6 March 2008 | Steffi_P
"Babylon has fallen, and Bill Crichton must play the game"
The silent films of Cecil B DeMille, scripted by his long-time collaborator (and mistress) Jeanie MacPherson were often bizarre, overwrought and sometimes just plain silly. Once in a while however they hit the nail right on the head. Male and Female, heavily adapted from JM Barrie's play The Admirable Crichton, is a powerful drama with some strong performances, DeMille's direction at its most lyrical, and MacPherson's storyline only occasionally veering off the rails.
The majority of DeMille films from this part of his career begin with a lengthy title card with some kind of moral or motto. However, Male and Female opens with images – the crashing sea, a sunset – before getting onto the intertitles. The typical DeMille silent would then follow this up by introducing us to each of the main characters with a title followed by a shot of them. Male and Female is no exception, but it works these introductions into the film's world and draws the audience in by making them point-of-view shots of a young servant peeping through the keyholes into his masters' and mistresses' bedrooms.
The acting style that DeMille had encouraged and developed in his silent pictures since the mid-1910s was largely naturalistic, but with the occasional broad theatrical gesture to highlight a dramatic moment. It was a style that reduced the need for intertitles, without resorting to ridiculous pantomiming. The two leads, Gloria Swanson and Thomas Meighan are both perfectly suited to this style. Meighan was probably the finest male actor DeMille had worked with since Sessue Hayakawa (in 1915's The Cheat), and his performance here is mesmerising. Swanson is also great as usual, although I have to say that although it was her run of pictures with DeMille that made her name, she didn't do her best work with him. Her talent was put to far better use in later features such as Queen Kelly and Sadie Thompson.
Aside from the performances, it's the dramatic story and its presentation that makes Male and Female so memorable. Only the basic plot of Barrie's play remains, and this is a typical DeMille/MacPherson story of the reversal of fortune and forbidden love – probably the strongest of this kind that they did before the slant in DeMille's films became increasingly moralist (and, of course, religious). Although DeMille loved these tales of class and inequality (he was at that point a socialist as well as a Christian), it is the impossible love between the two leads that is at the heart of this story. The real tragedy of Male and Female has nothing to do with the selfish pomposity of the aristocrats – it is the fact that the love between the rich woman and the poor man can only exist in this fantasy world of the remote island. This is set up from the beginning with the subplot of Swanson's friend who marries her chauffeur and becomes a social outcast. The final scenes in which the various love triangles are resolved are incredibly moving.
The only significant wrong note in Male and Female is a brief and rather pointless flashback to ancient Babylon. These historical inserts had been en vogue since Griffith's Intolerance (a more influential film than some would have us believe), but this one is rather lacklustre and it's hard to see exactly how it fits the main story. It appears more of an excuse for DeMille to work in some epic grandeur (from 1918 to 1922 he only made contemporary dramas and comedies) and MacPherson to explore her interest in reincarnation. The story does need a dramatic highpoint at the stage where the flashback comes in, but they could have done better than the Babylon sequence. Overall however Male and Female is free of much of the preachiness, questionable morality and plot holes that mar many of Jeanie MacPherson's screenplays.
Male and Female was Paramount's highest grossing film of 1919, which is no surprise. DeMille's steady flow of captivating images and his emphasis on acting performances are at their best here. In certain aspects it may appear dated, but as with many of DeMille's films we have to suspend our dependence on realism and plausibility. Of course, the island where the action takes place, with its convenient abundance of edible wildlife, sailing distance from England yet remote enough to be shipwrecked for two years, could never really exist – but it's an unreal place created to serve the story. Taken as the silent melodrama that it is, this is a stunning motion picture.