Monday, April 29, 2019

Tonight's Movie: The Sign of the Cross (1932) at UCLA

Last Friday night was another fun evening at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood.

The UCLA Film & Television Archive hosted a pre-Code double bill consisting of THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932) and ONLY YESTERDAY (1933).

The films were introduced by Mark Vieira, author of the new book FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD: THE PRECODE ERA (1930-1934), published by Turner Classic Movies and Running Press.

Vieira discussed some of the background on the films, particularly the attempts to censor THE SIGN OF THE CROSS, which director Cecil B. DeMille successfully avoided. He also had a treat to show us as part of his introduction, a scroll which was a prop from THE SIGN OF THE CROSS.

Vieira signed FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD before the film and at intermission; he's seen signing a book at the left in this photo, alongside Jeff Mantor of Larry Edmunds Bookshop.

When I complimented Vieira on the quality of the photos in his book, he told me he had painstakingly cleaned each one up digitally. The work really shows as the book is a feast for the eyes.

My friend Raquel recently interviewed Vieira for the TCM Tumblr page, and I recommend the interview for more details on the book. Incidentally, he mentions the great Ned Comstock at USC, who is universally beloved to anyone researching film history. He's been of assistance to more than one of my family members over the years!

As I mentioned in my preview of the evening, THE SIGN OF THE CROSS is fairly notorious as one of the most extreme examples of the pre-Code era, including Claudette Colbert's topless milk bath scene, an orgy and dance, and the gruesome torture of Christians in the Roman arena. I'd been putting off seeing it for these reasons, but decided if I were going to see it, the best way would be a 35mm print preserved from DeMille's personal nitrate print! I viewed it as something of an educational experience, learning more about DeMille and the pre-Code era.

Fredric March plays Marcus, the Prefect of Rome, who falls for a Christian girl, Mercia (Elissa Landi). This does not sit well with Empress Poppaea (Colbert), who lusts after Marcus despite being married to the insane Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton).

As the Christians are rounded up at Nero and Poppaea's direction and condemned to death in the arena, Marcus must decide whether to give up Mercia...or to become a Christian and die with her, in order to be together in Heaven. A pretty heavy plot!

While the Roman excesses are the focus of much of the film, that's balanced with extended scenes of Christians praying, giving testimony, and practicing their faith, which is certainly unique compared to most modern films.

The movie was about what I expected. I relished Colbert's fascinating portrayal of a character described by DeMille as "the wickedest woman in the world" but otherwise didn't find it enjoyable watching the depiction of so much suffering.

Laughton was entirely too believable as Nero, so creepy that it was frankly almost difficult to keep looking at him. As a matter of fact, truth be told, I spent an unusual amount of time looking down at the floor during this movie, as I just didn't want to see what was happening on the screen.

Having now seen it (or, at times, listened to it!), I'm glad to check this title off my lists of unseen Colbert and DeMille films, but I can't say I plan to ever watch it again.

The supporting cast includes Ian Keith, Arthur Hohl, Ferdinand Gottschalk, Vivian Tobin (sister of Genevieve), Nat Pendleton, and Charles Middleton.

THE SIGN OF THE CROSS was photographed by Karl Struss. The costumes were designed by future director Mitchell Leisen.

The print shown at UCLA was longer than the running time listed at IMDb; it ran 125 minutes and included a three-minute intermission with an orchestra track.

THE SIGN OF THE CROSS is available as a single-title DVD release in the Universal Cinema Classics line or as part of the five-film Cecil B. DeMille Collection. It was also released on VHS.

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