Friday, September 28, 2012

#774. The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Directed By: Cecil B. DeMille

Starring: Fredric March, Claudette Colbert, Elissa Landi

Tag line: "A picture which will proudly lead all the entertainments the world has ever seen"

Trivia: Third film in Cecil B. DeMille's biblical trilogy, following The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings

Cecil B. DeMille was no stranger to controversy. Even though a good many of his early films had religious themes (The Ten Commandments, The King of Kings), the great director nonetheless crossed swords with the censors on a number of occasions, due in part to his obsession with the female form, which he usually liked to show in various stages of undress.

The Sign of the Cross, directed by DeMille in 1932, was itself a very solemn tale, detailing the torture and execution of early Christians in Imperial Rome. When a massive fire engulfs the city, The Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) looks to blame the disaster on a new religious sect known as the Christians. He orders the immediate arrest of all Christians in Rome, and assigns his most trusted Centurian, Marcus (Fredric March), to carry out his command. Marcus’ loyalty is tested, however, when he falls madly in love with a Christian named Mercia (Elissa Landi).

The Sign of the Cross is very much a Cecil B. DeMille epic in that it’s a lavish, huge production occasionally weighed down by a heavy-handed morality. Yet despite its central themes, which are, in equal parts, theological and ethical, The Sign of the Cross contained many scenes the MPAAD objected to. Along with a lengthy sequence that takes place in the arena, where violence of all sorts is inflicted on humans and animals alike, there’s the suggestive dance performed at an orgy by actress Joyzelle Joyner, meant to incite the passions of Mercia so that Marcus could more easily seduce her. Several Catholic groups complained about the eroticism on display in this scene, and demanded the MPAAD intercede to remove it from the film.

But their protests fell on deaf ears. In typical DeMille fashion, the director refused to alter a single frame. In fact, the story goes that when Will Hays, head of the MPAAD, contacted him, asking what he was going to do about the dance, DeMille’s reply was “Will, listen carefully, because you might want to quote me: Not a damn thing!"

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