Well, we’re here to start celebrating actress Claudette Colbert as the Star Of The Month, and what better way than one of the films that helped to catapult her towards being a big star! Of course, I mean her 1932 film The Sign Of The Cross, also starring Fredric March, Elissa Landi and Charles Laughton.
Coming Up Shorts! with… Pink-A-Boo (1966)
(available on Blu-ray and DVD as part of The Pink Panther Cartoon Collection: Volume 2 (1966-1968) from Kino Lorber)
(Length: 6 minutes, 14 seconds)
The Pink Panther has to deal with a mouse and his friends who have come to party. This is a fun one, with the Panther trying (and failing) to deal with the mouse. There are some fun moments here and there (and I know I get a good chuckle out of the mouse elevator). It’s not the Panther at his best, but it’s certainly enjoyable enough to not be one of his worst (and be worth repeat viewings).
And Now For The Main Feature…
It’s 64 A.D., and the city of Rome is burning! There are rumors that the Roman emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) is behind it, but, to deflect the blame, he accuses Christians of being behind it. The Prefect of Rome, Marcus Superbus (Fredric March), comes upon a mob that is threatening Titus (Arthur Hohl), Favius Fontellus (Harry Beresford) and Mercia (Elissa Landi), a trio accused of being Christians (which is true). Enchanted by Mercia’s beauty (and desiring her as a conquest), Marcus decides to let them go. Angry at losing their bounty (for capturing Christians), the would-be captors turn to Marcus’ rival, Tigellinus (Ian Keith). Laying in wait for Mercia (or anybody connected to her), Tigellinus’ men catch Stephan (Tommy Conlon), a young Christian boy living with Mercia and Favius. He is tortured by the Romans until he reveals the location of their next meeting. Marcus finds out too late to completely stop the Roman troops from killing many Christians, but he saves those that remain, opting to send them to prison (although he has Mercia sent to his home). Tigellinus hears about this, and tries to tell Nero (since Nero had ordered all Christians to be executed). Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert), who has been lusting after Marcus herself (and is less than thrilled with his interest in Mercia), convinces Nero to have Mercia taken away, claiming that Marcus is no traitor but just interested in Mercia sexually. During a party, Marcus tries to convince Mercia to have sex with him, but she refuses. Tigellinus arrives, and takes her to the prison to await her fate with the rest of the Christians. Will Marcus come around to the Christian faith, or will he convince Mercia to renounce it?
Director Cecil B. DeMille had, during the silent era, helped establish Paramount Studios, but went independent in the mid-1920s. With the coming of sound, he made several talkies for MGM, but they proved to be financially unsuccessful. He came back to Paramount, contracted for just one film: The Sign Of The Cross (which was based on the 1895 play of the same name by Wilson Barrett). However, with the Depression also hitting Paramount, he was held back from all the free-spending habits he had maintained with some of his earlier films. Still, he brought back some of his previous crew (although on lowered salaries), and he was able to use some costumes and sets from his earlier 1923 film The Ten Commandments to help lower the costs. It’s been said that, when his assistant director Roy Burns let him know they had used all the money from their allotted budget, he yelled “Cut!” and worked with what they had to finish putting the movie together. The movie proved to be a hit, and he remained at Paramount for the rest of his career.
Actress Claudette Colbert benefited greatly from being in this movie. Previously, she had mainly played the ingénue type of role, but Cecil B. DeMille offered her a chance to be, as he put it, “the wickedest woman in the world” (which she said yes to doing). And boy, does she! From the moment we meet her as she takes a milk bath (in one of the film’s many famous pre-Code moments), we learn of her character’s lust for Marcus. As we go through the movie, we see how she tries to manipulate events to get what she wants. And, near the end, Marcus accuses her of being a harlot, to which she shrugs as if to say “So what else is new?” It’s a different role than I had seen previously from her, but I think that she is very effective in it!
I myself am coming off my first time seeing this movie, and I will admit that I enjoyed it. I am both shocked and amazed at all the film’s pre-Code moments that the director was able to get away with (even with censors objecting while he was making the movie). I will admit, some of the acting is weak here (especially for the two leads, Fredric March and Elissa Landi), but I blame that more on director Cecil B. DeMille, who focuses more on the spectacle. And, that he does! The film really strongly contrasts the debauchery of the Roman people with the lifestyle of the Christians, and the last half hour, with all the stuff going on in the Roman arenas is indeed a show in and of itself (with stuff shown that filmmakers today wouldn’t likely do). But, I would still say that Claudette Colbert makes this film worthwhile, as does her onscreen husband, as played by newcomer Charles Laughton. This has been mentioned as a major classic pre-Code, and I would concur. So, if you get the chance to see this one (and can stomach the pre-Code moments), be sure to give it a try!
What’s Old Is A New Release Again (2020) with… The Sign Of The Cross (1932)
This movie is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. Due to the film’s pre-Code content, the movie suffered cuts throughout the years from censors. In 1944, when the film was reissued (with some of these cuts), a new prologue and epilogue were added (keeping the length about the same), with new footage of pilots flying over Rome during World War II. That version was the only version seen for many years, until the original footage was restored in the 1990s. This Blu-ray release makes use of the UCLA restoration of the original film. For the most part, this movie looks quite good! There is some print damage here and there, but this is likely to be the best this movie will look for a long time. I personally think the audio is a tad low (but there are subtitles, which helps that a bit). Overall, I would definitely recommend this release!
Film Length: 2 hours, 6 minutes
My Rating: 8/10
List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections
Fredric March – The Eagle And The Hawk (1933)
Charles Laughton – Mutiny On The Bounty (1935)
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