The sign of the cross movie
The Wickedest Movie in the World: How Cecil B. DeMille Made The Sign of the Cross
This post was adapted from the new book by Cecilia de Mille Presley and Mark A. Vieira, Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic (Running Press, 416pp, December 16, 2014). Reprinted with the kind permission of the authors and publisher. The photos were taken from the book. For those lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, UCLA is featuring a DeMille series (Jan. 9-Feb. 28, 2015), introduced by Mark Vieira, that will include a new print of Sign of the Cross restored from DeMille’s personal print. See here for details.
How did Hollywood’s most powerful filmmaker, a master of religious epics, make a film so lascivious that it led to the famous Production Code? In 1932, Cecil B. DeMille was fifty-one and prosperous, one of a handful of directors whose name on the marquee meant money in the box office. Since coming from Broadway in 1913, DeMille had directed an almost unbroken series of hits. He had made Westerns, social dramas, and sex fables, but his specialty was the epic. Whether in ancient Rome or Biblical Israel, he could mesmerize an audience with grandeur. His knack for exposition and his gift for imagery created blockbusters like Male and Female (1919), Manslaughter (1922), and The Ten Commandments (1923). His biography of Jesus Christ, The King of Kings (1927), was a worldwide phenomenon. In 1929, DeMille had made a successful transition from silent films to talkies with a blood-and-thunder melodrama called Dynamite.
Three years later, in spite of the Great Depression, DeMille was still prosperous, with interests in banking, real estate, travel, and film production. But he had made two flops, Madam Satan (1930) and The Squaw Man (1931). While working as an independent producer at M-G-M, he had misgauged his audience. In late 1931, production head Irving Thalberg called DeMille to his office. “I’m sorry, C.B.,” said Thalberg. “There just isn’t anything here for you.” DeMille left M-G-M. “There is a saying in Hollywood,” wrote DeMille, “that you are just as good as your last picture.” No one remembered his first picture, The Squaw Man, or the hits that had followed.
“DeMille has always known what the public wanted, how to catch their fancy with glitter,” wrote Edwin Schallert in the Los Angeles Times. “He has been a superior actor’s director.” Schallert’s opinion was not shared by studio executives. “I couldn’t get a job,” recalled DeMille. “Nobody would even listen. I was just like one of the mummies we’d seen in Egypt, a curiosity, something rather boring. I was through. I was dead. I was just dead.”
Cecil B. DeMille posed with a concept painting made by Harold Miles.
DeMille turned to his wife Constance for support. He drew on memories of his childhood. His father, William de Mille, had been a playwright, a partner of the legendary David Belasco. DeMille’s mother, Beatrice, had been a play broker. When he was fourteen, she took him to see a play, The Sign of the Cross. It starred Wilson Barrett, who had written it as an answer to the atheist Robert Ingersoll. The play recounted the fable of a Roman prefect who falls in love with a proscribed Christian girl, while Nero and Poppaea pull the strings. The Sign of the Cross made a lasting impression on young Cecil.
DeMille called his friend of twenty years, Jesse L. Lasky, who was running Paramount Pictures. DeMille met with him, hoping that Paramount would finance a religious film, perhaps The Sign of the Cross. Lasky presented the proposal at several meetings. “I am very sorry,” he told his friend. “I could not put this over.” This rejection was particularly painful. DeMille and Lasky had founded Paramount.
In 1913, DeMille was thirty-two, a failed playwright. In desperation he considered making movies, a dubious venture for theatre people. In a last-ditch effort, DeMille partnered with Lasky and Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn). They chose a play called The Squaw Man, but filmed it not in the expected locales of New York, Arizona, or downtown Los Angeles. DeMille rented a barn in a rural suburb called Hollywood and shot his Western there. The Squaw Man was an immediate, stunning success. After DeMille co-founded Paramount Pictures with Lasky and Adolph Zukor, its success lured companies from the East Coast and made Hollywood the film capital of the world.
In 1932, Adolph Zukor was still chairman of the board. Lasky was running Paramount’s West Coast production with B.P. Schulberg. With directors like Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, and Rouben Mamoulian, and stars like Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Gary Cooper, the Marx Brothers, and Marlene Dietrich, the studio should have been turning out hits. It was not. Its films were too sophisticated for the Midwest and South, where most of its theaters sat. Paramount was in the red.
The Sign of the Cross had been filmed in 1914. “It starred William Farnum,” DeMille recalled. “It was pretty terrible, even for a Famous Players picture.” Ten years later, Zukor sold the rights to Mary Pickford. In 1932, DeMille paid Pickford $38,000 for the property. To mount this epic, he needed a producing partner, and he was willing to put up half the money to get one. He went to Fox Film and M-G-M. No one was interested. Then the sun rose behind the Paramount peak. At a meeting in March 1932, Schulberg yelled at his confreres: “You gentlemen are all crazy! You’ve got here one of the greatest minds in the industry. He built Paramount with Jess once before. Maybe he can do it again. Grab him!”
Zukor authorized a deal. DeMille could return to the studio that he had co-founded but would have to make his million-dollar project for $650,000. Worse, Paramount would put up only half. DeMille would have to borrow the balance. Paramount would then advance him $50,000 against future royalties that would not be charged to the negative cost. From that, DeMille would be paid a modest $14,322 in cash with $9,678 deferred. For a director of his stature, this was a humiliating drop in salary.
Zukor further required that DeMille submit to the supervision of a know-nothing newsreel producer named Emanuel (“Manny”) Cohen. DeMille agreed. Even so, working with his friend Lasky was a happy prospect, and they could count on Schulberg’s support.
Then, as DeMille set up shop at Paramount, there was a shakeup. On May 17, a board meeting removed both Lasky and Schulberg. DeMille was on shaky ground. And who should take Schulberg’s job but the eminently unqualified Emanuel Cohen. The Sign of the Cross was a crucial project for DeMille, one of the four most important he had done – or would do. [The others were The Squaw Man (1914), The Ten Commandments (1923), and The Ten Commandments (1956).]
The burning of Rome was accomplished with forced-perspective miniatures and flames propelled by gas jets on acreage at the newly leased Paramount ranch in the Agoura Hills.
DeMille asked Mitchell Leisen, who had been working with him as art director since 1919, to come to Paramount. Once bank loans were secured, DeMille instructed Leisen and production manager Roy Burns to keep him informed of his balance, right up to the minute. To adapt The Sign of the Cross, DeMille engaged two Paramount writers, playwright Sidney Buchman and veteran screenwriter Waldemar Young. He then hired an artist named Harold Miles to do concept sketches from the script, so that Leisen and the draftsmen could design fifteen sets. They needed to show the secret world of the hunted Christians, the decadence of the imperial palace, and the brutality of the arena. How could they do this on such a limited budget?
“DeMille had seen some spectacular German pictures in Europe and he just couldn’t understand how they got so much production for so little money,” recalled Leisen. “I said, ‘Just shoot what I give you and don’t try to do anything more.’” Working with cameraman Karl Struss, Leisen devised ways to get epic effects without epic costs. But DeMille could not cut costs on actors.
Fredric March was riding high after Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. DeMille agreed to pay him $2,100 a week to play Marcus Superbus, the Roman prefect. “I had just seen Charles Laughton in Payment Deferred at the St. James’s Theatre in London,” wrote DeMille. “I knew that he was the only man to play Nero.” Laughton would receive $1,250 a week for Nero. After testing Miriam Hopkins, Ann Harding, and Loretta Young for the Christian girl Mercia, DeMille borrowed Elissa Landi from Fox Film, possibly because she was of noble Italian extraction. He interviewed the fading silent stars Norma Talmadge and Pola Negri for the plum role of Poppaea. Neither one filled the bill.
Left to right: Karl Struss; unidentified script clerk; Mitchell Leisen, Claudette Colbert, Fredric March, and Cecil B. DeMille. Besides acting as production designer, Leisen designed both this set and Claudette Colbert’s costume. Leisen prepared the scene so that every cut showed a fresh angle.
“On my way out of the executive offices at Paramount one day,” said DeMille, “I met a young actress named Claudette Colbert. She’d not done much, just playing pansy roles.” Colbert’s most recent part was as George M. Cohan’s daughter in The Phantom President. “I was bored with these roles,” recalled Colbert. “Because I happened to look like a lady, that’s all they wanted me to play.”
“I think they’ve got you wrong,” DeMille told her. “You should not be playing these little girls. To me you look like the wickedest woman in the world. Would you like to play her?”
“I’d love to!” replied Colbert.
“Claudette’s test was the shortest on record,” said DeMille. He brought her and Fredric March to a soundstage. “You harlot!” said March.
“I love you,” said Colbert with a half-smile and a shrug.
“That’s enough,” said DeMille from the camera. “You have the part.”
Mitchell Leisen designed both this set and Claudette Colbert’s costume.
At the Studio Relations Committee (SRC), Jason Joy and his staff were reeling from an onslaught of sin. “There seems to be a real and distressing tendency at Paramount to go for the sex stuff on a heavy scale,” censor Lamar Trotti wrote Will Hays. “Talk about pictures having to have ‘guts’ and about having to do this or that to make a little money to pay salaries is too frequently heard.” As if to calm the censors, Manny Cohen spoke to the Los Angeles Times. “We have gone as far with sex as we are likely to go,” he said. “The public likes a touch of the spiritual in times like these. The Sign of the Cross should be the answer.” Because of DeMille’s prominence, Jason Joy would review this script himself. Joy was a reasonable man, trying to find a middle ground between the requirements of the Code and the artistic license of America’s sixth-largest industry. It was a tough job.
The Sign of the Cross was to start shooting on July 11, 1932. Joy received the script on July 3. He approved it on July 5. Joy said that the film’s message of tolerance warranted the depiction of sin, but this depiction might cause problems with regional censor boards. (The Code had been written not only to keep innocent minds from being corrupted but also to keep release prints from being butchered.) Joy’s sole advice to DeMille was not to shoot the scene of a gorilla approaching a naked girl tied to a post.
DeMille got in touch with Father Daniel Lord, who had acted as consultant on The King of Kings. DeMille asked Father Lord to read The Sign of the Cross. “You must not make your Christians into plaster saints who are dull, plodding, and uninspiring,” Lord wrote DeMille. “When your pagans are attractive, warm-blooded, alive human beings and are modern and almost night-clubbish, they make sin look as fascinating as it often seems to be.”
The start date of The Sign of the Cross was pushed to July 18. Fredric March was finishing Smilin’ Through with Norma Shearer at M-G-M. The film ran over another week, so Irving Thalberg paid DeMille $7,459.00 for lost time. On July 25, ancient Rome came to life. After five months of preparation, DeMille was ready. He was eager, fit, and focused. He had to be. A great deal was riding on this project, not only a debt of $325,000 but also his future in Hollywood. The first scenes were shot on a Roman street. “A DeMille set is recognizable almost before one comes to it,” wrote Edwin Schallert in the L.A. Times. “There were throngs of extras, a veritable pageant of many-colored costumes. Donkeys, vegetables, a bread shop, and a wine shop. All these were part of a Roman street where soldiers cast lots, bartering the lives of early Christians to turn over to Nero.”
After the first week’s shooting, Cohen sent for DeMille. “Cecil,” he said from behind his desk, “I hear that everything you’ve done has to be retaken.”
“Manny, I never have to do retakes.”
“Well, George Arthur told me that some of the men who have seen your stuff say that it’s so bad it’s funny.”
“I don’t think they’re quite right on that, Manny. You’d better let us put a few scenes together and then we’ll have somebody from outside the studio come in and see it. Get Adolph’s brother-in-law Al Kaufman to come and look.”
“All right, Cecil. We’ll do that. But remember. You’re on trial with this picture.”
The review of the first-week footage took place shortly thereafter. The scenes showed March breaking up a riot with a whip. After the lights came up, Kaufman turned to Cohen. “What the hell’s the matter with you, Manny? This is some of the greatest stuff ever made.”
“Oh, well,” said Cohen. “I suppose it’s all right then.”
“Manny was my greatest trial,” DeMille said later. “Perhaps Manny found me something of a trial, too. But I had a picture to make. And I wanted it right.”
Getting it right with a daunting schedule and a restricted budget meant that DeMille had to delegate more authority than usual. Burns, Struss, and Leisen each did a masterly job. DeMille was lucky to have Struss. No other cameraman in Hollywood could have given The Sign of the Cross its unique look. “I shot the whole black-and-white picture through bright red gauze,” recalled Struss. “Gauze wasn’t much used then, as it had been in the silent period. We’d gone over to diffusion disks. I used gauze throughout, to give a feeling of a world remembered.”
DeMille was very lucky to have Leisen. If Leisen had been only a superb art director, or a skilled costume designer, or a gifted assistant director, he would have been a precious asset. To have all three in one person was nothing short of miraculous, and a miracle was what DeMille needed. While DeMille was checking the construction of the arena, Leisen blocked the scene in which Marcus follows Mercia to a well of pure water and flirts with her as she tries to go up a stone stairway. Leisen designed the scene so that when Marcus gains an advantage over Mercia, he is above her on the stairs, but when she regains control, she is above him. Leisen thus isolated the plot point: the Christian girl realizes that a Roman can be sexy; the dissolute Roman realizes that a virtuous girl can be powerful. When DeMille returned to the set, he shot the scene as Leisen had choreographed it.
DeMille showed the Christian girl with pure water. Poppaea was introduced with milk, but not in a glass. DeMille put her in a marble pool filled with the milk of braying asses. “Poppaea bathing in asses’ milk is a historic incident,” said DeMille. “She bathed in asses’ milk every day.”
Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) bathes in asses’ milk.
“That milk bath was really quite funny,” recalled Colbert. “But you didn’t make jokes with C.B. To him it was important that everything be absolutely correct. He was very serious about that, and about giving the public what it wanted.” The milk bath was funny in principle; getting it on film was not. It was scheduled for August 3, but completion of The Phantom President held up Colbert, and the bathtub set was mistakenly struck. It had to be rebuilt and the scene moved to August 16. “It was real powdered milk,” said Leisen. [He used a product called “Klim.”] “DeMille wanted the milk to just barely cover Claudette’s nipples. I had her stand in the empty pool the day before and I measured her to get the level just right.”
This is a wide angle of the Roman amphitheater scene as executed by art director Mitchell Leisen, cameraman Karl Struss, and Cecil. B. DeMille.
On September 8, DeMille began shooting the arena sequence. That he was able to mount a setpiece of this magnitude for less than $60,000 was a tribute to his imagination, technical skill, and shrewd management. “The arena was a miniature,” recalled Leisen. “We built several flights of stairs with ramps at each level so the people walked in and that was all.” Likewise, the burning of Rome was accomplished with the proverbial movie magic. The L.A. Times reported: “Thirty miles from Hollywood, at Paramount’s ranch in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, history’s most famous conflagration was repeated when a man turned on a gas valve. Gas pipes running through small replicas of Roman structures gave the blaze a quick start.” After this, DeMille returned to the Paramount lot to shoot sequences that would lead him into new territory.
Manslaughter included an orgy scene with a brief shot of two women kissing, but that was as far as DeMille had gone with so-called “sex perversion.” The Sign of the Cross would be a festival of excess in a pagan province, with Leisen as its all-too-willing guide. Leisen lived an unconventional lifestyle; he was married to Sandra Gale, an opera singer, but was living with Eddie Anderson, a pilot. He no doubt knew about the recent scandal involving the bisexual director Edmund Goulding. An orgy in September had gotten out of control and injured two women. Drawing on Hollywood’s private life, Leisen enhanced the film with picaresque details. Shots of couples fondling and osculating during the orgy scene were far more provocative than anything previously shown in a major studio film. There was “The Dance of the Naked Moon,” performed by an exotic named Joyzelle Joyner, in an exhibition of Sapphic seduction that promised to go the limit.
As Marcus Superbus (Fredric March) watches, the wicked Ancaria (Joyzelle Joyner) performs the Dance of the Naked Moon to entice Mercia (Elissa Landi).
And there was Charles Laughton as Nero, who flew in the face of DeMille’s interpretation.
“DeMille visualized Nero as the menace in the film,” said Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s wife. “Charles thought him merely funny. DeMille was shocked by the idea. He had old-fashioned ideas of villains and heroes.”
“Nero was one of the wickedest men who ever lived,” DeMille insisted. “Look how he treated the Christians.”
“After a long argument with DeMille,” said Lanchester, “Charles was allowed to give Nero a preciousness which he felt would make the orgies more evil.” Laughton typically tortured himself into becoming a character for each film, but this one was different. It subsumed him. “Nero was nuts,” Laughton told a reporter. “I play him straight.” He also played him as a triple-jointed voluptuary, a thumb-sucking psychopath.
Charles Laughton as Nero. Photograph by William Thomas.
“Charles and I ate in the Paramount commissary while he was in The Sign of the Cross,” recalled Lanchester. “If we saw a bunch of clean-shaven, brutal men with hair on their chests, we knew they were Romans. If we saw a lot of weak, kindly old gentlemen with staffs and long white beards, we were safe in saying those were Christians. DeMille made the difference very marked, perhaps so the lions wouldn’t eat the wrong people.”
Back at the arena, DeMille was shooting grisly scenes in the sand. He was still checking with Burns. “Let me know when we run out of money,” said DeMille. “I won’t spend one penny more.” One day, DeMille was high above the arena, sitting on the camera crane, microphone in hand, issuing orders to Christians, pagans, and lions. From out of the corner of his eye, he saw some movement. He looked. Up in the stands, one extra girl was whispering to another extra girl. While he was issuing orders! With his free hand, he pointed at her. “So! Our little movie is unimportant, is it?” The girl cringed. “Well, we’ll just discontinue our little movie while you finish your talk.” The girl hung her head. “Or, no. Better yet, we’d all like to hear what you just said. Come here.” He waved grandly. “Here. To the center of the arena. And tell us the very interesting things you were saying.” The girl was petrified. “Either come forward or get off this lot,” he bellowed. “And stay off it!”
The girl crept down the steps of the arena stands, descended the modern stairs behind it, and fearfully walked across the sand. Lions, trainers, and crew members watched her walk by. The crane lowered to the sand. One of the four assistants took the microphone from DeMille. He reverted to his megaphone. “All right, now. Here’s the microphone. Tell us all what you were saying. We’re all interested, I’m sure.”
An assistant held the microphone in front of the girl. “It’s too embarrassing,” she whispered
“Speak up,” snapped DeMille.
“I can’t,” said the girl, lowering her face.
“Speak the truth. Or leave.”
The girl slowly raised her face to the microphone. “I just said –”
“I just said, ‘When is that bald-headed old bastard going to let us go to lunch?’”
There was a shocked silence. Young girls did not use such words.
Suddenly DeMille threw back his head and roared. Ha! He loved it! “This bald-headed old bastard is going to let you go to lunch this minute!” He turned to his assistants. “Lunch!”
Young girls were easier to direct than young beasts. DeMille wanted to contrast a shot of Christians climbing the steps to the arena with a shot of lions running up their own steps, eager to attack. Instead of charging, the lions lay down and groomed themselves. “Listen!” said DeMille to Melvin Koontz, the trainer. “This is costing a frightful lot of money. When are those lions going up?”
“Oh, lions don’t know anything about that,” said Koontz, “They don’t go up stairs.”
“Well,” said DeMille, “those lions are going up those stairs!” With that he seized a chair and a whip and began swearing and yelling at the recumbent beasts. Startled, they rose and backed away. He continued his advance. They began climbing the stairs, turning to roar at him. Other than the odd offscreen look, the scene worked.
Recreating scenes of Christian martyrdom was a trying experience for DeMille.
Out on the sand, Leisen had prepared dummies of Christians made of lamb carcasses. The lions would not eat them. “We couldn’t get the lions to do anything,” said Leisen. “They just walked around as if they were saying, ‘What have you been doing since our last picture together?’” Koontz and his staff did more goading. They finally had to don Christian costumes and wrestle with the lions. The extras who were dressed as Christians were terrified, and not only of teeth. “This is an outrage!” DeMille shouted at Koontz. “Your goddamned lions are urinating on my martyrs!”
“To us, even then,” recalled Colbert, “a lot of DeMille’s ideas were corny. But I certainly don’t think you can call him a phony. He truly believed in what he was doing. When we did the scene with the Christians being eaten by the lions, he really suffered.”
Time was running out. “We were in the arena,” said Leisen, “with pygmies being slaughtered, when Roy came up to us and said, ‘We’ve just used up the budget. You haven’t got a dime.” DeMille yelled, ‘Cut,’ and we stopped right then and there. We didn’t even finish that day.” That was September 25. Unfortunately for the legend, DeMille did shoot a few more days, running the budget up to $694,000. Even so, he had made a film that looked like a million.
“DeMille’s attempts to horrify for theatrical effect are unprecedented,” wrote Variety. “The first thought may be to turn away, but all of it is holding. There is something in this brutal slaughter that nails fascinated attention.”
The Sign of the Cross had to be approved by the SRC before it could be released. Jason Joy reviewed it on November 15. The Code prohibited “dances which suggest sexual actions, whether performed solo or with two or more, and which are intended to excite.” Joyzelle’s dance fit that description, yet Joy chose not to censor it. “Ordinarily we would have been concerned about those portions of the dance sequence in which the Roman dancer executes the ‘Kootch’ Movement,” wrote Joy. “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.”
The next screening was an industry preview. This did not go as well, at least in DeMille’s estimation. The film began with the scene of Nero lolling and writhing as he burns Rome. No one was prepared for Laughton’s outrageous interpretation. It made the camp performers at the Ship Café on the Venice Pier look restrained. “The audience howled with laughter,” reported Photoplay. “Rolled right out into the aisles. Wailed hysterically on one another’s shoulders. Blasé Hollywood simply went wild.” DeMille was furious. “Well, you sure spoiled everything,” he said to Laughton. “They were all laughing at you.”
“But I wanted them to laugh at me.”
“What can you play after this? What do you want to play?”
“I would love to play you, Mr. DeMille.”
DeMille threw back his head and laughed.
The next screening was the New York premiere on November 30, 1932. DeMille was there. It was a triumph, even though audience members screamed during the arena scenes. The reviews were excellent. “The old master returns to form with a sure-fire hit of magnificent proportions,” wrote Norbert Lusk, the New York correspondent for the L.A. Times. “Surely DeMille has never staged a spectacle more stately or powerful than his arena sequence nor touched such spiritual splendor as when his hero and heroine walk hand in hand to their death.”
The Sign of the Cross concludes in tragedy, a downbeat ending for a film released in the worst months of the depression, yet it was a huge hit.
Variety was more pragmatic. “This picture is going to stir up some two-sided sentiment wherever it is shown, much of it being the boldest censor bait ever attempted in a picture.” As the film began an audacious road show – reserved-seat tickets at $2.00 when people could not afford ten cents – there came a firestorm of controversy that rivaled the torching of Rome.
Christian Reisner, a Methodist Episcopal minister and the author of God’s Power for Me, attacked the film. “It is repellant and nauseating to every thinking Christian,” he wrote. “It endeavors to get a lot of lewd scenes and sex-appeal exhibitions on the screen and then dresses the whole with a cheap and unhistorical hodge-podge of incidents from sacred Christian martyrdom.”
There were angry comments from other Protestant writers, but most of the condemnation was Catholic. “This film, with its sadistic cruelty, its playing up of Roman lust and debauchery and crime, is intolerable,” wrote DeMille’s adviser, Father Lord. Cleveland Bishop Joseph Schrembs called the film a “damnable hypocrisy.” Jesuit America magazine called Joyzelle’s dance “the most unpleasant bit of footage ever passed by the Hollywood censors.” Catholic publisher Martin Quigley wrote: “This scene becomes an incident liable to an evil audience effect.”
Quigley was in constant contact with Will Hays. Sure enough, DeMille got a phone call, not from the SRC, but from Hays himself. “Cecil,” he said, “what are you going to do about that dance?”
“Will,” said DeMille, “listen carefully to my words because you may want to quote them. Not a damn thing.”
“Not a damn thing?”
“Not a damn thing.”
DeMille had taken a chance in making the film. Would the censor boards slash it to ribbons? After a few anxious weeks, reports came in to the SRC. Not one board had cut the so-called “lesbian dance.” The few who did cut the film concentrated on alligators, apes, and asses’ milk.
The Sign of the Cross was stuffed with “censor bait.”
Meanwhile, there was a backlash. Catholic dioceses and parishes in New Orleans, New York, and Oregon were endorsing the film. A Michigan priest shepherded a group of altar boys to see it. A group of fifty Louisiana priests made a field trip to a screening and were edified. For years, Catholics had studied their history; seeing it come to life was electrifying.
Those who attacked the film bore witness to an artistic feat. DeMille had told so transporting a story that even isolated elements could be affecting. In 1932, Hollywood mastered the art of the sound film. Even so, Shanghai Express, Scarface, Grand Hotel, Love Me Tonight, A Farewell to Arms, Trouble in Paradise, and The Sign of the Cross could not be fully appreciated for the achievements they were. The vocabulary of the critical fraternity was insufficient. No critic could speak with authority on a film’s groundbreaking visual and aural effects. Only in retrospect could these works of art be properly appraised.
With The Sign of the Cross, DeMille made the first fully integrated sound film. It was bold, polished, and powerful. Every shot counted. Every transition was assured. His use of symbolism, crowds, crane shots, dialectical montage, contrapuntal sound, music cues, sound effects, and even silence was masterly. He could no longer be accused of making static tableaux. This was truly a moving picture. He had caught up with the talkie trailblazers – Sternberg, Hawks, Goulding, Mamoulian, Borzage, and Lubitsch. He had surpassed them. No one else could have made The Sign of the Cross. DeMille had created another world, a tantalizing meld of the sacred and profane.
The Sign of the Cross was so profitable that Paramount was able to avoid receivership in January 1933. Later that year, the masses of Catholics who had been offended by DeMille’s appropriation of Christian mythology lined up to join the Legion of Decency – and punish Hollywood. A “Catholic Crusade” followed. The Legion collected 3 million pledges and held a rally. Addressing 50,000 people, Cleveland bishop Joseph Schrembs roared: “Purify Hollywood or destroy Hollywood!” In July 1934, the Production Code was reconstituted and Joseph Breen was made head of the Production Code Administration. It is hard to believe that the controversy over The Sign of the Cross did not contribute to this momentous event. When the film came up for reissue in 1935, Breen spoke for angry Catholics and decreed that it had to be cut. They censored it ruthlessly, removing nearly a reel of “immoral” scenes. The shorter version was reissued and remained in circulation for decades. In the ’60s it became a TV staple. When the DeMille Estate and MCA-Universal restored The Sign of the Cross to its original length in 1993, it was recognized for the work of art that it is. If DeMille had done no other film, his reputation would be secure. The Sign of the Cross is a glistening masterpiece.
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Phillips, Kendall R. Controversial Cinema: The Films That Outraged America. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.
Ringgold, Gene, and DeWitt Bodeen. The Films of Cecil B. DeMille. New York: Citadel Press, 1969.
Barry, Barbara. “Such a Naughty Nero.” Photoplay 14, No. 3 (February 1933) pp. 46-47, 95-96.
Hamilton, Sara. “The Last of the Veteran Showmen.” Photoplay 44, No. 5 (October 1933), pp. 32-33, 107-109.
Lusk, Norbert. “DeMille Again the Old Master.” Los Angeles Times, December 4, 1932, p. B17.
Merrick, Mollie. “Film Official Tells Outlook.” Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1932, p. 12.
———. “Hollywood in Person.” Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1932, p. B22.
Poff, Tip. “That Certain Party.” Los Angeles Times, February 5, 1933, p. A1.
Schallert, Edwin. “DeMille Personage.” Los Angeles Times, July 26, 1932, p. 9.
Scheuer, Philip K. “Hollywood Borrows Tricks from Europe.” Los Angeles Times, August 6, 1933, p. A1.
———. “A Town Called Hollywood.” Los Angeles Times, October 2, 1932, p. B15.
Van Ryn, Frederick. “When You See Paramount, Remember DeMille.” Reader’s Digest 41, No. 245 (September 1942), pp. 15-18.
Whitaker, Alma. “DeMille, in Manicurist’s Chair, Talks on Religion.” Los Angeles Times, November 27, 1932, p. B12.
“Deadline for Film Dirt.” Variety, June 13, 1933, I, p. 6.
“DeMille Defends Hokum.” Los Angeles Times, November 24, 1929, p. 32.
“DeMille Hears from Author.” Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1931, p. 25.
“Gas Turned on to Make Rome Burn.” Los Angeles Times, October 14, 1932, p. B11.
“Musical Duel to Be Seen in DeMille Film.” Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1932, p. B11.
Box 30, Folder 2, “May 16, 1&57”; and Folder 4, “June 13, 1&57”; Cecil B. DeMille Autobiography Interview files in the Arts & Communications Archives, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
Hopper, Hedda. “Interview, December 10, 1951.” Hedda Hopper Collection, Special Collections, Margaret Herrick Library, Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Wall, James M. “Interview with Geoffrey Shurlock.” Louis B. Mayer Library, American Film Institute.
Pratt, George C. “Interview with Cecil B. DeMille.” Hollywood, 1958. Unpublished audio tape, George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.
Cecilia de Mille Presley, vice-chairman for the National Film Preservation Foundation, has been a leading activist for the preservation of our cinematic history for many years. She produces documentaries, is a long-time benefactor to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; currently serves on the boards of the American Film Institute, the Chapman University School of Film and Cinema, UCLA’s School of Film and Television; and works with the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
Mark A. Vieira is a photographer, film historian, and author of numerous books. See his home pagehere and his Amazon page here for details. He lives in Los Angeles.
Very interesting. But why no mention of the WWII re-release of the (shorter) film that added a brief framing story about a US bomber flying over Rome.