THE SIGN OF THE CROSS tantalized audiences and scandalized the prudes among them back in 1932, when its salacious saga of Nero’s Rome gave deep-Depression America a double dose of sin and salvation vivid enough that they forgot their own woes for 108 minutes. They filled enough theater seats to make it the biggest hit of the year. His viability in the business on the red line after several expensive failures, innovative showman Cecil B. DeMille followed his gut and roared back with a will at 51, with as much appetite for success as those hungry lions had for their hapless Christian lunch menus back in 64 A.D.
After degenerate Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) burns Rome for amusement, a slowly growing religious sect takes the fall, with early Christians becoming part of the grisly spectacle of the ‘arena’. Hearty and loyal, basically decent Roman prefect and soldier ‘Marcus Superbus’ ( Fredric March) becomes enamored of gentle Christian ‘Mercia’ (Elissa Landi), who hopes he will convert to save his soul, while Nero’s pitiless and insatiable wife Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) just hopes she can get Marcus to prove how Superbus he really is. This can not end well….
It ends with perhaps the wildest display of savagery audiences had ever seen (and held that thorny crown for decades), but not before they were titillated by shimmering skin and simmering suggestion. With a final love sacrifice to keep things in the faith fold.
Wilson Barrett’s 1895 play dovetailed with the publishing of the similar “Quo Vadis”; both were done as silents. DeMille’s writers Waldemar Young (grandson of Brigham Young) and Sidney Buchman put the script together, while a tireless C.B. efficiently produced and then megaphoned direction to the amused actors, excited extras, lazy lions and fastidious elephants. March was breaking big, winning his first Oscar a year earlier for Dr.Jekyll And Mr.Hyde, and Landi was attracting some notice at the time (she was more intriguing off-camera).
Their evil counterparts snatch the performance laurels. Laughton’s US-debut year had him on view in six pictures, including horror classics The Old Dark House and Island Of Lost Souls and comedy favorite If I had A Million. His effete, preening Emperor was a merry-mad case of ‘out of the closet, damn the rebels’ luxuriating in release, an expenses paid vacation in Queen-land, complete with a barely clothed catamite perched within grape-feeding distance.
“My head is splitting… the wine last night, the music… the delicious debauchery! ”
Seeing ‘nice girl’ Claudette Colbert walking by at the studio, leaning out a window DeMille asked her “How would you like to play the wickedest woman in the world?” Eagerly taking the bait, the smart, sexy and ambitious 28-year old turned Nero’s historical harlot Empress into one of the great camp creations in movie lore, highlighted by her peek-a-boob bathing scene in a pool of frothy goat’s milk. Hell to shoot—the milk curdled into a smelly goop under the lights, but it’s naughty nectar to imbibe.
Further licentiousness comes at a party with Marcus Superbus (great name for my next cat), with the orgy-bound ‘Ancaria’s (Joyzelle Joyner) lez-be-friends dance number where she undulates around and thrusts herself at the virginal Mercia/Landi ,while cooing a Sapphic “Dance Of The Naked Moon”.
Rigorously aroused but righteously unamused was powerful “Motion Picture Herald” publisher Martin Quigley, who sniffed the enterprising excess would only appeal to those “whose sensibilities survive the odors of Lesbos and de Sade”. The fumes of his quivering ire were such that he pressed creating the Catholic Legion of Decency (bless you, Your Loftiness), which went hand-in-offended-hand with the rise of the Hays Production Code.
Slobbering ogres, milky breasts and early A.D. girlgirl-power to the side, it’s in the Colosseum sequence where C.B. lets slip the dogs of lore. Not enough to feed fish-drawing folk to full-sized felines, you are invited to ogle Amazons fighting pygmies, with impalings and beheadings (seriously, how else do you fight them?), an elephant stepping on the head of a guy staked in the dust, an ape threatening something beyond vile to a woman tied to a post, and another sacrificial—and scantily clad–maiden (Sally Rand), trussed to a spit while crocodiles advance for the kill. The mob loves it all. Sick? Curse Rome, duh, but there’s enough eternal & universal blame-shame here to choke a senator from Indiana. *
DeMille produced with a budgetary acumen that allowed his $694,064 outlay to look even bigger than it was. It grossed $2,900,000, then another $1,200,000 in a heavily edited 1944 re-release. With Ian Keith, Tommy Conlon, Nat Pendleton, Mischa Auer, John Carradine and Henry Brandon (25 years before he would ‘Scar’ The Searchers.
* Factoidus Superfluous—-I: Elissa Landi was a much more interesting personality than an exciting screen presence, as can be gleaned from this nifty piece by Cliff Aliberti: https://immortalephemera.com/8024/elissa-landi-classic-film-star/)
—II: “Dance Of The Naked Moon” sample lyrics: “Under the naked moon, I’ve found you. We meet. I’ve seen you in my dreams. In dreams indiscreet. With tortures so sweet. I’ve loved you in dreams. Breathe upon me. Draw me. Gently. Touch my heart. Love will be warm. In the gold of your hair. Feed from your lips…We have been two. We shall be one. Both throb...”—-you think I’m making this up? Hell, I wish I could….
—-III: The infamous Sally Rand, victim of the crocodile chomp, began her famous ‘Fan Dance’ the following year: “I haven’t been out of work since the day I took my pants off.” The crocodiles (presumably hauled from Egypt) were ‘played’ by alligators, but who’s counting? They have teeth, scales and a tail–a swamp address is beside the point.
—-IV: Your basic Girl-tied-up-at-mercy-of-Gorilla Situation. Europeans had no inkling about gorillas’ until more than 15 centuries later. By that time they were experts at trussing women to posts, ironically blessed by the moralists of the Church.
—-V. The circus-dragooned lions were shy about being fierce enough when “Action! was yelled to rend pretend Christian carcasses, but if the Leos were a pain for not providing any, the elephants were a joy for their gentleness. Called on to scoop up the afternoon matinee’s dead, played by a mix of extras and dummies, they awed DeMille with their consideration. As he put it, they’d pick up a live extra (no doubt wishing the Depression would end) “as gently as you would a piece of jewelry in a box. They’d go back to the dummy and slam it around, but they would not throw a man.” When the pachyderms did get nervous and started to mill about, one female seized her trainer, a guy named Bob Miles, who was playing a dead Christian. Putting him beneath her, she stood watch while the herd jolted and jockeyed. DeMille recalled: “It was the most magnificent thing…I took my hat off to her and I went over and kissed her afterwards…I learned a respect for elephants that I have never lost.”