Cecil B. DeMille

Male and Female (1919)

Male and Female 1919

Lady Mary Lasenby (Gloria Swanson) comes from a very wealthy, socially important family. She’s never had to work a day in her life and is used to having other people do everything for her. Her family’s butler William Crichton (Thomas Meighan) is in love with Mary, but Mary is a strong believer of marrying within one’s own class and is engaged to another upper class man. Tweeny (Lila Lee), one of the family’s maids, is in love with William, but he only seems to have eyes for Mary.

One day, Mary, her family, and their servants head out on a yachting trip and wind up getting shipwrecked on a deserted island. Naturally, the servants prove to be the most adept at survival while the wealthy family is completely clueless. With no money to divide the classes anymore, the tables quickly turn and the servants end up becoming the leaders. They are all left on the island for a couple of years and over time, Mary begins to fall in love with the William. They decide to get married in a simple little island ceremony, but right as they’re about to say their vows, a ship finally comes to rescue them.

When they return to home, everything goes back to the way it was. Mary and William still love each other, but when one of Mary’s friends visits, William begins to reconsider his decision to marry Mary. Mary’s friend has become a social outcast after marrying her chauffeur. William decides he’d rather marry Tweeny instead and move someplace where class isn’t so important.

I was really hoping to like this movie, but unfortunately, it just didn’t do anything for me. I’d heard so much about the famous scene where Gloria Swanson is together with the lions so I was hoping to like it if only for that. The story had a very interesting premise, but it just didn’t hold my interest. A little too slowly paced for my liking. It’s very typical of other Cecil B. DeMille movies from this era in that it takes a modern day social commentary and weave it in with a flashback to historical times; in this case, ancient Babylon. The Babylon scenes are classic Cecil B. DeMille with grand sets, Gloria Swanson in fabulous costumes, and those live lions which Gloria did, indeed, really lie down with. It’s ultimately unnecessary to the plot and slows down an already slowly paced movie, but it’s definitely a good example of what made DeMille the legend he is. A lot of other people seem to like this movie, but unfortunately, I just didn’t see the appeal.

Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic

Cecil B. Demille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic

Cecil B. DeMille’s name is synonymous with the words “Hollywood epic.” Over the course of his career, DeMille played a huge role in creating the grandeur and the sense of wonder that  is now an integral part of the Hollywood mystique. Even though it’s been over 50 years since DeMille last sat in the director’s chair, his legacy of grandeur still endures and the new book “Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic” by Mark Vieira and Cecilia de Mille Presley (Cecil’s beloved granddaughter) is here to pay tribute to Hollywood’s ultimate showman.

I can’t help but be excited when I see a new book by Mark Vieira. He is responsible for some of my favorite books on the subject of classic Hollywood and “Art of the Hollywood Epic” has the same level of quality I have come to expect from Vieira. It’s exactly the type of tribute a director like DeMille deserves. Much like his films, this book is lavish, beautiful, and big. (And I do mean big. Amazon lists its shipping weight at 6.6 pounds.)

“Art of the Hollywood Epic” is illustrated with loads of stunning stills, behind the scenes photographs, storyboards, costume sketches, and photographs of original memorabilia preserved by DeMille’s estate. In her introduction, Cecilia de Mille Presley said, “DeMille was an art lover. He particularly loved illustration. It told a story, just as he did.” Vieira also states that DeMille put the same level of effort into the unit still photographs taken for his films as he did the films themselves, something Hollywood directors rarely did. As you look through this book, it’s very clear how much he truly did care about all of those things. Things other directors might have considered a nuisance or irrelevant, he treated like fine art.

Some of the memorabilia photographed for the book includes the typewriter used to write 1914’s The Straw Man, scripts, props, and costumes such as Charlton Heston’s robe from The Ten Commandments and the Adrian-designed cape from Madam Satan. I always love it when books include photographs of props and costumes that still exist. It’s exciting to see what still exists from these films. They also give you the chance to see some of these props in costumes in a whole new way. The Madam Satan cape looks pretty fabulous in black and white, but it looks even more spectacular in color.

Lest you think this is just another coffee book with nothing more to offer than pretty pictures, the text is very much worth reading. Between Vieira’s first-rate writing and insights from Cecilia de Mille Presley, Cecil B. DeMille’s granddaughter who was very close to her grandfather, the end result is a wonderful tribute to the king of Hollywood epics that not only celebrates the visual aspect of his career, but also offers a lot of insight to the type of person DeMille was.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher, which does not influence my opinion of this product in any way. 

Pre-Code Essentials: The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Claudette Colbert Sign of the Cross 1932

Plot

When Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) blames Christians for burning down Rome, the lives of all Christians in Rome are put in great jeopardy. Anyone who openly admits to being a Christian can be arrested and when Marcus (Fredric March) sees Mercia (Elissa Landi) defending a couple of fellow Christians, he instantly falls in love with her and tries everything he can think of to seduce her, but her devotion to her faith doesn’t waver.

Marcus’ newfound love for Mercia puts him in a very precarious situation. Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) is madly in love with him and is incredibly jealous when she hears Marcus is in love with a Christian girl. Poppaea wants Mercia killed and Marcus has a rival who wants to use this information to push him out of favor with Nero. Since Mercia refuses to turn her back on her faith, she is ordered to be fed to the lions in the Colosseum. Marcus begs her to renounce her Christianity to save herself, but she would rather die and Marcus would rather die than live without Mercia.


My Thoughts

“My head is splitting! The wine last night, the music, the delicious debauchery!”  This is a line delivered by Charles Laughton as Emperor Nero, but the phrase “delicious debauchery” is a perfect summation of Sign of the Cross. This is a movie that stars Claudette Colbert, Fredric March, and Charles Laughton, but let’s be honest here — the real star is Cecil B. DeMille; his unmistakable style is all over this movie.

Sin and debauchery never looked better than when it was being directed by DeMille. He made it all look incredibly lavish and decadent. DeMille was responsible for some other rather notorious pre-codes (CleopatraMadam Satan), but Sign of the Cross is definitely the most sinful of them all. On the whole, I think Cleopatra is a better movie, but Sign of the Cross has it beat as far as pre-code content goes.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

Claudette Colbert’s milk bath.

The lesbian dance scene.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Censors had a field day when Sign of the Cross was first released and many scenes had to be removed for post-1934 re-releases, which have since been restored. Many religious groups despised Sign of the Cross because not only was it full of violence, skimpy costumes, nudity, and one scene that is widely referred to as “the lesbian dance scene,” they loathed DeMille for taking a story they felt should be “theirs” and turning it into this movie that is jam-packed with depravity. Regardless of the fact that the movie condemns Christian persecution, Sign of the Cross still pretty much made censors’ heads explode.

The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Sign of the CrossAs Nero (Charles Laughton) watches Rome burn, he blames Christians for starting the whole thing rather than admit he started it.  Nero’s accusation places all Christians in Rome in great danger.  When Titus (Arthur Hohl) and Flavius (Harry Beresford) publicly admit to being Christians, they are arrested.  But when fellow Christian Mercia (Elissa Landi) tries to defend them, Marcus (Fredric March) sees her, instantly falls in love, and helps save Titus and Flavius.

Marcus is being romantically pursued by the empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert), and when she hears that Marcus has fallen in love with a Christian woman, she becomes extremely jealous.  This places Marcus in a precarious position because not only does Poppaea want Mercia dead, Marcus’ rival takes the opportunity to try to push him out of favor with Nero.  Marcus does everything in his power to seduce Mercia, but there is nothing that can take distract her from her faith.

When all the Christians in Rome, including Mercia, are gathered to be fed to lions for a large crowd’s entertainment, Marcus fights until the very end to save her.  Just before she is to go into the arena, he begs her to renounce her faith to save herself, but she refuses.  Finally, Marcus decides he would rather die in the arena with Mercia than live without her.

The Sign of the Cross is, without a doubt, one of the most completely depraved pre-codes you’ll ever come across.  With Claudette Colbert’s infamous milk bath scene, hedonistic party scenes, revealing costumes, and some rather gruesome moments all mixed together with a message about religious persecution, it’s easy to see why The Sign of the Cross caused quite a commotion.  It’s frequently cited as being one of the movies that drew such a strong reaction from religious groups, it helped usher in the strict enforcement of the production codes.  Even though the movie is actually sympathetic toward Christians, religious groups couldn’t stand Cecil B. De Mille taking stories with religious themes and filling them with so much depravity.

When Sign of the Cross was re-released after the production codes were being strongly enforced, it took quite a bit of work to make it follow the code.  Several scenes had to be cut and in 1944, De Mille filmed a modern-day epilogue and prologue to frame the original movie.  Fortunately, the cut scenes were not lost and have since been restored.

Sign of the Cross isn’t my favorite De Mille movie (that title would go to Cleopatra), but I can’t deny that this movie is completely and totally De Mille’s style.  It’s big, it’s lavish, it’s over the top, it’s everything you expect from a Cecil B. De Mille movie.

Paramount in the 1950’s

Paramount in the 50’s just wouldn’t have been the same without Billy Wilder.  He made two of his most, in my opinion, under-appreciated movies at Paramount: 1953’s Stalag 17 and 1951’s Ace in the Hole.  But in 1950, he released a movie that defined not only his career, but the entire film industry — Sunset Boulevard.

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Paramount in the 1930’s

Times were tough for just about everyone during the 1930’s, including Paramount Studios.  In the early 1930’s, Paramount was on the brink of financial disaster and with the Great Depression, audiences needed darn good reasons to spend what money they had on movie tickets.  Paramount was facing some pretty tough competition, too.  MGM had Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford;  Warner Brothers had their gangster flicks and Busby Berkley musicals.  But Paramount rose to the challenge and created some of the most definitive movies of the decade with some of the best talent in town.

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Madam Satan (1930)

Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson) is happily married to Bob (Reginald Denny), but unfortunately, she soon finds out that Bob isn’t as happy with their marriage.  After a wild night of partying with his friend Jimmy (Roland Young), Angela sees that their antics had made the newspaper.  Only the article mentions a Mrs. Brooks being with them and Angela was at home in bed early that night.  She also finds a card in Bob’s coat pocket from someone named Trixie (Lillian Roth) asking him to come over to her place.  When she tries to confront Bob and Jimmy about the newspaper article, they concoct a story about Trixie being Jimmy’s wife, not Bob’s girlfriend.  But Angela knows better and one night, insists on joining Jimmy to meet Trixie.

Trixie had been looking forward to an evening with Bob and isn’t at all pleased when she gets stuck with Jimmy and Angela in her apartment instead.  Angela does everything in her power to make their evening painfully awkward.  And when Bob finally does show up, lots of frantic attempts are made to cover up the fact that Angela was there and Bob leaves thinking that Jimmy was there with a woman.  Angela doesn’t want to lose Bob and when her trusted maid advises her to spice things up to win him back, she decides to try it.  Earlier, Jimmy had invited her to a costume party on a zeppelin and Angela decides to develop an alter ego for the occasion, Madam Satan.  While Angela is buttoned-up and proper, Madam Satan is the life of the party and wears extremely revealing outfits.

The party is already pretty wild before Madam Satan makes her grand entrance (fashionably late, naturally), but when she arrives, she instantly makes a big splash.  Every man wants her attention and she effectively upstages Trixie, who was shaping up to be the belle of the ball, at every turn.  Of course she picks Bob to be the lucky man who gets to spend the most time with her.  He is madly in love with the mysterious Madam Satan, but is totally unaware of who she really is.  When he does find out, though, he suddenly isn’t so impressed anymore.  But there are bigger problems at hand when the zeppelin they’re on is struck by lightning and everyone suddenly must parachute to safety.  Everyone survives, but once the party’s over, Bob still has a hard time accepting what Angela had done.  However, she did manage to impress Jimmy, who drops by and says that he’d be glad to marry Angela if they get a divorce.  Suddenly Bob realizes that he’s not about to let Angela go quite that easily.

I have never seen a movie quite like Madam Satan.  I’d heard that it was pretty wild, bizarre, and very pre-code so I figured it’d be right up my alley and I was not disappointed.  I’m actually kind of at a loss of words to describe it.  It’s kind of like Why Change Your Wife? but on a zeppelin.  The pacing had room for improvement, but I guarantee that you have never seen a party like the one in Madam Satan.  The party itself is so wild and the costumes are just insane.  It makes the most raucous fraternity party look like a quiet afternoon tea in comparison.