Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Cecil B DeMille's 1930s

Staying with those early '30s for now Cecil B DeMille's THE SIGN OF THE CROSS and CLEOPATRA make a dynamic double bill. Both are in that DeMille box set which also has his 1935 THE CRUSADES which I saw and liked a while ago (Loretta Young label), as well as that western UNION PACIFIC and one I don't know at all FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE, more on that later then.

SIGN OF THE CROSS, like those Von Sternberg's of the same era 1932 fills the screen with so much happening that one is constantly bedazzled. DeMille of course loved to detail the debauchery that warranted divine punishment; Charles Laughton plays Nero as a monstrous baby and Claudette Colbert as Poppaea are riveting and colorfully conceived. Laughton (with that false roman nose) lolls around on divans, while slave boys attend to his whims and of course he plays the lyre while Rome burns and blames the Christians. Colbert enjoys her a milk bath, asking a girlfriend to join her, while cats sip the milk from the poolside. She wants Marcus Superbus (young Fredric March wearing eyeliner and showing a good pair of thighs in that skimpy toga), He though has fallen for a pure virginal Christian girl, Elissa Landi, who is no fun at all - surely he would have a better time with Poppaea, even a torrid lesbian dance Marcus organises does nothing for Elissa.
Meanwhile in part two, we finally get to the games at the arena, as the obligatory feeding Christians to the wild beasts keep the proceedings on track, as gladiators fight, black dwarves fight amazon women, and the wild beasts are unleashed (elephants stomping on heads, tigers, crocodiles going to munch on a tethered beauty, and then the lions ...) as we watch the audience reactions, and Nero is served by a bored naked youth. Its heady stuff.

We don't though see enough of Nero or Poppaea but instead spend too much with those early Christians, whose idea of a good time was to sit on rocks, sing tuneless songs, listen to sermons, and go meekly to their doom. This all looks like an early version of QUO VADIS with the ending of THE ROBE thrown in as well. It finished with Marcus and dull Elissa (even Deborah Kerr do could nothing with the similar role in QUO VADIS) walking up to the arena and those slavering beasts - just like Burton and Simmons did 20 years later - as he decides to join her ... surely the sensibile thing would be for her to marry him and pretend so they could get away .... it might have made for a more satisfying climax if Cecil ended with Poppaea's reaction to seeing her lover with his beloved in the arena ?

CLEOPATRA two years later in 1934 is more of the same, and again, just about perfect in every respect. I love the Mankiewicz-Taylor CLEO (well the first half mainly and the end) but Cecil's is ideal too. Claudette Colbert's Cleo is Egypt, with Warren William her Julius Caesar and DeMille regular Henry Wilcoxon ideal as Marc Anthony. The pace here is smoother and quicker, as SIGN OF THE CROSS often seems to be long tableaus. Joseph Schildkraut and C. Aubrey Smith are good support and there is a great barge scene. It's production values are awe-inspiring, I like it just as much as the 1963 version, I like Claudette a lot more now too. Now for that silent 1925 BEN HUR which I have been meaning to see for some years - its part of the 1959 film dvd pack.

Other Cecils we love are SAMSON AND DELILAH in 1949, particuarly the delirious end as Samson moves the pillar supporting the temple and George Sanders raises his goblet to toast Delilah as it all comes crashing down, and of course the 1956 THE TEN COMMANDMENTS which was a delirious treat as a school outing when I was ten in Ireland - it looks mint new now on dvd and again full of great roles for a marvellous cast who seem to relish every minute of it, particularly Anne Baxter, as per Anne Baxter, epics labels.   Laughton of course returned to the epic arena as that wily senator in one of his last, SPARTACUS in 1960, also see recent post on ADVISE AND CONSENT).

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