This florid spectacle of decadent ancient Rome had everything epic-maker Cecil B. DeMille's flesh-pleasuring eye could envision: beautiful virgins panting after lusty Roman soldiers, a nutcase emperor, a sluttish empress, and endless Christians to feed to starving lions. The story is
relatively simple. Fredric March, the handsome, dashing Prefect of Rome, spots the beautiful Elissa Landi and desires her, but his carnal ambitions are dashed when he discovers she is a Christian and will have nothing to do with his pagan ways. To humiliate Landi, March orders her to live with a
notorious lesbian, played by Joyzelle, but Joyzelle has no more luck in wooing Landi than had March. Claudette Colbert, the vampy, trampy wife of the certifiably insane Emperor Nero, played by Charles Laughton, is enamored of March. Between milk baths, the sultry empress tries to seduce the noble
prefect, who can only think of the virginal Landi. Meanwhile, Laughton decides he wants a new Rome and sets fire to the old city. Then, when all Rome begins to turn against him, he blames the Christians for the deadly conflagration. The Christians, Landi included, are rounded up and condemned to
horrible deaths in the arena. When March learns that Landi has been sentenced to death, he appeals to Laughton to free her. To spite March, who has scorned her love, Colbert persuades the emperor not to reprieve Landi. When March realizes that there is no hope for Landi, he joins her in the
dungeons where the Christians wait to be led into the arena and to death. There he vows his love for her, and he and Landi go arm and arm into the arena as the final scene dissolves.
March, with his wonderful presence and clear articulation, is impressive as the Roman who loses his heart to Landi and his body to the lions, while Landi is perfect as the virginal and ethereal Christian. DeMille apparently allowed Laughton, as Nero, a free hand in the film, and the overweight
Laughton is a spectacle unto himself, fascinating to watch in a repulsive way. Colbert is lusciously sinful in this precursor to her famous CLEOPATRA, with her skimpy costumes displaying as much of her curvaceous body as the censors would permit--and that was a lot more than usual since DeMille,
in the name of "history," was given greater latitude than any other director-producer of his era. In fact, since the silent days, when DeMille had produced such classics as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and KING OF KINGS, he was considered the unofficial guardian of public morality, at least when it came
to filming anything to do with the Bible or ancient epochs. THE SIGN OF THE CROSS shows DeMille at his best in managing enormous crowd scenes and engineering his superb cast through sumptuous, authentic-looking sets.
To make THE SIGN OF THE CROSS, he went back to his old studio, Paramount. He had not had a hit film since his silent days; his most recent films at MGM--DYNAMITE, MADAM SATAN, and THE SQUAW MAN--had bombed at the box office. Adolph Zukor insisted on a written commitment from DeMille guaranteeing
that the director would not make this film with his usual unlimited budget. After a lot of harassment, DeMille wrote a memo undertaking to make the film for no more than $650,000. Within eight weeks, DeMille closed down his cameras abruptly. Told by an assistant that the last dime of the budget
had been spent, he walked off the set in the middle of a take, dismissing everyone. He told his editor, Anne Bauchens, to have the film in the can in a week and later showed a print to Zukor, who was very impressed with THE SIGN OF THE CROSS.
DeMille brilliantly organized his 4,000-plus extras into groups of l0 (as he had been doing since his silent days) with an assistant director to correct details for each group. A scaled-down Rome was constructed on the Paramount ranch by hundreds of workmen. At the signal from DeMille, the whole
two-acre area was put to the torch while thousands of extras went screaming through the flame-engulfed scenes. DeMille audaciously filmed the entire scene, and many others, with a red gauze over his cameras. He also filmed nighttime scenes illuminated only by torches. The director had 16 cameras
record the burning-of-Rome sequence, but he limited his crew to four cameras while shooting an almost-naked Colbert in her famous bathing scene. For the bath, real asses' milk spouted from a spigot shaped like a human mouth, a suggestive scene that, among dozens of scenes in this provocative
movie, brought down the wrath of the censors. Karl Struss photographed Colbert for two days as she bathed, directed by DeMille to float almost breast high in the exotic bath, which he claimed was a replica of an actual bath taken by the empress. The problem in shooting this scene was that the milk
turned to cheese, and it gave off such a foul smell that Colbert nearly fainted several times. Technicians plugged up their noses in order to work next to DeMille, who was just beyond the pool directing Colbert's every movement. For the arena scenes the director went all out, building a Roman
circus that seated 7,500 extras and spread over 90,000 feet. He looted a dozen zoos of elephants, lions, tigers, and bears. Because the lions wouldn't do anything at all fierce--he couldn't get them to attack even dummies stuffed with recently slaughtered lambs--DeMille finally faked some of his
lion shots by having men in lion's suits, shot at a distance, crawl angrily and unconvincingly about, chewing on dummies.
The Hays Office objected to just about every scene in THE SIGN OF THE CROSS. The scenes showing the eating of humans in the arena, chiefly Christians, aroused the wrath of the Catholic Church and several prelates complained to Paramount. DeMille, however, remained unflappable. He received a call
from Will Hays, whose power was almost absolute in Hollywood, specifically objecting to the orgiastic dance performed by the slave girls. DeMille explained to Hays that the dance was about temptation and that the heroine's rejection was a triumph of virtue. DeMille consistently got away with more
than other directors because his films showed the conflict of good and evil, spirit and flesh; and spirit was always shown to be victorious over flesh--but not until all the flesh DeMille could assemble was shown in its most quivering, undulating glory. THE SIGN OF THE CROSS was an enormous
success, combining DeMille's fractured view of history with sex, nudity, arson, homosexuality, lesbianism, mass murder, and orgies big and small. It made millions for Paramount and re-established DeMille as a major force in filmmaking. The public flocked to see it, spending as much as $1.50 per
ticket, even at the nadir of the Great Depression. The film earned an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.
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- Review: This florid spectacle of decadent ancient Rome had everything epic-maker Cecil B. DeMille's flesh-pleasuring eye could envision: beautiful virgins panting after lusty Roman soldiers, a nutcase emperor, a sluttish empress, and endless Christians to feed to… (more)