28 January 2009 | Steffi_P
"We'll only see half as much Christian blood"
1932 – the height of the depression, Paramount studios in financial straits, Hollywood's output limited to small-scale dramas and bedroom comedies – and Cecil B. DeMille decides to make an epic. There are many classics among the "small" pictures of the early-30s, but it's good to see that someone was, against all odds, still carrying the torch for grandeur and spectacle.
Of course, Sign of the Cross is still an epic of its poverty-stricken time. There are no stupendous sets or masses of extras, but DeMille always knew how to make our eyes deceive us. A huddle of a dozen people filling the screen looks like a crowd. Five men on horseback shot from a low angle looks like a stampede. In the scene where Titus and Favius first meet, the camera wheels round and backs away at the same time, giving the impression that the street scene is much more than a cramped indoor set. And DeMille's use of lighting (here courtesy of Karl Struss who was Oscar-nominated for his efforts) really pays off, with fuzzy half-light and shadows disguising the lack of lavishness.
Better yet, the constrained budget seems to have pushed DeMille to concentrating more on the poetry and beauty of what we see. Unable to dazzle us with scale or special effects, he makes full use of his talent for flowing, dreamlike imagery. Sign of the Cross features some of the smoothest camera-work and carefully choreographed movement of extras of this period. He even makes effective use of slow-motion with the pouring goats milk. DeMille was not the only director to turn to simple camera trickery when money was tight – Rouben Mamoulian's earliest pictures for example are end-to-end cheap tricks. It's just that DeMille is doing it better than almost everyone else – it adds sparkle to the picture without being distracting.
But it's not just with the images that DeMille shows his talent. Unlike some directors who were sceptical about the coming of sound and tried to work around it, or some producers who naively thought it automatically made pictures twice as good, DeMille really explores the possibilities of sound. In an early scene, we cut to a close-up Elissa Landi while we hear from off-screen the calls of Romans searching for Christians. We see her reaction to the calls, and this is something that could not be achieved so succinctly in a silent movie. A more obvious example is the torture scene, where we hear the boy's screams, while the camera is pointed elsewhere. The point is, we do not need to see him being tortured because the scream alone has enough impact. However what we do see – the eagle of Rome, a sentry unconcernedly marching back and forth, a flaming torch – adds layers of meaning to the scene.
Of course, this being DeMille, and it being the "pre-code" era, he also seeks to dazzle us with a bit of bare flesh and other assorted depravities. It's one of the great ironies of DeMille's work that his pictures often revel in the very "immorality" they seek to preach against. So the poster advertising the attractions at the Colloseum is as much to whet the appetite of the real-world audience as to show the barbaric tastes of the Roman one. DeMille spends ten minutes of screen time (not to mention more precious money on tin-hat manufacture and zoo rental fees) on the promised blood-fest, which can only be for our entertainment since it is inconsequential to the plot. And, in another bit of audio/visual juxtaposition, while the martyrs' chanting drowns out the "Naked Moon" song, it is the notorious Lesbian dance that DeMille shows us, not the Christians outside.
The acting in Sign of the Cross is a bit of a mixed bag, although it is of a higher standard than many of the DeMille talkies. Charles Laughton is hammily brilliant, laying down a blueprint for Emperor Nero which Peter Ustinov would follow to a well-deserved Oscar-nomination in Quo Vadis (1951). However Laughton's part is fairly small, and the screenplay makes Claudette Colbert the real villain. Colbert is fantastic, playing the Empress as an ancient world vamp, giving by far the best performance of the bunch. It's almost a shame that It Happened One Night re-invented her as a major romantic lead, because she really was at her best when she played villains.
The weakest link in Sign of the Cross, as with many DeMille pictures, is the screenplay. However DeMille's inventiveness, careful construction and strong imagery, not to mention the fact that his pictures are great fun if you don't take them too seriously, transcend the limpness of the script. It was perhaps because DeMille refused to allow his style to be compromised by a limited budget that makes many of his 1930s pictures among his greatest.