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Cecil B. DeMille's sex-and-religion epics allowed him to have it both ways. He delighted in showing all the sin and depravity of biblical times, then wrapping it all up with a sanctimonious message. In the era before the Production Code imposed strict censorship in films, the depravity in DeMille's movies got more screen time than the sanctity, and none more so than in The Sign of the Cross (1932).
After a dozen years at Paramount, DeMille had gone independent in 1925. But independence wasn't profitable, and DeMille had signed a three-picture deal with MGM in the early talkie period. When those films proved unsuccessful, the director went back to Paramount, with a contract for one film only: The Sign of the Cross. The Depression was in full swing, and the studio would not tolerate DeMille's old free-spending ways. He had just $650,000 to make his epic about the mad emperor Nero, his libidinous wife, and a Roman prefect in love with a Christian girl.
DeMille set about re-assembling his old crew: production and costume designer Mitchell Leisen, editor Anne Bauchens, and assistant director Roy Burns, all at greatly reduced salaries. To save money, Leisen devised a series of miniatures and mattes in place of sets, with characters entering them through a series of full-sized ramps and steps. They had to shoot precisely head-on, because there was nothing on either side. For crowd scenes, cinematographer Karl Struss used prism lenses to make it appear as if there were twice the number of extras. Finally, in the middle of a take, Burns whispered to DeMille that all the money had been used up. The director yelled "Cut!" wrapped production, and told Bauchens to start cutting the film. Somehow, she managed to make it all work with the film that had been shot.
The need to economize did nothing to temper DeMille's showmanship, however. Lions, tigers, bears, and elephants were rented from a dozen zoos. But even though they were trained animals, they either refused to cooperate or cooperated too well. For a scene where lions were supposed to attack the Christians, Leisen and his crew had stuffed dummies with lamb carcasses, but the lions wouldn't eat them. They merely lapped daintily at the blood. The elephants were supposed to parade slowly around the arena. But when they heard the extras' applause, they reacted as they'd been taught to do, by standing on their heads.
DeMille's eye for talent gave a boost to the careers of two actors in The Sign of the Cross. Before production began, DeMille had been in London and had seen Charles Laughton in a play. Although Laughton was unknown in the United States, DeMille thought he would be perfect to play Nero, and brought him to Hollywood, where The Sign of the Cross became Laughton's first American film.
While on the Paramount lot, DeMille noticed a young contract actress, Claudette Colbert, whose films he called "fluffy, lightheaded stuff." The director approached her and asked, "how would you like to play the wickedest woman in the world?" "I'd love it!" Colbert replied, and she played the empress, wonderfully. But it wasn't always easy. The famous scene in which Poppaea bathes in asses' milk took several days to shoot. DeMille, of course, announced to the press that real asses' milk was being used, though it was probably powdered cow's milk. The milk was left standing in the tub overnight, and by the second day, it had turned to cheese under the hot lights. The stench was overwhelming. Colbert nearly fainted from the odor.
Lions devouring Christians, nudity, homosexuality, orgies, murder...there was plenty for even the weakest censors to object to in The Sign of the Cross. But DeMille refused to make cuts, and as he had done so often in the past, he prevailed. Like most of DeMille's biblical epics, The Sign of the Cross was a big, brash, vulgar hit, even in the depths of the Depression. DeMille was back on top, and he would remain at Paramount for the rest of his life and career.
Producer/Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay: Waldemar Young, Sidney Buchman, based on the play by Wilson Barrett
Cinematography: Karl Struss
Editor: Anne Bauchens
Art Direction/Costume Design: Mitchell Leisen
Music: Rudolph G. Kopp
Principal Cast: Fredric March (Marcus Superbus), Elissa Landi (Mercia), Claudette Colbert (Poppaea), Charles Laughton (Nero), Ian Keith (Tigellinus), Vivian Tobin (Dacia), Harry Beresford (Favius), Joyzelle Joyner (Ancaria).
BW-125m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri