Pre-Code DeMille On DVD
The nastiest pre-code of them all may be Cecil B. DeMille’s Sign Of The Cross, which has just bowed on DVD as part of Universal’s DeMille collection, including six of his Paramount 30’s features --- all worthwhile, some extraordinary --- but none so much so as this 1932 ancient Roman orgy of orgiastic sex and barbaric violence. 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. Why Universal hasn’t trumpeted this rediscovery in their publicity for the DVD release is something I’ll not pretend to understand. Nowhere on the box is it mentioned. 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. The only arresting thing about this bunch are occasional glimpses we have of both screen neophytes (John Carradine) and seasoned favorites (Charles Middleton) among the weeping multitudes. Just back from the massacre Freddie March brings one of them home with him --- insufferable dishrag Elissa Landi, with whom March is now hopelessly smitten, but for reasons I can’t begin to fathom (you know all through the picture he’s never gonna get this gal into bed). Fred’s supposed to chuck the whole Roman excess trip for love of this vapid simp, but what’s the guy thinking? Here he’s ensconced in a pad that makes the Roxy inner lobby look like a single wide, filled to the rafters with "dancing wantons" (to quote a 1932 observer) and voracious lesbian revelers (that’s one of them attempting a seduction of incorruptible Elissa). Audiences no doubt wondered why any sensible Roman prefect would give all this up for the likes of Elissa Landi. What’s wrong with Lili Damita as a Christian martyr? --- or Louise Brooks, maybe? --- Clara Bow would have been nice --- I could easily accept the idea of Fredric March following Joan Blondell into the lion's den. Sorry, Mr. DeMille, but I think you blew it on casting this time.
This 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 (shown here), having his way with (another) nude captive. I always thought Charlie’s ape skin was the coolest in the business --- remember him in Bear Shooters, The Chimp, and Murders In The Rue Morgue? --- now this was some right casting, C.B. 1932 critics noted "the entrancingly sadistic passage limning the approach of a herd of hungry crocodiles waddling to an arena feast of edible, white-fleshed Christian girls." Wow! --- we could all take a lesson in hot prose from this guy! --- and yes, that croc scene’s a doozy, though the Motion Picture Herald suggests it was cut after initial New York screenings --- further evidence to my mind that what we’re now seeing is a version more intact than even the 1932 original. Reviewers assured us that audiences would love the film, "provided their sensibilities survive the odors of Lesbos and deSade." Sounds like a ringing endorsement to me!
The years weren’t kind to Sign Of The Cross. Rigid Code enforcement from 1934 on meant re-issues had to be edited to conform with censorship edicts. Before the decade was out, Sign Of The Cross, still very much an audience favorite, was shorn of everything that made it so much fun to begin with. No crocs, nor beheadings --- lesbians out --- nix on milk bath nipple flashes. Might as well go see an Andy Hardy or stay home and play with the crystal set. By 1944, it got worse. DeMille modestly suggested that a revival of Sign Of The Cross might help bring down the Third Reich (comparisons between Nero and Hitler, you know), so Paramount gave him 125K to shoot a whole new prologue wherein bomber pilots flying over Rome reflect upon its decadent past, thus segueing into the old footage, now mutilated beyond the point of recognition, though exhibitors did report boffo attendance. The "modernized version" went out with a new campaign that emphasized Claudette Colbert --- notice her elevated billing for the new ads as compared with her 1932 placement behind Elissa Landi, whose career was pretty well done and over by 1944. DeMille promised that Claudette’s milk bath would remain intact for the re-issue, and no doubt moments of it did, but only viewers with stout memories could detect the judicious trimming imposed by anxious wartime censors. This 1944 edition, with new intro and outro, was the one that remained in circulation for decades thereafter, and this was what many of us saw on television --- until 1994 when the lost original was discovered. Now it’s the 1944 version that’s lost. I’d actually like to see it again for the sake of comparison, but I wouldn’t have expected Universal to include it as an extra. We should be grateful enough just to have Sign Of The Cross back in (possibly more than) complete form.