Let’s get this out of the way fast:
Now that I have your attention…
Cecil B. DeMille‘s The Sign of the Cross is one of the more notorious pre-code films from 1932 thanks to two specific scenes. The rest of the movie predicts the coming of overlong Biblical epics that work better as sleep-inducers than entertainment.
The film is based on an 1895 play by Wilson Barrett that is eerily similar to Henry Sienkiewicz’s novel Quo Vadis. In The Sign of the Cross, we also find a Roman soldier named Marcus who falls in love with a Christian girl during the time of Nero.
DeMille’s film stars Frederic March as Marcus and Elissa Landi as Mercia, the Christian girl he falls in love with. Claudette Colbert, seen above in her infamous milk bath scene, stars as Empress Poppaea, who is in love with Marcus and wants him all to herself. Charlies Laughton and a prosthetic nose* play Emperor Nero.
(*I find the prosthetic nose thing so bizarre. Here’s a movie in which the Empress of Rome calls her lover “Baby doll” and yet DeMille took the time to give only one male character a “Roman nose.”)
Despite being the most interesting characters in the film, Colbert and Laughton have very little screen time, since the focus is on Marcus and Marcia’s relationship. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of March’s great performances. He’s very stiff here, as is Landi. March’s supposedly strong character spends a fair amount of time begging to get his way – he begs Poppaea to let him go save the Christians, he begs Marcia to change her religion, he begs Nero to let Marcia live and… you get the picture.
What makes The Sign of the Cross interesting and just plain weird is the racy elements that the picture is known for. DeMille, that master showman, knew that scenes like these could get the non-religious in the seats. That must have been a big concern, especially with the word “Cross” in the title. Colbert’s first scene, in which she first learns that Marcus has his eyes on a Christian from one of her friends, is entirely in a milk bath, with Colbert in the nude (seen above). DeMille made it so that if the scene was cut, audiences would not only miss Colbert’s first scene, but also some important plot information.
There’s also another famous scene where Marcus has Ancaria (Joyzelle Joyner) perform the “Dance of the Naked Moon” to arouse Mercia. It’s an uncomfortable sequence, juxtaposed with the singing of the Christians in chains. Clearly, the point is to contrast the pious and virtuous Christians with the debauchery of the Romans. DeMille could have used a softer touch to get that point across, but when there’s a production code not being enforced, you might as well push the buttons. (Actually, in this case, it’s smashing the buttons to the point that they’ll never come up.)
There actually was a code during the pre-code era, it’s just that no one was following it. The religious themes in The Sign of the Cross did come in handy, though. According to Bright Lights Film, the Studio Relations Committee’s Jason Joy should have censored that dance scene. However, he wrote:
Ordinarily we would have been concerned about those portions of the dance sequence in which the Roman dancer executes the ‘Kootch’ Movement. But since the director obviously used the dance to show the conflict between paganism and Christianity, we are agreed that there is justification for its use under the Code.
And that’s not all! We also have an insanely long Coliseum sequence in which each act outdoes the previous one. There’s gladiators and there’s alligators and a gorilla coming out to attack nude women (only covered by wreaths wrapped around their bodies). There’s an odd battle between women and dwarfs, where one woman decapitates a dwarf. (This is actually depicted on screen. There is a shot where a dummy’s head is cut off and you can see the bone sicking out of the neck.) Finally, we then see an army of lions going out to kill the Christians. It is DeMille at his over-the-top best.
Despite DeMille’s best efforts, it’s still a religious movie at its heart, so the jarring depictions of Roman brutality and debauchery are hard to take seriously. He either did it all for pure exploitation or for historical purposes. However, the film is also a visual marvel, as the best DeMille epics are. The cinematography by Karl Struss, who helped DeMille give the film a glowing, ethereal look that had more in common with German films that Hollywood’s. Mitchell Leisen, who later became a director himself, designed incredible sets and barely-there costumes (how did some of those dresses stay on Colbert’s body?) that helped Paramount get more out of a mere $650,000 budget.
The Sign of the Cross was a smash hit in 1932 and helped cement DeMille as a Hollywood legend, building on his silent hits. It also made a bigger star out of Colbert and helped introduce Laughton to American audiences. But The Sign of the Cross‘ main legacy is its study of sin and just how hot and bothered (ha! There’s the title of the blogathon!) it left censors around the country.