Thursday, September 14, 2006

"Take Off Your Clothes, Get In Here and Tell Me All About It."

The Cecil B. DeMille Collection isn't precisely my thing, but it does include probably DeMille's most famous (or infamous) non-Biblical film, The Sign of the Cross. It's a film beloved by Pre-Code buffs for its heaping helping of 1932-vintage sex and violence, and beloved by DeMille buffs for the way it perfectly sums up his style: titillate us for two hours and then make it all acceptable by telling us that debauchery is bad and evil and we shouldn't admire it.

I think one of the reason DeMille's movies remain popular is that they use modern technology -- the movie camera -- to bring us back to a very old and, to modern eyes, unfamiliar type of storytelling. His roots were in the theatre productions of David Belasco, who collaborated with Cecil's father and with Cecil himself, and Belasco's productions were the same way: they were always up-to-date with technology and spectacular effects to dazzle the audience, but in storytelling and theme they were very old-fashioned, very moralistic, very Victorian. DeMille (who Andrew Sarris dubbed "the last Victorian") was always one step ahead of the rest when it came to figuring out what effects would surprise or shock the audience, but not only was his work marinated in Victorian morality, his actual style of directing remained more or less fixed: static, painting-like shots make up the bulk of every DeMille film through the '50s, and the physical acting in his films is always of the kind he'd been getting out of his actors since the teens. It's that feeling of watching something very old, yet somehow up-to-date, that makes DeMille's movies interesting.

Here's the most famous scene from The Sign of the Cross, where Claudette Colbert, as the wicked (and bad, bad, evil, don't admire her!) Poppea, takes a bath in asses' milk.

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