6 June 2009 | Steffi_P
"Everything real – except the men and women"
By 1922, with the jazz age in full swing, DeMille's po-faced preaching was at the point of self-parody. It was probably more his lavish and indulgent depiction of "sin" than his stern condemnation of it that kept the public coming back to the box office. Manslaughter is the archetypal DeMillean prohibition-era morality tale, and one of his last contemporary-set pieces before he moved almost exclusively into the realm of epic, historical fables.
But let's first take a look at how DeMille's formal style is at work here. It's a style he perfected early on in his career and which he never lost no matter how ridiculous his pictures became. What stands out most about Manslaughter is its incredibly precise pacing of the action, with each scene having its own rhythm. We open with a dynamic burst of quick cutting and constant motion. Things become more complex in the following party scene, with the movements of different characters in consecutive shots mimicking each other rhythmically to keep a continuous pace. DeMille uses similar techniques to step up the pulse of the picture within a single sequence. For example in the central court scene there is a quick shot of all the spectators rising to their feet, followed by the shot in which the Drummond's mother tears off Leatrice Joy's veil, the first shot giving impetus to the second. DeMille also makes strong use of space and lighting to give an emotional tone to each moment.
DeMille is unusual among directors with such a showy visual style, in that he always aims, through framing and lighting, to focus us on the actors. And like everything in DeMille's cinema, the performances tend to tread the line between naturalism and theatricality. Unfortunately Leatrice Joy is a little average, especially when compared to Gloria Swanson who had just completed a successful run of pictures with DeMille. Thomas Meighan too is a bit below par, his performance only being good in the meagre context that he is playing a stony-faced killjoy. Nevertheless the language of gesture and expression, always important in DeMille's pictures, adequately conveys their characters' intentions. This effect is spoiled only by the lengthy and over-abundant title cards. Having said that, you've got to love Jeanie Macpherson's way with words, with such gems as "Doesn't this doughnut remind you of a life preserver?" The storyline is of the highest grade DeMille-Macpherson moralist nonsense. It begins by railing against such scandalous transgressions as female boxing and pogo-stick racing, then follows up by making the point that such goings-on can be a gateway to even greater sins, such as accidentally killing a traffic cop. This daft righteousness is all pretty harmless, but what really makes Manslaughter a difficult story to relate to is the implausible motivations of its characters, in particular Thomas Meighan's. It seems bizarre that someone so uptight would even show his face at a jazz 'n' liquor party in the first place, let alone fall in love with one of the flappers "for what she might have been". Unless it's purely a sexual thing, like the minister in Sadie Thompson, but this is never implied and wouldn't really fit any better with the story arc.
It's no wonder that DeMille would soon begin making his points with large-scale spectacles. The stories he was now handling were too silly to have any real dramatic weight, and the most engaging moments of Manslaughter are the frenzied flashbacks of a decadent Rome. It also looks as if those were the scenes DeMille had the most fun staging. As it is, Manslaughter is a decidedly mediocre effort, nicely directed but with the wrong material for small-scale drama.