Elissa Landi

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.