signals and signs
by Douglas Messerli
Waldemar Young and Sidney Buchman (screenplay, based on Wilson Barrett’s The Sign of the Cross), Cecil B. DeMille (director) The Sign of the Cross / 1932
Cecil B. DeMille’s 1932 epic film, The Sign of the Cross—a work which revived his then failing career and set him apart from other US directors of the day as a powerful figure able, as film historians Cecilia de Mille Presley and Mark A. Vieira argue, to match the great cinematic trailblazers such Sternberg, Hawks, Goulding, Mamoulian, Borzage, and Lubitsch—is often listed as a LGBTQ “aware” film; yet its true focus is quite the opposite since any references, and there are only a few in this film, to lesbianism and male homosexual behavior are represented as part of the evil wrong doings of Nero’s and his Roman world in their horrific intolerance and brutal abuse of the growing underground Roman world of Christians.
In this film any LGBTQ behavior is not “outsider” behavior but part of the normative terror that allows a great city to burn and weaker men and women to be offered up to deadly warfare, armed warriors, crocodiles, guerrillas, and lions, in an attempt to destroy everything that is spiritually pure and undefiled.
Certainly, the licentious behavior of the Romans, as seen through DeMille’s provocative lens is often campy and certainly entertaining, perhaps not so very differently for us than for the Coliseum-attending Romans; but as all of his actors, including Claudette Colbert, who in this film plays one of wickedest characters, Poppaea, outside of Charles Laughton’s Nero—whose insanity stands very much at the center of The Sign of the Cross—argue that the director was very serious about his notions of evil and wickedness. Colbert summarized DeMille’s style and personal character: “To us, even then, a lot of DeMille’s ideas were corny. But I certainly don’t think you can call him a phony. He truly believed in what he was doing. When we did the scene with the Christians being eaten by the lions, he really suffered.
DeMille most particularly had arguments with Laughton’s depiction of Nero. As Elsa Lanchester recalls, “Charles thought him (Nero) merely funny. DeMille was shocked by the idea. He had old-fashioned ideas of villains and heroes.” For the director Nero was the true menace at the center of the world the film presented, but Laughton felt him to be simply so “nuts,” that he was truly a lunatic.
Presley and Vieira nicely recount the showdown between the two after an industry preview screening:
“This did not go as well, at least in DeMille’s estimation. The film began with the scene of Nero lolling and writhing as he burns Rome. No one was prepared for Laughton’s outrageous interpretation. It made the camp performers at the Ship Café on the Venice Pier look restrained. ‘The audience howled with laughter,’ reported Photoplay. ‘Rolled right out into the aisles. Wailed hysterically on one another’s shoulders. Blasé Hollywood simply went wild.’ DeMille was furious. ‘Well, you sure spoiled everything,’ he said to Laughton. ‘They were all laughing at you.’
‘But I wanted them to laugh at me.’
‘What can you play after this? What do you want to play?’
‘I would love to play you, Mr. DeMille.’”
And indeed, from the very first frames of the film, with Laughton alternately slouching down in his throne and standing up to declaim his outrageous lyrics while strumming a lyre against the skyline of the burning city might almost match one of Charles Ludlam’s “Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s” performances. And DeMille’s depiction of Nero of general—particularly after having just read, as I had, quite by coincidence, Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker essay “How Nasty Was Nero?”* which argues that most of our current notions of Nero’s behavior were exaggerations and fabrications of and about the Roman emperor “written decades after Nero died, that relied on dubious sources”—seems to present such an absurd notion of the Roman emperor and Roman life in general that it would be laughable except that the film merely uses the wide range of unthinkable behavior they exhibit as evidence of their absolute intolerance, the real theme of DeMille’s film.
Without the broad panoply of religious beliefs played out in D. W. Griffith’s film of that title, The Sign of the Cross, a film we should remember being shot during the rising activities of Hitler and Nazi Germany—the same year DeMille’s film was released, 1932, the Nazi Party became the largest party in the Reichstag; only two years later, Hitler declared himself Führer of the German Reich and People and with the death of von Hindenburg became President of Germany; Himmler consolidated his control over the German state political forces into the Gestapo which also took over the authority for the German concentration camp system; the SS attacked and murdered SA Chief of Staff Ernst Röhm and his top commanders, many of whom were homosexual, in what was called the “Night of the Long Knives”; and Jews were banned from membership in the German Labor Front, effectively depriving them of the possibility of finding work in the private sector while denying those already employed any benefits. Anyone with any awareness would have been forced to compare the Roman treatment of the Christians with the increasing Nazi hatred of Jews, gays, and others such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and all so-called perverts and “outsiders.”
The plot is given further devolutions by the fact that Nero’s wife, the wicked Poppaea (Colbert) is also in love with Marcus, and finding out about his interest in Mercia from her friend Dacia (Vivian Tobin), conspires through her control over Nero, to further destroy and make an example of the girl and the Christian community in which she is involved.
It ends inevitably with the death of that entire community, including Mercia and the young Stephan, at the last moment Marcus, having fallen deeply in love with Mercia—in part because of her refusal to simply join in the orgiastic sexual activities of Marcus and his friends—joining her in being eaten by the lions. Thus, DeMille combines a true love story with a yarn of spiritual sacrifice that redeems not only the historical hatred of the Romans, but the often laughable theatrical farces of the other half of is film.
It would be truly fascinating to see an updated, less outlandish version of this epic viewed by Christian fundamentalists of today—many of whom still swayed by Donald Trump’s bigotry against Muslims and other seemingly “outsider” religious beliefs, and condone the increasing anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ (particularly transgender), and anti-Asian activities—just how they might react to a film representing them as being the “outsiders” under attack.
It is utterly fascinating to know that when DeMille’a film first appeared, although it had passed the early censors just because of the centrality of its theme of intolerance against Christianity, later came under the severest attacks from both religious Protestant and Catholic spokespeople, resulting in almost a reel being cut from the film until its restoration in 1993.
Presley and Vieria’s book nicely summarizes what happened after the film’s original opening success.
“Later that year, the masses of Catholics who had been offended by DeMille’s appropriation of Christian mythology lined up to join the Legion of Decency – and punish Hollywood. A “Catholic Crusade” followed. The Legion collected 3 million pledges and held a rally. Addressing 50,000 people, Cleveland bishop Joseph Schrembs roared: “Purify Hollywood or destroy Hollywood!” In July 1934, the Production Code was reconstituted and Joseph Breen was made head of the Production Code Administration. It is hard to believe that the controversy over The Sign of the Cross did not contribute to this momentous event. When the film came up for reissue in 1935, Breen spoke for angry Catholics and decreed that it had to be cut. They censored it ruthlessly, removing nearly a reel of “immoral” scenes. The shorter version was reissued and remained in circulation for decades. In the ’60s it became a TV staple.
DeMille had already featured an orgy scene with two women kissing in his Manslaughter of 1922, but he had never quite gone as far for pagan perversions as he did in The Sign of the Cross. His assistant director, the bisexual Michael Leisen—although Leisen was married to opera singer Sandra Gale, he was living at the time with a pilot, Eddie Anderson—serving also as the movie’s designer was only too happy to guide him into staging “sex-perversions.”
The first of the film’s two major scenes
occurs when the Empress Poppaea is taking her usual bath in asses’ milk. Again
Colbert suggests how funny the scene was despite DeMille’s seriousness about making
it perfect. Leisen noted: “It was real powdered milk. DeMille wanted the milk
to just barely cover Claudette’s nipples. I had her stand in the empty
The big event here is not the bath itself, but when the gossip-monger Dacia (Vivian Tobin), having just witnessed Marcus’ first encounter with the Christian woman Mercia on the street runs to tell the bathing Poppaea just what she has witnessed. Although Poppaea at first seems disinterested and even chastises Dacia for her wicked tongue, she soon orders: “Take off your clothes, get in here, and tell me all about it,” the camera pausing for a few seconds as her dress falls to her ankles just to signify what their nakedness together in a pool of ass milk might imply.
At first Mercia is pleased to see Marcus, with whom she has clearly fallen in love. But when she perceives what he wants from her, she demands to be taken back to prison to join her own community, trying to convince him that there are greater joys than the sexual pleasures he is determined to share with her.
The only other “sign” of queer life in this film is when Nero attends the Coliseum slaughters. Seated beside him is a handsome, almost naked slave, whose purpose DeMille leaves to the viewer’s imagination when Poppaea is busy with her male and female friends. Certainly, Laughton, who was said to be most taken by younger men, would have known what to do with him.
In sum, however, these so-called queer scenes must be seen as representations of disorder and perversion, not as hints that gay men and women were living and working at the time of this film in Hollywood. DeMille, even if he might find a trickle of satisfied sweat for having temporarily gotten his scenes of outré sex through the blades of the first scissor, presents them in a context of disdain and disgust. Religious tolerance is something he could openly embrace, but not his gay and lesbian acquaintances.
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (July 2021).