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Sign of the Cross, The (DVD Review)

23 May, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$19.98 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Fredric March, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton, Elissa Landi.

It’s one thing for a major screen production to be restored and another when the footage that has had to be re-instated constituted, say, 85% of what the movie had. Welcome to the strange fate of the picture that launched Cecil B. DeMille’s second — and, from then on, permanent — tenure at Paramount, when he became the only pre-‘70s director along with Hitchcock (and even more so) who meant more at the box office than many stars.

As the title portends, Cross is a prototypical DeMille religious spectacular — the kind that inspired one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons of all time. It’s the one where hundreds of Roman extras are sitting next to each other at a banquet table when one turns to the other and notes that, “This cherry cobbler is good.”

A milk bath, not cherry cobbler, is one of the things that got this spectacle in trouble with censors when the movie was reissued late in World War II — a dozen years after the institution (and intrusion) of Hollywood’s unlamented Production Code, which sapped a lot of standard human behavior out of the movies. Not that milk baths like the one Empress Poppaea of Rome takes here represent standard everyday procedure even now. But if a major filmmaker conceived one, we should reserve the right to see it — Claudette Colbert’s exposed breasts or not. Besides, Poppaea’s pet cats seem to dig the milk (lap, lap).

We’re in 66 A.D., and Fredric March (showing his legs as the prefect of Rome in ways that his recent Oscar-winning role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde hadn’t allowed) has just given aid to a comely Christian (Elissa Landi). And this is fooling with job security; the religion she practices isn’t Nero’s religion of choice. This movie actually opens with Nero’s fiddling as Rome burns (could DeMille “bring it” or what?), and ruler is played in bulls-eye casting by a putty-nosed Charles Laughton. Probably for the first and last time on screen, Laughton shows a lot of leg as well.

DeMille’s direction of actors is not atypically 19th-century stilted, but this only matters in the first film’s first half when Colbert isn’t on screen as much. When she does move center stage to display jealous pique over the prefect’s affections for Landi, we get a reminder of how much vitality Colbert brought to DeMille’s Cleopatra, which followed a couple years later.

Like Cleo, this rival in opulence was previously available only in Universal’s five-title DeMille boxed set and is now available individually. It is very much worth seeing for the cast, the décor, for Karl Struss’s shimmering Oscar-nominated photography and – most of all – it’s still incredibly bloodthirsty arena sequence, which doesn’t get lazy with that same old lions-eating-Christians stuff. There are crocodiles, at least one gorilla (I lost count in the mayhem), elephants carrying off dying upside-down victims to a who-knows-where-lair and a genuinely naked femme looker tied to a post. It’s all a lead-in to a March-Landi wrap-up that’s not dissimilar to the way Richard Burton and Jean Simmons would seal their spiritual fate in The Robe.

I saw Cross for the first time in the early 1960s when I was either 12 or 13 — and can’t recall what precisely got trimmed for the aforementioned December 1944, reissue (which then became the only version you could see for decades). But I do remember that when I finally got to see this UCLA restoration sometime in the 1980s or early ‘90s, my eyes did a 3-D number out of their sockets like something out of a Tex Avery cartoon in a way they hadn’t earlier. The excisions must have been substantial.

What I do remember from the old TV showing was the give/take 9-minute prologue that got affixed to the ‘40s reissue — something about American B-17 pilots dropping leaflets on Rome as two chaplains draw the parallel between Nero and Hitler. Mercifully, this nonsense (which DeMille himself apparently helped initiate) is gone from this print — though someday, it would be instructive to see it included as a bonus extra. Happily, this version has what counts: a more revealed Colbert in the milk bath, the unclad blonde in the arena and crocodiles looking so ravenous that you’d think someone had just plunked Lassie immediately off-camera.

There are all kinds of things about modern society that make one nostalgic — like, say, successive generations of kids who’ve played video games instead of reading books and drivers who clip your fender when making a sharp left-hand term as they yak on a cellphone. But obscure censors trimming the very same scenes out of a major movie that made it a box office smash just twelve years earlier? Cross’s history and happy restoration is an antidote to unbridled nostalgia for the bad old days.

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