The Sign of the Cross (1932) by matthew c. hoffman

“Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” ~Revelation 2:10

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When discussed today, The Sign of the Cross (1932) is almost exclusively analyzed from the context of pre-Code cinema. It’s certainly one of the most shocking of those films made before the Production Code became enforced in 1934. Online reviewers and bloggers will either fixate on Claudette Colbert’s milk bath or the infamous “lesbian” dance or the violent arena sequence featuring everything from crocodiles to Pygmies. And of course, there’s Charles Laughton, who plays the Roman Emperor Nero as a languorous and rather fey comic figure. Even with all these flourishes, The Sign of the Cross offers something more than shock value. It emerges as a powerful film about faith.

Cecil B. DeMille’s onscreen piety was never fake. He wasn’t selling something he himself didn’t believe in. Claudette Colbert said, “He truly believed in what he was doing. When we did the scene with the Christians being eaten by the lions, he really suffered.” But how does one reconcile this with the depictions of orgies and scantily-clad women? Some commentators have misread DeMille, claiming he had a cynical embrace of religion and was more interested in depicting the sins rather than the virtues. In Empire of Dreams, however, author Scott Eyman reveals, “But a thorough examination of DeMille’s papers makes it obvious that he was sincerely, if unconventionally, religious. DeMille committed large portions of the Bible to memory, and assiduously studied primary theological texts.” Richard DeMille, Cecil’s son, said, “He strove to put God’s word on the screen and believed that God approved of his efforts. He believed that Christ had come to save sinners, and he hoped that his sins would be forgiven.”

The excesses that are remembered mostly today were understandable given the fact DeMille had a lot riding on the film. His last two films (Madam Satan, The Squaw Man) had flopped, and he found himself on shaky ground when he returned to his old studio, Paramount, to make this film. In a sense, he was starting over with a new regime and front office. DeMille partially financed The Sign of the Cross out of his own pocket. Had the film failed, he believed he would be washed up in Hollywood– another relic from the silent era like D.W. Griffith. In need of a hit, DeMille returned to the historical themes he knew best. Religious subjects had been successful for him in the silent era, and they would need to be again for his first epic of the sound era.

Elissa Landi and Fredric March in The Sign of the Cross. (From the Matthew C. Hoffman collection)
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The story is set in 64 A.D., in the days when Emperor Nero of Rome suppressed the emerging Christian faith. The film opens with the burning of Rome– a conflagration that Nero himself had started and which will be used to justify his persecution of Christians. The fire gives way to a Roman street where two Christians meet clandestinely– one of whom is an emissary of the apostle Paul. The stranger identifies himself as Titus. (In a DeMille picture, the Christians were usually stoic, wise men with beards and staffs.)

This transitional scene into the streets of Rome stands out because it conjures up what cinematographer Karl Struss called “a world remembered.” The film has a unique look that recalls the films of the silent era. “I shot the whole black-and-white picture through bright red gauze,” Struss had said. “Gauze wasn’t much used then, as it had been in the silent period.” The look of the film, as well as the compositions, make this one of DeMille’s most beautiful films to admire.

Claudette Colbert as Empress Poppaea
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Additionally, the musical score by Rudolph G. Kopp conjures up the romance of a distant time– building a strong sense of place and adding immeasurably to the mood and atmosphere of the setting. The score does not call attention to itself with blaring trumpets and such. The instruments gently play over the action of the scene like true background music. Kopp would later score DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934).

Titus and the other man, Flavius, are captured by Roman spies and become the objects of public scorn. A Christian girl, Mercia, comes to the aid of the men, but before mob action can reach a fever pitch, the Roman prefect, Marcus Superbus (Fredric March) arrives in his chariot to intercede. With an obvious admiration for Mercia, he allows the two old men to go free.

The film follows Marcus’ courting of Mercia with the planning of a secret meeting by the Christians. Wary of Marcus’ motivations and jealous of his standing with Emperor Nero, Tigellinus (wonderfully played by Ian Keith) intercedes and has the Christians massacred at the meeting place. Those who survive are sent to prison and later to the arena. Marcus takes Mercia to live with him in his home, but her heart is with those imprisoned. Marcus attempts to kill her soul and later, in desperation, to get her to recant her religion.

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Though it is Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) with the role everyone remembers, what stands out for me is the strength of the Elissa Landi character. Though less showy than Colbert’s part, Landi is the soul of the movie. One of the highlights in the film is the “Dance of the Naked Moon” performed by “the wickeest woman in all of Rome”: Ancaria (played by the exaggerated Joyzelle Joyner). Known as the “lesbian dance,” Ancaria tries to seduce Mercia with her gyrations and suggestiveness. Mercia does not break because she is inspired by the prisoners who sing outside. But this strength is perceived as coldness. Without saying a word, Mercia is able to rattle the nerves of the wanton dancer.

Likewise, it is Mercia’s strength that buoys the spirits of the oppressed. When the Christians are in the arena dungeon awaiting execution, she gives them the confidence to face death. Once isolated from them, he cry out to God is heart-breaking.

Though Charles Laughton is well-remembered for his outrageous Nero interpretation, it is Fredric March who gives the better performance. March could adapt to any film genre, be it historical or contemporary. His best scene is also the final scene in the film when he tries to save Mercia by getting her to renounce her God. The earnestness that March brought to a role was rarely matched in Hollywood.

DeMille’s depictions of Christian martydom may have been inspired by such paintings as Faithful Unto Death (1888) by Herbert Gustave Schmalz.
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The Sign of the Cross is a powerful film about keeping the faith in one’s final hours. The film is a tragedy based on historical episodes. The persecution of Christians lasted for 300 years until Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan legalized Christianity. Though the particulars may be off– i.e., the Colosseum was built under Emperor Vespasian, not Nero– DeMille was not making a documentary. He was a superb storyteller who brought the past to life in a way no other filmmaker could.

Though Christians are no longer fed to lions, they are still persecuted throughout the world, either physically (by Islamic states and other fanatics abroad) or intellectually here at home. With the rise of secularism in America, Christian belief and thought is marginalized and labelled as outmoded and out of sync with new definitions of how society should act.

The Sign of the Cross had a relevance in 1932 when it was released, as well as in 1944 when it was reissued. Today, all these years later, its themes of sacrifice and of keeping the faith still resonate.

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Since I didn’t rely on the “pre-Code” aspects to sell it, only 50 people came out last Thursday night. But this isn’t a pre-Code film series; it’s a program that explores how faith is depicted on screen. More important than attendance is how the film affects the viewer– and the emotional connection he or she has to it. That night it was rewarding to see one of our patrons, Joe Paolelli, attend because I knew he was a theology student. We both share an interest in how early Christianity developed and how it was depicted in movies like The Sign of the Cross, Quo Vadis, and others. The Christians were figures who gave their lives for a belief. DeMille brings that story to life with great feeling, especially in Titus’ scene with the boy Stephan. Here, Titus speaks of having seen Jesus. As Joe elaborated,

“It reminded me of the fact that a subset of the early martyrs actually walked and talked with Christ, and were willing to die for their belief that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” To me, that will always be the most convincing apologetic argument for Christianity. Why would an eclectic group like the Apostles be willing to die for their faith in this man, if he were anything other than who He claimed to be? I found that early scene with Titus and Stephan very moving.”

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* * * * * *

For more about the making of The Sign of the Cross, here is a link to a terrific entry from The blog post was adapted from a chapter on DeMille from the new release, Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic (2014).

For a scholarly examination of Cecil B. DeMille (and a better understanding of the type of filmmaker he was– and wasn’t), I highly recommend visiting the KINEMA feature: Scripture Filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille: Biblical, Religious or Spiritual?

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