[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

The Sign of the Cross (1932): the evil Nero (Charles Laughton) between his two manicurists.

The prodigal son now returned to Paramount, sheepish after a series of flops, sealed by the failure of the third The Squaw Man, a mediocre abbreviation of the original, and that of a project in Russia.

With The Sign of the Cross (1932), it was really a game of double or nothing. It turned out to be double. It wasn’t a question of setting the cashbox on fire anymore. This epic cost even less than his recent modern films, the banal Western spectacle of The Squaw Man, or the student conflicts of The Godless Girl. Yet it contains one of the finest camera movements in the work of our filmmaker: the crane shot that superbly takes us from the arena to the stands with Nero, his court and the Roman people. It’s a bargain-priced epic, but brilliant at times, followed by more modern films like This Day and Age (1933), a fast-paced police story, and Four Frightened People (1933), which turns out to be a complex and highly curious case. In theory, the film was a new variation on Male and Female, so it was something reassuring for Paramount. It isn’t a shipwreck here, but an epidemic, the bubonic plague. The result smacks of studio work, even if the film was partially shot in Hawaii: it isn’t believable for one second, especially when Claudette Colbert, who is bathing in the open, has her underwear stolen by a monkey. The sound is really studio sound, a little like in Madam Satan, when the hero jumps from the airship into a lake: the sound effect is that of a body jumping into an indoor pool. And this fakery makes you laugh out loud. The whole film works on an ironic level; it recalls Beat the Devil (John Huston, 1953) or even Ed Wood. There is an escalation of falsehood and fakery here, probably unintentional, that I found highly enjoyable and hilarious (I had tears of laughter), with oscillations between reality and fantasy that keep the suspense alive. This is perhaps a perverse reaction on my part, having to do with to the basic principle: “the worse it is, the better it is.” But the audience didn’t agree: another commercial failure. The film didn’t even open in France, an extremely rare case in the work of our auteur.