The Sign of the Cross

Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay: Waldemar Young and Sidney Buchman (based on the play by Wilson Barrett)
Stars: Fredric March (Marcus Superbus, Prefect of Rome), Elissa Landi (Mercia), Claudette Colbert (Empress Poppaea), Charles Laughton (Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar), Ian Keith (Tigellinus), Arthur Hohl (Titus), Harry Beresford (Favius Fontelas), Tommy Conlon (Stephan), Ferdinand Gottschalk (Glabrio), Vivian Tobin (Dacia), William V. Mong (Licinius / Old Man Carrying Child), Joyzelle Joyner (Ancaria), Richard Alexander (Viturius)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1932
Country: U.S.
The Sign of the Cross Blu-ray
The Sign of the Cross

The Sign of the Cross was Cecil B. DeMille’s comeback film, and what a comeback it was. Despite his having been able to adapt to the new world of synchronized sound film after his hugely successful career during the silent era helming racy melodramas and Biblical epics, DeMille was floundering in the early 1930s. He had been under contract with MGM for the previous five years, where he turned out a series of box-office disappointments, after which he found himself all but unemployable until his former studio, Paramount Pictures (which he had left in 1925 to go his own way), agreed to take him back. DeMille seized the opportunity by directing The Sign of the Cross, his first religious epic since The King of Kings (1927), which also happened to have been his last hit. Say what you will about DeMille, but he knew what worked and he knew what sold.

The Sign of the Cross turned out to be one of the biggest hits of 1932, and its unapologetic mix of Christian piety and boundary-pushing sex and violence was the most explicit example yet of DeMille’s seasoned six-reels-of-sin-one-reel-of-redemption formula. Set during the first century, when Christianity was rapidly spreading throughout the Roman Empire, The Sign of the Cross dramatizes with lurid sensationalism the brutal persecution of Christ’s followers, which gave DeMille open license to stage all manner of lascivious behavior and violent atrocities to show just how debauched the Romans were and just how much the early Christians suffered. It might have been more effective had DeMille not been so obviously enamored of all the sinful cavorting, which is the film’s real draw. Despite being made after the passage of the Production Code, The Sign of the Cross quickly became a pointed example of how far the envelope could be pushed as long as the moral at the end was clear. DeMille was never a particularly great filmmaker, but he was a cunning and skillful opportunist.

The film is based on an 1895 play and subsequent novel by the English writer Wilson Barrett, which had previously been adapted to the screen in 1914 by Frederick A. Thomson (the screenplay was penned by Waldemar Young, who that same year adapted H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau into the unnerving Island of Lost Souls, and Sidney Buchman, who would go on to write Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and win an Oscar in 1942 for Here Comes Mr. Jordan). The story centers around the romance between Marcus Superbus, Prefect of Rome (Fredric March), and Mercia (Elissa Landi), a young Christian woman who catches his eye. As Christianity is outlawed in Rome, Marcus should arrest Mercia instead of wooing her, but he just can’t help himself—her beauty and piety are simply too much for him to resist, even as he resents her Christian beliefs and tries to convince her to abandon them. The heat of their romance mostly fizzles, as Mercia’s unwavering commitment to her virtue renders her dramatically inert, and Fredric March, who had won the first of his two Oscar that year for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), never manages to dig much into Marcus’s conflicted depths.

That leaves plenty of scenery to be chewed by the decadent Romans, and this is where the film really excels. DeMille’s coup was the casting of Charles Laughton, then unknown in the U.S., as the fey and fickle Emperor Nero, who we first see literally fiddling while Rome burns, and Claudette Colbert, then known primarily for her roles in relatively lightweight comedies and dramas (including the lead in George Abbott’s Manslaughter, a remake of DeMille’s 1922 silent film), as his sensuous wife Poppaea, who lusts openly after Marcus. Together, Laughton and Colbert steal every scene they’re in—he with his capricious self-centeredness and she with her unabashed carnal desire, which we see most directly in the infamous sequence in which she is bathing up to her nipples in 400 gallons of asses’ milk (a scene concocted specifically for the film, since there is no corollary in the play), although her greatest moment is when Marcus calls her a “harlot” and she just shrugs and smirks, barely able to conceal the pride she feels at her own wickedness. In the film’s most over-the-top scene (in a film that is filled with them), Poppaea has one of her friends attempt to seduce Mercia out of her piety with a sultry song and dance—one of many scenes in which DeMille uses homosexuality both directly and indirectly as a prop for sinful decadence.

The film’s sexual content is exceeded only by its violence, although they are often mixed together (and much of it was cut out when the film was reissued in 1935 after the full enforcement of the Code). The final reel offers unabashed redemption for Marcus as he joins Mercia and the other Christians in their martyrdom in the Roman coliseum, but you’d be forgiven for not really noticing since that redemption is drowned by a veritable orgy of ancient Roman violence. DeMille turns the film’s final 15 minutes into a cavalcade of audience-rousing atrocity, with various victims being mauled by lions and tigers, stomped to death by elephants, devoured by alligators, and impaled, decapitated, and otherwise slaughtered in gladiatorial battle. In one jaw-dropping sequence, a group of Amazonian women do battle with pygmy warriors, one of whom is decapitated on-screen and another of whom is impaled on a sword and carried over the Amazonian’s head like a trophy. Blood flows and spatters and DeMille makes it all the more sordid with his repeated close-ups of various spectators, some of whom are horrified, some of whom are positively orgasmic, and some of whom (like Nero) look bored. It’s an effective portrait of human sadism as entertainment, although it is hard not to feel confused as to whether we’re watching Rome’s sadism or DeMille’s.

The Sign of the Cross Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by film historian Mark A. Vieira
  • Audio commentary by film historian David Del Valle
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorKino Lorber Studio Classics
    Release DateAugust 25, 2020

    Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray presentation of The Sign of the Cross comes from source material preserved and held by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. This is the full version of the film as it originally premiered in 1932, which was restored some time in the 1990s after not having been seen since it was cut for reissue in 1935. Kino’s transfer looks very good, with minimal visible wear and a healthy sheen of grain that looks excellent in motion. The image is quite soft and leans toward grays, rather than sharp blacks and whites, which is apparently the look that DeMille wanted (he went after a kind of nostalgic silent-film look, which was achieved by having cinematographer Karl Struss [Sunrise] put red gauze over the camera lens). Detail is still as good as can be, as this is overall an impressive presentation. The original monaural soundtrack, which was quite advanced for the early sound era, also sounds good, with strong dialogue and sound effects. In terms of supplements, we get two deeply informative audio commentaries, one by film historian Mark A. Vieira, author of several books on pre-Code Hollywood, DeMille, and a biography of Irving Thalberg, and one by film historian David Del Valle, author of Lost Horizons Beneath the Hollywood Sign. Both commentaries offer a ton of background, history, and intriguing anecdotes about the film’s production and those involved in it, and if you’re curious as to what got cut in the 1935 version, Vieira points out every single one of them.

    Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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