between wild ass milk, and a similar beverage harvested from a tame ass, though chances are you’ll be angling for a glimpse of Claudette’s, be it tame or wild. I promise there’ll be no fiddling with the remote or the Frito bag during this sequence (other than the reverse and still frame options!). Every time she bobs around or splashes that water brings us a little closer to Claudette nirvana, and you’ll think you’re seeing the whole package a few times — this frame was among the many delightful close calls from a segment where the actress was clearly, and delightfully, nude (they say DeMille doubled up on the takes so he could enjoy multiple views of Claudette entering, and emerging from, her bath — ready when you are, C.B.!). On the violence front, there’s a Christian massacre where, among other things, a woman gets an arrow in the throat. Now I ask you, how necessary was that? Another Christian, this time a teenage boy, gets dragged into a pit where he undergoes unspecified, but impliedly sexual, off-screen torture. Really twisted, but nothing compared to what goes on in that arena during the sock finish.
The eternal dilemma for any movie involving martyrs is the fact that their oppressors are always more colorful and engaging than the ones we’re supposed to root for and sympathize with. Sign Of The Cross is chock-full of cringing, whining, turn-the-other cheek examples of this.
He then clarifies a fact of the utmost importance:
[The] shot that looks like an Amazon cutting the head off a pygmy is actually — an Amazon cutting the head off a pygmy. It’s just one of a myriad of delights in Nero’s coliseum — we even get Charlie Gemora, dean of all screen gorilla impersonators …having his way with (another) nude captive.
We’re ready for some close-ups, Mr. DeMille.